What are the differences between the coding bootcamp and traditional K-12 or higher education models? We’ve talked about CS degrees vs bootcamps before – so today we’re talking about what it actually feels like and looks like to learn at a bootcamp. We invited Jeff Casimir from Turing School in Denver to break down the differences between traditional education and a bootcamp, and how folks who didn’t do well in high school or college may really benefit from a bootcamp learning style. Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below!
Jeff, for people who think that Turing was your first job in education, could you tell us about your career?
This month marks 15 years in education – which sounds like an incredibly long time. I started teaching middle school in 2003 with Teach for America in Washington, DC.
Then I moved into a high school and taught computer science for a few years. I joined a team to open a new middle school and served as what was essentially the Vice Principal of that school for two years. In 2009, I decided to try out adult education and started Jumpstart Lab, which did corporate training work. In 2011, I got together with friends at LivingSocial and started Hungry Academy. The way I remember it – Dev Bootcamp in San Francisco, Code Academy (which later had other names) in Chicago, and Hungry Academy in DC all started within a six-month span. That was the scientific phenomena of simultaneous discovery – a bunch of bootcamps were started in this industry at the same time. [In 2013] I came to Denver to help start Galvanize (gSchool at the time) for one year, and started Turing in 2014. As of June 2018, Turing has been running for four years.
So maybe the only realm of education you haven’t worked in is elementary school and college?
Yeah, I taught third grade summer school – I’ll never forget the feeling. After the kids left, I turned the lights off and cried. I thought “What have I done to my life? This is far too difficult, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m getting ripped apart by third graders.” Elementary school teachers are heroes to me because they’re in the classroom for six hours a day, by themselves. That is a tremendous amount of work.
I never taught traditional college; we’ve talked about doing some things in Denver but never quite made it work. I think Turing will probably be the closest I get to traditional college.
Traditional Education: K-12 + College
Let’s set the scene: how would you describe a “traditional” teaching environment? What are we comparing bootcamps to?
High schools and colleges generally operate relatively similarly. It’s what my wife likes to call the “sit and get” method of education: you have a group of people in a room, one person talks, you take notes/do exercises, and leave. Outside of class, you’re typically doing work to reinforce what you heard in class. One class doesn’t really vary – Monday looks like Tuesday – it’s the same patterns over and over. That’s the model that most people are accustomed to in high school and college.
You can extract value from that; you can learn things. But it’s not particularly engaging. We think a lot about engagement in education, and to me, the biggest gap in education overall in K-12, higher ed etc, is a disregard for the students’ engagement. Instruction is typically not geared around what will help the student appreciate the material, understand it’s context, or why it matters. Instead the focus is on explaining the material with complete clarity. But if a student doesn’t care about the explanation, then the clarity is immaterial.
It’s funny – it seems like there’s always that one class in high school or college that we look back on fondly. And it’s usually because the teacher strayed from that traditional, “sit and get” style.
Yeah. I just finished reading a book called The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath – one thing they talk about is remembering those high points in education. It’s sad how few and far between those were. When I look back on the projects or assignments in school that were really meaningful for me – there are two or three, maybe four of those. I went to school for 16 years! That doesn’t seem correct. Why can’t we build educational experiences with durable memories – maybe not every day, but at least once per semester, there should be something that sticks with you and feels worthwhile.
In the current K-12 world, there’s a feeling that with No Child Left Behind and “race to the top”, there isn’t time for that. That we have to sacrifice everything for state-mandated testing a so forth. And that’s where I think the bootcamp industry has a high level of both freedom and responsibility because there are so few rules. In the US, even if there is state-level regulation for bootcamps, the state is looking at, “are you stealing people’s money or not?” If you aren’t stealing money, you can do whatever you want. There is a tremendous spectrum of variance possible.
Was there anything that you liked about the traditional classroom?
When I started doing adult education in 2009 – teaching programming to adults – I realized that adults pick it up quickly, they have a lot of skills, they’re invested, and so forth. But teaching weekend classes or week-long corporate training just didn’t feel like it mattered.
When I was teaching high school, it was super hard. You didn’t get the kids for very long, it didn’t always feel like you could do your best work. But whatever work you put in, it really made a difference.
That’s how we started down this path with Turing. We thought – how can we take the ideas of working with adults, teaching programming, but also have it matter and change people’s lives?
The Bootcamp Classroom
Could you outline the characteristics of a bootcamp classroom?
First, the iteration cycle is exceptionally fast. If I were teaching high school and I had a project or unit that didn’t go great or didn’t match my expectations, then the soonest I would be able to fix it is the next semester or next school year. For us, we work in 6-week cycles, so every six weeks, the curriculum is changing and improving and experimenting in new directions. Turing has been around for four years – I think we’re on our 56th class. We don’t always get it right – but we can change and adapt really quickly. That’s an exceptional power to the bootcamp model.
Second, the immersive model is important in a bootcamp. When I look back at my college experience, the classes I got the most out of were my Summer School classes, because I took one or two at a time, meeting three hours a day. Whereas, in typical college/high school, you’re juggling seven classes at a time, tending the pots on a busy stove and context switching. Your ability to get deep into the material in that situation is not good. Doing anything with intensity is more rewarding than doing a lot of things shallowly.
Third, the small, collaborative cohorts – for us, that’s 24 to 32 students – where folks are creating this support network and the inspiration network of seeing what the person next to you is able to do, and the person behind you is struggling with. In most of undergrad/high school, “collaboration” is called “cheating.” The workplace does not work like that. Regardless of the industry – engineering, accounting, marketing, etc – the idea that we sit alone and complete our work is just not how the modern world works. That’s part of the mismatch between traditional education patterns and modern work patterns. I think bootcamps are able to do better.
So I hear you saying that a bootcamp can be characterized as a) highly iterative, b) immersive c) organized into small, collaborative cohorts that match work patterns. Do you think that the physical space has anything to do with teaching?
The short answer is that I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this – there’s a program in Pittsburgh called Manchester Bidwell to teach welding and vocational concepts. Their approach was to start with the space that was beautiful, creative, and inspiring. And to allow students to build a culture that reinforces that. Of the bootcamps that I’ve been to, most of us have space that we make do with. Turing is a cast-off space; we’re in a basement that nobody else wants so that we could get it at an affordable rate.
I’ve started to ask myself – what would it look like to build a world class facility for Turing? I don’t think it’s brushed aluminium and wood and kegs. There’s more to it; we’re starting a research project now to visit a few colleges like the MIT Media Lab, Manchester-Bidwell, etc. Decorative spaces are not my thing, but powerfully functional spaces that enable people to do great work? That’s a piece we’re still figuring out.
Are there types of students who don’t thrive in the non-traditional classroom?
There are students who need a period of adjustment. For example, students who were highly successful in a traditional academic setting – they graduated from Ivy League schools – don’t always do great at Turing. At Turing, there’s a higher degree of chaos, self-reliance, independence. As opposed to a model with a checklist of 26 things you need to do. That’s not us or what we’re interested in doing.
Any environment is going to have strengths and weaknesses for a specific student. But generally, bootcamps and alternative education are doing multi-modal education. It’s not that we’re doing one thing and doing that differently. We’re doing a lot of things! If you walk around Turing at 9:30am on Monday, you’ll see people sitting in rows listening to a lecture, asking questions – it looks like a traditional classroom. At 10:30 or 11:30 or 2:30, it will look different and those modes are always shifting. So if there are some modes that don’t work for someone, that’s okay. As long as we’re using multiple strategies, we’ll find things that do work for them.
What types of students thrive in the bootcamp-style program? Do you encounter students who did not do well in High School and college, but do well at Turing?
100% yes. Essentially, what Turing is trying to do is buck the system. And I was a kid who was constantly trying to buck the system, treading the line all the time. There are a lot of people who, like me, didn’t feel that the educational environment they were in was a match for the things they were interested in. The beauty of vocational education as a broader picture is that there’s a lot of opportunity for people to have a second, third, fourth or fifth chance. Maybe high school wasn’t that fun for you. Maybe you didn’t graduate college or you graduated but you hated it. Grad school is more of the same.
What’s neat about bootcamps is that we’re starting to try different models; maybe people who weren’t successful in the traditional way, can be successful here.
As we mentioned before, bootcampers are opting in to bootcamps; they’re not legally obligated to be at school like you might be in K-12. They’re usually older and more mature. How does that affect the learning environment?
Before we started Turing, I watched friends go to grad school and regress to their former selves. They’re 28 years old, getting an MBA and going to keg parties! Really?? There’s a bit of that social community in the bootcamp world – a bit of your youth can come back to you. But at the same time, there’s so much riding on this. I just spoke to students who are in the beginning of their job hunt and I told them, “Look, I understand that you’re tired. These next four, six, and eight weeks will impact your future, the future of those you care about, your significant other, your parents or siblings, your kids (or future kids)! So don’t tell me about how tired you are or how much work you have. This is your life on the line; the potential here is so huge. If you can find a way to push through, then everything you want is yours.”
One of the great things about most of the tech industry is that they don’t really care where you came from; they care about what you can do now. If you go to law school and get a law degree, your undergrad still matters. But if you go to a bootcamp and do great and develop all of these skills, nobody (edit: very few companies) cares about where you went to undergrad, your degree, whether you graduated, etc. Some don’t even care if you graduated from high school!
You can really start over in an amazing way. That’s part of the unique opportunity of a bootcamp – there aren’t a lot of other ways that a 24 or 28 or 35 year old can start over. One of the interesting markers of that are the students at Turing who have decided to change their name or gender identity on their first day of school. This is rebirth at a whole new level. What does it feel like to be a person who you don’t want to be – having gone through traditional education, done the things your parents wanted you to do – and now get the chance to start over?
How do you think the bootcamp industry is doing on accessibility? The fact that students opt-in to bootcamps creates an incredible motivation in people, but on the other hand, does it create an exclusivity around coding bootcamps?
The people who are most likely to be successful at a coding bootcamp are the people who are most likely to be successful at everything else – that’s not good enough. If we’re serving students who are already being served by the existing opportunities and power structures of the world, then this is not a worthwhile way to spend our time. I didn’t come to create another thing that’s the same as everything else.
If we’re going to do something different, then we have to enable people who traditionally have not been provided opportunities, not been believed in, not been successful in a traditional path. If they’re not successful at Turing, then that’s not good enough. And to be honest, we have a long way to go. For example, our graduation rate needs to be higher. We need to intervene more quickly to make sure that our students get on and stay on the right track and graduate Turing.
Yeah, graduation rate is an interesting metric that we don’t hear about from a lot of schools. But I think that could be really helpful for students making a decision about a bootcamp – so I do hope that schools start to report graduation/attrition rates either through CIRR or another mechanism.
If I were looking at programs, I would use those data points as a start of my investigation, but I would also reach out to the school’s admission team and tell them “I’m X age, I have X education background, I identify as X. Do you have any alumni like me? I want to ask that person if there were other students like me and did they graduate? Are you the one unicorn who made it? And what’s it been like in the industry for you? That would be more compelling to me than anything that shows up on a spreadsheet.
I didn’t plan on talking about reporting/transparency in this podcast, but that also has to be a huge difference between traditional education and coding bootcamps. If we’re comparing the two, then just the fact that outcomes data exists and bootcamps are thinking about the jobs their students are getting is a big difference.
Coming back to these differences in the model and setup – the measurability of a bootcamp’s outcomes is really clear. Do you get a job or not? How long does it take? How much do you get paid? Of course, it gets fuzzy when we talk about hourly jobs or contract jobs or full-time jobs. But what do colleges do in this space? Nothing! They don’t track it, or want to track it, because then someone might subpoena it! Traditional colleges have exceptionally low ties to their students’ success.
Bootcamps have the potential to be very aware of those outcomes and then make changes to affect those outcomes.
Do you think that the coding bootcamp style is only good for teaching coding and other digital skills? Or do you think that it can be used to teach many subjects. And if so, what subjects?
One of the many mistakes that I think the tech industry consistently makes is to believe that it’s unique. Programs like Turing are not fundamentally different than automotive or welding programs that already existed. To say that programming is this special unicorn – that’s clearly false. But there are a couple of factors that an industry needs to have in order for this approach to work. An industry must have:
- A reliance on skills not credentials. One of the strengths of programming is that you can find out if a person knows what they’re doing in a short period of time. In other industries like economics, how do you find out if an economist knows what they’re doing or not? The industry has to be able to evaluate skill quickly.
- Relatively high pay. There’s a lot of risk involved for the student, so if your salary after graduating from a bootcamp is 10% to 20% higher than your previous salary, then it’s just not worth that level of risk. The salary floor must be relatively high with growth potential.
- Limits/weaknesses in the existing pipeline. There are plenty of people graduating with Math Degrees who can’t get jobs; you can’t start a Math bootcamp for adults.
If you have those three things, then I think you can run this type of program.
Do you think there are any subjects that meet those three requirements?
Yes. There aren’t any that I’m an expert in – programming was my one! But there are other industries that can employ a similar model.
In your years at Course Report, you’ve seen hundreds of programs spring up. I don’t know if we need hundreds of programs targeting one job in other industries. But my gut says yes – there are a lot of jobs that you could do this for.
One other piece of this puzzle – what are the entrenched people in the industry like? I hypothesize that most of the workforce wasn’t trained to do their job in their degree. Their degree got them the job and then they learned on the job. To those people, the idea that someone else wouldn’t need to go through the steps or pay the same price that they did, is very threatening.
In programming, there’s a feeling of abundance. A developer might think, “There are plenty of jobs, so a bootcamper is not going to compete with me.” So they’ll approach bootcamps with open arms. But it’s different in traditional fields like marketing, accounting, business.
If we do start another school, there’s a pretty good chance that it’ll be a high school. That’s a problem I think we can solve. I think we can take these lessons and do better for a broad population of kids. We can do a better job at teaching social studies or biology.
What is the Northeastern method called? They learn 6 weeks of one subject instead of 12 weeks of multiple subjects. A more immersive model in high school could be interesting.
I think that kind of thinking is really promising. Part of the dreams of the charter school world was all this innovation in schedule and model – what if school happened in evenings? What if it was 12 months or included internships? Over time, the dream has faded and now most charter schools are different versions of KIPP – which has a lot of rules about sitting in your chair, moving your eyes, responding in a certain way. There’s so much more potential here.
The Future of Bootcamps
What can universities and high schools learn from coding bootcamps? Over the last four years, how have you seen them meld together?
It is false to say that higher ed isn’t trying to do innovative things. There’s a professor named Yong Bakos at Oregon State University who is doing innovative stuff in a traditional, higher ed world. There are pockets of innovation – from the subjects they teach to the teaching model to the way they’re pushing students – they’re doing great work. But there are very few program-wide innovations. If I were looking at grad schools, the only grad school I would realistically consider is MIT Media Lab. It’s the only one that I’ve seen do amazing work consistently, beyond a couple of inspired professors or an administrator who sees the future. The problem with higher ed is that it’s hard to be durable because higher ed just doesn’t pay! A lot of state university professors are paid $45-55K – I’ll pay them twice that!
So then do you see bootcamps and universities starting to merge a bit?
To me, the two growth vectors in the bootcamp industry are towards a) corporate training and b) university partnerships / curriculum whitelabeling. We see a lot of the players in our space putting the majority of their energy into corporate training. I think it’s boring, I’m not gonna do it – I’m glad for them to do that.
There are some interesting corporate partnerships right? I agree with you that there are some boring corporate training partnerships, but there has to be some way for us to figure out how to get employers to start paying for the training, retraining, and upskilling of individual workers instead of individual students being responsible for that, right?
I think of the example of FedEx – if you’re training truck drivers to have a deep understanding of technology, then that’s amazing! You push people up the ladder, you’re creating new entry level jobs. But if you’re teaching .NET developers how to do Java, then you’re not really moving the needle to me. Teaching in a corporate environment is easier because I don’t have to worry about admissions or outcomes. If Turing was just trying to make money, we would have gone down a different path.
The second option for growth is an option like Trilogy – this “white label” approach. In this approach, the university wants to offer a bootcamp, they pay Trilogy money per student, they license the curriculum, and now the university can say they’re hip and cool on their board report. It doesn’t have to be very good or worry about outcomes (because for the most part, their graduates will still be in university). The challenge with this model is that it’s very hard to take someone else’s solution and apply it to your situation. I’m not saying everyone should invent everything from scratch, but taking someone else’s lesson plans, projects, etc and fit it with the staff, culture, environment, and students at your university. It may be a complete waste of time, but it may be good enough for higher ed.
So we see bootcamps growing by expanding into corporate training and then also this other trend towards universities/continuing education departments. Anything else you hear in terms of trends?
When people talk about the industry and say “the bubble has burst” that’s an exceptionally foolish take. Tech is obsessed with “winning.” Which is the “best” programming language? Which framework will “win?” Same with bootcamps – if you don’t have the most students, you’re finished. If I look around at the city of Denver, I see 14 colleges. Which will win? All of them! There’s space for a whole lot of programs to teach a whole bunch of topics. Other programs will open in Denver and challenge us, but so what? Is MIT worried about what University of Phoenix is doing? No! So let’s just be MIT. Let’s set the standard and not worry about anybody else.
In 10 years, do you see a school like Turing being a replacement for traditional college education?
I do, but not 10 years from now! There is no observable difference in in-job performance after Turing between a student who has a college degree and a student who does not. The only difference is employers – particularly government contractors – who have a hard requirement of a subject area degree. But that’s out out of 20 employers for us.
College is a great way to grow up and study things that you’re interested in. But college has never been good at getting people jobs. Some people ask if my own kids would go to Turing. My answer is that I appreciate that the option is there for them. But I do hope that they choose to go to college – if they want to study Greek Mythology or Spanish Literature (subjects that don’t lead to naturally strong career paths) – and learn the most they can learn and become an expert on it. It’s really powerful when someone decides to be really good at something.
And then if you want to get a job, Turing can train you to get a job.
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