A year ago, Peggy Fox was analysing grades and other data on student performance for Chicago Public Schools in a grant-funded position that was about to expire.
Now Fox, 28, is a month out of a 19-week computer programming "boot camp" and is building an app that helps those hopping on a Divvy bike map out rides. She's also busy lining up interviews for entry-level coding gigs around the city.
"I wanted to be able to create things, not just analyse a piece of data and then pass it off to someone else," she said.
By learning enough about coding to become what's known in the industry as a "full-stack" web developer, Fox says she has now expanded her skills to be able to take on a variety of technology roles, far beyond her data analysis background.
But first Fox needed to learn the basics. Until this summer she had only dabbled in via the free instructional website Codecademy.com. That effort led Fox to Dev Bootcamp, one of a growing number of immersive technical schools geared to preparing people, regardless of their skills or background, for jobs in the technology industry.
There are dozens of full- and part-time, for-profit and non-profit training grounds for would-be coders to learn online or in classrooms around the country. In Chicago, Dev Bootcamp is known as one of the more time-intensive programmes with a 19-week courseload that includes a nine-week full-time boot camp and a team of career advisers to help students connect with employers at hundreds of companies around the city. It also costs US$12,200 (RM44,035) in tuition — comparable to a year of in-state tuition at the University of Illinois.
"The financial commitment was the biggest thing (and made her think) 'Should I spend all of this money and do this?' " Fox said. "And the other thing was, 'Am I going to make one more pivot in my career, and what if that doesn't really work out?' But I felt like the skill set would be useful no matter what."
During the full-time portion of the programme, students are expected to log 60-plus hours a week of lessons and practice, including coding challenges, networking events, job interview prep, and mandatory yoga — yes, mandatory yoga.
The yoga classes are meant to help students relax and focus, and are part of an ethos of looking at the student holistically, not just in terms of their tech skills, said Dave Hoover, Dev Bootcamp's Chicago-based co-founder.
Dev Bootcamp graduates a new cohort of around two dozen junior-level coders, the majority of them Millennials, every three weeks, with a job placement rate of 95% after six months out of the programme, according to Emily Heist Moss, the school's marketing manager.
With the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting more than one million technology jobs being created by 2020 around the United States, Hoover expects more and more people to look to them for help gaining a foothold in an industry that seems to promise engaging work, starting salaries in excess of US$50,000 (RM179,435) a year and that elusive feeling of job security.
Hiring people with the right skills can be challenging for some technology companies outside of Silicon Valley, which is widely regarded as the industry's epicentre in the US, according to Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the New York City-based think tank Centre for an Urban Future. But technology companies in other cities are hiring, often at a faster rate than other industries.
"In a lot of cities, the tech sector is exploding, and it's hard for a lot of companies to hire as fast as they need to," he said. "There's a mismatch, because these companies need lots and lots of talented workers, but a lot of these cities like New York and Chicago have significant unemployment rates, people who would love to get decent tech industry jobs but lack the specific skills that are needed."
Dubbed accelerator programs — Dev Bootcamp, General Assembly and Mobile Makers Academy, are helping "fill the void," Bowles said.
Though the majority of these programs are based in San Francisco, Chicago's playing field is growing. After starting in San Francisco in 2012, Dev Bootcamp expanded to Chicago in 2013. Mobile Makers Academy, which runs an eight-week course in mobile app development opened its headquarters in Chicago in 2012. And General Assembly, a similarly immersive web development training program with locations around the US, expanded to Chicago recently.
The organisation began hosting short-term workshops out of the tech incubator 1871 — in the Merchandise Mart — in November, and its first 12-week programme will launch in March.
"Chicago was a natural next step for us," said Anna Lindow, an operations manager at General Assembly. "We find that cities with big communities of young professionals are great for us, and that is very present in Chicago. It's also a great place for start-ups as well as established businesses, and as people are looking for promotions or to change careers, they might end up at General Assembly."
These programmes could be a boon for Chicago's technology scene in particular because Chicago still struggles to command the same legitimacy and name recognition as the San Francisco Bay Area or even New York City's "Silicon Alley," according to Michael Stanton, a partner at the venture capital firm LearnCapital, an early investor in General Assembly.
"The career accelerator is a key piece of the ecosystem that needs to exist. For Chicago, sure there is a small vibrant ecosystem, but it just doesn't get much coverage," he said.
But even with the promise of an ever-growing job market there are caveats. Steven Tadelis, a professor at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business, suggests that would-be programmers be wary of programmes that purport to teach neophytes to code, but don't have a stellar track-record.
"I would want to see if the schools that offer these crash courses have documented lists of who took the classes and what their jobs are, say, three to six months after finishing," he said.
Another potential stumbling block could be how the need for entry-level talent leads to a greater need for senior-level programmers to manage and train them — people who are much tougher to recruit and hire.
"They are graduating so many talented and smart and driven people, but not all development jobs are junior-level," said Molly Jones, a recruiter for the local software company Sprout Social.
"There's an interesting balance when you're hiring junior developers, because you need more senior and mid-level folks to support and mentor those junior level folks."
At Sprout Social, which has hired four graduates from Dev Bootcamp since it opened shop in Chicago, Jones said lower level programmers are paired with more senior mentors to meet as teams and write code in pairs. That means she can't always fill an open position with someone coming straight out of school.
But when she is looking for junior-level developers, Jones said she looks favourably on people coming out of the boot camp.
"They teach workshops and host meet-ups. They're the first folks to volunteer here at Sprout when we have some kind of tech event," she said. "They didn't have prior programming knowledge, and they took the initiative to be in this programme, so perhaps they're just people who take initiative; and those are the people we want to hire." — Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service