Ammar Mian

The Rise and Fall of the Coding Bootcamp

On 5th and Market Streets in San Francisco, up on the sixth floor of the corner building, forty disciples commenced the morning ritual. They leaned over their brushed steel Macbooks and contemplated their deity, the Almighty Algorithm, al-Khwarizmi.

Given a string s of n characters, where n is an integer greater than zero, determine whether s is “balanced”.

A string is “balanced” if all parentheses found within are properly formed. That is: every left parentheses has a corresponding right parentheses; a left parentheses must always precede a right parentheses.

These disciples, through their gritted coffee-stained teeth, obediently considered the puzzle, for a balance in parentheses implies a balance in us all, in the fabric of computing and in the fabric of life.

Some pondered in quiet reflection, while others frantically scribbled and click-clacked, all of us offering our humble candidate solutions for consideration. On the street below, a wandering soul performed his own morning ritual, the insertion of syringe in arm and the accompanying spiritual payload.

Creative Destruction

History is a continuous process of creation and destruction. The guardians, tools, abstractions, and forms of meaning of yesterday cling on for dear life, pulled to their graves by different arrangements and configurations of the same. “This is how the Cycle turns,” wrote lawyer-technologist Tim Wu in The Master Switch:

Bell’s telephone promised not improvement of the telegraph industry, but rather its annihilation.

We are all the perpetrators and the victims, and our lives often reduce to the question of “What are we running from?”

What were these forty disciplines running from? We began our mornings unwittingly turning the Cycle of our own histories. We were here to annihilate ourselves -- former lawyers, bankers, management consultants, bartenders, dropouts, felons, teachers -- wandering souls in search of renewal.

The coding bootcamp world grabbed me with its promise of change and the opportunity to live on the frontier. Those first couple weeks in San Francisco were brutal. Every day consisted of a highly-orchestrated sprint from lecture to project to lecture to project, these epicycles reverse engineered from the job descriptions of Silicon Valley’s talent-starved tech startups. The proliferation of new Web development technologies like Rails and NodeJS, coupled with the rapid redeployment of venture capital into the technology industry, meant the tech frontier was open (again).

We remained busy, we forty disciples, trusting this quirky machine to pull the New Us out of its combustive efforts. On a Tuesday evening, after a particularly grueling series of modules, the Student Outcomes director sat us down for a talk.

“You are all here for a reason,” he told us. “You would not be here if we didn’t think you had it in you to succeed.” The director, a skinny Indian man a few years older than me, went on:

You may feel like an imposter, and you may feel that you are not cut out for this line of work. But mark my words, all of you will have jobs at the end of this. You are not junior engineers. You should be proudly applying for mid-level and, in some cases, senior-level jobs.

As the director continued his rallying cry, we grew increasingly excited by his promises and the data he presented as evidence. Google, Uber, Yelp, Paypal. Six-figure starting salaries, equity, signing bonuses, and perks. All from 700 hours, 14 weeks, and $20k.

I wasn’t convinced.

The Unending Path

I had read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in high school. In this classic novel, Hesse tells the story of Siddhartha, the young prince who leaves behind a life of luxury and nobility, thirsting for something that pulled him. Accompanied by his loyal friend Govinda, Siddhartha becomes a samana, an itinerant ascetic, eschewing all worldly comforts to contemplate and meditate.

After years of asceticism, they encounter Gotama -- the Buddha, the Sublime One. Legend had it that Gotama had attained Nirvana, and thus everywhere he went he gained new worshippers and disciples.

Govinda, captivated by the Buddha’s cosmic essence, immediately decided to become his disciple. He urged and pleaded and implored his friend Siddhartha to join, that this is what they both had been seeking -- enlightenment, meaning, the One Thing.

Yet Siddhartha was not satisfied. As the two old friends parted ways, Siddhartha thought:

The Buddha has robbed me. He has robbed me of my friend, who used to believe in me and now believes in him, who used to be my shadow and is now Gotama’s shadow. But he has bestowed on me Siddhartha, myself.

Utopia on Market Street

As the technopagan Gotama standing before me spoke with ease and confidence, I felt much of the room fill with the dreams of Utopia. Many of us were convinced that this was it, that what we had been running from had been vanquished and what were looking for was right in front of us.

Yet I sensed a few other souls like feel the nagging dissatisfaction that the road did not end here. In this Utopia I sat in, I was surrounded by disciples seeking quick annihilation and renewal, who had brought their old tendencies from their previous lives into the room.

As the bootcamp progressed at breakneck speed, the aims of the disciples bifurcated just as quickly. Many continued to gobble up the linear sequence of projects and lectures, thirsting forever for someone to hand them a specific task list of things to learn. Some of us questioned this whole arrangement, knowing that such a hunger would leave us malnourished.

Almost all of us would leave the bootcamp gainfully employed and extremely well-remunerated. Yet the valley between the two groups couldn’t have been more vast.

Later, a mentor articulated this distinction:

Type 1 engineers find ways to learn computer science in depth, whether through conventional means or by relentlessly learning throughout their careers.

Type 2 engineers typically stay at the surface, learning specific tools and technologies rather than their underlying foundations, only picking up new skills when the winds of technical fashion change.

Lessons from Past Utopias

Over the past two years, a handful of high-profile bootcamps have shuttered their doors. It turns out that the demand for Type 1 engineers is far higher than the demand for Type 2 engineers.

Guess what? This has happened before! RethinkDB founder Slava Akhmechet wrote about this in Learn How to Code Like It’s 1996:

The U.S. was in the middle of the dot-com boom, and the Russian immigrant community in New York felt it. Dozens of trade schools offered computer programming courses for the new immigrants in anything from AS/400 to Fortran to Visual Basic, all paid for by government agencies. … Why drive a limo all day, if you could learn to program computers?

By 2000 the whole thing went bust. Most people taking these courses never managed to get a job, and everyone found out soon enough. Most of the few people that did manage to get jobs lost them after the dot-com crash. …

I don’t know what it means for today’s learn to code movement, or whether there are any useful parallels to be drawn from its 1996 counterpart. In many ways today’s movement feels similar, but there are many crucial ways in which it’s different. All I know is that my uncle is one of the very few people who are to this day making a living programming the IBM AS/400.

The bootcamp world as I have experienced it is a beautiful place. It is a microcosm for all the reasons people take large risks to run from their pasts and sprint towards some undefined future.

But even in this frontier of technology and education, you will witness many quickly choosing a comfortable hill to settle on. They revert to the old habits from their previous lives, that of seeking quick fixes, linear pathways to goals, life hacks, and gurus. They end their journey just as it has begun. And then they find themselves back in that same familiar position of not knowing how they ended up where they did.

There is a gap between a process that has begun and a process that continues. And so maybe the mystics were right all along; the frontier is always open to those who seek it.

March 2018