Coding For All: Makersquare Aims to Expand the Programming Corps

7/8/14Follow @angelashah

Ravi Parikh was a health IT student at the University of Texas at Austin, which has one of the top computer science departments in the country.

“They were teaching us about how IT worked, and how to sell and implement it, but they weren’t teaching us how to write the code,” he says. “UT doesn’t teach Web development in the computer science degree. I wanted to learn how to code.”

That realization led him and three friends—one had worked for Teach for America, another gave up a job at Facebook—to start “the course we wish we would have attended,” in the form of Makersquare. The Austin, TX-based coding school aims to bridge the gap between formal educational programs that teach higher-level thinking and the day-to-day programming skills needed by technology companies.

“College computer science classes … don’t focus on current tools and best practices,” says Josh Baer, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Austin’s Capital Factory who is a Makersquare advisor. “My computer science degree made it so that I can teach myself programming languages. But it didn’t really teach me the programming languages, which will change over time.”

Code schools are a booming business. The number of graduates of such bootcamp programs is expected to jump to nearly 6,000 people this year compared to nearly 2,200 in 2013, according to the Course Report, an online database of coding schools.

Just a few weeks ago, the educational behemoth Kaplan announced it was buying Dev Bootcamp, a two-year-old San Francisco provider of programming classes. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Makersquare graduated its first cohort of students last June in Austin and opened a San Francisco campus soon after, serving about 200 students on both campuses. I met Parikh recently while he was in Houston doing some reconnaissance and preparation as the startup plans to start classes here in Houston in September at the co-working space Start Houston.

Programming isn’t of interest only to those on the technical side, Parikh says. Makersquare is seeing enrollment from people in HR, accounting, and recruiting. “Technology is in every single industry across the board at this point,” he says.

Here is a condensed version of our conversation:

Xconomy: What does Makersquare teach? Who are your students?

Ravi Parikh: We teach people to code at all levels … part-time and immersive. There’s a lot of demand for people to learn the basics. They want to do their own websites. A custom website developer can charge $3,000 to $6,000 but you can do that on your own. The immersive courses are for people who want to be in Web development. They’ve already been in tech for two years, in sales or marketing. This provides them with the knowledge to get them through a technical screen for an admissions process. They want to learn this because it’s the largest segment in the job market. We attract a lot of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) people.

In the part-time program, one group we have is recruiters. A lot of recruiters don’t know what they’re recruiting for; they just look for buzzwords in a profile. They don’t actually understand the profile. We give them the context to understand what front-end design and back-end design means and make them effective. Designer can create Photoshop mockups of websites, but can’t make the site themselves. People in marketing can embed analytics tracking capabilities by adding in small snippets of code.

The last segment of our students is sales. They are often selling SAAS products and customers will ask about API integrations, services working together. Most salespeople are unable to answer; they have to ask a developer.

We are starting to do corporate trainings. Rosetta Stone approached us to teach 20 people. This is a route we’re going down. These companies want to send entire sales and marketing departments to us.

X: How are you different from community colleges and other courses like this?

RP: The issue with community colleges is that they are not attracting the top talent to teach these types of topics. We are regulated by the state but we are non-accredited. This means our curriculum can advance at a fast pace, we can keep up with the trends. You will not find a community college teaching bootstrap in Foundation. They have a two-year lag in their curriculum, but the technology changes every year. Last year, the demand was in Ruby. Now, it’s 50 percent Ruby and 50 percent JavaScript.

Our curriculum is vetted by the companies. When we first started, we talked to companies: What do you find valuable?

The [U.S.] Department of Labor is getting on a lot of large schools’ case. They are graduating a lot of people without producing good outcomes. Our focus is outcomes. We measure recruiting numbers, what percent of our students have full-time employment three months after the program. [Editor's note: Makersquare says 19 of the 20 students its first class last year received full-time job offers with salaries ranging from $45,000 to $90,000.]

X: Who are your competitors?

RP: There is Ironyard in Houston and Codeup in San Antonio. Nationally, there are places like Hackreactor, Dev Bootcamp, Flatiron School, General Assembly, App Academy.

This whole industry was born about two and a half years ago. Kaplan acquired Dev Bootcamp. That signals that this industry actually works. They [Kaplan] want to get involved in outcomes training. We’re about one and a half years old, not the first but among the earlier wave of schools that came out. There are now about 70 schools across the country.

X: How did you raise money to put on the classes? Is it difficult setting up an educational institution?

RP: We’re completely bootstrapped. We each put in $5,000 to get started. We were working out of my parents’ house in first three months in Austin. The tuition is paid up front, so we always have money. We’re regulated by the state, so we have to maintain certain financial ratios. We’re required to have that in the event the school closes. We would have to refund everyone their tuition back.

[Regulation is] one of the national debates. The California government is cracking down on some schools.

I think we should be regulated. There’s so much demand right now; it’s like a gold rush. Consumers can easily be taken advantage of. There’s lot of debate about national regulation and how it’s bad and slows down innovation. But it seems like Texas has been playing ball with us, allowing us to move our curriculum at the pace it needs to.

X: What’s the end goal?

RP: Disrupt education. We started with technology because that’s where there’s a huge demand but this is applicable to all industries: accounting, art, different types of engineers. We can teach product design, production management, marketing. How do you run social media campaigns, paid advertising campaigns? There is no formal education for this. You have to figure out how to do it, and hope you’re doing it right. Maybe find a mentor.

The biggest thing about teaching is personality. There are a lot of developers that could do it but they need to be able to deal with students’ questions and answer clearly. We have them teach a sample lesson… to see how their delivery is. Some people are naturals at it. They come in for a full day and TA with the students and based on that, we make an offer. One person didn’t work out but in general it works.

Surprisingly, a lot of people are interested in doing this. Code changes a lot of people’s lives, like with 30 percent salary bumps, and they want to be part of that.

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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