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Developer bootcamps -- good or bad?

Xero, Orion Health and Catalyst IT on whether 'bootcamps' are the solution to the industry-wide shortage of software developers

By all accounts software developers are in demand.

Immigration New Zealand lists analyst programmers, software engineers and software testers on its long-term shortage list; companies such as Orion Health and Catalyst IT are funding high school programmes to encourage kids to take up development careers; and Xero is offering a $10,000 signing fee to every developer it recruits.

But does the answer to acquiring more software developers lie in changing the way they are trained, at least in the short term? According to an Associated Press article, in San Francisco developer bootcamps are successfully training complete newbies how to code in less than three months.

Referred to as "apprenticeships on steroids", the courses provide intensive training for up to 100 hours a week over a period of nine to 12 weeks. Some are charging up to US $15,000 in tuition fees or taking 15 percent of the student's first-year salary.

Would bootcamps work in New Zealand? Computerworld sought views from employers, academics and the industry. In part one we look at the employer's view

Xero

Hannah Gray describes her role at Xero as a "hunter and tracker". Working in a team of six, she investigates the issues that customers have and then implements a solution to solve them.

Gray, who graduated from Otago University with a computer science degree in 2005, has a special interest in mentoring graduates and has trained both the university and the bootcamp type of graduate -- what she calls "both styles".

She says that in general the bootcamp-style graduate can hit the ground running and can start contributing code immediately.

"The people who go to a bootcamp course and then go to a job will be able to sit down and write code and be absolutely productive on the first day of work," she says.

"But, they don't learn the 'why' and the 'how'. Give it two years and they don't understand why something works the way it does, why it's a bad idea to do it 'way A' instead of 'way B'. They don't have the longer term view.

"Somebody who's been in a bootcamp, you might get them to solve a bug in a program they are working on. They will solve it, I have no doubt, but in two months time when the next developer comes along and looks at how they've done it and they'll go, 'hold on, that's inefficient,' it maxes out the CPU of the computer or it does something else, because they don't understand the impact of what they've got to do... they don't understand the impact of those small, seemingly insignificant choices." It's Gray's experience that university graduates, on the other hand, struggle when they enter the workforce.

"On day one you're not that great, you're not that good in the office, because a three-year degree teaches you the ability to learn a new skill and how to apply it. The entire three years is spent learning how to learn," she says.

But graduates soon pick up the skills and become effective programmers, and are able to adapt to new technologies. They are a better hiring prospect in the long term, she says.

"What I don't think boot camp courses provide you with is that ability to learn. They haven't learned how to learn, they've acquired a new skill. The new hot off the shelf technology comes along and suddenly everybody is all over it, but they haven't necessarily learnt how to apply what they know to that new technology."

Over time, couldn't the bootcamp graduate pick up those transferable skills?

Gray is hesitant. She says it depends on their personality -- some may wish to learn but that kind of in-depth, on-the-job training is very hard for an employer to provide.

Xero is currently recruiting for 45 "pure developers" and are hoping that a $10,000 "bounty" for those whom they employ will attract top candidates. When asked for an indication of starting salaries, CEO Rod Drury says a junior tester earns around $45,000 with benefits that take it up to a $53,500 package, and all staff receive shares in the company.

According to information from the Ministry of Innovation, Business and Employment, software programmers can expect to earn on average $41,200 in the first year and $55,900 after five years.

Orion Health

Meanwhile, Orion Health CEO Ian McCrae has been vocal about the lack of IT graduates and has put his money where his mouth is. The company is funding $100,000 worth of scholarships to the University of Canterbury to encourage more students into the study of information science.

Orion has also launched Codeworx, to help high school students learn how to code and has created a national competition where high school student teams, using a Raspberry Pi computer, come up with solutions to problems to win prizes.

McCrae is generally in favour of the bootcamp approach, although he says 10 weeks will only teach students the basics.

"Boot camps give students a pathway into information technology which is clearly good. Roles for these students will initially be entry level with salaries of $35,000 to $45,000. Then with experience they might ultimately earn $100,000 or more.

"It's an indictment on our education system which allows students to waste years studying in areas where there are no jobs. In fact our Ministry of Education to date has dis-encouraged clever academic students from taking information technology by making IT a technical course, like metalwork and soft fabrics, and simply teaching how to use Microsoft Word and email."

Computerworld asked Prime Minister John Key at the opening of Orion Health's new headquarters last year if it reflected badly on the New Zealand education system that companies are creating educational material because schools aren't providing it.

"I think what they're trying to do is to encourage and excite youngsters to see that there is a real opportunity in technology and IT," Key replied.

"It's quite standard for companies around the world to work with their education systems. I think we should celebrate it rather than be offended by it."

Catalyst IT

Catalyst IT has run an Open Source Academy, a two-week internship for senior high school students, for the past three years. Academy co-ordinator Ian Beardslee and Catalyst director Don Christie expressed slightly different views, when asked about the bootcamp concept.

Beardslee says bootcamps would have some success if they attracted post graduates -- people who had already demonstrated the ability to focus and learn.

He says the Academy is designed to inspire teenagers to take up technology careers. It's important to attract people to the profession who are excited about what technology can do, rather than what it pays, he adds.

"I'd hate to think that people starting off [in software developing careers] with the attitude of 'oh, lots of money' rather than being excited to be able to do amazing things with great people, and getting paid to do it," he says.

"For the industry to grow we need to be able to have people keen to grow with the industry rather than just look at it as a quick buck, a shortcut to riches."

Christie points out that there is a big difference between being able to write code and being a good developer. "There is a reason we used to be called analyst/programmer."

He says it's unlikely that someone graduating from a bootcamp-type course would earn $80,000 to $100,000 immediately (as was reported in the AP article).

"But coming to IT after a first degree has worked for a lot of people, being able to apply logic is the core skill required."

Christie says the purpose of Catalyst's Academy is to give students a grounding in computer science. "A good developer does need to know how the internet works, how databases are structured, and how queries are resolved (efficiently or not). That comes with education and experience."

The key to addressing the skill shortages is attracting more high school students to the industry, he says.

"New Zealand made a big mistake in the late 1990s by downgrading IT in the curriculum. I gather this is changing. We also need to work out why we have managed to be so off-putting to females as a sector with numbers falling over time. This is a shocking state and something that people (mostly men) seem unable to face up to or address."

Christie says it was encouraging that at the Open Source Academy this year the gender balance was equal. So was there a deliberate effort to attract more girls?

"We have put more emphasis talking to girls' colleges. But no boys were rejected. And all participants were very very good," he says.

* Tomorrow, in part two of this feature about software developer bootcamps, we seek the academic and industry view.

Disclosure of interest: Sarah Putt's daughter attended the Catalyst Open Source Academy in January this year.


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