Learning to code is so en vogue that everyone from 70-year-old New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to techno-phobic housewives are (reportedly) taking on the challenge. Options for acquiring this suddenly hip skill abound, but not all are created equal.
The usual suspects of price, location, flexibility, and depth of instruction factor in, whether or not the student plans to make a living by coding must also be considered. In other words, the question of how to learn to code is most effectively answered by asking why learn to code?
Chicken and egg arguments aside, this trend has coincided with an explosion of coding academies, like, well, CodeAcademy, which offers free access to virtual lessons covering basic programing fundamentals. This option is best suited for those looking to get a cursory understanding of development, but probably won’t be applying for jobs in the field. A month ago, Kahn Academy launched a computer science section to its free video-based lecture series that targets a similar crowd.
Countless other less education-centric companies, like EngineYard, offer paid online tutorials to those looking to learn coding. At the high end of the market are technical trade schools and universities, which tend to cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, while being more time consuming and of arguable value to those looking to fill development roles within startups.
New York City’s latest entrant, the Flatiron School, has launched to offer a solution to reconcile some of those disparate qualities, or as the school puts it, create a space for those “who want to love what they do…and learn to build awesome things with code.” The school’s first 90-day semester begins on October 2 in a 2,200 sq. ft. loft on 26th and Broadway in NY’s (you guessed it) Flatiron District, offering fully-immersive, in-person instruction to a class of 20 students.
Flatiron School co-founder and lead instructor Avi Flombaum says that his school is taking a different approach than the rest by focusing more on fundamental programming skills, rather than getting caught up in the nuances of a particular language.
Flatiron is targeting novice programmers looking for the quickest and most effective path to gainful employment as a developer. Flombaum has based the curriculum around the Ruby on Rails stack, but says that the 12 week program will teach participants how to think about all types of code, to solve problems, and to work in teams. Beyond unlocking careers in technology for his students, Flombaum hopes to support the NYC tech scene by continually adding capable development talent — something that has long been thought of as a shortcoming of the market.
Therein lies the monetization strategy. Tuition for Flatiron will only be $5,500, meaning that the school will lose money based on tuition alone. Flombaum and his partner Adam Enbar will work to place each student with a NYC startup post-graduation and plans to collect industry standard placement fees from the companies for doing so. If rising developer salaries and increasingly controversial acquihires are any indication, the market will be more than happy to bear the cost, so long as the graduates are up to par.
Considering the possibility that more entrepreneurial students may choose not to seek employment, Flatiron may adjust its model in the future to increase tuition but offer a refund of up to 50 percent if students accept a job placed through the school. “We want to create a strong alumni culture and network” of successful programmers, explains Flombaum.
At the end of each semester, the school will have a large “reverse job fair” where each student has a booth that hiring companies circulate to visit. Each student will have a brief personal bio and will be demoing code. He tells me that most graduates will be placed as junior developers, aka the fourth or fifth members of an engineering team, with the low-end salary range for this type of position in NYC being $68,000 to $72,000 per year.
Prior to forming the Flatiron School, Flombaum taught several consecutive sold out Skillshare classes on Ruby on Rails from which he has 600 alumni. Without a formal placement program, he’s already placed more than a dozen of these students with local startups and says that initial skepticism on the part of CEOs, CTOs, and hiring managers was quickly overcome after seeing the abilities of their new hires.
The model for Flatiron was borrowed from San Francisco’s DevBootcamp, which is one of the few programs of this type that Flombaum points to as producing competent programmers. Closer to home, he has a friendly relationship with entrepreneur factory General Assembly, but doesn’t see it as a direct competitor. GA, he says, focuses on a wider variety of “aftermarket entrepreneurial skills,” and is a less intensive experience without any formalized job placement component. [UPDATE: As I was writing this, I got an email from General Assembly announcing a nine week Web Developer Intensive launching a week after Flatiron school -- friendly, meet competitive.]
Flatiron School has long since closed applications for its initial class after receiving 160 submissions in a matter of days. The founders narrowed this group down to the final 20 based on three criteria: Desire to become a working programmer, quantitative and logical aptitude, and previously demonstrated passion and mastery for another area of study.
That the initial class includes far-reaching backgrounds like professional poker player, former MLB scout, lawyer, accountant, and PhD student is more a consequence of the above criteria than it is of any preconceived marketing agenda on the school’s part, Flombaum tells me. The ultimate goal is to teach a wide cross section of students how to learn new things quickly, so that they can continue to evolve with new programming platforms and frameworks.
Collectively, the Flatiron school is in capable hands and shouldn’t be hurting for connections in the NYC entrepreneurial community. In addition to Flombaum’s 600 Skillshare alumni, he runs a 2,300 member “NYC on Rails” meetup group to which he has turned for marketing and job placement with this initial classes.
Flombaum got his first job in the NYC tech market in 1998 at the age of 15 and has kept firmly entrenched since then, with his most recent position being co-founder and CTO of architecture and design-focused product management suite Designer Pages.
Enbar, for his part, comes to Flatiron from a research role with Charles River Ventures and previously ran the national accounts team at SMB marketing platform maker HubSpot. The co-founder has lectured on marketing at Harvard Business School, as well as the South Bay Correctional Facility (bonus points for classroom management skills).
Flombaum and Enbar are visibly excited to move private coding education beyond “nights and weekends” to this new more intensive format designed for people looking to change their lives and careers. The problem they see with existing private education options — both coding-focused and not — is that the industry is inherently enrollment focused. The more “asses in seats,” the more tuition revenue, is how the Flatiron founders explain it.
The diversity of participants in the early Flatiron classes is interesting as well. Unlike the traditional self-taught programmer — who Flombaum says is typically obsessive, used to not asking for help, and experienced at dealing with frustration — Flatiron graduates may start with less raw talent but should be just as passionate and better able to collaborate.
It will be a while before we know how successful Flatiron School is relative to other methods of churning out developers. In the meantime, the world needs as much technical talent as it can get, and the more programs supporting early stage startups and addressing this shortage, the better.
[Image courtesy jmerelo]