UK: Is a 'coding retreat' better than a computing degree?

We visit the UK’s first live-in web development training and work experience programme

It is a grey, dank day as the car pulls off the main road and into lush private grounds flanked by a river and lined with trees. As the vehicle eases to a stop outside the old mill building Dan Garland, founder of We’ve Got Coders jumps out of the driver’s seat and runs off to teach his 2.30pm class, leaving Kin Bang the community manager to show me round.

It is an idyllic setting and inside the kitchen a lady stands at the workstation peeling potatoes: “She does amazing food,” says Bang with enthusiasm. “One of the people on the course hates vegetables… and still loved the broccoli soup at lunch….” Such are the joys of having an onsite-chef who prepares all the meals.

Dubbed as the “UK’s only coding retreat”, this is a 12-week training camp located deep in the Bedfordshire countryside - about 50-minues by train out of London. The facilities cater for a maximum of nine attendees who can live-in to “eat, sleep and breathe” code. At the end of this period of intensive study they get to pitch what they’ve learnt to a group of We Got Coders’ clients and are pretty much guaranteed a job.

It all sounds rather excellent and so I must admit my first reaction was scepticism. The pictures look too beautiful. The benefits are too well articulated. And you could do a checklist of training advantages with your hands that would leave you feeling like you’ve swallowed a commercial ‘copy pack’. So, is all this just a rather sophisticated way to rinse people of their hard earned cash?

The cost is £7000 ($10,560) for the training, which is a significant amount of money, but not exorbitant if it definitely leads to well-paid employment. (The average coder earns £47,500 ($71,000) per annum according to Total Jobs and Garland says some people start on £35,000 or $52,708.)

Accommodation is additional to this and comes in at £150 ($226) per week, with all meals and laundry included. This is pretty decent and certainly a lot cheaper than attempting to stay anywhere in London where you would be extremely lucky to get a pokey room for anywhere near this price.

The whole thing was launched by Garland who says “I’m roughly paying the same here as I was for a [tiny] office space in London. To get this there I would have to pay a couple of million just on rent. This is 8,500 square feet.” Bang (who is the only full time employee) and Garland scoured the country to find the perfect cost-effective space.

This translates directly to course attendees because the house and grounds are indeed magnificent. As Bang gives me the tour, I’m amazed by how they just keep on going. The original nineteenth century mill building blends seamlessly into the newer one and the whole complex includes several informal eating and sitting areas, a games room, vast hotel-like bedrooms (most of which come with en-suite bathroom) and even an outdoor barn area for ping pong and darts.

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It feels big, light and roomy, and when we eventually reach the classroom where Garland is teaching, this is just as lovely as everywhere else, with the attendees arranged on big sofas with laptops on their knees.

Garland is keen to stress this is just like a job though and this is precisely what makes it different from the competition. The teaching hours are 9am till 6pm and there is plenty of study outside class. The aim is to provide an environment where Garland is available at any point to help and where there no distractions from the important business of learning to code.

This should be a place people can come from anywhere in the country and provide the necessary stepping stone to getting a job in London. “I can’t just look in London for people with a few quid in their pockets,” says Garland. “These are barriers that London presents.”

Ultimately though, this is for people who really want to be coders. Many are going through a career change. All will have put significant amounts of their own time in in advance. “There are only four students [on this intake],” says Bang and “we take on about 10% of applicants”.

In fact, the submission process is tough. She estimates the principle part takes 50–60 hours followed by a “programme challenge” which takes around 8–16 hours. It is for people who really want to learn a skill, have had a go themselves, and realise they need someone to show them how to take it to the next level and make them employable.

It is the polar opposite of doing a degree, but like a degree it requires a significant level of commitment… and the real aim is to make people more employable.

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Is a computer science degree a waste of time?

In the past, in the UK at least, doing a degree used to be a kind of rite of passage (albeit mostly for middle class people). Getting qualified was free and anyone could get a full grant which covered their full living costs. Yet gradually over the past 18 years this has changed and loans and tuition fees have arrived in their place. At present the UK university system is providing public service level tuitions for private sector prices.   

“I don’t think my computer degree got me anywhere,” says Garland who graduated 10 years ago. “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.”

In fact, 2014 graduates emerge with an average £44,000 ($66,000) in debt. This is a large amount of money, far more than many relatively skilled, experienced professionals earn. And it is precisely because of this wider issue that I am extremely interested in this initiative – and others like it.

The vast majority of people who undertake this programme are career changers, “We’ve even rescued one from the law profession,” says Garland gleefully. Yet Dan Steele is only 19 and swapped his childhood ambition to be a pilot because he “fell in love with coding” during one summer job. Once he knew he wanted to work in IT he got a job as a developer for one year in a database company but when he applied for a step-up role in a similar company he realised he urgently needed more training.

“Forget the answer,” he says about a job interview he attended, “I didn’t know what the question meant.” It never occurred to him to do a degree; “I didn’t need the theory” that a computer science degree offers, he says, especially as “I’d quite likely be not that employable” afterwards.

This same trend emerges in numerous other professions. When we ran a series of articles on our sister marketing publication about the relevance of marketing degrees the reaction was ridiculously strong. And you could certainly apply the same rules to journalism.[image_library_tag 138a7e4b-a61a-4f9b-95ba-e387fbcbd4fe 620x354 alt="view-of-house" title="view-of-house" width="620" height="354"class="center "]

The rise of job-ready vocational training?

The trouble is many jobs present a bizarre catch-22 where irrespective of your on-paper qualifications, you need experience to get employed… and it is impossible to get employed unless you have experience. We’ve covered skills a lot on this site over the years and it always attracts strong views.  

Garland believes the need for decent training is intensifying many of these issues. Few of our clients “want to see a CV” anymore he explains. Some of them will say “send us these two and we will go for a coffee and pick the one we like best” while many are “hiring freelancers” and then selecting the ones that deliver.

The real trick with good vocational training though is to give people the chance to gain all the skills they need to thrive in a real working environment. As a developer you need to be able to “walk through the code and fight your corner” too says Garland. He believes the old cliché about technical people who just sit in the corner and don’t communicate is simply not true anymore. You need to be able to hit the ground running and justify yourself.

“We don’t want to solve the coding literacy problem,” says Garland “companies just need young blood to deliver frontline code.” In this Garland sees the biggest benefit he offers as mentoring and likens it to the Open Source community: “what you put in, you get back”.

It certainly is a very good idea. And as I make my way back through the lovely rooms complete with stunning river views to get my lift back to the station, I can’t help feeling it offers a pretty impressive package for the right candidates.

But above all this seems to mark a trend as more and more training seems likely go in this type of direction. When people put their own money down they need to gain the right skills to really get a job. And as Garland succinctly points out: “there has never been a better time to code”.