San Jose-based Coding Dojo wasn't supposed to be a school at all. As CEO Richard Wang explained to SFist last fall, the private postsecondary school's founder, Michael Choi, was managing several startups including real estate company Zurple. Struggling to onboard qualified engineers and developers, many of them with college degrees in areas outside of technical engineering expertise, Choi developed a training program and curriculum that, in the school's telling of its origin story, eclipsed his other work. Last fall, Coding Dojo had 600 students enrolled in courses like its onsite Silicon Valley 3 Full Stack program, a 14-week training camp priced at $13,495.
"With the demand for web engineer jobs, students are really able to create a career right away with an above average salary," Wang said. "People just like to build things and solve hard problems, and being a web developer or engineer allows people to do more than transactional work. That's why people are really attracted to this field."
That, and perhaps Coding Dojo's self-proclaimed 92-percent hire rate for jobs after the program has finished. Many bootcamp attendees are learning skills they might once have been trained in on the job, but now a secondary market of "camps" and "academies" with big promises, rigorous applications, low acceptance rates, and even alumni networks have filled in a growing technical gap.
But sending students to jobs in an economic sector with some noted scorn for regulation, Coding Dojo and similar startup schools for tech jobs have faced criticism and even sanctions. In 2014, the program was one of 17 similar bootcamps operating without a license in California that received a letter from the state's Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education according to the Chronicle. Nine of those letters were of the cease-and-desist variety, threatening shutdowns if applications for licenses weren't received. Eight of those have submitted an application of some kind while only two have received licenses outright. As were four others, Coding Dojo was fined $50,000 for operating without a license.
As part of California's Department of Consumer Affairs, the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education concerns itself with “basic consumer protection" according to its chief Joanne Wenzel. While vocational schools must be licensed before they open and accept students, schools of this nature "don’t see [themselves] as a traditional education," Wenzel said.
But with traditional education comes traditional protections and insurances. If a licensed school shuts down mid-term, for example, students have recourse to seek reimbursements from a Student Tuition Recovery Fund. Furthermore, schools must publicly disclose verified program-completion and job-placement rates as well as alumni salary ranges. While school's like Coding Dojo taut some such figures, those aren't double-checked by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education as they might otherwise be.
But Jenna Wolfe, who serves as director of corporate and legal affairs for Coding Dojo, has a different story to tell to the Chronicle. “We submitted our full application for licensure in early June of 2015,” she said. “We pretty quickly got a confirmation that the office received it. We haven’t heard anything since then.”
Wenzel admits there's a backlog, but adds that "for most of these applications that we have pending, it has taken a while to get complete and compliant applications from them," and even some schools that received cease-and-desist letters “have never responded to us.”
In 2014, a task force began meeting on the subject of coding schools, and eventually it recommended that coding programs receive “an expedited approval process for coding boot camps.” “These are untested programs," Angela Perry, a law fellow at San Francisco civil rights law firm Public Advocates, told the Chronicle. "Most approvals are delayed because schools make errors in filling out their paperwork. We think that should raise a red flag."
However, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with coding boot camps,” Perry went on. “We just want to make sure if a student is investing $10,000 or $20,000 for a 10- or 12-week program, they are getting the services that are promised.”