At the beginning of last year I took the train out to rural Bedfordshire to visit a beautiful old water mill which has been converted into an intensive live-in bootcamp for coders. The setting was glorious, it had plenty of industry links and the promise, for attendees, was decent, well-paid employment at the end of it all.
“I don’t think my computer degree got me anywhere,” Dan Garland Founder of We’ve Got Coders explained to me at the time. “After a three year degree I was flailing around. I would have got where I am quicker with [something like this]. And the [university] tuition fees [today] make it unworkable.”
The debate between the merits of degrees vs. hands-on vocational training is not a new one. Yet as each year education becomes more expensive, in the UK at least, and as technological change picks up ever more pace, you can see how it has gained relevance.
Indeed, at the start of August the Wall Street Journal ran a piece entitled “Coding Boot Camps Attract Tech Companies”. This focused on New York’s Flatiron School and looked at how employers are increasingly hiring graduates from non-traditional educational backgrounds.
This trend is the same everywhere. Hired – an online UK recruitment platform for tech roles – recently released research which showed that while developers are a highly educated group with 74% having an undergraduate degree or higher, compared to around 42% of the UK population, the numbers studying for a computer science degree have fallen by about 10,000 since 2002. It suggested this was because of the sheer volume of individuals who opted for bootcamps or self-study rather than formal training.
But are the two really comparable? After all, as Martyn Ruks, Technical Director of MWR InfoSecurity points out: “A computer science degree and a coding bootcamp are clearly very different and depending on what they include will test and communicate different things.”
Richard Rolfe, Co-Founder of National Coding Week adds: “A good university degree in computer science can open up a different world to those who opt for a bootcamp education. But there is an undeniable place for bootcamps especially for entrepreneurs and self-starters, as these courses can really help them to hit the ground running.”
Jack Wearden, a Developer at invoicing solution DueCourse quantifies: “Coding bootcamps beat Computer Science degrees when it comes to preparing people for day-to-day life in software development jobs.
“Where that contrasts with a computer science degree is the breadth of the knowledge taught. While computer science degrees often lag behind in the technologies that students learn – and to graduates initial frustration, not all of what they learn is directly transferrable to industry – what gives degrees their edge is the number of topics that students will learn, often taught by the people leading research in those areas. It's perfectly normal for an undergraduate to walk from one lecture about artificial intelligence, into another about mathematical proofs, and into another about computer security.”
This is the nub of the argument for each. But how does it apply in practice when things are changing so rapidly and it is so hard for individuals and businesses to acquire the best skills to succeed?
“The idea of a 'T-shaped engineer' comes up often,” says Wearden. “The idea that a successful programmer might have a broad base of knowledge to a shallow level, but a deep understanding of one or two particular fields. Bootcamps definitely give you more of the depth factor, but teach it without the breadth you might get at a university. That said, degrees allow you to get a grounding across many fields, but with a degree and no industry experience you'd rarely get the skills you'd need to jump into anything higher than a graduate scheme. Companies who hire graduates often invest in training them in the skills that university doesn't, and by its nature, maybe couldn't, teach.”
Because of this, Mark Armstrong, VP and Managing Director EMEA, Progress believes: “It shouldn’t be a case of one or the other. Coding initiatives can complement any traditional IT education and boost students’ professional development. They are a great jumping off point for people that want to refresh and build on their coding skills, for those who are just starting from a young age, as well as for professionals looking to move into new roles.”
John Wright, Recruitment Manager at Scott Logic agrees: “There is a place for both, and for any company hiring software engineers, the most important thing is finding the right mutual fit. As initiatives like these bootcamps grow in number, it will be interesting to see if traditional computer science degrees evolve to keep up with the ever increasing demand for software developers.”
Yet this is part of the problem. The world of academia moves at a glacial pace compared to commercial bootcamps which can adapt extremely rapidly. And this alone highlights a fundamental difference. Training to be a ‘computer scientist’ is a far vaguer concept than learning to code – it is part and parcel of the wider argument around a solid education – which extends far beyond the narrow confines of IT.
“If a CV came across my desk that said they had attended a bootcamp course, it would go straight in the bin,” says Mark Murphy, CTO of Excell Group.
“The main problem with these sort of bootcamps is that they cram a mass amount of information into an eight-week period so that students (who are often recent graduates or school leavers just trying to get ahead and paying extortionate sums for these camps) can pass an exam. Code and tech are more than just memorising methods; code is a language, in order to master it you have to think in the syntax of code – and this requires experience that you just cannot get over an intensive course.
“I would indeed hire someone with a computer science degree,” he adds “it gives a great overview of tech, enabling you to explore what your interests are, and therefore how to specialise in that field.”
Jonathan Channing, who has autism, didn’t get on with conventional schooling but found he loved to code. He takes the opposing view.
“The learning progress differs from university cutting out all the irrelevant teachings, just focusing on what you need to be in the position you want to be in. People seem to have these preconceived notions of needing a formal education to be in their industry. However this could not be further from the truth as many employers will not ask for a list of qualifications and grades. They merely want proof of concept, something that demonstrates skill and the ability and drive to learn further skills.”
In the end this is not a question that will ever find a definitive answer and is likely to rage, in one form or another, for centuries to come. On the most practical level though it just depends what candidates and employees are looking to achieve. And anyway this isn’t the be-all and end-all of everything. As Jon Silvera the MD of FUZE Technologies – which runs coding workshops for children – puts it: “When personally looking for programmers, education is lowest on my criteria.”
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