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Code Schools – Will They Change Your Career and Life?

Code Schools – Will They Change Your Career and Life is about my brother Drew and my experience at The Iron Yard coding school in Durham. More generally Code Schools – Will They Change Your Life wonders if as Matt Damon wonders in Good Will Hunting when he tells a Harvard student, he could have achieved as much by saving $150,000 and going to the library. After our experience at The Iron Yard in Durham, North Carolina we observed several problems with “code schools.”

  • They teach “academic” not business coding
  • Little vetting other than an ability to pay means students of all backgrounds and abilities get tossed into a grinder
  • Code Schools cost/value proposition is off for all but the most talented
  • Instructors abilities vary from lousy to great & teachers are the hardest resource to find and keep
  • Impossible to overcome a ten-yearn year discrepancy for all but the young and most talented

Code School Problems – Academic not Business Coding

My desire to learn how front end engineering wasn’t to become a programmer. As a marketer, I need to understand what is happening to communicate with others. I’ve managed a web team as a Director of E-commerce for seven years. The hardest group to read was our programmers. Frontend web design, what customers and visitors see, has changed since I wrote my first HTML in 1999.

Today, thanks to HTML5 and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) a website’s frontend is more “programmed” than ever. “Slap the baby and move on,” was one of my e-commerce director sayings. Any commercial website is a meatgrinder of deadlines, campaigns, and content. You have to go fast, use intuition, and watch what competitors are doing. Speed is the impossible to describe or capture missing element in code schools.

Leisurely and weird is how I’d describe The Iron Yard’s pace.  Weird because coding games and other strange academic exercises had little or nothing to do with my experience managing a real website. Code schools would be advised to as small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) what real world issues they work on, create lessons around those concepts, and then create deadlines with meaning, fear, and consequences. Instead, my class created Battleship-like games, strange forms and weird stuff hardly related to anything needed in a production environment.

The pace was fast for “school” and slow for the real world. In our production web team, we had to learn new things all the time. We never tried to find out more than was needed to solve the problem right in front of us. We learned by doing. We did what was necessary and no more because we needed to, “Slap the baby and move on.”

Code School Problems – Students Awareness, Commitment and Skill Vary

In the real world, you make it, or you don’t. In code class, you pay a steep tuition, so there is no “flunking out.” A student’s ability to pay a steep tuition is the primary prerequisite for admission. The Iron Yard made a pretense of an interview and an “acceptance,” but, and I used to work in college admission, accepting 99% of your applicants creates classes that don’t reflect the real world either.

In my class, there was a young, around 25 I’d estimate, talented coder. He got most of the attention in class, and he was helpful with other students. Our instructor was great, talented and his skills were off the charts. In my “front end” class of about twenty students, I’d estimate two maybe three are webmasters today.

Another two or three students in my Iron Yard class might be working as lower level designers. Lower level designers help do Photoshop and Illustrator work, clean up code others write, and support a “fighter pilot” coder like the king of our class. Great coders don’t clean up after themselves, play well with others, or take direction well. For every “fighter pilot” coder you’ll need one to three lower level helpers. The number of assistants depends on the size of your site and how often you change content, functionality, and campaigns.

The bell curve in our class was evident, immediate and observable. No matter how much most of the class paid, they weren’t going to be working on a production web design team after graduation. Most students in my class just didn’t have the chops. Paying $10,000 or more to learn you don’t have the chops is a steep price. Do the Good Will Hunting thing instead.

Code School Problems – Cost to Value Is Off

I would have been interviewing you back-in-the-day. When I was a Director of E-commerce, we didn’t have the time to train code and e-commerce. Or we didn’t after we reached about $5M in sales. Before five million in sales, I hired several people with great work ethic, some basic e-commerce knowledge, and a desire to learn.

If you are a code school graduate, don’t try and work for a big agency since they don’t have time to train you either. Look for smaller e-commerce shops such as Moon-Audio.com (they just hired an Iron Yard graduate). Smaller companies have stringent deadlines and way too much for any one person to do, but you can learn-as-you-go much better than in a medium sized e-commerce business.

Fighter pilots coders are the hardest to find, keep, and challenge. Every now and again we’d have to hire a moderate talent to support our fighter pilots, but only every now and again and the competition for those jobs was vicious. Better to get employment in an existing e-commerce shop sweeping the floor than pay The Iron Yard or other “code schools” thousands of dollars (is my advice). Code school cost to return is off.

We wanted and looked for “self-starters,” thus another reason “code school” applicants don’t impress. Build an e-commerce website and sell you mom’s old figurines would impress us more than sitting in class. The only way to learn e-commerce is to do it. We looked for people who loved doing it, loved thinking about how to code, so visitors became buyers.

Code School Problems – Great Teachers Hard To Find Impossible To Keep

Great “fighter pilot” coders code they don’t teach. My Iron Yard instructor was an exception to that rule. He was awesome, and his skills were off the charts, and he lasted two years at The Iron Yard. Teaching something where demand crushes supply, at least at the moment, means code schools can’t hire, keep, or challenge great teachers for long.

Constant turn-over happens. If code schools had well-established curriculums, turn-over wouldn’t hurt as much. Our great teacher was making up his lessons, and class work as we went and his ideas went with him. It didn’t feel like The Iron Yard handed our teacher a, “How to teach front-end code.” book and he followed it. Just the opposite. Our front end engineering classes were flexible and brilliant as was our instructor.

When you can make $100K and, in many cases, earn equity in the business you are helping to create why would you teach for less money and no equity? Answer: you wouldn’t and most don’t. Any code school faces market realities – great teachers are impossible to find, keep, and challenge.

Code School Problems – Changing Your Career Is A Myth

Yes, you can and many do change your career, but probably not because you attended code school. Code Schools sell the “infinity of need” idea to potential coders. And if you are young, talented, and the one or two special members of a code school class you will work in a web development shop. Even those uber-talented students will need to prove themselves in a production environment – something we bet only half accomplished.

There is no way for a person of average motivation and no experience to go to a school and be attractive to a production web development agency or company. There are exceptions that prove this rule such as the young, talented and passionate front-end engineer who joined Moon-Audio.com. For most students older than thirty who’ve spent ten or more years doing something else, the gulf between programmers who’ve been writing code since they learned to ride a bicycle is too great.

If you’ve been a bartender, as one of our students had, for the last ten years and you want to code then create something, write some code, develop a GitHub account and take online classes. In my experience, you’ll either LOVE coding or you wont’. My brother Drew HATED it and we paid thousands to learn what we could have learned with $1.50 in late fees from an online class. Don’t make our mistake and don’t think code school is going to change your career. You are the only one capable of changing your career.

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