A Guide: Successfully Hiring Code Bootcamp Grads

The following is part 1 of a guest post series by Rob Gonzalez. You can find part 2 here and part 3 here. Rob is the co-founder of Salsify, a leading cloud-based product content management and syndication solution that I invested in in 2013 and where I currently serve on the board. Prior to founding Salsify, Rob was at IBM, Endeca and Cambridge Semantics in senior product management roles.

I frequently write about recruiting and onboarding best practices because I strongly believe that finding the right talent and setting them up for success is one of the top priorities for a founder and their early team. With competition for technical talent so fierce, Salsify has developed a process to hire new coding bootcamp grads and make them successful. I’ve invited Rob to share the details of their program to help other entrepreneurs who may be struggling to scale their teams, but have the management resources to tap into this relatively new talent pool.

At Matrix Partners, we’re big supporters of coding bootcamps. We’re investors in the Flatiron School in New York and are proud of their success and the opportunities they are creating for a whole new population of coders. Hiring a coding bootcamp grad is very different from hiring a new CS grad. While they have less technical knowledge and experience, you will generally be hiring someone extremely committed to learning and growth–important qualities in any long-term hire. But, as Rob will explain, you must have the structure and people to mentor and support these new grads if they and your company are to succeed together.

This is the first in a multi-part series Rob is publishing with TechCrunch. We’ll be publishing the series here for our forEntrepreneurs readers over the next few weeks.

I hope you enjoy,

David


 

Anyone hiring engineers in tech knows how much competition there is for talent; there just aren’t enough good engineers to go around.

As a result of the incredibly high demand for talent, the supply side has responded by launching coding bootcamps all over the country and, indeed, the world. Thousands of post-college adults are dropping their careers and spending months and many thousands of dollars in these bootcamps to become engineers.

Do Bootcamps Work?

I’ve heard quite a lot of skepticism about the coding bootcamps and, frankly, wouldn’t have considered hiring tech talent from them myself if the folks over at Cogo Labs hadn’t had success with it first.

To date, we’ve hired eight employees from Launch Academy and General Assembly and have been very happy with what they’ve been able to achieve since joining. In fact, they’ve meaningfully accelerated our development timelines in more than a dozen key initiatives.

Projects they’ve built (with guidance) include:

  • A review application enabling a multi-billion dollar distributor to review, approve and reject content refreshes from their supplier base. It’s currently in production, and we’re rolling it out to several other customers.
  • A micro-service that integrates with our core application to enable companies to share more information between accounts in real time.
  • An application that inspects data in extremely complicated, macro-heavy spreadsheets and fills out tens of thousands of cells for customers.
  • A micro-service that takes data from Salsify and posts it to Jet.com’s new API.
  • …many others.

These successes haven’t been without cost. We’ve invested a great deal of thought and work into designing a continuing education program with significant active mentorship to build on the (very basic) foundation from the bootcamps and help ensure each employee’s success from their first week on the job.

The remainder of this post details our experience working with code bootcamp graduates. We’ll share the program we put together, along with the types of projects we have them work on, to help you make them successful. Other posts in this series will focus on hiring lessons for employers, as well as tips for bootcamp grads themselves on where to work and how to succeed once in the door.

Develop A Farm System

We’ve seen some employers hire code bootcamp graduates and simply put them to work assembly line style on web app development. They’ll build basic Rails app after Rails app, or work on a small, constrained part of a larger Rails app where they can’t do much damage, and are basically expected to work with the skills they bring to the job — which aren’t many. Many of these are small consultancies that basically build simple apps for small businesses; these jobs pay the bills, but offer very limited professional growth and very limited skill development. This is a terrible shame.

Instead, we view our bootcamp graduate program as a farm system. Not all bootcampers will become full-on engineers, but by investing in them and — this is key — expecting more of them than basic web app development, we believe we can grow significant talent from within while having them accomplish increasingly complicated (and valuable) tasks over time.

What They Bring To The Table

To understand how we’ve made bootcamp graduates productive, it’s important to understand how we view them.

We see code bootcamp graduates as:

  • Motivated. Remember, these are people who dropped everything, including whatever they studied in college, to pursue a programming career.
  • Hungry. They’ve already jumped off the plane and done more in three months than any of them ever thought possible. They typically will dive in with abandon to any task given them.
  • Coachable. This is in contrast to a recent graduate from MIT or Harvard, who often thinks she/he knows everything from reading some blog posts (“Ruby is stupid; you should use Node”… sigh) and can be somewhat difficult to coach into true engineering.
  • Raw. Extremely raw. Three months of bootcamp is basically zero in the grand scheme of things.

There are so many smart, enthusiastic, coachable people graduating from code bootcamps these days that, if you can find a way to utilize them productively in your company, you’ll have a competitive advantage versus simply having to compete with Google, Facebook, Apple and others for the scarce resources that are computer science majors.

Conversely, if you are graduating and can find a great mentorship situation, your new career will be off to a very strong start. The more people we can create who can effectively program and master technology, the better off the world will be in the long run.

Part 2: Hiring Lessons For Employers

Part 3: Where To Work As A Bootcamp Grad

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Rob Gonzalez

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  • Hi Rob, thanks for sharing this experience with us. Given the difficulties many companies have in recruiting tech talent right now, this is very interesting. It might be too soon to know, but here are a couple things I’m wondering about:

    – Do you think that successful code bootcamp hires will tend to stay longer than average at your company, feeling more allegiance to the company that gave them a chance (as opposed to a new grad who might be more of a logo chaser)?

    – Have you had cases where the code bootcamp hire had plenty of qualities, but turned out not to improve their tech skills fast enough to meet expectations of progress?

    – Last but not least, how do you handle the initial compensation? Do you start with a lower salary and then move people up gradually as they reach the level of engineers with a more traditional training?

  • Rob Gonzalez

    Hi Guillaume-

    Great questions.

    1: Engineering turnover at Salsify has been zero in the last 3.5 years, so that’s a high bar to match for the bootcampers, and even an impossible bar for engineering itself to keep as we scale. I would expect the bootcampers who work out to be at least as sticky as our standard engineers, and probably more so because they appreciate being invested in. That said, bootcampers are riskier, and I think there is maybe a greater chance that one of them won’t work out compared to an engineer with experience (per your second question).

    2: In our current crop of 8 everyone has been improving consistently, though at different rates, and I think we got a little lucky in that. I built the initial marketing and sales functions at Salsify, and it’s really hard to hire 8 people without hitting 1 that doesn’t work out. A few bootcampers have definitely stalled progressing at various points – for example one stalled due to being too reliant on partners in pair programming, and another due to continued failure to plan – but we’ve helped them get break through and get back on the path. I’m sure some will plateau at some point, but thus far we haven’t seen an obvious ceiling for any of them.

    An interesting realization is that the key things that the bootcampers continue to struggle with are *exactly* the same things young engineers out of college struggle with: breaking down a problem to an appropriate level of detail, estimating a problem, not going down a rat hole. To a large extent I’m coming around to believing that those things slow them down more than lack of coding experience does, and I have a theory that if we can really teach those skills effectively the bootcampers would be nearly as productive as core engineers. I’ll let you know if that works out!

    3: Comp: yes, that’s exactly right. To be frank, I had no idea what to pay them, so I asked the bootcamp folks and sanity checked numbers with our in-house recruiter. We offered toward the higher end of the range (still less than engineers fresh out of college would make) and set up a promotion path to grow. I’m happy to share our comp structure with you if you send me an email. We’re in Boston so the #s are generally lower than they would have to be in e.g. SF, but it’ll at least be a data point.

    best,
    Rob

  • Hi again Rob, thanks for the detailed reply! Both enlightening and promising, especially the part about progress & hitting the same type of issues. I’m thinking that being able to teach people how to code could by itself become a key competency for tech companies looking to scale, in the same way that hiring is.

    I also wonder in which category of Triplebyte’s recent taxonomy they would fall: https://data.triplebyte.com/a-taxonomy-of-programmers-d0e9d8529808 => what’s interesting is that since you’re working with “brand new” developers, if your internal training process is strong enough you get a chance to turn them into the exact type of programmers that your company looks for.

    There’s a second topic that is interesting: given that bootcamp hires will usually have had a different career beforehand, they might have developed a stronger sense of the need of end users (as opposed to more tech-focused engineers), which may in fact be an advantage in and of itself (see https://data.triplebyte.com/who-y-combinator-companies-want-c1880a08ac88 on this topic). Did you find this to be somewhat true?

  • Rob Gonzalez

    Thanks for the Triplebyte link; I hadn’t seen that before. I think they’re trial & error programmers & practical programmers.

    re: previous careers: I don’t find that it makes them better product people, but I do find that they are more mature and more appreciative of what a tech career really has to offer vs. the alternatives (after all, each chose tech over at least one alternative).

    If you’ve been killing yourself in law or finance etc. for 5 years and then switch to programming, to you every day at work is like the Best Day Ever compared to what you were doing before. The bootcampers at Salsify have this infectious I LOVE THIS JOB attitude that is really inspiring.

    This perspective is very different than a kid fresh out of college, who is more likely to take the work/life balance offered in tech and the inherent flexibility of work hours in the field for granted.

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