video conference

Mentors, meetups, and mid-sized cities: how one bootcamp is tackling the skills gap

By:

Jun 26, 2019

Bootcamps focused on coding and computer science have emerged as an important pipeline for tech talent. We conducted in-depth interviews with seven leading bootcamps to better understand their outcomes-focused business models. We are now sharing their stories, this being the second profile. For more on the disruptive potential of bootcamps, read our recent paper, Betting on Bootcamps.

ChristensenInst_bootcamps_thinkful

In 2012, Darrell Silver had just sold his startup when he met Daniel Friedman, a member of the first cohort of Thiel Fellows. Soon, the two of them started talking about joining forces. “He and I always had the opportunity to learn informally from people that knew more than us, and to ask questions we couldn’t ask in a classroom,” said Silver. “We asked: ‘How do we make that scale?’ We wanted to make mentorship scalable, fun for mentors, and highly impactful for adults learning new skills.” On October 1st, 2012, Silver and Friedman set out to do just that, launching Thinkful.

Initially, Thinkful offered one web development course that was self-paced and personalized. The program charged $250 per month, with the expectation that students would typically finish in roughly three months if they worked for seven to ten hours per week. Students worked one-on-one with their own mentors three times per week, with additional unlimited access to online office hours.

By February 2013, Thinkful’s first 25 students had graduated. Thinkful coalesced around its one-on-one mentorship model and raised $1 million in seed funding from among others, Peter Thiel-affiliated Founders Fund. Since then, Thinkful has iterated aggressively, experimenting with different course offerings, durations, tuition costs, funding models, and geographies.

By December of 2013, Thinkful was offering four courses, focusing on various programming languages. Prices ranged from $300 to $500 per month, and the courses typically required 10-12 hours of weekly time commitment. The mentor network also grew, from four to 48 experienced tech professionals hired to guide Thinkful students.

By the end of 2015, Thinkful had raised another $4.25 million, taught over 5,000 graduates, and was actively educating 600 students with over 300 mentors in its network. Thinkful offered 14 courses: a mixture of targeted workshops that cost $49 per month, part-time courses that cost up to $500 per month, and a full-time web development course, lasting four to six months depending on the learner’s pace, that cost $1,400 per month. These courses covered data science, design, and advanced-level workshops in specific programming frameworks. Thinkful also ramped up its career services, offering interview prep and résumé critiquing.

In the intervening years, Thinkful has consolidated its course offerings into four bootcamps, citing student demand for simpler, clearer pathways to jobs. The Engineering Immersion course is a highly structured, online, synchronous offering that lasts five months. It includes remote pair programming, daily one-on-one sessions with a mentor, and the option to pay via an income share agreement (ISA), thanks to a $10 million commitment from fintech organization Leif. Thinkful also offers six-month, part-time courses in Data Science, Data Analytics, and Product Design, with a deferred payment plan option and job guarantee clause.

Beyond the evolution of its offerings, Thinkful has expanded its footprint through two main strategies. First, since 2016, Thinkful has been establishing in-person communities in select medium-size US cities for its students. The courses themselves are still entirely online, but Thinkful hosts meetups and networking events with the aim of providing learners with face-to-face experiences. “Our online mentor model helps develop technical skills where experts are hard to find, and our in-person communities find people the job they want,” said Silver. “Our job is to discover which parts of education should be happening online with experts and offline with networks.” Towards the end of 2017, Thinkful raised $9.6 million to further this initiative.

Thinkful’s other expansion strategy has been to acquire other bootcamps. In December of 2017, Thinkful announced its acquisition of Viking Code School, with the aim of sponsoring its affiliated 80,000-member open source platform, The Odin Project. While the bootcamp’s operations were discontinued, the open source project continues to operate autonomously. Just a few months later, in April of 2018, Thinkful announced that it had acquired Bloc, an open-enrollment, self-paced online coding bootcamp that offers web development and design courses. Bloc and Thinkful continue to operate independently, as the brands market to different student demographics, but the two bootcamps have fully integrated behind the scenes.  

A third strategy seems to be afoot. In April, Thinkful announced its first university partnership, with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Two months later, the bootcamp announced it would also be working with the University of San Diego. These partnerships, both through the university partners’ continuing education programs, considerably extend Thinkful’s reach.

Thinkful has carved out a niche away from the crowded tech markets of New York and San Francisco, and has sought to reach career changers in Atlanta, San Diego, and 21 other mid-sized cities. Around 60% of students remain employed while enrolled, 85% are 25 or older, and roughly half of the student body resides in cities where the bootcamp has a local presence. Further, about 50% of Thinkful’s learners have no college credit. Through the Bloc acquisition, Thinkful also teaches a Design course in which 72% of students are women, largely consisting of full-time parents and learners with unpredictable schedules and/or in more remote locations.

Most importantly, Thinkful is producing—and transparently reporting—promising graduation and job-placement outcomes. Thinkful co-founded and is a member of the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR), a voluntary, bootcamp industry-wide quality assurance initiative that aims to standardize outcomes reporting in the bootcamp space. Every six months, Thinkful reports to CIRR on graduation and job placement outcomes for its Engineering Immersion course, two flex courses (Full Stack and Data Science), and its Bloc courses.

In its latest reports, 81.6% of Engineering Immersion students graduated in the expected five months. All students eventually graduated, and 89.5% were employed in tech within six months with median salaries of $65,000. The Full Stack Flex course has a graduation rate of 39.9%, with job placement and salary results of 83.5% and $63,700, respectively.

Thinkful’s work with ISAs and establishment of in-person programmatic elements and university partnerships are unlikely to be the final iterations of Thinkful’s model as the bootcamp uses outcomes data to refine its offerings and processes. “Education businesses are very tough…and cash flow is sensitive,” said Silver. “Quality comes down to specific processes built around specific people, and you have to have a great educational machine. The model continues to evolve really rapidly.”

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