Handcuffs For Hacker Schools? Why A “Code Of Conduct” For Coding Bootcamps Could Actually Be Good For The Ecosystem

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The explosion in both online and offline programming platforms over the last year has made one thing clear: Learning to code is hot. (With two “t’s.”) Well, that and the fact that our traditional education system doesn’t seem to be pulling its weight as far as computer science education is concerned. (See here.) Literally, hundreds of hacker academies and “learn to code” schools have emerged, each promising to teach aspiring developers and engineers to speak the language of programming, and even to get a job.

Furthermore, there’s no better indication of the fact that a potentially disruptive model has entered the world — or that these new hacker schools are more than just passing fancy — than when the government steps in with regulation. Last week, that’s exactly what happened in California, as VentureBeat reported that the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE), a division within the California Department of Consumer Affairs, had sent cease and desist letters to seven of these hacker academies.

The Shock

As the story went, these C&D letters essentially threatened the seven schools with $50,000 fines and imminent closure were they not to comply with the BPPE’s list of demands. Naturally, this ignited an uproar within the tech industry (case in point), with that reaction essentially taking the shape of, “How dare the government hinder these fledgling platforms?” It’s not an unfamiliar response from a community focused on tearing down walls, on pushing boundaries, and it wouldn’t be the first time a government body were found acting as a hindrance rather than a help.

Confusion and enmity would also be an understandable reaction from the coding schools themselves. For these platforms, there’s a lot at stake in the apparent laundry list of expected compliances: There’s the threat of closure, the $50K fine, and then there are the months it could potentially take for the platforms to meet those regulatory demands, and the implicit possibility of bankruptcy as they wait for government approval.

What’s more, the list of expected compliances has been mostly hazy up to this point. Given that the thrust of these regulations stem from the California Private Postsecondary Education Act of 2009 — and that the BPPE itself owes its origins to both that legislation and its perceived reputation as a “diploma mill” in the ’80s — one can understand that the headlines up to this point have mostly focused on the impending doom of these platforms and the seemingly random interference from a government body most had never heard of previously.

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As a result, some “learn to code” schools assumed that they would be subject to every compliance both within the Act and within California Code of Regulations. For example, the list of compliances one finds under in Article 1 of “Minimum Institutional Operating Standards” under California Code would make anyone groan. If coding schools are going to be viewed under the same terms as traditional academic institutions, and thus expected to meet the same compliance mandates, then a quick read would make it seem as if they would be expected to meet almost ridiculous expectations, like offering a “library” facility, for example.

The Reality

However, after speaking with Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs and the BPPE, a different story has begun to emerge. Heimerich told us, essentially, that the C&D letters were sent to get the attention of hacker academies and learn to code platforms, and that the BPPE does not expect to hand out any fines or close down any schools in the near future. That is, he says, as long as the seven academies completed the application process.

Once completed, they would not be liable to any of the threats first mentioned in the letters, and it was not the BPPE’s intention to follow through with any of the threats as long as the schools displayed an effort to go through the application process.

Instead, Heimerich said, the legislation and the BPPE itself, were put in place to protect the rights of students, particularly against fraud. The BPPE is treating the schools in question much as it would any other trade school. As long as an institution is offering education of any kind to students for a fee, it’s subject to the same basic laws as any other trade school in California and needs to be in compliance.

What To Expect

As to what the BPPE actually expects from coding schools, the requirements appear to be far less nefarious than they may have originally appeared. First off, the organization will be looking to make sure that these schools are offering an enrollment agreement “that passes legal muster,” the spokesman said, and are enforceable, so that the student knows what they’re getting. And, if the education doesn’t meet expectations, that there is some measure of accountability.

Second, the spokesman said, BPPE wants to make sure that each instructor meets some basic requirements — i.e. they have three years experience in Ruby, if that’s what they’re teaching. “We’re not going to do a deep dive into the educational background of instructors, but we do want to make sure they have some experience,” he said.

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Third, the BPPE wants coding schools and the like to offer a basic course catalog, which displays what courses or modules the school offers. While the regulations do require schools to notify the BPPE should their courses or curricula change — a point that many founders worried about given the implied changeability of what’s popular in terms of course material and the flexibility of programs to adapt to what students want — the spokesman claims that they want to be reasonable as far as this is concerned.

“We recognize that things change, and in coding instruction, if schools change, tweak or add modules, that’s not going to be a problem,” he said. Only if an academy were to make substantive changes, like, say, adding a new certificate program focusing on auto repair, would they be expected to notify the government.

The other issue that the BPPE will be focused on is ensuring that schools don’t “over-sell their placement and completion rates.” The BPPE wants to ensure that the information these schools are displaying publicly — as in “98 percent of our students have gone on to get a job in programming,” for example — are accurate. But, again, the spokesman clarified that the goal is to avoid the type of “fly by night” programs that “promise the sky but don’t deliver.”

Instead, all seven of the schools that were sent C&D letters are likely to be in the clear after completing the application process that will register them with the state, he said, and all have shown willingness to work with the government to comply with the law. The spokesman also said that the BPPE would be working with the first seven schools to help them better understand the application process, the expectations, and to assist them in “expediting the process” as much as possible.

The Benefits?

The other issue that has made many cringe has to do with expectations that the government will be doing a full curricular review of each course offered by the learn to code schools. Understandably, many balk at the idea that a potentially bureaucratic government institutions which had little (if any) knowledge of these learn to code academies 30 days before should be playing any part in determining what the curriculum should be for cutting-edge software and programming schools, courses and teachers.

However, the BPPE spokesman said that the government will not in fact be doing any serious curricular review or look to play any part in determining what schools teach or how they do it. Instead, the organization wants to “make sure that these schools have the tools that they say they do and the instructional wherewithal to follow through with their promise.”

Again, none of the platforms the BPPE has looked at appear to give any reason to doubt their validity or their ability to meet these requirements, he said; instead, it’s about getting the ball rolling and preventing potential pop-up, “fly by night” schools from scamming students out of their money.

Furthermore, there’s another potential benefit for these learn to code platforms in coming into compliance. Many of these schools purport to be on a mission to diversify the tech community by allowing those who traditionally wouldn’t have had access to the equivalent of a computer science degree to get a quality education and, ideally, to get a job. Once approved by the BPPE, these platforms would be able to apply for and offer financial aid to there students. And, considering that many charge over $10K per program, the ability to receive financial aid could make these programs more accessible to a wider socioeconomic audience.

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The Other Side

All that being said, this does not mean that learn to code schools aren’t in for a headache, and that things aren’t going to change. There is certainly an argument to be made that an institution like BPPE is a relic of an era in which “diploma mills” were rampant, but today with ratings sites like Yelp, online communities and social networks, word will spread quickly were a fraudulent program to rear its head.

If there are already consumer protection laws in place to protect against fraud, false advertising and so on, do we really need another government body to regulate these unaccredited coding programs? Some would say “no,” and in spite of the BPPE’s claims that it’s just trying to protect students, it’s not unreasonable to see it as unnecessary interference.

What’s more, if there have been no complaints of fraudulent programs or complains against any of the programs that received C&D letters, why now? The answer to that question is a little unclear at this point, but from what we could gather from the BPPE, it seems to be a matter of the fact that these learn to code platforms are now pervasive enough, and popular enough, that they can no longer be ignored — for better or worse.

The other question is whether the kind of blended programs we see in so many of the new hacker academies and learn to code outfits are, by their more digital and future-of-the-world economy-facing nature, fundamentally different from the types of blended vocational colleges that have existed for so long. Certainly, many would argue that they are, and that bogus schools will be so easy to spot thanks to realtime communication networks and review platforms that this essentially equates to just a lot of red tape.

Implications

Furthermore, if the majority of these hacker schools are truly as education and outcome-focused as they say they are (and there’s reason to believe them, given that their very value so often hinges on the ability of their teachers and curricula to place students in jobs afterwards), then aren’t they, by nature, a step above traditional vocational schools? And as such, shouldn’t they be subject to different regulations and compliances?

There’s very definitely an argument to made along those lines. However, the hope is that, after the first seven guinea pigs successfully navigate the application process, they and those who follow will be able to work with governing bodies to determine which regulations make sense and which are archaic — or inapplicable. In the meantime, the BPPE has made it clear that they do not see it as their job to evaluate the true quality of teachers or of the programs themselves — only to prevent clones or fraudulent pop-ups from spoiling the party for everyone else.

This means that it will be up to the coding school community, or some enterprising entrepreneur, to create a Yelp-style review system or a U.S. News and World Report-esque ranking manual (like a more exhaustive CourseReport or bootcamper.io.). To a certain degree, evaluation tools or guidelines for “hacker academy” benchmarking will be up to the schools themselves.

It also seems as if it may be up to them to create their own sort of oversight committee, or some method or means to standardize what “makes a competent Ruby on Rails developer” or how we can collectively identify the elusive, magical creature we know as a “growth hacker” — and evaluate those creatures. It’s up to them, just as it’s up to them to ensure they’re providing top-notch, over-qualified teachers, physical classroom or co-working-style space to learn in and curricula that actually help students get jobs.

Either way, in the BPPE’s case, if the governing body is good to its word and is not actually looking to shut any of these programs down right out of the gate, and doesn’t want to handicap these institutions with months of paperwork and compliances, then sending seven threatening C&D letters probably wasn’t the best approach. But, then again, it seems to be the government’s way, and seems not to be anything more than an over-zealous warning shot.

Coding Academy Founders Weigh In

Anthony Phillips, the co-founder of Hack Reactor, one of the programs to receive a C&D letter, said that the government’s approach was almost “too effective.” They certainly got their attention, he said. But, luckily, the BPPE seems to be about “working with us and making everything fit together, not to regulate these programs in such a way as would hamstring them, he continued, and instead they just want to make sure all the schools will come to the table.

Phillips did worry that requiring three years of teaching from a program’s educators could handcuff Hack Reactor and other programs, even though they have teachers who are former employees of some of the most well-respected tech companies in the world. Regardless of their chops, however, were the government to require every teacher to have at least three years of experience, that could potentially negate the benefit of these experienced programmers.

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However, judging by the BPPE’s reaction, they will be looking to make sure teachers have at least three years of experience in the subject they’re teaching — not necessarily three years of actual educational experience. So that may help to assuage some of the fear.

Ultimately, Phillips said that he welcomed regulation of the “learn to code” world, and in some cases, would recommend that the BPPE hold schools to even higher standards. The willingness to work with the government and, over time, develop better standards for how this nascent unaccredited education space should be regulated and viewed was echoed by a number of companies we spoke with.

Russell Klusas, the co-founder of Tradecraft, a “learn to code”-style program for UX, sales and growth hackers, said that he hopes that this process would eventually lead to a deeper conversation about how to define (and make clear) the standards for non-technical jobs and non-technical programs as well.

Imagine when there are thousands of these programs, he says, which could potentially impede the ability of these platforms to bring their students up to speed and get them contributing on day one of their jobs. Those schools might not be meeting expectations of students, but without some sort of oversight, they would be allowed to continue operating and would be sucking business away from those programs that were meeting standards.

David J. Phillips, the co-founder of Hackbright Academy, another one of the schools that received a C&D letter and one of the few to be focused solely on educating women, told TechCrunch:

The good news is that this industry is thriving and it’s positively transforming the way we close the skills gap and employ more Californians … and we’d love to see the state of California do things to support this new ecosystem of innovative education startups …. As we take the appropriate steps towards compliance, we are also open to working with the state to figure out how to enable and support this education ecosystem to continue to do great work and create jobs for more Californians.

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Kush Patel, co-founder of App Academy, also echoed this sentiment, saying that regulation, within reason is welcome, as long as it prevents fraud another consumer abuses. “We welcome oversight and are working towards compliance as quickly as we can,” he told us.

The Final Word

In the end, it may not be a short road for these platforms to apply for state approval, and receive that approval. And, unfortunately, for the first seven — which include App Academy, Dev Bootcamp, Hackbright Academy, Hack Reactor, and Zipfian Academy — they’ll likely act as the test group for the state of California. Hopefully, once the first seven go through the process, it will help clear the way for others, and we won’t have to see any more headlines declaring the end of learn to code platforms as we know them.

This is important, because, as mentioned above, there are literally hundreds of these learn to code and hacker academies now operating across the U.S., according to The Kapor Center. Many programs differ from each other in courses offered, pricing, expectations and the quality of education.

But, as a whole, these platforms aren’t going anywhere — unless the U.S. education system magically reincarnates as a totally different being entirely and vaults forward 100 years — and the BPPE and the state of California will likely become a test case among other states as they look to adopt policy regarding these ever-proliferating programs. Hopefully, the government will live up to its promise, and no unwarranted interference is on the way.

That said, keep your fingers crossed, aspiring coders of the world. Keep those fingers crossed.

For more, find the BPPE at home here.

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