Programming boot camp uses retroactive payments to motivate instructors

By Hallie Zolkower-Kutz

Near the coast in San Francisco, a class of 30 twenty-somethings hunch over fully-loaded Mac computers, completing assignments for their free nine-week programming boot camp called App Academy.

The program, which started in summer 2012, doesn’t remain free, however. The students may complete an App Academy session for a $3,000 refundable placeholder fee, provided they pay 15 percent of their first year’s salary once they get a job in the field, according to founder Kush Patel, a University of Chicago alumnus. This payment structure has been so successful that App Academy is expanding to New York in April, Patel said.

Patel said the entire App Academy team is excited about its unique payment structure, which he said puts financial pressure on instructors rather than students.

“I think it puts pressure on people in a good way,” he said. “It says, ‘Hey, I have to teach these people properly because the company would shut down if we don’t.'”

Patel said the pricing also opens up a completely different risk model for students. Other programming boot camps, such as Dev Bootcamp, also located in San Francisco, can cost around $12,000 for the same type and length of instruction, which about equates to what the average students pays for App Academy once they land a job, according to Patel.

Students generally get a job within four weeks of graduating, and their average starting salary is a little more than $80,000 a year, Patel said. Of the first class of students who have graduated, 93 percent of the 19-student class, have found jobs, some at companies like Facebook and Silicon VAlley start-ups, according to Patel.

Rose Auravide, an alumna of the summer 2012 class, managed to get a job at Zendesk, maker of cloud-based customer service software, only a month after finishing the program.

“Within a couple weeks I was already doing contract work,” she said. “A few weeks after that, I started running into other people in meetups and things around San Francisco, so only a couple weeks after that I decided to give up contracting and work full-time [at Zendesk].”

The programming and software design industries are teeming with jobs, according to Janell Baxter, associate chair of Columbia’s Interactive Arts and Media program.

Baxter said many companies are looking for people to build their online presence, design customized software or streamline their businesses, and programming knowledge is essential in providing that to prospective employers.

She also mentioned, however, that learning to program while gaining proficiency in other creative areas can be the best way to learn, and App Academy is providing a very different experience by focusing solely on programming.

“For a student that is really passionate about storytelling, if they find that programming can make their story come alive, [then] all of a sudden programming is fun and much easier to learn,” she said.

Baxter said Columbia incorporates art and science concepts into programming, teaching students by having them create programming pieces with content and substance related to their major.

She said more robust programs that teach students to code, such as Columbia’s, may be better for students who have not yet obtained a degree because it combines the technical aspect of programming with content, like gaming, to keep it relevant.

Auravide said she created several projects during her time at the academy.

“I made a mobile app for checking in with your mood by location, kind of like Foursquare,” she said. “You can send in a little [emoticon] and see all of them spread out on a map.”

Baxter said a short boot camp, such as App Academy, might be better for people who are switching careers or looking to brush up on coding because programming is such a vast field that it cannot be taught in such a short time.

“Programming is one of those fields that can be going deeper and deeper, and you don’t know what you don’t know until you come across it,” Baxter said. “I know a lot of companies will ask for someone with 3–7 years of experience because a lot of times it just takes years before you really feel comfortable and know what it means to be an agile programmer.”

App Academy students are mostly college graduates or career switchers, and the average age is 28, according to Patel. He said those looking to change careers often enroll in the academy with degrees in fields like biology, math and philosophy.

The academy’s student acceptance rate is a little below 10 percent, according to Patel, making it extremely competitive. He said App Academy must have a high admissions standard if it is going to invest so much time in a student.

App Academy has been successful so far, but it is only in its beginning stages, Patel said.

“There’s a demand for students and it looks promising, but it’s still a traditional startup in that we don’t know what will happen yet,” he said.