There’s been a lot written lately about the dearth of engineering talent in Silicon Valley as tech companies continue to fuel demand for coding professionals. One of the consequences of this talent shortage is the increasing popularity of “hack schools,” which are basically the 21st century equivalent of vocational training for anyone (no prior coding experience required!) to learn the basics of software development in a matter of a few weeks.
Courses like DevBootcamp and HackReactor charge around $10,000 per session (it varies by school), bringing in new classes of eager students hoping to begin a new career in technology every few weeks. Much of the appeal comes from the fact that these programs tout very high job placement rates with salaries reaching into the six-figures.
The accelerated programs flaunt the fact that their graduates land coding jobs at such highly-sought after tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, earning high salaries with only about three months of coding experience under their belt.
But what’s less often discussed is that these hack schools are operating under the assumption that tech companies’ enormous demand for coding talent will be insatiable for the foreseeable future. Most of these businesses (they’re not formally accredited educational institutions) have cropped up in the past couple years, when the demand for tech talent has been growing. They have yet to be tested against a down economy, for instance, when the case for having a formal, four-year degree in software engineering is especially strong.
Obtaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree in computer science, or any other subject for that matter, is of course, a huge investment of resources and time as well. But there’s something to be said for dedicating more than just a few months of your life to learning the intricacies of your craft. And to be eligible for the majority of good jobs on the market today, a bachelor’s degree is the very minimum qualification required to succeed.
A formal degree helps you establish the fundamental building blocks to help solve really basic technical problems across a spectrum of platforms, not just mobile apps or one programming language. With a solid CS background, a programmer can learn any language quickly because they’ve got a strong theoretical framework in place.
Another big consideration is one’s future career path as they progress past the entry-level coding jobs. Hack schools might do a good job of getting people into entry level gigs when the market is hot, but what happens beyond that? Programming is just one aspect of computer science. My CS degree prepared me for both technical and non-technical challenges such as developing system requirements, designing scalable web architecture, hiring and managing engineers and ultimately building a software company.
Granted, not everyone aspires to start a company, but even management opportunities within large organizations are far and few between. Software managers typically oversee very large teams, so promotion opportunities are generally given to those who have more experience across a range of platforms, not just one language or platform. Your chances aren’t great if your best credentials are a nine-week accelerated coding program.
Investing in a formal education in computer science also exposes students to a wider variety of applications for programming and web development, allowing for specialization in health or biomedical sectors, for example. Jobs in more specialized areas, especially in the hard sciences, are generally less vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the economy like other more basic programming jobs.
That’s not to say there is no value in hack schools. Hack school might be a great option for you (albeit still an expensive one) if you are looking to change careers, and enrolling in one of these programs is one way of exploring your interest and talent in coding in a highly structured, regimented environment. As with most things, you’ll get out of a hack school what you put in. Your coding can’t stop when you leave the classroom. Great engineers make a hobby out of their work, learning new languages, exploring new technologies and participating in tech forums and events every chance they get. Regardless how you start, it is hard to argue with the fact that it takes some formal education plus years of hard work and practice to become an excellent engineer. And only excellent engineers will weather the ups and downs of the often-turbulent tech job market and improve their chances of accelerating their career to boot.