How one bootcamp is solving the tech talent pinch in TN

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Jun 12, 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’ll be sharing six more of these profiles over the coming months. For more on the disruptive potential of bootcamps, read our recent paper, Betting on Bootcamps.

Decades before bootcamps even existed, John Wark was a poster child for what Nashville Software School is trying to accomplish. He was a Creative Writing and English Literature major in college, and had never taken a computer science course when he developed an interest in the software industry in the early 1970s. Wark learned on the job, managed large engineering teams, and even started a handful of companies, one of which he took public in 1999.

In 2002, after a lifetime of career success, Wark found himself fighting off cancer. He won that battle, but the ordeal left him searching for life beyond the stress of venture capital funded startups. He moved from Silicon Valley to Nashville, where he discovered both a fledgling startup scene and a stubborn shortage in tech talent. “I got involved in a couple of workforce development efforts in 2010, and listened to the colleges and the employers talk right past each other,” said Wark. Upon researching possible solutions, Wark concluded that starting an apprenticeship program would require a higher level of commitment from employers than he was likely to get. They would commit, however, to interviewing graduates from a training program. Wark thus worked with a handful of local companies to craft the curriculum for a new coding bootcamp. In mid-2012, Nashville Software School (NSS) officially opened its doors.

Wark wanted NSS to have a non-profit model that would align its incentives with its students’ goals. To this end, NSS offered deferred tuition to its first cohort, an arrangement now known as “Opportunity Tuition.” NSS originally charged $9,000, but students would make an initial deposit of only $1,000. Once they had graduated and found a job in tech, students would pay the remaining $8,000. Members of the local tech community made donations that provided the needed working capital to bootstrap the effort, with seven donors writing checks for $5,000 each, and Wark covering the rest.

The first cohort consisted of 19 students enrolled in a six-month, in-person, full-time web development course. Most already held bachelor’s degrees, with the others having at least some college under their belt. From this first group, 14 students graduated, and 12 ended up working in-field. These outcomes helped NSS refine its offering, which now consists of coding demonstrations, individual and team coding projects, and career preparation. “It’s been an evolutionary process for six years now,” said Wark. “It’s a fast-changing field, so we change the curriculum with every class to adjust for technology changes in the workforce and improved teaching and mentoring practices. But the core—peer-based and project-based learning, hands-on, making mistakes—that has mostly stabilized.”

Those initial outcomes also generated enough interest to begin enrolling full cohorts of 25 students in subsequent years. In 2013, NSS taught two cohorts, back-to-back, enrolling all students in the Opportunity Tuition program. By 2014, however, the coding bootcamp started running four cohorts per year, and cash flow constraints led NSS to be selective with deferred tuition. Opportunity Tuition was directed toward underrepresented minorities, students who were either from the Nashville area or committed to staying in Nashville, and learners from low-income backgrounds. Over time, NSS has found a self-sustaining mix that does not require external grants or organized fund-raising, where roughly half of its students are on the Opportunity Tuition program.

In 2015, NSS accommodated students needing more flexible options by starting a 12-month, part-time web development program in addition to its full-time courses. In 2017, the bootcamp added a part-time data science course in response to demand from employers in healthcare, the biggest industry in Nashville. This year, NSS plans to add a data analytics program and to teach a total of 12 cohorts, reaching close to 300 students.

While growth has been steady, with NSS producing more graduates than any college or university computer science or IT-related program in Tennessee, the bootcamp is careful to monitor what the burgeoning Nashville labor market can absorb. This factors into NSS currently accepting under 40% of applicants. Another factor is applicant preparation. For those not yet ready for the core offerings, NSS offers its introductory Jumpstart program.

Overall, NSS has trained over 800 students. As enrollment has grown, student outcomes have improved steadily. Wark reported that roughly 93% of enrolled students have graduated overall, and that over 90% of those graduates found jobs in-field in 2018. This equates to NSS having directly helped place over 600 individuals in local tech jobs with over 250 employers since 2012.

Looking beyond Nashville, NSS believes that its model can work in other geographies, and has open sourced its curriculum to that end, but is not looking to expand its geographical footprint beyond cooperating with non-profit stakeholders in other areas that want to emulate the NSS model. One such effort in Memphis graduated its first cohort at the end of 2018, and another in West Virginia just launched its first class. NSS provides them with free support and training.

Closer to home, NSS has become an establishment in the Nashville workforce pipeline, with many alumni five or more years into their tech careers. While Wark himself remembers being able to learn on the job, especially from other more experienced engineers who would take him under their wing, he sees a potential role for NSS extending beyond the initial career launch phase. “How do people take the step from junior to senior and beyond? That’s where we think some of our future is, and we are working on that as part of our long-term vision.”

In the meantime, NSS does offer some part-time professional development courses for about $2,500 to help workers add mobile software development and design skills to their toolboxes. NSS is also looking to formalize feedback channels from employers that have hired multiple NSS graduates. Thus far, feedback has been informal and based on personal relationships.

That said, these more personal feedback channels have provided information that hard numbers don’t always capture. “Having management take me around their offices and meet six or seven of our grads who are working there…that’s an incredible feeling,” reflected Wark. “We’re clearly having an impact.”

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.