Hacking Hack Schools To Make Them Work

The claims of Silicon Valley and Alley coding schools spawning six-figure-salary-nabbing ninjas are often overblown. But these two schools have a mellower–and successful–antidote for the hype.


Free puppies! Conference room ping pong! Nap pods!


Tales of perks and beer-and-Red Bull-soaked hackathons aside, the truth is that demand for developers is growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded a little over 1 million software developer (1,018,000) jobs in 2012 and expect that number to grow 22% over the next decade. The average annual salary is just shy of $100,000.

So it’s little surprise that coding schools are popping up all over the country to fill the skills gap, while claiming to be able to teach anyone to code. In two to three months, depending on the program, graduates can, according to many schools, fast track their career in tech for a fraction of the cost of earning a computer science degree. Little or no experience required.

As Fast Company reported last month, the truth isn’t quite so tidy. Unfettered by the nonprofit status of higher education, hack schools are big business. Students invest between $3,000 and nearly $18,000 for eight to 10 weeks worth of training. Some never complete their programs. Others have to supplement their learning with online resources such as Codeacademy. Among graduates, some land better jobs while still others remain un- or under-employed.

Most of these schools are set squarely in tech-crackling environs of the Silicons: Valley and Alley. That’s perhaps why, Eric Dodds posits, the wild claims of spawning coding ninjas snapping up six-figure salaries continue to drive legions of hopefuls to claim their golden coding ticket. It’s the new Gold Rush.

“We try to paint a more accurate picture,” says the cofounder of the Iron Yard, a tech accelerator and coworking space in Greenville, SC. Dodds says the Iron Yard’s Academy, a relatively new program to teach coding eschews the “pretty typical Silicon Valley sensationalism” in favor of a realistic approach to student success.


The way he sees it, the skills gap is real and traditional computer science degrees can’t keep up for a simple reason: tech is changing too quickly. “We’ve seen this blinding pace first-hand in our JavaScript-based code school course,” he says. Technologies that aren’t polished enough to use in one semester have achieved stable releases before the next class starts in less than three months, Dodds explains. “Computer science professors at many universities are forced to perpetuate a system in which they are teaching old technologies and aren’t playing with new ones because of curriculum and testing requirements,” he observes.

At the Iron Yard, the Academy grew out of a need to support the startups coming out of its accelerator program. “The rate of adoption and experimentation–especially for startups– makes it essential that code educators vet new technologies and include them in curriculum so that students are trained in using the latest and greatest tools,” Dodds argues.  

“We have a very interesting approach to curriculum,” Dodds explains, “We don’t have a syllabus for the class, it’s topic based.” Academy instructors are free to move through lessons at the pace of the students–usually between 10 to 20 per class–and never use slides. “It’s all hands on,” says Dodds, “The teacher gets up and says ‘What do we want to build?’”

That goes for the professors, too. The Iron Yard allows them to take a month off with pay between courses to freelance, work on open-source projects, or do research to keep their competitive edge.

Though assignments are purposely left open to many interpretations, Dodds says instructors take time to work through different ways for students to build out their projects and discuss how to attack problems from different directions. This is just one of several soft skills that equip students to learn to take feedback, work collaboratively, and most important, “think like engineers.”


It also extends to resume writing and mock interviews to help students land jobs once they complete the course. Dodds says the Iron Yard Academy guarantees job placement and has made good on its word, placing those who wish to work at a company, rather than freelance, into a variety of positions both in South Carolina and other parts of the country. There is no payment for placement made by the student or business.

Thus far, the Iron Yard Academy has minted about 30 coders. Of those, Dodds says, one person elected to drop out early, another decided to pursue a graphic design track, and a small handful have determined they’d like to practice more before they start pounding the pavement. Dodds attributes this to the fact that students are heavily vetted before they are admitted to the program. Each must submit an online application and if selected, must then pass through several in-person interviews as well as a coding assignment. Of the one who quit, Dodds explains, “He said he really liked the idea of coding, but he just didn’t dig into it enough,” to understand the rigor of the day-to-day. “Everyone wants a great job at a cool company,” Dodds says, but students need to figure out whether writing JavaScript all day is going to send them to their happy place.

Alison Miller, a 26-year-old employee at a local media company, is among those recently placed. Miller was taking a class through Treehouse to help her work on her company’s website redesign, when she heard about the Iron Yard’s bootcamp. She quit her job and took the $7,500 plunge. “I was living with my boyfriend,” Miller explains, so she didn’t have to worry about rent. After completing the course, Miller interviewed with 10 companies and landed a job at a health benefits company, doubling her old salary. Six figures it isn’t, but Miller says she’s happy with the added income.

To encourage more women to try coding, the Academy started offering scholarships to female students. They’ve awarded two so far. “Applicants have to write an essay explaining how they will continue to invest in creating a tech environment that is more welcome to women in sustainable ways–so the idea is that scholarship recipients are expected to give back,” Dodds says.

Meanwhile, Aquent, a global staffing firm for marketing and design pros, has taken a hybrid approach to bridging the skills gap.


The company started a free, massive open online course (MOOC) program called Aquent Gymnasium last summer to both educate and place participants in hard-to-fill jobs. Working within its roster of Fortune 500 companies, Aquent identifies the most needed skills such as responsive web design and creates a course to teach them. It’s a win for the staffing firm because they are creating talent to fill jobs their partner recruiters are demanding.

Andrew Miller, program director for Aquent Gymnasium says the company has a history of providing training to design professionals, but their first foray into online-only learning was July of 2012. Aquent invested $50,000 to produce that course and Miller asserts the company’s gotten a 10-times return on that spending. That success led to the development of Gymnasium.

These courses typically cost Aquent about $150,000 to produce because they are longer. Miller says enrollments have ranged from 4,500 to over 12,000, but like Udacity and other MOOCs, completion rates are a little below 10%.

“Certainly, anyone can take our courses, but the coursework is not entry-level. They presume certain levels of prerequisite skill or knowledge,” says Miller. “Our primary audience is marketing and design professionals, and given our very practical focus, the courses are targeted to that audience,” he explains, “The syllabi are based on specific content and instruction that will prepare the student for work in real production environments.”

Students who score high on the pre-assessment quiz or final exam can choose to request representation by Aquent, Miller says. After that, students can receive help organizing their portfolio reviews, resumes, and interviewing skills.


Miller says there’s also plenty of free content on Aquent’s site. “Having been in the creative staffing business for over 27 years, we’ve got some good insights.” Students don’t have to pay to get counseling or to be placed in a job.

Of the tens of thousands initially enrolled in the courses, Miller says they’ve placed over 100 in jobs since last summer. “Some were previously employed, but were able to use the skills they learned through Gymnasium to move into new roles,” he says, “Others were looking for new employment opportunities.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.