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A Coding Academy Prepares to Launch in Burlington


Published October 18, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

Alex Horner (left) and Ben Boas - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Alex Horner (left) and Ben Boas

Baby-faced Ben Boas and Alex Horner, both 25, get carded at bars, and Horner admits that he grew his slim mustache in part to look older. But the two say they have sufficient experience to know that the Burlington tech market is ready for a web development boot camp.

Boas and Horner plan to launch the Burlington Code Academy next June. The for-profit startup will offer intensive 12-week training in writing code for software development. They promise the full-immersion curriculum will ready grads to work as junior-level software designers, web developers and data-storage geeks.

Such programs have sprung up around the country, but not yet in Burlington.

"We're the first," said Boas during an interview October 6 at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. That's a co-working space on Burlington's Main Street where he and Horner are working on their plans.

They're currently shopping around for a location to hold the boot camp — ideally downtown or on the waterfront. It would need to accommodate a debut class of 20 students and three instructors: a senior teacher, lead teacher and teacher's assistant.

The training won't be cheap, the men admitted. Tuition for the inaugural session will be $4,975, half the normal rate of $9,950 that will be charged in subsequent sessions. Like most boot camps, this one will not be accredited, so federal student aid cannot be used to pay for it.

Boas and Horner said they're negotiating for venture-capital funds to help launch and grow their business.

The academy will teach students primarily the JavaScript programming language because it is used worldwide. Prospective students should have at least a high school degree, as well as basic computer literacy.

The founders, friends since their days at Proctor High School near Rutland, have tapped veteran Burlington software developer and teacher Alex Chaffee to be senior instructor.

The city is ripe for a tech boot camp, said Chaffee, 48, noting that there are software development jobs available in the region and not enough people to fill them.

Chaffee was a 15-year-old student at Burlington High School when he designed his first website, for the now-defunct Casablanca Video store on Shelburne Road. It played the melody of "As Time Goes By," he recalled with a chuckle.

After graduating with a liberal arts degree from Reed College on the West Coast, Chaffee spent the next 25 years building more websites, mobile apps and software tools that track everything from worker productivity to physical fitness. He's coached and coded for companies including Indigogo, GameTheory, Weedmaps and Groupiter. He moved back to Burlington from San Francisco four years ago.

Alex Chaffee - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Alex Chaffee

While Chaffee has a long résumé, Horner and Boas are just starting to build theirs. Horner worked in customer service and other jobs for a few years after high school, then entered Ithaca College in New York. He spent a summer doing marketing and data analysis for the Downtown Rutland Partnership and cofounded a smoking-cessation app called StopPack. He completed his bachelor's in business from Ithaca in May.

Boas graduated from Bennington College three years ago with a bachelor's in environmental science, and then moved to New York City. There, he worked at ad agency MRM//McCann, starting with an apprentice program, and at other employers learning web design, mobile-app design, analytics, JavaScript and HTML.

Boas, who considers himself a digital product designer, said Vermont lacked the training he got in New York. "I had to leave the state of Vermont to start this career," he said. Having met several boot camp grads in New York, he decided to partner with Horner.

Their own boot camp has a very clear goal, Chaffee said. "At the end of 12 weeks, we connect you with hiring partners and get you a job. A junior-level job, but we get you into the workplace as soon as possible."

That's a bold statement. Here's another: The Burlington Code Academy website proclaims in bright-orange lettering that "73K" is the average wage for a Burlington-area web developer and trumpets that the academy will train students for less money and time than they'd spend on a single semester of college. The salary figure is from the Vermont Department of Labor and, though accurate, does not mean every grad is guaranteed a job, or that salary.

Still, nationally, the lure of higher pay has prompted recent college grads, as well as early to mid-career workers who want to pivot to something new, to head to boot camp.

Not everyone is convinced that the intensive but short training sessions are useful. In August, Inc. ran an opinion piece by contributing editor Geoffrey James titled "Why Coding Bootcamps Don't Work."

James mentioned the recent closure of two popular, nationally known operations, Dev Bootcamp and the Iron Yard boot camp. The former was owned by standardized testing and test-prep giant Kaplan; the latter by for-profit company Apollo Education Group.

James wrote that a short format cannot give students the complex skills they need to make even simple programs work well. Computer science degrees are a better route to the industry, he suggested.

Boas and Horner disagree. So does Chaffee, who took his share of computer science courses in college. Those courses are valuable but often focus on abstract concepts, meaning students must master practical coding skills on their own, Chaffee said. The difference between computer science classes and boot camp is like the difference between studying literature and being a writer, he continued: "You can be a really great writer and not know who Proust is."

Tech employers, Chaffee added, don't necessarily want the Proust scholar. "When you are hiring, you want the person who can pump out the code, the words," he said.

That depends on the job, said Rob Hale, principal software engineer at NRG Systems in Hinesburg. A boot camp could provide a useful pool of junior developers, especially in the local market, where there's a shortage of people with the right training, he said.

Hale has worked at several local tech companies, including the former IDX Systems, now GE Healthcare. The company made successful junior hires from a boot-camp-style program in Canada, he recalled. "They were green, but they weren't without a foundation," he said.

The local chapter of Girl Develop It offers workshops and classes in coding, and local colleges including the University of Vermont, Vermont Technical College and Champlain College provide coursework and related degrees. Champlain's online offerings include a four-course certification in JavaScript programming.

But the compressed boot camp training is different, said Hale, an executive fellow of BTV Ignite, a nonprofit that works to grow the local tech community. Ultimately, there are many ways to learn coding, he added.

Todd LaMothe, vice president for engineering at Union Street Media in Burlington, also thinks the academy could produce potential hires for the local tech market.

"I've seen the syllabus that they put together, and I think it's a good one," he said. Choosing to emphasize JavaScript was the right call, LaMothe said. In addition to being marketable, he said, "It's a great language to teach fundamental computing concepts."

The code academy will emphasize learning by doing. On the first day, Chaffee said, students will learn to write a mobile app and launch it on their phone. Half the course time will be lecture, the other half lab time — during which students will take on projects with deadlines, as they would in the workplace.

"We want to get them right out of the gate writing actual applications that launch on the actual web that they can see on their actual phone," said Chaffee, "and send a link to their friends and loved ones to show off."

He noted that he'll teach students to program in pairs and sometimes in larger teams, because that model prevails in the workplace and often produces the best results. The stereotype of "the arrogant solo cowboy coder" is dated and not a recipe for career success in tech today, he emphasized.

So, what makes a good coder?

"You like puzzles. You get a rush from solving them," Chaffee said. "You have a high tolerance for frustration. You are easily bored, meaning you like to seek out new challenges. You have to be simultaneously detail oriented and imaginative."

Boas and Horner plan to bring employers such as MyWebGrocer and Union Street Media into the boot camp class for meet and greets as well as "demo days," when students show off their portfolios.

The boot camp will be a good addition to the local tech economy, predicted Dennis Moynihan, executive director of BTV Ignite. He said, "I think it's one more piece of the mix that we need in Vermont to help address the skills and talent gap."

The Burlington Code Academy launch party is Thursday, October 19, 6-9 p.m., at Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies in Burlington. Ben Boas represents Burlington Code Academy at "Career Shift: Local Options for Continuing Education" on Friday, October 20, noon to 1 p.m., at the Vermont Tech Jam, Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction. burlingtoncodeacademy.com, techjamvt.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Boot Up"

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