Dev Bootcamp students attend a lecture on Active Record.

“Coding can be a very rewarding thing; if you have the opportunity any way to get there, get there.”

It’s 8:30 am, and apparently I’m late to class.

Students at Dev Bootcamp’s River North exposed brick and timber workspace are already quietly hard at work coding on a rainy Friday morning in June. Some worked on dual screens that populate desks stretching across the open workspace. Some typed away on laptops while slouched in beanbag chairs. I plopped down on a red floor couch next to several students discussing scraping Craigslist data.

Also, they’re all wearing pajamas.

“It’s pajama day,”  nonchalantly explained Leon Gersing, director of Dev Bootcamp Chicago, as he swished by in flowing yoga pants.

Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of coding bootcamps, where students dive headfirst into Ruby, Javascript, and software development through accelerated computer science programs with the aim of shaking up their life and gaining new skills in an industry desperately in need of workers.

The demand for software developers is expected to grow by 22 percent by 2022 according to the US Bureau of Labor (that’s double the average job demand growth rate). Coding bootcamps offer to take students from zero to junior developer within 12 to 20 weeks.

It’s an enticing offer, but one that navigates murky education waters. They aren’t accredited, and can cost upwards of $15,000 without the guaranteed promise of success. But students are rolling into coding bootcamps in higher numbers than ever before–this year coding bootcamp graduates are expected to increase 140 percent to over 16,000 graduates.

With this in mind, I embedded for a day at Dev Bootcamp, one of the country’s first code-specific bootcamps, to get an inside look at the day in the life in these new education institutions, and hear a bit about what those at the heart of this trend think about their experience. Dev Bootcamp began in San Francisco, and opened up a Chicago branch in 2013. Their focus is Ruby, (with a bit of JavaScript, HTML, SQL, and CSS)  and cultivating the human side of engineering.

Here’s what its like to spend a day at a coding bootcamp.

9:00 am: Quiet time is over

As students transition into the day and a morning workshop, the chatter picked up. Students stretched and leaned back. Guitar and ukelele chords float from a corner of the room strewn with hammocks.

There are two cohorts currently in phase 1 and 2 of the 19 week program (that includes nine weeks of pre-classroom instruction, nine weeks immersive classroom work, and an optional career readiness week). The official day lasts from about 8 am to 5 pm, but most students stay until 9 or 10 pm to finish up coding challenges. Instruction is comprised of online tutorials, lectures, and paired coding challenges. Each phase students gain more autonomy, and by the third phase they are largely working on projects that simulate life in the real world.

9:30 am: Active Record workshop

The Active Record workshop for the “Bumblebees” is underway (every cohort has a different, though always whimsical, nickname). Though this cohort of students was only three weeks into in-class instruction, they had a lively back and forth with the material and teacher. The instructor, Duke Greene, (who has on flannel pants, turquoise crocs, and a cloud patterned sheet tied around his neck) typed code into a computer projected in the front of the class. He talked through his process, asking questions as he goes: “What’s a

Students in the Active Record workshop talk through a problem.

deprecation warning again?” He cracked developer jokes: “That’s why programmers smoke– there are no errors on the pack, just warnings.” He dispensed encouragements: “The computer knows what it knows how to do, we just have to speak its language.”

Instruction is largely a flipped model, Greene said, where students watch a video or go through online instruction outside of class, give it a try on their own, then come to class with their questions and frustrations ready to be answered.

“The idea is that there is a difference between learning and memorization,” he said. “We shake people out of that habit, which can be devastating later as the pace of the curriculum picks up. We give people as many opportunities as possible to touch the code, get a little lost–with some guidelines– and have their own problem space in the lecture.”

There’s a lot of back and forth between students and Greene. None of the students have computers with them. Class responses were recorded on whiteboards and presented in front of the class. There’s laughter, blurted out questions, troubleshooting comments, and students helping other students. Greene, who had a background working in mental health services and music before coming to Dev Bootcamp, orchestrated the conversation.

“How completely cool does it feel to look at someone else’s code and not feel lost?”

“I try to foster that joke-y, laugh-y, loud environment because it’s this environment for safe conversation, and to expose myself as someone who is not a perfect coder,” he said. “I’m going to make mistakes, I’m going to make typos, we’re all in this together…to that extent, let’s not avoid errors.”

Greene was actually just where these students were only a year ago– he went through Dev Bootcamp in 2014, and found so much success he was hired on as an instructor the following fall (two of Dev Bootcamp’s seven instructors are junior teachers, and they are paired with senior instructors). He said he didn’t really enjoy traditional college, though he gave it a couple of tries. The human centered experience at Dev Bootcamp helped him “interrogate everything, not only what I didn’t know about code. But what I don’t know about myself.”

“It’s very easy to forget our humanity when we work with technology,” he said. “There’s an emotional reality you have to attend to as an instructor here, because otherwise you just drive people into despair because there is so much work to do, so fast, if you can’t find those moments of lightness and fun and exploration…the brain is just one part of that machine that is a developer.”

By the end of the two hour class, students were cheering at correct command outputs.

“How completely cool does it feel to look at someone else’s code and not feel lost?” asked Greene.

12:00 pm: Lunch and “engineering empathy”

A gong is rung and it’s time for lunch, and a talk about sexism. Yes. Sexism.

Ringing one of these gongs signifies different times throughout the day.

It’s part of Dev Bootcamp’s “engineering empathy” courses, which are six or so workshops taught throughout the usual coding curriculum, aimed at helping students with both the interpersonal and intrapersonal experiences that make up the non-coding side of being a developer. These include lessons on giving and receiving feedback, communication style, introverts vs. extroverts, and issues of “othering,” such as sexism, in the tech industry.

“The goal is give people tools that will make them better co-workers in our space and great team members when they join dev teams,” said Emily Heist Moss, marketing and community outreach manager at Dev Bootcamp.

This day’s session was actually a pre-session to the talk on sexism, with the goal of giving people a “safe space” to talk about questions they may have that could take a little extra time to work through. A recent Course Report study found the average student in one of the full-time programs is a US citizen, 29 years old, male and already holds a bachelor’s degree. Dev Bootcamp’s average cohorts are 25 to 30 percent women, though they recently graduated their first majority-women cohort.

“I think Dev Bootcamp does an awesome job at acknowledging the human side of the technology that we produce here and how real that human side is,” said Mari Galicer, a 20-year-old Dev Bootcamp student from San Francisco by way of New York City (she chose the Chicago location because she said there were less distractions).

A 17-year-old teaching intern, Isaac Moldofsky, zipped from group to group on an Airwheel troubleshooting issues.

“You feel that when you are pairing in a team environment, those team dynamics can either hinder or really propel your team forward,” she added. “I think acknowledging things like sexism, racism…and talking about feeling tension and feedback–all those things happen in the engineering empathy program and I think it makes everyone here a better developer.”

“There is no distinction between what you are learning and how you learn it, or what you feel when you learn it,” added Evangeline Garreau, a 25-year-old student from Boston (she also moved to the Chicago location due to fewer distractions). “They’re all one problem we are breaking up into parts. That’s such a radical way of thinking to me, based on my entire educational and working career up until this

Evangeline Garreau types while her group members talk through a coding challenge.

point.”

This isn’t Garreau’s first time working in startups– previously she worked at a tech startup in Boston, though in a more customer service oriented role. She never felt she really connected with their mission, but didn’t feel she had the skills to change positions. Coming to Dev Bootcamp was one of the first experiences she had in her life where she was so passionate about something, she valued it over sleep. “Week two I crashed pretty hard,” she laughed. “I had to find a balance. I was so unprepared for that. I never cared so much to really push myself that hard and discovering where my limit was based on how much I cared about it was terrifying, exciting, and kind of crazy.”

While she praised the engineering empathy aspect in Dev Bootcamp instructions, she also alluded to how she hopes this experience can help her find the human side of tech elsewhere.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do this was to have more flexibility to work for a company I really believe in,” she said.

Galicer, who is actually doing this course between her sophomore and junior years at New York University, had a similar sentiment.

“For our generation there is more of an awareness that if you are working eight hours per day, that’s a huge chunk of your life…you shouldn’t spend that time in zombie mode,” she said. “I want to work somewhere that is making a difference in the world…I think that when you have more tangible skills, like the ones we are learning here, you have more options.”

1:30 pm: Work time 

Another gong rings, and it’s off to the computers to complete coding challenges or finish up the previous day’s projects. Students largely

Teaching intern Isaac Moldofsky zips around the Dev Bootcamp floor on an AirWheel.

work in pairs or groups of four. A 17-year-old teaching intern, Isaac Moldofsky, zipped from group to group on an Airwheel troubleshooting issues.

Initially the room is filled with quiet murmurs, as students discuss their projects, map out ideas on whiteboards. One student usually writes code, as others add input or look up extra help. The tone is largely congenial, though you can feel points of contention throughout the room, as students disagree about certain paths to an outcome or how to work out a problem. But the tone is far more collaborative than you would imagine for students who are learning an entirely new skill with people they only met three to six weeks earlier.

“People who are highly motivated and are willing to put in the energy that is probably the biggest determinant of success here,” said Mike Busch, a lead instructor at Dev Bootcamp. “How much are you willing to put into this in order to change what you are doing quickly?”

Busch was one of the first instructors hired on when Dev Bootcamp opened its Chicago location in 2013, stepping down from a job as a software engineer at Groupon to join the then-fledgling bootcamp industry. As bootcamps have grown in prominence, popularity, and success rate, he’s seen a bit of change.

“Students come in with a bit higher expectations for what we can do for them, and what it means for the effort they put in,” he said. “But overall the culture and type of student hasn’t changed much. [It’s] people who are interested in changing their lives.”

Dev Bootcamp reports nearly 90 percent of grads get jobs in tech-related fields within six months, but the story behind those numbers is different in every market Busch pointed out. Whereas in San Francisco or New York City there may be more opportunities to get in at the ground up at a startup, in Chicago the jobs for junior developers are often at large enterprise companies.

“The way that technology is approached in the Midwest is different, and much more sustainable especially for junior people,” added

Students at Dev Bootcamp plan out a coding challenge before hitting the computers.

Busch. “There is a lot more emphasis on ‘we’re going to take people into our company and into our culture’ and they become the next midlevel people, then senior people.”

That isn’t to say some Midwest students don’t come in with startups on the mind. That’s the case for Nic Stelter, a 30-year-old student from Ann Arbor who decided to quit his job in finance to become a developer so he didn’t have to pay people to work on the pet project he had been working on for two years: SportsFactory.co, an app that aggregates tweets from sports teams.

“The developers I hired–they were people my age and doing something completely different than what I was doing,” he said. “I was working and wearing a suit everyday, and they were in blue jeans and t-shirts, and doing cool stuff. Through that process I decided to quit my job and go to a bootcamp.”

3:00 pm: App presentations with the Dragonflies

Some of that real world application began to be clearer as students in the “Dragonflies” cohort (in the second phase of the the bootcamp) showed off apps they developed over the previous 24 hours.

There’s Curatr, an app that pulls from Flickr to create online personalized “galleries.” There’s Honest Congress, which aggregates campaign finance data. Another student showed off an HTML5 Tom and Jerry game, the first of a website he hopes to populate with vintage games. Two students show off an app that displays the “mood” of a city through a graphical representation of tweets. Ideas also expanded beyond web: two students worked with the New York Times’ API to create a daily news digest of the day’s top headlines, sent

Ben Wootten tests out a daily news digest app that sends text updates to phones.

via text message to your smart phone.

One of the students who worked on the news app, Ben Wootten, a 26-year-old former physics graduate student, said the projects are what has really made the bootcamp experience.

“It’s been really hard, and a lot of work, but it’s also been very rewarding. Especially, this phase where we learn to use web development tools and actually make web apps…and push things out to Heroku,” he said. “So anyone with an Internet connection can see this app, which is really cool.”

“It’s a time warp,” added Joe Awad, 23, another member of the Dragonflies cohort who designed a site where you can search hockey player jersey numbers and other information. “If I am helping the phase one people I stop and think, wow this feels like forever ago and it seems so easy now. But I was struggling where they were three weeks ago.”

4:30 pm: The games begin.

After several weeks of immersing in code, students took a late afternoon break to play a game of Werewolf (also known as “Mafia”).

At this moment, Dev Bootcamp felt a bit like a summer camp (a feeling likely compounded by the fact everyone is sitting around on the floor in pajamas). But throughout the day it also felt like a coworking space, a college lecture hall, and a day-long hackathon. This amalgam of education and tech experiences begs the question: how do coding bootcamps fit into the education landscape?

It’s a question that has implications in tuition and accreditation.

Currently Dev Bootcamp Chicago runs $12,700 for the 19 week course, and students aren’t eligible for federal aid. Dev Bootcamp offers a $500 scholarship to students who are minorities or underrepresented in the field (including veterans, women, LGBTQ, transgender students) and has a Braintree sponsored fellowship program. Other than that, they suggest bank, investor, or peer-to-peer loans to help finance the costs.

That can lead to some tricky payment methods. Garreau, the student from Boston, found it difficult to get loans from traditional and local banks that she used before, so she cobbled together the payment through emptying her savings, a loan program called Vouch, an additional loan from a local bank, and a credit card to cover living expenses. She said she is very conscious of the need to find employment after financial acrobatics she performed to make it to Dev Bootcamp in the first place.

What exactly does that $12,700 get students in the end? The job placement numbers are impressive, to be sure, but sometimes new education experience be tough to translate to more traditional companies used to seeing bachelors and graduate degrees. Garreau said she heard from a fellow Dev Bootcamp graduate who scraped along for six months before landing an apprenticeship–a

Dev Bootcamp workspace.

typical training entry level position for junior developers. But Gersing, Dev Bootcamp’s director, said accreditation is tough given that the tech industry’s needs change so often. “That kind of standardization was what birthed this industry anyway.”

“We hold ourselves to a higher standard than any accreditation system,” he added. “The industry is still new that I wouldn’t trust any governing body to come in and tell us how to do it. We are still innovating on how the proper way to do that is.”

Not to mention, the development industry quickly weeds out those who aren’t prepared.

“Software is in this area that competence is generally demonstrated and demonstrated quickly,” Gersing said. 

5:00 pm: End of day

When I packed up to head out at 5:00 on Friday afternoon, the Werewolf game was still in full swing, while a few had drifted back to computers to continue some work.

A word I heard often throughout the day was “risk.” Some acknowledged the risk it took to quit their job, or move across the country. Instructors discussed the risk of giving up a solid industry job to teach. Others admitted the risk and reward of coding boot camps was what enticed them in the first place. The reward can be huge: the Bureau of Labor reports average salaries in the field range from $62,500 for a web developer to $93,350 for a software developer.

“Getting into coding can be a very rewarding thing,”  said Busch, the instructor who quit his job at Groupon to work at Dev Bootcamp. “If you have the opportunity any way to get there, get there.”