P2P Tech Skills: Are You a Napster or an iTunes?

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By Patrick Lamson-Hall                                                                                                              Illustration by Jason Walton

Tech education has historically been expensive or bad (or both – University of Phoenix Online, for instance). It also has taken a long time. Even a relatively quick “intensive” certificate at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies takes about a year. Peer-to-Peer (P2P) education changes the existing model by offering modularized classes taught by professionals who are currently working in the field.

P2P courses are growing incredibly fast. Good numbers are difficult to find, but statements from the institutions themselves imply that growth is more than 100 percent per year. New branches of popular schools are opening all the time, and the downmarket penetration is increasing, meaning it’s becoming easier to get in.

There are two things driving this trend. One is the severe downcycling of back-end development activities, which are basically now outsourced to places like India and Chile. This has made basic coding and development skills a less important part of finding a job at a startup or tech company. The other is the growth in purveyors of this new type of education, making it easier to find and take a course, and making employers more open to these kinds of credentials.

Because P2P education is ultimately about connecting those who have (in this case, skills) with those who want, it’s useful and fun to rank P2P offerings of accelerated tech education on a Napster to iTunes spectrum.


Napster (Free Schools)


On the Napster side, there are firms like Hacker School in New York City and App Academy in San Francisco. Hacker School is tuition-free, and they offer need-based grants for living expenses. Courses are three months long and focus on coding and problem-solving skills. You apply to get in, with about 35 people accepted per “batch” or three-month period.

The approach is “largely unstructured, self-directed, and project-based,” according to the Pedagogy section of the FAQs. This is because they “value internal motivation over external motivation, and self-direction over coercion.” They don’t have teachers; they have facilitators who are basically people like you and me but with more experience in the tech world. Their business model relies on placing graduates in programming jobs after graduation. Hacker School gets a placement fee. While this is an obvious win for all parties, it’s unclear if the business model is scalable and sustainable on the long-term.

Neil Depres, a successful IT manager (and a college dropout) says, “I’ve never hired based on any education – it’s all about real world experience for me. What I assume when I see these things on a resume is that the person is keeping up with trends in tech and the world, and that they’re ambitious and have a desire to learn independently, which I put a lot of value on.”


Torrents (Online Open Courses)


In the middle are the massive online open courses, usually offered for free or cheap by major universities. MOOCs are like downloading a torrent – you’re never totally sure what you’re getting. These courses are listed in databases and are usually self-paced, meaning they can be completed comparatively quickly. They consist of lectures and tests, but generally no projects. You can imagine the logistical difficulty of evaluating crowd-sourced projects.

At the end of the course, there are badges, letters, and certificates offered that explain what you have accomplished. These are generally also free.

A brief scan of reviews on the popular MOOC website Class Central gives some insight into how well these classes work. For one thing, most of the courses have no reviews, and have never been taken. The courses that do have reviews tend to emphasize that the content is high-quality, but the format is disorganized:

“Work submissions and discussions happened on forums, and from the start it became overwhelming. Few students got a lot of attention, the rest – none, but everybody was spammed by the course notifications and emails.”

“I don’t think all students got a feedback(grade) for their work.”

A minority of classes seem really useful and interesting:

“Compared to classes I took in University, this course did a substantially better job of laying out basic concepts.”

“When you finish, you will know enough to address most of your coding requirements (“be dangerous”), or know where to find what you need to know.”

Unfortunately, the completion rate for MOOCs are usually less than 10 percent. The lack of personal connection seems to doom most students. It’s also unclear if employers trust the certificates and badges. Completing a MOOC may give you skills, but it probably won’t get you a job.


iTunes (For-Profit)


The first two categories, the MOOCs and the free schools, are fundamentally utopian in the scope of their vision – tech education for everyone. The final group of institutions are not. In a sense, they use the utopian ideal of an open pedagogy and harness it to a profit-driven self-help model. They’re not bad guys (quite the opposite usually), but they aren’t utopians. A 10-week course usually costs around $12,000.

On the roster of for-profit coding schools are the Flatiron School, General Assembly, and Fullstack Academy of Code in New York; Dev Bootcamp, Hack Reactor, or HackBright in San Francisco; and Portland Code School or Epicodus in Portland, among many others. The Portland-based schools offer some of the best prices – Epicodus has a 12-week intensive course in coding that costs $3400 up front, or $5000 in eight payments. Portland Code School offers a 16-week course in Front End Development for $3995. These schools both emphasize more traditional coding. The New York schools focus on hot fields like User Experience Design and Data Science, offering quicker and more intense courses. Of these, General Assembly seems to have a slightly higher success rate among graduates, and it is slightly cheaper, at about $9,500 for a 10-week course.

For most in the field right now, gathering baseline tech skills was probably a mix of curiosity and classroom time, most likely at a two-year or four-year school as part of a grab bag of “Core Curriculum” and project-based classes. These for-profit coding academies have basically modularized the most deployable parts of a tech education, so you can buy what you need and receive it on a timeline that’ll allow you to continue paying your rent (or student loans). It’s a much more practical solution for an active professional that suddenly needs to upgrade their skillset.

General Assembly offers four immersion courses – Product Management, Sales and Business Development, User Experience Design (UX), and Web Development. Part time, you can take courses in Data Science, Digital Marketing, and a variety of back-end skills. At the same time, you’re networking with like-minded folks who are also going through a career transition. The culture is designed to make room for the creation of an unexpected startup or a partnership.

Larry Buchanan took a nine-week course at GA to learn to code, then started teaching part time at the school. He now teaches basic HTML and CSS, among other things. But his time at GA helped him in more ways than one – he had previously been working as a graphic designer and freelance illustrator. Now he works at the New York Times as a graphics editor. The fusion between his background in art and his new skills from GA is fairly clear.

The main difference between for-profit coding academies and a regular university is the split between theory and practice, according to Buchanan.

“If a college course is 80% theory, 20% practice, a course at GA is 80% practice or more. They’re laser focused on getting you a job. Traditional colleges? Less so.”

If you or your employer have $10,000, it’s not a bad way to spend it. At the for-profit coding academies, individual courses promise to deliver specific skills with clear job-enhancing prospects. They seem to deliver for now – their website claims a 95 percent placement rate in the field of study, and websites where prospective students solicit information are filled with stories of believably-modest success.

In truth, most tech jobs are quite a bit less technical than they used to be. At the same time, P2P classes are proliferating, so it’s increasingly easy to flesh out the brilliant skeleton provided by a liberal arts education. In essence, you can be a perfectly good designer with a degree in, say, ethnography, and you can pick up the needed tech skills along the way.

Tech changes fast, and the people who have the skills you need to learn are more likely to be practitioners than accredited experts. Depending on your financial resources, how much time you have, and your ideological bent, a bouquet of solutions has arisen to meet your needs. You just have to ask yourself – are you a Napster or an iTunes?