Coding Academies Are Not Nonsense (for some people)

October 30, 2015

TechCrunch posted a clickbait-y article last week titled "Coding Academies Are Nonsense." My husband sent it to me a few days ago and I initially just rolled my eyes at it, but then kept thinking about the various parts I disagreed with and how I might deconstruct fine, a blog post.

tl;dr - If you're considering attending a code school (which I imagine is the intended audience of that TC post), read this ebook by my friend Katie instead: So You Want To Go To Code School

To start off with, here are some of the points in that article that I agree with!
  1. Code schools' marketing messages can be misleading ("instant employment, a salary big enough to afford a Tesla").
  2. A lot of what code schools do is that they find people who were already capable of learning to code on their own ("I take people that were always meant to be software engineers, and I rectify that mistake." -- one of my instructors at Hackbright)
  3. "Unlike human readers, computers cannot infer meaning from ambiguous text. So, to code, one must become very good at deconstructing problems into their most basic steps and spelling them out for the idiot box."
  4. "[Coding] is a skill that anyone with intelligence and determination can learn."
  5. There are many free resources on the internet, which you should at least try out on your own first.
  6. There are people who go to code school who could've done more ahead of time to see if it would be a good investment for them. (see this previous post, How do you know if you would like programming?)
  7. There are people who have successfully taught themselves enough coding to land jobs as developers.
  8. "The best education comes from years of practice and learning"

And now, for the points in the article that I think are incorrect or incomplete.

Fallacy #1: there are no additional benefits to attending a school for learning to code when you can learn for free
Counterpoints: benefits include social pressure to get yourself to do something you wanted to do already, guidance towards a particular curriculum, and faster learning from having concentrated help

Before I went to Hackbright, I had taken a couple part-time night programming classes and never felt like they really stuck with me such that I could move beyond the classroom exercises. A big part of it was that I have many other interesting, enjoyable interests competing for my attention, and since I didn't need to code for my dayjob, I didn't have to keep progressing there. And my previous career was good enough in many ways, in terms of the people I got to work with and the pay.

Career-wise, I wanted more, but I also needed help to achieve it. So a huge part of why I took a sabbatical and attended the program was that the discipline and focus needed to move forward quickly would be imposed on me. It's not unreasonable to pay other people to impose social pressure on you to keep showing up; that's a large part of why people work with personal trainers and such, right? You could go to the gym and work out on your own, because if left to your own devices, you just don't, but by spending money you could make it happen, why not? Is a person who's only fit because they pay a personal trainer for help, any less fit than someone who does it on their own? That attitude sounds like "only the accomplishments you achieve on your own are worthwhile" to me.

Another big benefit in learning to code in a school environment is access to other people (instructors, TAs, peers) that guide you along a particular curriculum, are familiar with your progress so far and can untangle your muddled questions to guide you to figuring out the answer. The article even mentions this:
"In more than 20 years of personal experience with coding...I’ve noticed that the vast majority of folks hit a wall early in the process."
You could find a technical mentor who might help you with this, but will they be there for 40+ hours a week? Are they experienced with teaching someone from your background? Do you know what the next thing you should learn is (a surprisingly decent, but probably still overwhelming chart for this), or will you flounder around and try dozens of "Intro to ____" tutorials? Or you could try asking the internet, and then possibly get yelled at by strangers for posting a duplicate question, only you didn't know that previous answer existed there, because you didn't know the right words to look for, and then maybe they just give you the answer without caring all that much about how to teach you so you learn in the future. 

In a good code school environment, you can use that help to keep building positive forward momentum until you've had just enough successes to become addicted to that high when you solve the puzzle, as well as the confidence that given enough time/effort/help from others, you are capable of finding an answer to the mystery and bend that stupid computer to do your will.

Fallacy #2: code schools are only about learning to code
Counterpoints: you can also get access to a hiring network, possibly a feeling of legitimacy from going through an "official" program

A large part of the value that a code school offers is its network of partner hiring companies that they introduce their graduates to. Ideally, these companies have tempered their expectations for candidates from this source versus other recruiting avenues.

I've also talked to people who learned a fair amount on their own, but felt like they had to "prove" the legitimacy of their knowledge by going through a program first, in order to open up those networking doors. This reasoning for going to a code school does seem a bit risky to me for the money involved, so I usually counsel against it, but I know of people for whom this strategy worked. You can't separate their eventual success in meeting their goal (landing a developer job) and determine whether their going to a code school was a cause or a mere correlation, but hey, they achieved their goal.

Fallacy #3: the end result of attending code school is becoming a "full-fledged programmer"
Counterpoint: the end result is a demonstration of your aptitude and capacity for learning a lot of technical information in a short period of time
"In 20+ years of professional coding, I’ve never seen someone go from novice to full-fledged programmer in a matter of weeks"
My biggest piece of advice for code school graduates interviewing with companies is that you should be completely open about how aware you are of all the things that you don't know, but the reason they should consider hiring you is that you've shown that you're really, really good at learning. If they want proof of your tenacity, then surviving the intense environment of a code school should qualify as supporting evidence, much like coding on the side for years and years would be.

Fallacy #4: you can only get a job as a developer after getting the "best education" from years of practice and learning
Counterpoints: whatever you spent your time on when you weren't learning to code can probably still be applied in some way, plus companies hire code school graduates on their potential

A hesitation I had before switching careers was that I felt like I was throwing away the career that I'd built before and just starting over entirely, but then I learned that there were plenty of ways that previous skills I'd developed still translated over. My Biology degree? Running experiments to test hypotheses I have about my code. My technical troubleshooting customer service job? Hunting down bugs, and understanding what customers say. And so forth.

So, no matter how junior a developer you are, there are still ways for you to contribute. If there weren't any expected value, then companies wouldn't make offers, that'd be bad for business. One my favorite quotes from the talk I gave on being a better junior developer is from my friend Katie M: 
"No one comes out of their mama's womb knowing how to code." 
Everyone starts somewhere. And getting paid to learn stuff (by spending a lot of time asking questions and looking things up on the internet) is basically the true description of what a modern-day developer does. If you end up arriving at that "best" education some day, great! I hope you've gotten promoted and are well-compensated for it! But "not there yet" is not the same as "this is all nonsense."

Fallacy #5: only people who are sufficiently motivated/passionate/capable of learning on their own can become true programmers
Counterpoint: how you learn to code and your motivations for doing it are largely irrelevant
"Most people don’t find coding enthralling or interesting enough to continue to pursue it as a career."
"But programmers are a natural resource. Only so many people have the will and ability to do it."
 If I could just tack on a "entirely on their own" to those statements, it'd be fine. But just because some people have found success after years of learning at night, working on projects on the weekends, doesn't mean that everyone else who missed out on getting a Computer Science degree or tinkering in high school has to follow the same path. Who cares? Sure, there's something to be said for how the top 1% of programming skill is probably more achievable if you spend all your spare time thinking about it because you love it so much but...there's nothing saying that you have to be in the top 1%.

I love this post on The Moderately Enthusiastic Programmer from Avdi Grimm:
Even more problematic to me is the idea of being passionate about a product. I care about doing good work, certainly. I take great personal and professional pride in it. But am I really expected to be passionate about something I’ve been hired to help build? Do we fire members of construction crews if they don’t show a strong enough emotional attachment to the office complex they are building? Do we even fire architects for that offense?
There is a part of me that is genuinely fearful of the effect on my future hire-ability, when I admit the following: no, I will not be passionate about your product. I will be professional about it. I may even be excited about it, if it happens to be something that I think is neat-o cool. I may have a ton of fun building it. But that doesn’t really matter. You’re not hiring a Juliet to your project’s Romeo. In the final analysis, you’re exchanging goods for services.
After all, to quote the article:
"There’s a dearth of skilled coders"
Questionable prediction about the future
"Coding skills will continue to be in high demand until technology for software creation without code disrupts the entire party, crowding out programming as a viable profession." 
I'm a little skeptical about that claim, but regardless of its truth, if in the meantime before that happens, you can still get yourself to a better and more fulfilling job than what you might've had before, there doesn't seem to be a ton of opportunity cost here to me.


I really enjoy my job as a developer, and I am forever grateful for having been able to switch careers into it. Before learning about code schools, I didn't even know it was a possibility, outside of spending years and many more dollars going back to school, or giving myself a second full-time job, neither of which I was going to do. As a result, one of the things I really can consider a "passion" now is working to break down those barriers of entry into this field. It's a wonderful, stimulating, and cushy life! (if your tech job isn't, talk to me about joining New Relic) Just because you didn't choose to attend college and major in Computer Science when you were a teenager doesn't mean that it can't happen for you!

I understand that that's pretty hard for a lot of experienced developers to swallow. Some of it is the common tendency for people to believe more strongly that the way they did things was the right way (see: med schools making students pay for the privilege of working many hours on little sleep, all hazing rituals ever, etc.). Some senior programmers may be frustrated by the amount of help the newbies need to get going, and code schools cause there to be more newbies on the job market. I also think some people intuitively sense that having a greater supply will decrease the status and compensation for existing programmers, even if no one admits that out loud.

But ultimately, people are capable of making their own decisions, and I support having many alternative pathways to entry. If you are considering going to a code school, I strongly recommend buying a copy of this ebook by Katie Leonard, So You Want To Go To Code School. She's a friend and co-worker of mine, and I gave her feedback on early drafts, but I don't get any commission from her sales or anything. It's the best compendium of pros/cons/points of consideration that I've come across and it's not put out by a code school, so it's as unbiased but still useful as you'll be able to get.