Why more and more Torontonians are shelling out $10K for coding crash courses

A growing number of people in Toronto are spending up to $10,500 to learn digital skills like coding and web design they hope will propel them into the tech sector, with new schools opening up to meet the demand.

Boot camps offer ultra-compact programs that promise to teach digital skills in a handful of weeks

27-year-old Umar Khan works to learn the ins and outs of JavaScript as part of a ten week web development boot camp at Brainstation in downtown Toronto. He's part of a growing number of people turning to boot camps for an ultra-compact digital education.

A growing number of people in Toronto are spending up to $10,500 to learn digital skills, such as computer coding and web design, in the hopes that they will land jobs in the tech sector.

And new schools are opening to meet the demand.

"It's grown tremendously," said Jeremy Shaki, co-founder of Lighthouse Labs, which offers web development boot camps. The school doubled the number of its graduates between 2015 and 2016.

"In the past two years, a lot has changed."

​The schools, which charge between $8,500 and $10,500 for their full-time programs, don't require that applicants have a background in computer science.

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Instead, the schools start from scratch, plunging students who make it past the application process into a whirlwind of lectures and group work, all with the promise of being employable by the end of the courses.

"Our percentage is 95 per cent employed within 90 days [of graduation,]" Shaki said.

Jeremy Shaki, co-founder of Lighthouse Labs, said that he's seen enormous growth in the tech boot camp sector in Toronto. By the end of 2017, Lighthouse will graduate 250 web developers, 'Bigger than, for instance, most comp sci programs in University,' he said. (Lighthouse Labs)

Boot camp boomtown

It's a model that is drawing many would-be students.

Hacker You, the first tech boot camp to open its doors, began with 30 part-time students in 2012. In 2017, it expects to graduate nearly 1000 in its full and part-time programs. 

There's been more interest from the general public... I think it goes naturally alongside with the job market itself.- Jason Field, Brainstation

RED Academy, which opened last April, is already shopping for a new space to fit its growing number of students, which it says has increased by 367 per cent since it got started.

Meanwhile, new schools are putting down roots in the city. Level, a boot camp for data analytics created by Northeastern University, will welcome its first class in February.

"There's been more interest from the general public," said Jason Field, founder and CEO of Brainstation, which offers a range of boot camps and is also hunting for more space to hold students.  

"I think it goes naturally alongside with the job market itself."

Field pointed to a report released by the Information and Communications Technology Council, which describes a growing talent gap in Canada in the digital sector.

"Every company is a technology company at this point. These skill sets are so invaluable," Field said.  

Who are the students?

Boot camp founders stress that they take students from all walks of life, from people straight out of a high school to older professionals.

Many, though, are people in their mid-to-late 20s and early 30s looking to change the course of their career.

"About 40 per cent [of students] have taken some kind of post-secondary education, primarily focused on softer skills, let's say history or social science," said Andrew Mawer, CEO at Bitmaker.

"They are finding that they don't have a lot of tangible skills that employers want."

That rings true for Jamie Elliott, a 24-year-old who studied international development, geography and English.

Unable to find a stable job, she eventually made her way to Hacker You to study web development. Two weeks after finishing, she was hired as a front-end developer at Rogers.

"I've been working here for six months now, where almost 10 other graduates from HackerYou work as full-timers or on contract," she said.

At Brainstation, 27-year-old Stephanie Stewart is now three weeks into a User Experience Design program.

Stewart's background is in kinesiology, but after working in clinics, she found the work repetitive. When she decided to build a career that combined web design and health, she eschewed a two-year master's program in favour of a ten-week boot camp.

"They're teaching us the most advanced tools. I find that colleges and universities can be a little bit behind in that sense," she said.

Stephanie Stewart, right, at work with a classmate in her User Experience Design boot camp. She hopes to use her background in kinesiology to build a career that combines digital design and the health sector. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

Where does a university education fit in?

That depends on who you ask.

"The biggest driver of growth has been people viewing this as a legitimate alternative to other post-secondary education options," said Mawer.  

"Suddenly, a lifelong education looks more like four nine-week or 12-week boot camps over two decades of someone's life... versus doing a four year chunk right out of high school."

Others, like Shaki and Field, see boot camps as complementary to four-year programs.

"[University's] about higher learning and thinking," said Shaki.

"I think boot camps are proving it's okay to go to university and get less practical applicable skills and build a network of people and learn how to function like an adult."

The line between a university or college education and a boot camp can be fuzzy.

Several boot camp providers in Toronto, including Hacker You and Brainstation, are registered as private career colleges. Others, like newly-arrived Level, are built out of a university, giving students the option of using their boot camp experience as credits towards a master's degree.

'You're buying a product'

Paul Gries, a University of Toronto computer science professor, applauds the rise of boot camps, arguing that the more people who are learning to program, the better.

"I think there's so many people who are interested in doing this that there's not going to be a dearth of interest in either [universities or bootcamps.]"

But Gries does have a warning for prospective students.

"When people pick their boot camps, they need to do a lot of research. They're buying a product," he said.

David Mason, a Ryerson University computer science professor, said it's important to try out working with computers in a continuing education course or at a "learn-to-code" event before jumping in.

"Committing to a significant outlay of cash on spec is a pretty questionable process. I would suggest they get their feet wet."