Bitmaker Labs CEO Craig Hunter was an early employee at Uber before joining the Canadian bootcamp in 2014. Since then, he’s helped them grow the business from a single one-course bootcamp to providing seven unique learning experiences. Hunter walked us through the regulatory process Bitmaker endured to get the thumbs-up from the provincial regulators in Ontario. We also discussed his commitment to building the brand, the importance of a strong alumni network and how the tech scene in Ontario is a fertile environment for Bitmaker’s capable grads.
Bitmaker offers classes in skills like Mobile Development, UX Design, Ad Optimization etc. What’s your most popular program?
The most popular is still that flagship web development immersive, but those part-time courses are also gaining popularity.
Have you thought about offering remote bootcamps or expanding to online?
We actually use a lot of the online tools for our prep courses and they’re perfect for dipping your toe in into the world of code. But I think our take on this, which is why we run an in-person education company, is the two secrets to learning a difficult subject in a short amount of time require you to fully immerse yourself in it. The first is having extremely experienced and talented instructors from a cross section of backgrounds, from startups like Shopify to open source experts, available on the spot. The second is getting a wide variety of curious and passionate people in the same room. Neither of those are something that can be replicated online.
Amazing things happen with that combination of instructor direction and student energy. Whether it’s grads hanging out in our space playing foosball, instructors looking over a student’s shoulder right when they hit a roadblock, or the larger community of like minded individuals you instantly become a part of when you join Bitmaker, it all requires people to come together in real life to make real connections. We’re proud to have the largest alumni network of any bootcamp in the country and having access to that reach pays dividends in your career. As that number continues to grow quickly, the network effects are amazing to see. It’s not a fluffy thing; it’s very real. We have students that have graduated from our program that have hired 7 to 10 developers from their startup. That’s really cool thing to see and we’d have difficulty replicating that online.
Outside the classroom, since we’ve placed so many students into amazing companies around the country, we have a brand that’s recognized and trusted by employers. That’s incredibly important given that coding bootcamps in general are still pretty new. As we move into more traditional industries and start placing people into those, you need to build that brand; it’s important to the employer side.
So right now we’re focused on the in-class piece, but we’re always watching the industry and evaluating anything that seems interesting to us.
Bitmaker was “shut down” in 2013- tell us that story and how you worked with regulators.
The government didn’t really know we even existed until an article in the Globe and Mail, which is a very prominent national newspaper in Canada. It was a great article raving about results at Bitmaker, and that basically tipped off some regulators. To the provincial regulators it sounded a lot like a private career college, which in Canada is very strictly regulated.
They came into the Bitmaker space and we had a chat with them and provided them with everything they needed to better understand what we were doing. They’d never really seen anything like us before; the fact that we don’t have tests, we don’t have grades, we don’t give certificates, but students are still happy to choose us over traditional educators and rave about the results. That concept was just very foreign to them. They asked that we cooperate and that the next step may be a cease and desist because that was the way the formal process typically worked.
We decided to put a pause on everything and dedicate our time to talking to the regulators, to come to a long term solution. What ended up happening was completely unprecedented across not just coding bootcamps but any type of for-profit education institution. We were granted an exemption from the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities; a formal written exemption that allows us to operate in the format we pioneered. As soon as they understood exactly what we were doing, they loved it.
We’re the only coding bootcamp in Ontario, the largest province in Canada, that has a formal exemption from the government to operate.
Who are the regulatory agencies that you work with in Canada?
Mostly the MTCU, the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities. In Canada, the Ministry of Education in Ontario oversees K-12. The Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities handles anything post-secondary: universities, colleges, for profit career colleges, professional development programs, etc.
What did you have to do to get that letter of exemption?
We provided them with the curriculum, went through some of the placement rates, introduced them to instructors and staff, and had them talk to a bunch of our students and grads. It was stuff we were eager to educate the government on anyways.
Their concern is valid. When the motive is making money, education becomes very secondary. Historically, private career colleges have been known to oversell and under deliver. But as soon as they realized that we undersell and over deliver, they were huge advocates of Bitmaker.
The Minister at the time, Brad Duguid, was extremely open-minded. He quickly reversed any negative implications that were given he said, “We love you guys and what you are doing. If anything, we want to see more of this and we’d love to support you.”
Have you noticed similar support to the Tech Hire initiative in the US for bootcamps from the larger Canadian government or has it reached that level yet?
When bootcamps started in Canada it was a couple of years later than when they did in the States, so I would say that’s a couple of years out too. The government is very excited with what we’re doing. We pioneered the industry here in Canada and continue to lead the charge. I think we’ll eventually get to that point.
Have you been involved with NESTA at all?
Not formally. We just added on an executive from General Assembly in New York to our team and I pay close attention to the US bootcamp space, so I know NESTA well. Since day one, we’ve been careful with our placement rates and we’re big on transparency. Holding ourselves to a higher standard than other education institutions is something I’m very interested in. Not only from a marketing perspective because it’s good for business but also for the well being of the entire industry; if someone does something completely opposite to that, it would have a big effect on all of us.
Can you tell us a little bit about the job market and the tech scene in Toronto and Ontario and things you’ve noticed working at Bitmaker over the last year?
The tech scene in Toronto and Ontario is definitely booming. There’s a handful of big unicorn tech companies, there’s a handful of really successful IPOs coming out of Ontario in recent years, and some really big fund raising rounds like Shopify and D2L’s last rounds. Just this past month Chango just sold for 100 million bucks, VarageSale raised around $30 million led by Sequoia, and WealthSimple another $30 million. Things have never been hotter.
There are some really big companies that are starting to feed back into the ecosystem, where they’re coming back and starting their second or third companies. They’re sort of mini Mafias that go out and start doing their own thing. I genuinely think there’s never been a more exciting time for Ontario tech.
Shopify went through an incredibly successful IPO; that’s now two and a half billion dollar company – and that’s just within the last 6 months; it’s crazy. People are feeding off that momentum; there’s a growing venture capital market, there’s a great startup scene, and Toronto is the third largest city in Canada/USA. Add in some top notch universities and it’s no surprise we’re turning out top talent and some really amazing companies.
Where are Bitmaker graduates getting jobs?
We’ve placed students at companies like Shopify, Hootsuite, Chango, Breather, FinanceIt, TIFF, Telus, the list goes on! Our graduates usually have a choice between product companies, agencies, or larger corporations. Some go on to found their own businesses or freelance.
Does Bitmakers regularly release a job placement rate?
We’re going to start publishing this more regularly, but our job placement rate right now is over 90%, all-time placement rate for the full-time grads.
What goes into that 90% placement? Do you count grads who get internships? Does Bitmaker hire graduates as TAs?
No, definitely not. I think we have maybe two graduates on staff as teaching assistants for our part-time courses. All of our lead instructors and full-time teaching assistants are sourced from outside with years of experience.
As for the stat, we really try and push people into careers and not internships, even if they are paid internships. We do count a person who starts a company after the program as having a career as an entrepreneur, but they are a minority.
Is there attrition at Bitmaker in the full-time immersive course?
We don’t flunk people out. We’re tracking student progress weekly to make sure that students aren’t falling off but we don’t fail or remove people from job placement pool on that basis.
Dropouts are extremely low- in the very low single digits on hundreds of graduates.
Do you have a favorite student success story that you’d like to share?
There’s so many… This one always blows my mind; we had a student, Matt, he was around 18 when he entered the program. He was a high school grad, went to college, then decided to drop out because he knew exactly what he wanted to do; he wanted to become a developer.
He went through Bitmaker, devoted himself to coding, took a vacation and travelled through Europe, then landed a job at Shopify. He got in on an internship because he was so young and they took a bet on this kid. Now he’s a full-time web developer there and last time I check he’s pretty damn happy! Matt is probably one of my favorite stories because he’s a great example of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do and we were able to kickstart his career in tech.