Trade school Coding Dojo claims it can turn anybody into an entry-level programmer in 14 weeks. Is the Bellevue-based company sparking economic reform at the same time?
Growing up in China, Richard Wang rarely saw his parents. His stepmother and his father, Ian, worked tirelessly for the company Ian founded, so much of Richard’s childhood was spent with his grandparents. At 8, Wang was sent to a military boarding school; awake at 5:30 a.m., beds made within 30 seconds. The Chinese government slotted Wang, who today is an athletic 6-foot-4, to become a professional basketball player, but his parents made him an American instead. At 14, he was sent to the U.S., where he bounced between the homes of relatives and family friends in Hawaii, Chicago, and Seattle before being enrolled at a Christian boarding school in rural Oregon. All the while, he still hadn’t learned a sentence of English.
Though Wang rarely was in the same room or, later, on the same continent as his father, he deeply respected Ian’s professional attitude. As he grew, Richard watched from a distance as Ian built his importing company into a $100-million-a-year conglomerate.
“As a kid, that made an imprint on me that, if you set your mind to something, there’s no limit to what you can achieve,” Wang said, his English now so rapid it’s sometimes hard to keep pace with his dialogue. “That was a big impact on me. There are a lot of kids out there that don’t know better; they have no better role models.”
Today, Wang is the 30-year-old CEO of Coding Dojo, a Bellevue computer programming school designed to, in 14 weeks, teach anybody the skills necessary to land a basic programming job. Each month, 25 or so new clients come to the company’s Bellevue office hoping a $13,500 investment yields a high-paying job in the tech industry. Wang is not expecting to mint self-made tycoons like his father — web developer jobs Dojo students are best qualified for pay about $65,000 a year — but his goal is no less modest. Coding Dojo, Wang believes, offers a blueprint for an American middle-class resurgence.
“The middle class here is getting more and more diminished,” Wang said. “Our education system is not matching industry needs. There’s this (new) industrial revolution — VR, AR, data science, biotech — and we are really missing that middle-tier workforce. What Coding Dojo provides … is a platform for economic mobility, for training so that (students) can live better lives.”
CODING DOJO WAS founded in 2012 by Michael Choi, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was previously running a real-estate software startup. That company, Zurple, was struggling to find qualified engineers; Choi once spent nine months filtering through hundreds of résumés before hiring someone with a master’s degree. The new employee excelled at theoretical thinking, Choi said, but struggled to create the applications his position required. “We spend nine months, pay this guy, like, 120 grand, and then I have to spend several months training him?” Choi said. “This is a joke.”
Choi’s frustration is common in the tech world. The industry’s fast-growing startups and established firms alike are producing, by most counts, thousands of new jobs every year. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2013 that the 2014-to-2024 decade would see 1.2 million computer-science job openings, but total employment in the field would grow by just 531,000. Information technology jobs will have to be filled by people other than new college graduates; U.S. colleges handed out 56,000 computer science bachelor’s degrees in 2014.
The local gap also is stark. According to projections by the Washington State Achievement Council, the state’s computer science industry will have an average annual shortfall of 4,500 workers from 2018 to 2023.
For many hiring managers, the shortfall is qualitative, not quantitative. Even though Choi was flooded with applications at Zurple, few candidates possessed the basic qualifications needed in a developer. After overpaying master’s holders, Choi decided in 2010 to try training his own employees.
“It took me two to three years before I could teach somebody one stack (a programming language) in three months,” he said. “Then I noticed that instead of three months to learn one stack, people were learning it in six weeks. I said, ‘Whoa, this is amazing. Let’s see if we can add another stack. And then another stack.’ Most boot camps are still in the stage we were four or five years ago.”
In 2012, while Choi was honing Zurple’s in-house training program, Dev Bootcamp, which is recognized as the first boot-camp-style coding school, opened in San Francisco. “So I was thinking, ‘Hold on — I already have this training program that I’ve built, that I’ve been working on for three years. I wonder if people would pay for this.’” Choi spun out Coding Dojo that year, and the first cohort enrolled in Mountain View, California, in February 2013. Choi’s wife was pregnant with their third child at the time, so Choi later that year moved the company to Bellevue to be closer to his in-laws.
Coding Dojo operates under the assumption that anybody with a real interest in computer science can quickly learn to code. That desire to learn is no small caveat; Coding Dojo is labor- and time-intensive. (From the website’s FAQ section: “Am I going to be coding for 70-90 hours each week? … Yes.”) One former student said he sometimes slept at the office after long nights working on a project.
“It’s really important to try and push the rest of your life out of the way for the next three months,” said Martin Puryear, Coding Dojo’s principal engineer. “There’s not really time for that hour-and-a-half lunch with your brother. I mean, you’ll see him; it’s not like we lock people up. But, you know, you get out of it what you put in.”
The steep tuition is one incentive to work hard. The price is justified, Coding Dojo employees say, by the school’s broad curriculum. Most boot camps teach one or two programming languages, but Dojo students learn three. It’s an important distinction in an industry that, at least locally, can seem blurry: There are no fewer than 13 coding boot camps in the Seattle area. Coding Dojo isn’t even the only “dojo” — there’s also Data Science Dojo in Seattle.
Coding Dojo’s curriculum is built largely on what Puryear calls “rope bridges” — fundamental elements of coding language that transition a programmer to more advanced skills, or to similar functions in another language. The language menu evolves with industry demand. Students begin with a couple weeks of basic web development, followed by four-week stints in Python (the language used by Instagram), Lamp (Facebook), and then a language of their choice: iOS (Apple), Ruby on Rails (Twitter), or Mean (Google).
“If you look at the traditional education world, by the time the textbook comes out … it’s a year or two, maybe three years late to what’s going on in the industry,” Wang said. “We make sure that we are keeping up with industry.”
Puryear says the three-language approach not only helps students woo employers, but also makes them better prepared to learn new languages in the future. “A lot of the value is in seeing patterns occur three times,” he said. “People start to discern: ‘Oh yeah, this is the data model piece. It’s just like what we did last month, and the month before.’ The great thing is, when some new technology comes out in the future, they’ll see that pattern again. It’s in a way trying to future-proof students.”
When the 14-week program culminates, students undergo a final certification test that mimics something a web developer might encounter on the job, such as building an organizational social network or a book-reviewing platform. Keeping with the karate theme, top performers earn a black belt that’s meant to signify the student is ready for complex web development jobs.
It’s those jobs that Wang believes can boost the American middle class in a way factories did in the mid-20th century. When factory workers could start at the bottom of the employment ladder with little more than a high school degree and some vocational training, they were rewarded with career-long employment, steady wage and position increases, and pensions.
“What is the new assembly line for workers? It’s actually these tech companies,” Wang said. “And, in the midst of digital transformation, name a company that’s not being impacted by any of this. Essentially every single company is a technology company. Nike is a technology company. … The City of Bellevue is essentially a technology company.”
Wang’s middle-class manifesto centers on how the U.S. education system has failed to prepare a relevant workforce. His arguments echo those of vocational education proponents. High schools, he said, overemphasize sending students to colleges, which in turn yield workers like the master’s student that inspired Choi to start his training program — elaborate thinkers who are unable to build the applications they conjure. The result is class after class of graduates who are either overqualified or misqualified. Wang’s theory is that if enough institutions start teaching in Coding Dojo’s fashion, and enough companies recognize that the students do good work, then you’ve found the next driver of middle-class employment.
WANG BECAME A student of Choi’s in 2014. He enrolled in Coding Dojo after spending six years with Boeing, where he rapidly climbed the ranks in the company’s supply chain division; in fewer than four years, Wang became the chief of staff for the company’s managing director in Asia. But his Boeing career had a shelf life.
While Wang was enrolled at Central Washington University, his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After spending some time in hospice care, Ian Wang came to the U.S. to see Richard and other family members.
Ian’s death in 2007 inspired Richard to do more than put in long hours at the office. “My father’s passing had this tremendous impact on me,” Wang said. “When you see someone that close to you pass right in front of you … you just feel that life is really short. I’m 30 right now; I’m going to live on this planet for another 60 years. That’s a limited amount of time before I move on to the next. So I ask myself, ‘What are the material things that I can do to make a true difference for people?’ There’s nothing more than helping people put food on the table.”
That sentiment gnawed at Wang while he worked at Boeing, and he eventually quit with the intent of starting a company he felt would more directly create jobs and affect livelihoods. He decided to build a platform that would connect recent college graduates with entrepreneur mentors, something he had longed for as an ambitious student. (Wang founded a local Groupon-like site while in college.) Wang needed to learn to code to build the platform, so he enrolled in Coding Dojo.
Choi began to oversee the development of Wang’s platform, called Mentor 2.0. Wang chipped away at the project during his tenure at Coding Dojo, but he wasn’t able to find willing customers at public education institutions. Nevertheless, Wang learned about universities’ computer science programs as well as the difficulty Choi experienced hiring Zurple employees. In China, Ian Wang preached that a particular skill, English literacy, could open economic doors for an individual. In the U.S., Richard Wang felt programming literacy could provide the same lift.
Around this time, Choi wanted to scale back his role with his company. “Richard said he wanted to be CEO, so I said, ‘Prove it,’” Choi said. “I gave him three months, and then he was CEO.”
DURING WANG’S BRIEF tenure, Coding Dojo has grown in size and scope. He’s overseen the school’s expansion beyond Bellevue and Mountain View to Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. A sixth location, Chicago, will open in August. The company also has begun licensing its curriculum; Microsoft and Bellevue College are customers. Coding Dojo saw $6 million in revenue in 2015, and Wang expects that sum to grow to $20 million by 2020, largely on the back of licensing to government, educational, and corporate partners.
The growth strategy exemplifies Wang’s pursuit of a society-wide education hack. But this education hinges on whether the jobs boot camps train for actually exist. The tech industry says they do. Companies lobby for more computer-science seats at colleges and more H-1B visas to fill positions. The clamoring has climbed to the White House, which in June distributed its first TechHire grants — $150 million in total — to schools and programs designed to funnel underprivileged workers into the maw of tech vacancies.
But a true labor shortage would force companies to settle for underqualified workers, not peg a master’s-degree holder for entry-level programming. There are other signs the tech-worker drought might be exaggerated. Typically, labor shortages lead employers to deploy retention strategies like raises and internal training. Neither is apparent in the tech industry. Salaries for non-managerial tech workers, though high, have been stagnant since the dot-com era, and Microsoft, Twitter, IBM, and others have laid off thousands of workers in the last few years.
Ron Hira is a public policy professor at Howard University and an outspoken critic of tech firms’ reliance on foreign labor. On the May morning Microsoft announced its final round of layoffs related to its acquisition of Nokia — 1,850 this time around — Hira told me: “It baffles me that anybody in the media or anybody with common sense won’t say, ‘Hey, you’re claiming a systemic shortage. At the same time, you’re laying off tens of thousands of workers.’ Of course, Microsoft’s response is that they’re laying off in the areas that are old” — building Nokia phones — “and they’ll hire in the areas that are new” — cloud computing. “Which begs the question: Why can’t you invest in training and retraining?”
Hira cautions that the tech industry is trying to boost the supply of workers to decrease the cost of its services. This can be done by flooding the labor market with offshore workers, computer science graduates, H-1B visa candidates, and narrowly educated boot-camp students.
There’s also disagreement on what types of jobs need filling. Research commissioned by the Washington Technology Industry Association found that the state produces 3,000 more tech jobs every year than its colleges can fill with graduates, but those are jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, not a brief boot camp. Michael Schutzler, CEO of the WTIA, says boot-camp students who want to compete for those jobs should already have a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as math or finance. Have that plus a Coding Dojo black belt? “Right on — you’ve got a shot,” Schutzler said. “But if you don’t finish the whole shooting match in these things, you are at best qualified to fight for one of those other spots where there’s already a surplus.”
Ed Lazowska agrees. The Bill and Melinda Gates chair at the University of Washington’s computer-science school said that, while boot camps can fill some short-term needs of tech companies, top bachelor’s programs like those at Stanford and the UW equip students with the “computational thinking” necessary for a career in tech. He also disagrees with the notion that top bachelor’s students lack basic coding skills necessary for entry-level developer jobs.
“That’s preposterous. Utterly ludicrous,” Lazowska said. “A boot camp might retool you. These graduates retool themselves as the industry moves forward.”
It’s also debatable whether Coding Dojo accomplishes Wang’s goal of enhancing social mobility. One reason companies partner with coding boot camps is to comply with diversity initiatives, but firms looking to boost the number of women or people of color in their organization typically seek out nonprofits like Ada Developers Academy, a Seattle boot camp for women, or Year Up, which prepares low-income young adults for careers in technology.
These nonprofit boot camps are in many ways more comprehensive than their for-profit counterparts. Most nonprofit programs last a year. Both Ada and Year Up devote six months to boot camp-style instruction, and participants also spend six months at internships with partnering organizations. Internships have proven fruitful; about two-thirds of Year Up students in Bellevue are hired by the companies for which they serve as interns, according to Darryl Smith, the director of Year Up’s Bellevue College program. Furthermore, many nonprofits are tuition-free.
Like for-profit boot camps, the nonprofits work closely with corporations to determine what languages and skills they should be teaching. “That’s the job piece of it,” Smith said. “The other piece of it that Year Up is very good with, that I don’t know if the coding camps offer, is all of the soft-skills curriculum. All of that stuff around networking, working well on a team, problem solving, professional demeanor, how you dress, how to conduct yourself at a meeting — I don’t know if you get that at a coding boot camp.”
Coding Dojo does offer students and alumni job-hunting assistance, and, according to Wang, 92 percent of Dojo students are employed in a coding-related job that pays $55,000 or more within three months of finishing the program. Job placement rates are a ubiquitous sales pitch for coding boot camps, but it’s an often-criticized stat; companies can manipulate placement numbers in any number of ways. Wang is seeking a third-party audit to legitimize the school’s placement figures.
“Inside-out, we’re not a coding education company. What we do here is about creating transformation for people,” Wang said. “Before Coding Dojo, they’re in jobs frying chicken. Now they’re getting $75,000 plus benefits at JPMorgan. That’s economic mobility.”
Not all students pay the full Coding Dojo tuition, which ranges from $9,450 in Dallas to $13,500 in Seattle and Mountain View. Of the 108 students who enrolled in the five Coding Dojo campuses in June, 43 received tuition discounts, and 12 on-site students have received full scholarships since January 2015. In all, Coding Dojo expects to have handed out more than $1.1 million in discounts in 2015 and 2016.
AFTER COMPLETING A coding boot camp, most people just want a job. But six months after Coding Dojo graduate Arif Gursel started work at Point Inside, he became the leader of the company’s product management team.
“My focus is on our next-generation platform, our next suite of products not just in our existing line … but in a couple other interesting verticals we could pivot into,” Gursel said in the retail-mapping startup’s Bellevue office. “So I’m building a team of technically savvy product managers to go drive that vision.”
To be fair to other boot-camp graduates, Gursel didn’t need Coding Dojo to land a tech job. He holds a computer science degree from Tuskegee University and an MBA from the University of Chicago, and has worked for Microsoft and Zillow. Prior to enrolling in Coding Dojo, Gursel founded a digital-entertainment startup. When that company was acquired, he became chief product officer of the new firm; when that company was acquired six months later, Gursel found himself with some spare time and cash. He then turned to Coding Dojo for some continuing education.
Gursel started his career as a software engineer at Microsoft, but quickly went the business-development and managerial route. He found himself devising solutions and algorithms, but then turning to engineers to build the actual product. His entertainment startup, Vibeheavy, needed an iPhone app and Gursel didn’t know how to build one. “I spent upwards of 50, 60 grand just prototyping,” he said. “It was a great solution when we ultimately got it, but it always stuck in the back of my mind: Here I am, someone with a computer science degree, paying another engineer to build something for me.”
Gursel’s varied experience — engineer and manager, formal education and boot camp, large and small employers — gives him a unique perspective on the state of computer science education. Both universities and coding boot camps claim their students will learn foundational skills that last throughout a career. But as Gursel tells it, neither package is so complete. “You can come out of school with a computer science degree. It doesn’t mean you’re ready to go build versatile software,” he said. “So for me, Dojo was the application, whereas a comp sci degree was the theory.”
People often use blue-collar similes to explain the boot-camp economy. Gursel, for one, compared the potential tech workforce to oil reserves, saying boot camps function as refineries do by turning crude talent into usable workers that fuel company growth. But the WTIA’s Schutzler sees boot-camp graduates as the equivalent of diesel mechanics — workers skilled enough to be experts at narrow tasks, but lacking the broader knowledge that would allow adjustments once electric motors, or new programming languages, are introduced.
Boot-camp skeptics’ primary concern is the ceiling graduates face. Without further training, a Coding Dojo graduate may be relegated to a web developer job only as long as languages he’s familiar with remain popular; once that changes, the company could replace him or outsource the job. But a certain symbiosis is emerging between boot camps and the companies that most often seek out their workers.
Startups rarely have the expertise or the budget to seek out H-1B candidates, let alone to open an engineering office in India. They’re more likely to hire locally, and early employees are more likely to be retained by their employers; they adopt and help shape company culture, and firing them is too consequential. As early employees learn on the job, they become more valuable to the company with each passing day.
Ford and General Motors get much of the credit for creating the strong middle class Wang wants to replicate, but Detroit’s enormous factories weren’t the only job creators. Entrepreneurship was more prolific then — nearly 17 percent of all businesses were brand-new in 1977. That rate has since halved, and, since 2008, more U.S. companies have been shuttered than created. This is important as research shows young businesses are the source of nearly all added jobs; mature firms tend to hire and fire employees at a static level.
Coding Dojo is not supplying the tech equivalent of General Motors factory workers. What it might be doing, however, is building an able supplier of startup employees. Coding Dojo will likely grow in tandem with the number of startups. If history is an indicator, the middle class might as well.