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May 9, 2014 at 1:00 AM

Some turn to coding boot camps for job security

By Paul Sullivan / New York Times News Service

Patsy Price, who left Google to enroll in a web development program and now works at SmartZip in Pleasanton, Calif., races fellow employees on a bouncy ball. (Jason Henry / The New York Times)

Patsy Price, who left Google to enroll in a web development program and now works at SmartZip in Pleasanton, Calif., races fellow employees on a bouncy ball. (Jason Henry / The New York Times)

After eight years, Patsy Price had grown bored of working as a program manager at Google.

“I got more and more responsibility and higher-visibility projects, but I was further away from the technology,” she says. “I was managing teams, but I got really jealous of the software engineers who were developing all the cool products.”

So last spring, Price quit to embark on a new career.

“When people learned I had quit Google, they didn’t believe people actually quit Google,” she says. “I said, yes, they do, because Google opens your eyes about what is possible.”

This may sound like another story of a Silicon Valley executive — weary of the long days of a manager at a technology giant, despite the high salary, and intent on seeking opportunities elsewhere — but Price’s story is different.

She was not among the early Google employees who could take their millions and never work again. She was 57, was married with three children and two grandchildren, and had enough money to live for six months without a paycheck.

 

Local learning options

Many schools have online programs for learning how to code. Here is a sampling of local options for in-person training. (Scroll over the URL for a clickable link.)
Code Fellows: codefellows.org
Coding Dojo: codingdojo.com
General Assembly: generalassemb.ly/seattle
UW Professional & Continuing Education: pce.uw.edu

She quit to learn how to be a computer programmer, or coder, in tech parlance. It is a hot job with a median salary of $74,280, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet Price was giving up seniority and a solid six-figure paycheck as she approached 60 to break into an industry that is overwhelmingly young, male and unencumbered with family commitments.

“This was a huge risk,” she says. “I was leaving a great job, and I would be making half the money I was making before. But I wanted marketable skills.”

She had two motives: She missed her early career, when she worked fabricating silicon chips for computers, and she wanted a career where she could continue working for another decade or more.

So she applied to several coding boot camps — think cram sessions — and was accepted into the 12-week intensive web development program in San Francisco at one of them, General Assembly.

She became one of the thousands who each year are trying coding as a new career. While most are in their late 20s and early 30s, the schools say there is a cadre of people in their 40s and 50s who either have grown tired of their current careers or see coding as the way to job security.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from employers; they love that while [the older workers] have coding skills, they have another well of experience to draw on,” says Jake Schwartz, co-founder and chief executive of General Assembly. The company has 12 campuses worldwide, including a Seattle branch that launched May 2.

Schwartz says the school’s enrollment has grown quickly. General Assembly has 1,700 students in its immersive programs, up from 1,150 in the fourth quarter of 2013. The cost for the web developer course is $11,500.

When the students finish, he says, the school works hard to find them jobs. It has a 95 percent placement rate within three months of graduating, Schwartz says.

Adam Enbar, co-founder and chief executive of the Flatiron School, another coding boot camp, says he wanted to test how teachable coding was to people without a background in computer science or engineering. He deliberately mixed people from all walks of life in the school’s first class.

“We had a boxer, an investment banker, a professional poker player, an NPR producer,” he says. “We made it diverse, and they all got jobs.”

For middle-age people who want to understand coding but not become coders, there are other options. Decoded offers one-day classes for $1,495. It also holds classes for companies that want employees to understand coding.

The intensive programs are careful not to make their promises too grand. There is only so much someone can learn in a few months.

“We’re trying to teach them to walk into a company and be productive and add value,” Enbar says. “What do we need to teach them so they’re productive and continue to learn for years?”

When Price finished the General Assembly program, which she found intense and difficult, she had a job. While she never expected to learn how to code well enough to return to Google, she knew there were plenty of small companies that needed solid, competent programmers.

“I’m a 1956 T-Bird and up against Maseratis, Ferraris and Priuses,” she says. “I wasn’t the best coder in my class. But as a newbie coder, I’ve been given an opportunity and I’m asked for my opinion.”

And since she switched careers not to make more money in the short term but to continue working into her 60s, she made sure companies knew that she expected to start at the bottom.

In her interview at SmartZip, which makes an app aimed at real estate agents, she was asked how much she earned at Google. “I said, ‘That’s irrelevant,’ ” Price says. “You’re hiring me to be a junior developer, and junior developers make between $60,000 and $80,000 a year.” She got the job.

More in Resumes & Job Hunt | Topics: continuing education, education and training, technology

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