Software Development
Culture Builder / Economics / Remote work / Workplace culture

How are coding bootcamps changing?

Tech education programs, too, have been forced to contend with the rise of remote work. A case study from Wilmington, Delaware illustrates what that means for programs funneling to local employers.

Zip Code Wilmington's January 2020 Java cohort. (Courtesy Zip Code Wilmington)

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Coding bootcamps started in 2011 to solve one problem: a shortage of technical talent. Soon after, many began addressing a second one: a lack of diversity among the technical workforce.

With a few notable exceptions, the coding bootcamp had largely been an in-person, cohort-based model putting career changers through a 12-week or few-month curriculum informed by direct industry feedback. Many offered flexible hours and experimented with pricing models, including the rise of income sharing agreements. They primarily produced entry-level apprentices, many of whom were hired by large companies.

The pandemic has shuffled the model for many. All bootcamps were thrust into online learning, and junior hires had far less hands-on mentorship opportunities.

“Being in person is a lot more fun,” said Desa Burton, the executive director of Zip Code Wilmington. Founded in tiny Delaware’s largest city in 2015, it is one of the country’s longest-running location-specific coding programs.

Zip Code serves a special case study. This summer, better than one in three Wilmington jobseekers sought remote work. Among small cities, that was the third highest rate in the country. LinkedIn dubbed Wilmington “a remote work haven.”

Wilmington may be a special case. Northern Delaware has a large financial services industry, with special focus on the credit card sector and many of the software and security jobs that come with it. Meanwhile the finance industry has been most keen on employees returning to the office. JPMorgan Chase, which operates a 3,000-person tech center in Wilmington, is leading the way; its CEO Jamie Dimon has said he’s “done” with virtual meetings. CapitalOne, which has an office downtown, pushed back its opening to November, and some Barclaycard staff have remained office-bound.

One reason why Delaware could be such a sudden national leader in remote work could be that mid-career and senior professionals at these and other big firms have found they like working from home.

A steady increase of Zip Code Wilmington alumni have taken remote positions. That’s influenced what the bootcamp teaches.

“They know they can be free agents, so they’re seeing what else is out there for them,” Burton said. Delaware boosters have long heralded its geographic strengths: Wilmington does feature both urban walkability and plush suburbs, direct train access to D.C., Philadelphia and New York, and a short drive to lingering rural farmland and well-liked beach towns. “It’s a great ‘living economy,'” Burton said.

Among the nine cohorts that have graduated over the last 18 months, a steady increase of alumni have taken remote positions. “We haven’t really seen that interest before,” Burton said. That’s influenced what the bootcamp teaches.

Fully a third of U.S. coding bootcamp graduates in 2019 were trained in CSS, the ubiquitous design language, and a quarter learn JavaScript, the popular object-orientated language. In contrast, Zip Code has been known for its heavy focus on Java, which less than 2% of bootcamp graduates around the country learned. (Developers like to say that Java and Javascript  are as related to each other as ham and hamsters.) But Java is used extensively in financial services, which Delaware has plenty of. In 2020, Zip Code launched a 12-week data engineering course to develop professionals to support data scientists — one of the country’s fastest-growing needs.

Burton is careful not to overstep the org’s remote focus, though. Distributed work remains a minority of her graduates, and Zip Code Wilmington was built to support area employers.

“We’re still very much here to support the regional economy,” she said. That mandate widened over the last six years, from Wilmington to Delaware to the Delaware region.  “We’re also seeing there’s really fantastic talent around the country.”

During the pandemic, Zip Code Wilmington has attracted students to move to Delaware from states ranging from Texas to Florida to Georgia and land local jobs.

Burton says that during the pandemic, her school has attracted students to move to Delaware from states ranging from Texas to Florida to Georgia and land local jobs. That’s the economic growth Zip Code was intended to have by its founders and supporters — a collective of Delaware insiders.

Zip Code has graduated nearly 500 alumni since its 2015 founding, Burton said. Like the broader coding bootcamp industry, it is a high-profile and growing, if still partial contributor to a major workforce shortage. An estimated 33,000 people graduated from 100 U.S. coding bootcamps in 2019, including a dozen online-only versions. Compare that with the 65,000 computer science graduates that American universities graduate each year. That’s meaningful growth in eight years of existence. Collectively these efforts still fall behind the torrent 22% growth in software developer roles the American economy will demand between 2019 and 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is five or six times faster than other role types.

An outsized number of the country’s coding bootcamp graduates go to jobs in the New York City metro and the San Francisco Bay Area, perhaps as many as 30,000, according to Career Karma. That’s compared to 3,200 in Washington D.C., 2,500 in Chicago and fewer than 1,000 in Philadelphia — which has become host to five new bootcamps in the last two years alone.

Coding bootcamps, then, are addressing a technical skills shortage. But not fast enough. Many graduate with exceedingly junior skill sets — though some hope for mid-career reskilling as a kind of salve. Bootcamp graduates can grow into experienced performers, when they’ll need to decide whether they want to become managers or remain individual contributors. For now though, salaries continue to inflate for the best performers.

What about diversifying the technical workforce? Coding bootcamps frequently tout their contributions there, with flexible hours and pricing models.

Do local coding bootcamps have to prioritize attracting people to move close and work anywhere, or prioritize staffing their local companies no matter where the people live?

When Burton walked into the Zip Code Wilmington offices in 2018, she was taken by alumni photos on the wall. A third of their graduates were people of color. Several cohorts were half women. Today, four of five of their technical instructors are Black men.

“You walk into Zip Code and you think, ‘Oh, what’s the problem with diversity in tech?” Burton said. Then you scan the rest of the industry and you understand. Much of it remains a cultural divide, Burton says. She’s worked on a partnership with YWCA to introduce highly motivated women from at-risk backgrounds into coding classes: “A lot of the women say: ‘I don’t even see myself there, what does a programmer even do?’”

Adding tech into public perception, it makes it less othered. I asked Burton: Does the local coding bootcamp have to prioritize attracting people to move there and work anywhere, or prioritize staffing its local companies no matter where the people live? Her answer, of course, was diplomatic: Both.

“This gives us an opportunity to be hybrid in the future, and to add a remote component,” Burton said. Other coding bootcamps seem to be following the same logic. Just 7,000 of coding bootcamp graduates in 2019 completed their coursework entirely online, or less than a quarter. That certainly changed in the last year, and it may continue.

“Small Town USA can now take advantage of tech,” Burton said, by encouraging their residents to take online courses and work remotely. ”They can demand the infrastructure to allow it.”

Burton, though, thinks you should open a second location for your company in Delaware, or otherwise hire from this state to hoover up desirable talent from a lesser-known market.

“If online training is done right, people can walk out with the skills they need, just like in-person,” Burton said. “That part won’t change about coding bootcamps.”

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