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The great demand for skilled software developers has led to the launch of more than 300 so called Coding Bootcamps in the last years, mainly in the US but also worldwide. The promise of these camps sounds tempting, but what lies behind it? Will these bootcamps soon replace entire study programs?

“Learn software development in 12 weeks and kickstart your career as a successful programmer.” – many bootcamps advertise their programs with this appealing promise.

Many Camps don’t even charge a fee upfront but take a percentage of the first earnings after completing the program instead. Others guarantee to return the tuition fees if the participant is not able to find a decent job as a software developer after having completed the program. Accordingly many programs charge a high price of up to $20.000.

Now the first Coding Bootcamps like Stackademy or Hackership have entered the German market. The German Startup CareerFoundry on the other hand offers six-months e-learning courses in the fields of web development, UX design and UI design and guarantees your money back if you haven’t found the job of your dreams within six months after completing the program.

The question is: Can they deliver on that promise or are they just exploiting the hopes of people who look for a quick way to start or boost their career in software development? In other words: Do these programs only offer factual knowledge that will be outdated soon or are they able to provide their participants with skills and abilities that will help them to keep up with the dynamic development of technology 10 years from now and to have a long and successful career.

Over 16,000 people graduated from coding bootcamps last year According to the Bootcamp Market Size Study 2015 by Course Report

Looking at the growing numbers, many participants seem to believe the promises. In the United States the number of graduates grew from 6,740 in 2014 to over 16,000 in 2015 according to the estimates of Course Report. Revenue has increased correspondingly from $52 million to $172 million in this sector.

A recent survey among 665 graduates from 44 different Coding Schools indicates, that most of the programs live up to their promise – at least in a short term view. 4 months after completing the program, 89 percent of graduates had a new job, their salary rose by an average of $18,000, making the average tuition of $11,852 for a Boot Camp program a good investment.

Bootcamp-Graduates

Looking at these figures it is hard not to extensively agree with those who see coding bootcamps as the future of education and at the same time proclaim the downfall of existing computer science programs. Roshan Choxi writes about his (as co-founder of a bootcamp perhaps not entirely unbiased) view on the subject in his article “Coding bootcamps are replacing computer science degrees” and gives as an example a quote from Daniel Gelernter, CEO of tech startup Dittach:

The thing I don’t look for in a developer is a degree in computer science. University computer science departments are in miserable shape: 10 years behind in a field that changes every 10 minutes. Computer science departments prepare their students for academic or research careers and spurn jobs that actually pay money. They teach students how to design an operating system, but not how to work with a real, live development team.

There isn’t a single course in iPhone or Android development in the computer science departments of Yale or Princeton. Harvard has one, but you can’t make a good developer in one term. So if a college graduate has the coding skills that tech startups need, he most likely learned them on his own, in between problem sets. As one of my developers told me: ‘The people who were good at the school part of computer science—just weren’t good developers.’ My experience in hiring shows exactly that.

[…] But my lead developer didn’t graduate from college, and neither did my other full-stack developer. I do have one developer with a degree in electrical engineering: did he learn any of his development skills in college, I ask? No.

Are coding bootcamps the better alternative to higher education programs? Do the existing universities have to fear this development? Once again, the graduate survey provides interesting insights. According to the survey the average participant is 31 years old, has already 7.5 years of working experience and (in almost 80 percent of the participants) at least a bachelor’s degree. Less than three percent of respondents have no college experience at all.

Almost 80% of bootcamp participants have at least a bachelor’s degree According to the Alumni Outcomes & Demographics Study 2015 by Course Report

What does it mean that most of those who successfully finish a coding bootcamp already have a higher education degree? Could it be that this exact combination of an existing academic education, several years of working experience and a high-intensity coding training is the key to success?

In a way these bootcamp graduates with an academic degree in a different subject are what Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, describes as T-shaped professionals.

It fits the picture that most criticism of CS graduates is aimed at their missing ability to cooperate with “non-techies” and their lack of practical, communicative and social skills.

In contrast, the typical bootcamp graduate had already gained the academic and social learning experience associated with a bachelor’s degree as well as expert knowledge from his former field of study before starting the bootcamp. This makes him much more capable of communicating and cooperating with “non-techies”.

Some universities have already begun to understand bootcamps not as a threat but as a chance and to integrate them into their existing programs. This can be seen as a sign of openness, but also as an indication that these universities have recognized the weakness of their study programs, but are not able or willing to make changes accordingly.

The average tuition for a bootcamp is $11,000 According to the Bootcamp Market Size Study 2015 by Course Report

Should we therefore advise young people to seek out some academic degree and then attend a Coding Bootcamp? Probably not. Instead, the question should be: How should an educational program be designed to combine the advantages of an academic educational experience with those aspects that account for the attractiveness of Coding Bootcamps in the eyes of the participants and the future employers?

Imagine a project-based study program, in which the students start working on challenging projects from day one instead of sitting passively in theory lectures. The teachers act as coaches and assist their students in their professional and personal development and help them to acquire the necessary theoretical and methodological knowledge at a time, when the practical relevance of this knowledge can be derived from project experience.

A study program like this would provide a setting in which the intensive project experience would be embedded in a larger learning context that enables a guided development of theoretical, social and communicative skills. All graduates of such a program would have a track record of successful projects as well as an extensive network of potential employers or co-founders provided by the projects they have worked on.

“Welcome to the future of computer science education” says the homepage of Make School

In parts this approach is realized by startups like Make School and Holberton School, both located in San Francisco. They both offer a two-year project-based education program, positioned as college replacement. In our opinion a very promising approach that combines the best of both worlds.

Let’s hope that the existing universities do not consider the success of coding bootcamps a threat but an impulse to revise their own study programs and modernize their teaching and learning strategies.

And what about the idea of a project-based study program as described above – if there is not already such a university, we should really build one


Upcoming blog post: Why coding bootcamps are significantly more successful in attracting female participants than existing study programs in Germany and the US and what we can learn from this observation when it comes to motivating significantly more women to choose a career in digital.

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One thing we come across quite often when discussing our ideas about modern tech education is the confusion between computer science and software engineering.

Whether we look at studies describing the digital skill shortage in the workforce and the consequences for our economy, at job descriptions from employers in search of ICT professionals or at politicians demanding more and better educational programs aimed at digital competences – in most cases there is no clear definition of the skills profile in question. ICT Professionals, Developers, Programmers, Software Engineers, Computer Scientists – all too often are they used as synonyms.

If Europe needs 825.000 ICT professionals until 2020, does it mean everybody should study computer science?

Of course not.

Computer science is about taking complex problems and deriving a solution from math, science and computational theory.David Budden in “Degrees Demystified

Computer Scientists are first and foremost scientists. They possess a deep knowledge of the theoretical foundations in mathematics and information science and can develop complex algorithms and advance scientific research. They operate in a world of rigorous analyses, clearly defined concepts and proven facts.

The digital skills in demand as described by employers, labor market studies and politicians are of a different kind. They involve the ability to interact with human beings and to create easy to use software solutions for real world problems with limited resources in a highly unreliable and dynamically changing environment.

David Budden describes the difference in his analysis as follows:

Where computer science is about taking complex problems and deriving a solution from mathematics, science and computational theory, software engineering is very much focused around designing, developing and documenting beautiful, complete, user-friendly software.

Chuck Connell uses the following analogy in his article “Software Engineering ≠ Computer Science“:

Imagine a brilliant structural engineer who is the world’s expert on building materials, stress and strain, load distributions, wind shear, earthquake forces, etc. Architects in every country keep this person on their speed-dial for every design and construction project. Would this mythical structural engineer necessarily be good at designing the buildings he or she is analyzing? Not at all. Our structural engineer might be lousy at talking to clients, unable to design spaces that people like to inhabit, dull at imagining solutions to new problems, and boring aesthetically. Structural engineering is useful to physical architects, but is not enough for good design. Successful architecture includes creativity, vision, multi-disciplinary thinking, and humanity.

As does successful software engineering.

Why is this distinction so important?

  1. Because it helps to choose a study program that fits one’s abilities: Many have what it takes to become a successful software developer but lack the mathematical interest or ability to succeed in computer science. We cannot afford to discourage these young talents from choosing a career in software engineering, especially because – as Sarah Mei lays out in her article “Programming is not math”: “Learning to program is more like learning a new language than it is like doing math problems. And the experience of programming today, in industry, is more about language than it is about math.”
  2. Because it helps to choose a study program that meets expectations: Starting computer science studies to become a software developer is probably going to be disappointing, because Computer Science is more a “degree in applied mathematics” than a “degree where you learn how to code”, as David Budden puts it. The dropout rates in computer science programs (at some German universities as high as 40%) are a depressing monument to this confusion.
  3. Because it helps politicians and institutions to identify the approaches and instruments that improve tech education and contribute to closing the digital skills gap.
  4. Because it helps employers to better understand where to look for future employees that support their growth and successfully drive the digital transformation.
  5. Because it helps us understand how to design a study program that produces graduates with competence profiles that enable them to become successful software developers and that meet the demands of future employers.

Software engineering is very much focused around designing, developing and documenting beautiful, complete, user-friendly software.David Budden in “Degrees Demystified

We are not trying to diminish the importance of computer science as a discipline or computer scientists as a driving force of digital innovation and advancement in scientific research. But the vast majority of the 800.000 digital professionals missing in the European labor market in the year 2020 do not have the competence profile of a computer science major. They need to be creative problem solvers with communication and soft skills and the ability to utilize scientific innovations to make a difference in real life.


A note about Germany: While the education system in English-speaking countries at least offers the distinction between computer science and software engineering, the German education system almost exclusively talks about “Informatik” (information science) meaning the science of systematic information processing. There are variations like “Angewandte Informatik” (applied information science), “Technische Informatik” (technical information science) or “Medieninformatik” (media information science), but the starting point of any discussion in this field is Informatik. Due to a strong dual education system (combining an apprenticeship in a company with vocational training at a vocational school) the role of German universities was traditionally focussed on scientific education while looking down on the idea of teaching hands-on knowledge and skills with practical relevance with regard to future employers. As a consequence the need for a software engineering study program as alternative to information science is even greater in Germany (as this commentator elaborates).


In our next post we will take a look at the reaction of the education industry to the existing demand for software engineers: the staggering amount and perceived success of coding bootcamps.