From rhetoric to reality: creating communities to forge a skills-based future

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Jun 6, 2019

As the Hechinger Report recently reported, there is growing momentum around hiring based on skills, rather than degrees. Increased awareness of degree inflation has led many high-profile employers to revisit their hiring practices, creating an opening for non-degree, skills-based alternatives like coding bootcamps to help fill the talent pipeline. However, the rhetoric may be ahead of the reality. Over 70% of bootcamp graduates have at least a bachelor’s degree, mirroring the technology sector’s existing educational distribution. Bootcamps can make the transition into tech jobs faster and cheaper, but is it making the process more equitable?

Career Karma thinks it can help bootcamps not just fill, but also reshape that pipeline. The company’s mobile app guides users through steps they can take to improve their chances of getting into a bootcamp, also helping them create a network of peers and working professionals for support, mentorship, and accountability. Career Karma’s approach to preparing aspiring software engineers for the bootcamp experience, regardless of their educational background, has attracted over 10,000 users in just six months. I chatted with founder Ruben Harris for his take on bootcamps and catalyzing transitions into tech.

Richard: Alright, Career Karma’s mission in a nutshell: why are you doing what you’re doing?

Ruben: My co-founders learned to code at different bootcamps during the early years of the bootcamp industry, and we personally felt the pain that people from non-traditional educational backgrounds go through when trying to get a job. After interviewing over 100 people on our podcast, Breaking Into Startups, we realized that we weren’t alone. The modern workplace is changing rapidly and requires new ways to recruit, hire, and train workers from all backgrounds.

Career Karma is an app and a community that helps people make their most important career decisions by matching them to the coding bootcamps that best fit them, surrounding them with a squad of peers and mentors, and connecting them with employed bootcamp grads who help them get jobs in tech. While we currently focus on coding bootcamps, we are positioning ourselves to guide workers for any skill set in their lifelong educational and career journey.

Richard: Why do bootcamps want to work with Career Karma?

Ruben: Competing with 1,000 other bootcamp programs in the US for the same potential students is expensive.

Most coding bootcamps are extremely good at teaching, but face complex and costly challenges with marketing, admissions, retention, completion, and job placement.

Working with Career Karma, bootcamps can save time and money by getting candidates that have already been pre-qualified and prepared. We guide our members through a three-week preparation process called the #21DayCKChallenge, pointing them to free training resources, helping them choose the right bootcamps without having to dig through murky, sometimes untrustworthy outcomes data online, and connecting them with people that have been through those programs before.

This helps bootcamps streamline their admissions process, prevent dropouts, focus on completion, and deliver on the outcomes that they have promised.

Richard: What do employers find most attractive about bootcamp grads? What are their typical reservations?

Ruben: Bootcamp graduates are arguably better trained than traditional college graduates because bootcamps base their curriculum on the needs of employers. In fact, the majority of bootcamp students already have degrees, but attend bootcamps to become more employable in tech.

That said, even though many companies no longer require college degrees for employment, the degree is still the easiest signal for screening candidates. Bootcamp grads who lack that signal still face that obstacle. We expect that this will change over time.

Richard: Is this why Career Karma focuses so much on connecting app users with employed bootcamp graduates?

Ruben: Yes; people with non-traditional backgrounds, especially those that didn’t finish college, can use bootcamps to get a start in the tech industry. But getting the shot to demonstrate their skills is a challenge—Applicant Tracking Systems often automatically filter for degrees.

There are 34,000 bootcamp graduates out there with two to four years of experience managing teams, making hiring decisions, and starting companies. They understand the bootcamp experience and can give future bootcamp grads a real shot, turning social capital into good jobs.

Tapping into that bootcamp alumni network is extremely powerful, and Career Karma provides direct access to our users so they don’t have to cold email or pay for LinkedIn premium messaging.

Richard: In our research, we found wide variations in the bootcamp model, ranging from entirely in-person to entirely online, and with different financing models, curricular structures, and career supports. What do bootcamps who better serve learners from non-traditional backgrounds have in common?

Ruben: Breaking into tech is hard. In our experience, contrary to popular belief, career transitions are more psychological than technical. The bootcamps doing the best job have strong prep programs, giving prospective students the technical foundation they’ll need to hit the ground running, and streamlined admissions processes that don’t let talented applicants fall through the cracks.

Obviously, high-quality training and outcomes are key, but the majority of applicants don’t get in because they don’t know how to prepare for the technical and psychological intensity of a bootcamp—not because they aren’t capable.

Richard: Income share agreements (ISAs) are becoming more common in the bootcamp space. What do you see as some of the pros and cons of this financing option?

Ruben: ISAs essentially help potential students answer the question, “Is this worth it?” It was for my brother, who graduated from App Academy with no job experience and soon landed a job making six figures.

Bootcamps are the first educational institutions to use ISAs at scale and for an extended period of time. If you can’t afford tuition upfront, or if you already have debt, ISAs can be an effective way to pursue your goals that lowers the risk of defaulting and provides clarity on the maximum that you could end up paying.

That said, ISAs are not for everybody. If you are debt-free and can afford it, paying tuition upfront can be more cost-effective.

At the end of the day, ISAs have opened up opportunities for many to pursue the training they want. It will be interesting to see what effect they have on traditional colleges as they scale in that space as well.

Richard: We’ve seen some blurring of the lines between traditional higher education and the bootcamp space. What are your thoughts on this trend?

Ruben: There are now coding bootcamps on nearly 50 prestigious, traditional college campuses. Trilogy Education Services was the first company to enable this at scale, and now you are seeing more bootcamps do the same thing. For example, Flatiron School just partnered with Yale, Fullstack Academy is making a move in this direction, and Bottega, a privately accredited bootcamp, offers courses that are eligible for college credit.

The Trilogy acquisition by 2U leads me to believe that college campuses globally will embrace the bootcamp model. This is an important step in the US more widely adopting the bootcamp model, which I believe is the only way to stay competitive globally. Two to four years is too long when the half-life of a skill is half of that.

Richard: Do you see bootcamps moving beyond preparing students for tech jobs? If so, where do you see them heading next?

Ruben: Yes; I think trade schools, which enroll roughly 16 million Americans, are essentially “bootcamps” that can learn from coding bootcamps’ experimentation in online learning, part-time and self-paced offerings, and innovative financing.

Non-technical roles will grow in importance for bootcamps. Sales and marketing functions are such key elements for modern companies—especially enterprise software providers. My own background is in Sales, and I see those roles as the next big bootcamp opportunities.

As a research fellow on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.