Are Code Schools the Answer for Talent Needs?

Computer Science StudentsAccording to the U.S. Department of Labor, the employment picture for web developers is projected to grow about 20 percent for the six-year period from 2012 to 2018. Intensive education programs in web code are being put forth as the solution, but are they the answer for the talent shortage?

Patrick Gray, who works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of “Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology,” discussed the issue with the founder of a code school for TechRepublic.com. Code schools, in the most basic terms, are online or in-classroom classes that teach programming and web design skills.

The first observation Gray makes is, “It’s critical for coding school students and those that ultimately hire graduates to have realistic expectations about what the schools provide. Key for employers is realizing that graduates of most coding schools are entry-level employees, many of whom have never worked in IT. Even with an intensive program, graduates are junior programmers, and the skills they’ve acquired don’t equate to years of industry experience,” he advises.

That’s a point reinforced elsewhere. As this article at Wired observed, “Like resident physicians, junior developers need supervision and mentoring. [A Wall Street Journal] article states that both experienced and junior developers ‘often need mentoring on the job — such as being paired with a more senior developer — as well as more coursework and self-teaching … because the requisite skills evolve so rapidly.’ The best software companies in the world take this truth to heart and actively cultivate cultures of learning among their technical staff.”

Eric Dodds, the chief marketing officer and a founder of The Iron Yard, says in the TechRepublic.com article that the inexperience of the code school graduates can be a positive. “They haven’t developed the bad habits that a long-time developer may have acquired, and can readily learn your company’s way of doing things,” he says.

The focus at code schools is developing software, which could be a problem for companies with more traditional needs. Gray observes, “One potential problem for large employers is that most code schools, The Iron Yard included, target newer, open source development tools. If your midsize company is dying for JavaScript or Ruby on Rails resources, the local code school could provide several qualified graduates; if your company needs .NET or Java developers or junior ERP configurators, most code schools don’t target these types of enterprise technologies.”

Of course there is the ultimate question of how to know if code school graduates are learning the right skills and not just being sold an expensive education program. Gray says, “Before hiring from a particular university, most employers will vet the academic program, speak with school leadership, and still expend the due diligence required to vet each individual employee. Similarly, Dodds suggests looking for schools that have honest conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of each student you’re considering employing. By speaking with school leadership and carefully evaluating the skills and curriculum the school provides, you’ll quickly be able to determine the quality of the school, and whether it could be an ongoing source of candidates.

He adds this cautionary note. ” … the tech sector is widely perceived to be on the upswing, and there are code schools that are taking advantage of this fact, pitching an unrealistic vision to students and to employers. In some cases, schools will charge placement fees to employees, potentially pressuring students toward jobs or employers where they’re not a good fit, a losing proposition for the graduate and the employer.”

Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping, About.com, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.