After graduating college with a degree in hospitality management, John Mitsch starting working at a bakery in Cary.
The hours were long and the pay was low, so Mitsch, 26, wanted to earn extra money by developing websites. He taught himself the basics of computer programming in the wee hours of the morning after his late-night shifts.
Mitsch considered going back to school, but he couldn’t afford to pay tuition or take time off from work to earn another degree. Instead, he enrolled in a 12-week full-time web development program at The Iron Yard, a coding boot camp with locations in Raleigh, Durham and 13 other cities across the United States.
Mitsch paid roughly $13,900 to learn the fundamentals of front- and back-end development and Python, a programming language. He built an online portfolio of his work and practiced mock interviews with help from career support staff. He finished the program in 2015 and was quickly hired by Red Hat in Raleigh, where he worked his way up from intern to software engineer.
“During the program I spent every day coding and talking about coding,” Mitsch said. “It really taught me how to pick up new technologies quickly and constantly be learning, which are key parts of this industry.”
Coding boot camps can provide a fast track into careers in the booming tech industry, often at a lower cost than a four-year degree. The Triangle, home to dozens of software companies like Red Hat and Citrix, is seeing a rise in coding boot camps that aim to fill the need of companies to hire tech-savvy employees.
Another benefit, some say, is the intensity.
“The typical college curriculum just does not move at the pace of tech,” said Jessica Mitsch, executive director of The Iron Yard’s coding school who is not related to John Mitsch. “It’s a very fast-paced, changing environment.”
But the concept of coding boot camps is fairly new, and companies are still adjusting. Start-ups are often familiar with the programs, but many large companies still prefer employees to have college degrees. A diploma might also come in handy for those seeking positions above junior web developers.
The cost, flexibility and time frame of the boot camps are among the most appealing factors for people looking to get a piece of the tech pie. For those who have watched their friends struggle to find jobs after spending four years at a university, it’s a less risky investment.
An in-state student who earns an undergraduate degree in computer science from N.C. State University or UNC-Chapel Hill can expect to pay about $36,000 in tuition and fees over four years.
The cost of a coding boot camp doesn’t include room and board, books and supplies and similar costs associated with college.
Community colleges also teach many of the skills learned in the camps, often at a cheaper price. At Wake Tech Community College, students can earn an associate’s degree in data science and programming, mobile app development or computer programming, or certificates in specific courses, such as Android or iOS app development. An associate’s degree for an in-state student, earned with 68 credit hours, costs nearly $5,200.
Regardless of their credentials, many people are looking to break into the high-paying tech field, and there are plenty of opportunities locally. Job-posting website glassdoor.com has more than 800 posts from companies looking for junior developers and app developers in the Triangle.
The average salary for web developers in the area is $62,016, more than the national average of $59,296. For app developers, it’s roughly $71,900.
Coding boot camps tend to attract people in their late-20s to mid-30s who are looking for a career change or to build on skills they already have. Some already work in tech but want to understand different aspects of the industry.
More than 300 people have graduated from The Iron Yard’s Durham campus, which opened three years ago. About 50 people have graduated from the downtown Raleigh campus since it opened last year.
Students spend about 10 to 30 hours a week working on assignments outside of class, and at the end of the program they present a final project in front of local companies. Guest speakers, company tours and networking events are meant to help students meet potential employers.
Representatives from 24 companies, including Red Hat, IBM and Citrix, sit on an advisory board at The Iron Yard and help inform the company’s curriculum.
Forest Newark, a former public school teacher in Durham, recently graduated from The Iron Yard and hopes to find a job as a web developer. His final project, an app called “Teacher Talk,” helps streamline communication between teachers and parents who speak a different language.
“A lot of us are coming from diverse backgrounds,” Newrk, 27, said. “I think that’s appealing to employers because it brings different perspectives to creating products and understanding problems software engineers solve every day.”
John Charlesworth, co-founder and project manager at Stealz, a Raleigh-based coupon app, said most coding boot camp graduates are quick, independent learners. He has hired students from Tech Talent South in Raleigh, which opened in 2013.
“It takes a big commitment to invest your time and money into a boot camp,” Charlesworth said. “Sometimes people coming out of college don’t understand the workforce or know what they want to do. These folks are interested in the industry, bring diverse backgrounds and have great attitudes coming in.”
Before enrolling in Tech Talent South’s first-ever boot camp, David Curtis worked as an IT recruiter to understand the local market. Companies were often more interested in people’s technical abilities and their attitudes than they were in their degrees, he said.
“Employers care more about what you know and can do,” said Curtis, who now works as a software developer at Smashing Boxes in Durham. “They hold these programs in higher regard than most people realize.”
Colleges get on board
Some colleges and universities are starting their own coding boot camps.
Though the school has a computer science department, some people may not have the time or money to invest in a four-year program, said Annette Madden, director of professional development and enrichment programs. The coding class costs $9,500.
“This allows them to go through training over a shorter period of time,” Madden said. “It’s filling an unmet need, and the university backing it and the university’s academic credentials mean a lot to people.”
Wake Tech will launch its first boot camp in July. The 15-week program costs $3,500, which includes books and certification vouchers. Classes will meet Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday mornings to accommodate people who work full time.
The program is less selective and more “open-door” than some other boot camps, said Ray Tims, dean of education services technology at Wake Tech.
Tims said the college’s decision to offer a coding boot camp is indicative of a fundamental change in tech education. A computer science track involves an abstract approach to learning, while boot camps are quicker and more hands-on.
“This is a much more practical than theoretical approach,” Tims said. “It’s changing the way we’re thinking about education.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952