Deciding to do an intensive program like Holberton School inherently means sacrifice. Most of us in the program have left our friends and family and traded them in (only for the meantime, not forever mom and dad) for long hours of sitting in front of a computer. The program asks a lot of us, and the only option is to keep up with the fast pace . We are all in an intense and stressful situation…but it could be worse.
This past week I had the opportunity to attend two different conferences; Developer Week – just a few blocks away at pier 27, and Container World – down in Santa Clara. As I was walking around the different booths, I found myself explaining the basis of Holberton School to just about every one I engaged with. Bootcamps and other tech schools are common place in the Silicone Valley, but Holberton is a bit of an anomaly. Caught in the realm between bootcamp and a four year university – we seem to take up previously unoccupied space. The idea of this school was intriguing to most, and seemed to spur on the conversation.
Holberton School is not really based off of any other school, despite some rumors saying it derives some of its personality from a school in France named 42 and its predecessor Epitech. Like Holberton School, 42 is open all (well between ages of 18-30 for 42, which is not the case for Holberton). 42 is free and the program runs between 3 and 5 years (thank goodness ours is only 2 years). The teaching styles are very much the same, peer to peer training being a key component. But quickly the two diverge – 42 initiates about 4,000 students but is quickly whittled down, and only 1,000 remain (more on that later). This creates a super competitive atmosphere only allowing the crème de la crème (sorry about the shameless french cliche) to continue on. There are a lot of bootcamps here in San Francisco who do similar things. They will let go of the bottom third of its cohort after the first three weeks or so. OR worse…they will let go of anyone who is under performing right before graduation to beef up their numbers of job placement.
Bootcamps these days are hiding some dirty little secrets. There is such a huge need for qualified employees in the tech field; bootcamps and schools are beginning to cut corners to churn out as many graduates as possible. There are are some major flaws revealed when you start to cut corners though. The majority of these fast paced bootcamps are focusing on the newest technologies, but not teaching its students how to problem solve and become a self-sufficient programers. They teach just one language, or one aspect of the tech industry – forcing their students to become pigeon holed – lacking the flexibly and ability to deal with ambiguity the industry necessitates. Another myth – the job placement rates that schools advertise. Oh boy, don’t get me started on this one. The moment that any school looses focus on its students and starts to focus only on its numbers – it begins to write its own eulogy. If a school is working the way it should, focusing on making sure students are understanding key concepts and helping them learn how to problem solve creatively, the job placement numbers will follow. Instead of keeping that focus on the students, bootcamps are letting go of their underperforming students right before graduation making it easy to place only their very top performing students. Doing this ill-represents the program and give incoming students unrealistic expectations.
Bootcamps are just one approach at training up the next germination of software engineers. Another approach would be what Epitech and 42 are doing. Epitech is a well established school in France that specialized in Information technology, and it’s pedagogy is project-based.
“Epitech does not teach technologies, but instills behaviors that allow each student the capacity to evolve, to learn independently, to comprehend business practices, to work in teams and to convince decision-makers.”
It sounds amazing…right. Almost too good to be true…maybe? There are some hidden flaws in the design of this school. One that stands out is the fact that they only teach C. The problem being, everyone in the software engineering industry should know C (I can’t stress this enough), but they should know how to work and write in other languages as well. If you only know one langue, by the time you graduate (if you graduate) you have had no experiences of adapting your tools based on the project at hand. Depending on what you are woking on, C may not be the right tool for the job. 42 derives it’s structure a bit from Epitech. Like Epitech, it only takes the best of the best. By the end graduates are professionals in C, but they have no soft skill training, no web experience, and no system administration experience. This doesn’t even take into account the application process; its a grueling adventure. A basic break down of it is as follows. It begins with an application on line. If you make it through that round, the pressure only increases. The next step to admittance is essentially a month long technical interview. The school takes waves of a thousand students, each wave lasts a month. By the end of four waves or so, they look at the grades and they only accept the top 25%. And those that can actually stick with the program until the very end are even fewer. Another remarkable flaw is it’s lack of structure and instructors. There is no-one on site to go to for help when you need it. You have your peers, and that can be super helpful, but when you and your peers can’t solve a problem, you don’t have the resources of teachers or mentors to help point you in the right direction.
There are a lot of problems with these two ends of the spectrum. It’s as if schools are forcing students through an extruder treating them like palydough. Those who can mold themselves into the perfect shape will make it through to graduation- while those who fail to fit are doomed to become yet another statistic in the ever growing drop-out rates. This industry is growing exponentially, and because of that we cannot afford to only train up the Einsteins and Beethovens of the tech world. That’s not to say that we don’t need those fiercely ingenious people, please, by all means if that’s you…come and change this industry for the better…but big changes can’t be done alone. We are not all destine to be the best-of-the-best, we will not all become the next Marie Curie (or better yet, the next Betty Holberton)…but we can make a difference, and we all have something to offer. Holberton School is setting itself apart because it is not looking to ONLY educate the best-of-the-best. Well, it will educated SOME of the best-of-the-best, but it also hopes to retain the other 85% of students that would otherwise become dropout statistics at most other schools. It just requires appropriate training and support.
So where does this lave us? Holberton is just getting it’s feet of the ground, so there are a lot of unknowns about the future of the program. There is one thing that is already sitting this school up for success, and that’s its holistic approach to teaching the ins and outs of this industry. Software engineering is not two demential, it has a lot of nuances and intricacies that can only be taught though dedication and an ever adapting curriculum.