At nine a.m. on a brisk Monday morning, 20 jittery students stand in a stairwell waiting for their first day of Dev Bootcamp. They’ve arrived in San Francisco from around the world, each paying $12,200 to attend the so-called hacker school, and count college dropouts, academic expats, bright-eyed 20-somethings, mid-career burnouts, bros fresh out of UCLA, former beauty queens and Google employees among them. Their hope, and the DBC promise, is that with nine weeks of training they will land rock star jobs writing code at one of Silicon Valley’s thousands of tech firms. When the doors fly open, music blares from speakers and the group sprints through a gauntlet of senior classmates cheering and high-fiving them along. Next, a strange icebreaker game begins, and an aspiring programmer shimmies his butt against mine, our arms locked from behind.
Students take turns inventing pithy self-descriptors, their quirks and interests revealing volumes of diversity and personalities far removed from the introverted-programmer stereotype. Classmates encircle us and, knowing firsthand the 14-hour days to follow, dispense rough gems of advice, such as “Don’t kill yourself the first week.”
Whether it’s for patching security gaps in billion-dollar software or rendering ideas dreamed up from a Stanford frat star’s bong, the demand for programmers to power this decade’s landslide of tech start-ups is surging. To fill the need, DBC uses a new approach to vocational education, replacing nursing and car-repair training with a curriculum dedicated to churning out programmers as fast as possible.
“When I started my software career,” co-founder Shereef Bishay has said, “I used about 10 percent of what I learned in college in my first job.” His program crams that 10 percent into just over two months, maintaining that the school doesn’t produce world-class coders, just “world-class beginners.” Launched in a small office in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 2012, the program is shockingly successful. To hear DBC tell it, 88 percent of the first graduating class found employment within weeks, with an average starting salary of $79,000. By the year’s end the school was advertising a 95 percent job-placement rate and salaries averaging $85,000. Baristas and burger flippers became coders pulling down mid-career wages, while most American college graduates were paid less than half what these instant programmers commanded.
Predictably, enrollment soared. The school has since expanded to Chicago and New York, and more than 15 copycats employing the same model have appeared in San Francisco in the same period. The concept is a shortcut to the American dream, fast-tracking anyone who is reasonably smart toward a million-dollar bay-view condo and a tech job with an employer that feeds you three meals a day, does your laundry, gets you drunk, sends you on team-building vacations, lets you work from home and provides unlimited paid time off. But it has to be too good to be true, right?
“I think they’re all getting jobs,” explains Jesse Harrison, a technical recruiter in San Francisco. “As long as you were as immersed as you should have been for those nine weeks, there is no way you wouldn’t. Whether it’s at a cool company or some shitty start-up is unknown.” He stresses that the creativity needed to code isn’t limited to middle- and upper-class university graduates and that many employers seek candidates who aren’t on that track. So why isn’t everyone applying to DBC? “I don’t know. Maybe they should be,” he says. “Maybe I should be. I’ve thought about it seriously before.”
Cruising past the arches of the Golden Gate Bridge and glimpsing the sparkling towers of the city’s not-long-ago-vacant South of Market district, or driving down an LED-illuminated span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and winding through the city, down into the belly of Silicon Valley, it’s easy to forget how this technopolis came to be.
During the Great Recession, the Federal Reserve zapped interest rates from 5.25 percent to effectively zero, incentivizing the movement of cash from bank vaults into investments. With Facebook, Twitter and similar companies leading the charge, investors became hungry to find the next tech juggernaut. Today, entrepreneurs and developers with little more than a hook, a PowerPoint presentation and a clever name receive millions in seed funding daily from venture capitalists eager to secure stakes in as many projects as possible, knowing the vast majority will fail. They’re betting one of them could be the next Facebook. Technology moves so fast it’s nearly impossible to tell which idea that will be.
Whether or not you call it a bubble, the cash flood is intensifying. In 2009 Silicon Valley saw a total of 459 investment deals, totaling $4.4 billion. Two years later, before their IPOs, Zynga alone raised $867 million and Facebook $1.5 billion. In 2012 Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion, and in November 2013 Twitter’s IPO share price of $26 valued the low-revenue company at $14.2 billion. Within four short years the investment landscape had more than tripled: In 2013, $12.2 billion in investor cash poured into 1,247 deals. All told, in the past five years $31.5 billion in capital has flowed into Silicon Valley start-ups and companies that more often than not generate zero revenue, figuring their “pivot” into profitability will come later.
It’s an environment in which Facebook’s February acquisition of WhatsApp, until then a texting application little known in America, valued the company at $19 billion. The four-year-old service had half a billion users worldwide and some 50 employees—placing the valuation at $380 million per—and a sparse $20 million in annual revenue at the time of acquisition. The deal reportedly gave CEO Jan Koum, a college dropout, a net worth of $6 billion. In June an iPhone app called Yo, with the sole function of delivering the word Yo as a notification, raised more than $1 million in seed funding. Its creator said it took eight hours to make.
These companies and the capital they generate are the reason schools like DBC exist. The investment deluge has turned programmers into such precious assets that, according to Forbes, seven of the top 10 jobs in which recent college graduates are happiest involve programming. That has forced tech giants to raise the bar for Silicon Valley workplaces: Snack rooms, catered meals, haircuts, massages, acupuncture, nonstop liquor, free gyms, Uber credits, yoga classes, napping stations and subsidized housekeeping are de rigueur. Between 60 and 80 percent of Bay Area start-ups offer unlimited vacation time. One of them, Evernote, awards $1,000 to employees who actually use the time off. In the East Bay Express, reporter Ellen Cushing detailed a Google party with in-lawn pig roasts, an on-site wave machine for surfing and a larger San Francisco culture of financially clueless 20-somethings living hand-to-mouth on $8,000 a month. “If you don’t have other friends,” one source told her, “you’re surrounded by people telling you this is normal.” Who wouldn’t pay $12,200 to join them?
The first butt I rubbed that morning belonged to Roy, a slim, 24-year-old Korean American with dark shoulder-length hair that often drapes over his friendly face. He was the product of a tumultuous childhood and a single mother who always dreamed Roy would go to college. “I just couldn’t do that,” he tells me. “We were angry—not at each other, just angry.” After high school he briefly attended Northwest Missouri State and moved in with his girlfriend. When they broke up, he sold washing machines by day and trained to become an EMT at night while working the graveyard shift at Walmart. He barely slept, and when he couldn’t find a job as an EMT, he moved back in with his mom, taking a four A.M. shift at Starbucks. That’s when his new girlfriend sent him an article about Dev Bootcamp.
Recounting his path to DBC, he reflects on how he thought he’d reached the end of the line before he arrived. He pauses before returning to his coding group. “I have no idea what I’d do if it weren’t for this place,” he says.
Roy isn’t the only student who tried—and fled—traditional college. Ricardo, a 26-year-old first-generation Salvadoran American, dropped out of a few. After high school he dreamed of becoming a doctor. He spent time as a hospital volunteer, spooning ice to patients with morphine dry mouth, until he met an actual physician. “He told me he went through with medical school only because he couldn’t turn back,” Ricardo remembers. “He said, ‘Once you get so far in, you have all these loans and expectations. You can’t get out.’ ” Ricardo dropped out of his biology program at Miami Dade College and moved to Utah, quietly trying and leaving colleges.
Determined to find success outside academia, he steadily grew $7,000 into $70,000 by trading Apple stock options during the company’s post-iPhone run-up. By the time he was 24, he was sitting on $85,000. When the stock crested in the mid-$300s, he quit his IT job to become a full-time trader. Then, during the market’s 2012 fall, he became his own worst enemy. “I got greedy,” he says. “Instead of capping my losses, I blew it all.” Afterward he spent a year saving up for DBC while working at a communications technology company.
“In America it’s bludgeoned into people that college is the only way to get what you want,” he says. “I just don’t believe that.” He’s far removed from the dropout stereotype: well groomed, well fed, funny and polite. His appearance is a testament to his ideals. “I believe if you’re motivated and have a work ethic, you can get where you want to go,” he says. “College is not the only path.”
Not that all DBC students are without degrees. Anne has two. A middle child from Nebraska whose father was a professor, she was the consummate straight-A student. Her bachelor’s degree in Arabic from Middlebury College and master’s in Near Eastern languages from Indiana University secured her acceptance to Columbia Law School last year, but she decided to defer at the last minute, yearning for something less predictable. She had never seen a programming language but sensed she could harness technology to tackle problems she cared about: conjugating verbs, analyzing musicality, transliterating phonetics.
Emmanuel, a reserved Jewish kid with a wide smile and an endearing gap between his front teeth, holds an unused bachelor’s degree of his own. He grew up and went to college in North Carolina, enrolling in massage school afterward, but didn’t see much fulfillment, or money, from either pursuit. DBC, he hopes, will put him on the path to a career. His girlfriend has stayed back home, finishing her master’s. Their future there remains uncertain.
José, for his part, can be found outside the kitchen, talking shit about the horchata served at lunch. With thick shoulders and a tuft of gray in his beard, he has put his life, family and punk band on hold in Villena, the Spanish city he’s called home for nearly 39 years. He owned a T-shirt printing business with his wife when Spain’s economy crashed in 2012, and after a worse 2013 he looked to America. “I decided to take my savings and put the money in my head,” he says, tapping his receding hairline.
The school’s formal instruction consists of two 45-minute lessons each day in DBC’s small, open-plan room. The remainder of student time is spent coding “challenges” in pairs, with one student operating the keyboard while the other navigates. Teachers mill about, coaching students if they get stuck, but all the tools and answers can be found on coding websites such as Stack Overflow, CSS-Tricks and GitHub, the king of coding sites. Armed with a GitHub account and a bit of determination, anyone could reasonably teach themselves to code. The trick is structuring your time. DBC students don’t sit in the same place for more than a few hours. They joke, commiserate, make food, have a beer, nap on the couch or sometimes just go home for the day, frustrated.
“Rusty Blade?” asks my new friend at GitHub. We���re crowded into one of the start-up’s in-office speakeasies late on a weeknight. The $66 gin is an earth-colored juniper distillate, aged in oak and dispensed in rare batches. The label looks 19th century, like something a miner would tug from deep in Sierra mountain runoff. In reality it is the vanity project of a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who recently began distilling liquor in a business park behind the 101 freeway. Top-shelf spirits such as Blade are integral to GitHub parties—Corona doesn’t cut it when every workday means drinking for free.
GitHub is one of the world’s largest repositories of source code, the building blocks of software. To a programmer, it is what the Bible is to a priest: a canon of code, where the industry’s blueprints are stored. Headquarters (the third office in the six-year-old company’s history) lies blocks away from the Bay Bridge in San Francisco’s regentrified South Beach neighborhood. Most of its employees work off-site, but the building is constantly abuzz, anchored by its ground-floor bar, kitchen and networking space, where guests can work, eat and drink on the deep-pocketed company’s dime. This office opened in September 2013, about a year after legendary venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz led a sweeping $100 million funding round. The firm placed a $750 million valuation on GitHub partly because it has consistently generated substantial revenue from subscriptions and merchandise sales, making it a rarity in the industry.
Conference rooms are equipped with futuristic microphones that swivel toward speakers, and herds of robots roam the office like iPads on Roombas, allowing meetings with remote employees. There is a DJ booth and isolated nooks called “coder caves” where employees can escape. The speakeasies are perfect for eliminating stress with a book or a few fingers of Blade. You can’t help feeling special when they open for you, like scotch hidden in a desk drawer, and that is part of their purpose. To wit: “Check this out,” says an employee from a room that houses a suspicious number of books. A bookcase slides away for him to reveal, like Bruce Wayne, another speakeasy, hidden from view. DBC attempts to stand apart from such start-up glitz. The school’s ethos emphasizes the life-changing nature of learning to code and the revolutionary educational experience it offers. In fact, when DBC’s marketing lead, Brandon Croke, joined me at one of GitHub’s mixers, he peered around skeptically, unsure whether to align himself with such luxuriance. He had been at DBC only a couple of months and took his job seriously, quietly expressing distaste of GitHub’s opulence to Miya, an alumna he had brought along. But by the end of the night, after a few drinks, we were having a good time watching a local rock band play to a comatose crowd. I glanced over to see him sporting a sailor’s cap from a company costume basket.
GitHub’s party ended in March when Julie Ann Horvath, an esteemed programmer lauded as a leader of women in tech, took to Twitter: “I’ve been harassed by ‘leadership’ at GitHub for two years,” she wrote. “And I am the first developer to quit.” She called out GitHub co-founder Tom Preston-Werner for allowing his wife to prowl the workplace, monitoring employees and executing mind-game power plays according to her whim. Horvath accused a co-worker and ex-friend of sabotaging her work after she rejected his romantic advances. She called some of her former co-workers “predators” and the environment “toxic.” One told her he’d “hoped I wouldn’t be hired” so they could date. And she said it all without using the word sexism. “I have never wanted to quit tech more than after having start-up PTSD like this,” she wrote.
Apologies trickled out of GitHub’s public relations department, and though an internal investigation cleared Preston-Werner and his wife of any legal wrongdoing, he resigned. The backlash against Horvath was harsh. Memes surfaced online with CUNT typed across her forehead, and she received all manner of threats, on par with other women who have spoken out about the industry’s culture of sexism. “At start-ups, there’s this tribe mentality,” Horvath said on the tech podcast ShopTalk, “and if someone disagrees or says something is wrong, the company’s best interest is to protect the tribe, which creates dangerous situations.” This is referred to as being a “culture fit” among tech evangelists. “If you are a 20-something white male who listens to techno,” she said, “I think GitHub may be your utopia.”
It was the start of a year that saw many rookie Silicon Valley chief executives stumble. Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich resigned in April after a public outcry over his support of Proposition 8, California’s 2008 measure to ban gay marriage. Gurbaksh Chahal, founder of ad-tech company RadiumOne, faced 45 felony counts of domestic violence after a security video surfaced of him hitting and kicking his girlfriend 117 times. In leaked e-mails from his tenure in Stanford’s Kappa Sigma fraternity, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel celebrates “sororisluts” and shooting “fat girls” with laser-tag guns and tells his brothers to put their “large Kappa Sigma dick[s] down her throat.” Today, the 24-year-old Spiegel is reportedly worth $210 million. Stanford clarified that the campus that has produced more Silicon Valley talent than any other in the world felt “ashamed.” Not even the animated halls of DBC are immune to the industry’s brutish whims. “Every woman in my class had the same experience of feeling talked down to, talked over or ignored by men at DBC,” says Anne. “People’s unconscious biases come out. So if it can happen in a space where I feel safe and comfortable with everyone, what will happen at a job with people I don’t know, in a place where I’m the junior employee?”
Dev Bootcamp often reminds students that start-ups fail because of people, not technology, and considers it its mission to produce competent coders and competent co-workers alike, skirting usual tech praxes. Its controversial solution is Engineering Empathy, a part of the curriculum designed to break students down to their emotional core and build more empathetic and compassionate employees in their place. On the new class’s third day, the first 60-minute Empathy session begins with a lecture and climaxes with the instructor, co-founder Shereef’s brother Karim Bishay, telling us to yell at one another. In pairs, students take turns standing and sitting on the ground. “Embody your inner critic,” he urges. “Yell all the things you tell yourself on a regular basis.” A young nervous dude stands over me, digging deep into what his heart of hearts hides from him. “You’re not good enough,” he cries. “You never speak your mind! You’re a complete pussy. Everyone here is better than you, and everyone knows it except you.” He sits back down in a rush. Later I am instructed to stereotype a nice young woman by guessing her favorite music and movie and her pet peeve. How? She is white and wearing a sweater. It sounds innocent enough until I open my mouth.
“Let’s say you like choral music and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and your pet peeve is…when people make fun of the homeless?” I get one of three. Others broach more uncomfortable territory. Women and African Americans are assumed to love pop music and hip-hop, respectively. Men’s pet peeves are assumed to be achievement-related and women’s to be emotional. The air is sucked out of the room. Students dab eyes and rub noses with the backs of their hands. Hurt feelings hang in place.
The exercises are based on Freudian theories of the self and seem to be mash-ups of philosophy, self-help and partially researched statistics about the pitfalls of tech’s status quo. The hour-long sessions interrupt student work throughout the first six weeks. “There’s a bit of a whiplash effect,” Roy tells me. “It’s deep sharing, then suddenly back to coding.” Once, José tried to extricate himself. “DBC has a two-feet rule: If you don’t think you’re learning anything, you can use your two feet and get away,” he says. He invoked it for EE but was told it didn’t apply. “I said, ‘What is this, Animal Farm, where you change rules as you go?’ ”
Emmanuel sees these EE sessions as part of a greater conspiracy. “They’re creating a pressure cooker,” he tells me. “They give you coding challenges they know you can’t finish, then send you to Engineering Empathy.” The disruption is meant to simulate the experience of a real tech workplace, and he has surrendered to it, despite fatigue. “The best learning,” he says, coining a slogan that would make DBC’s founders proud, “happens between a state of comfort and panic.”
By the end of March, graduation was quickly approaching, bringing new panic to DBC. The school was preparing to move to a bigger location just as students were entering the job market, and rumors flew that the company was about to be acquired. A spreadsheet circulated internally encouraging new grads to share job stats. It boasted an average salary of $77,333, three quarters of which included equity in the start-ups that hired them. It would appear DBC is changing students’ lives, but that spreadsheet accounted for only 12 of hundreds of graduates across two years. It remained to be seen whether the school’s promises would pan out.
Everyone adopted a different strategy in the job market. Ricardo was one of the best students in the program, but several weeks past graduation, he hadn’t applied for a single job. He opted to network instead, figuring he’d meet his boss at the events he attended nightly, with no cold calls necessary. Emmanuel was happy to face rejection, though more often he simply heard nothing. Anne was optimistic about her prospects but concerned that being a woman meant she could do only a “woman thing.” She considered applying at a start-up called BabyList, dedicated to disrupting the baby-shower industry, but didn’t know if she should jump at such a gendered job opening, especially with stories such as Horvath’s coming to light.
Ricardo, however, makes it obvious DBC is far from a hoax one dazzling July afternoon as he eats lunch on the seventh-floor deck of the Steuart Tower, overlooking the produce, souvenir and pork-belly vendors of One Market Plaza. He is glowing, and for good reason: He has just been hired at Autodesk, a 32-year-old company that produces design technology for architects, engineers and filmmakers. Used by James Cameron on Avatar and by nearly every architect in America, its software is licensed to firms for hundreds of thousands of dollars. An impressive gallery of client work lies downstairs, alongside a $250,000 3-D printer that designs and shapes metal. Unlike many of his peers, Ricardo is a coder who actually builds things.
“I’m really happy with how things turned out,” he says. He is raking in six figures, working on a small team alongside another DBC grad named Zohar, coding features for top-secret software. He applied for a web-developer opening, but after five interviews, including a drunken night at Li Po Cocktail Lounge, he was told they wanted to hire him as a senior software engineer. Was he even qualified for that title?
“No. But I think it was luck. And timing.”
Is he qualified now, though?
He is confident.
Graduation marked a year since Anne had deferred attending Columbia Law, meaning she had to decide whether to keep coding or go back the way she came. The latter would render her a statistic: Fifty-six percent of women in tech leave for another industry. On blind faith she rejected Columbia. Then, a month after graduation, she received two job offers: one from Palo Alto smart-watch maker Pebble and another from San Francisco lingerie start-up True & Co. She told the bra company she was more interested in working there, and it matched Pebble’s generous salary offer. She is making close to six figures as the only female engineer on True & Co.’s team of five.
“I still can’t believe it,” she says as we pick over tacos at a Mission District Mexican restaurant. She is still living with roommates from DBC, none of whom have seen any success. “I feel bad talking about it around them,” she says. “I don’t want to come home from work, see them sitting on the couch and be like, ‘How’s the job search going?’ ”
Other success stories spread like gossip. Two students were hired by Wealthfront, a massive financial-analytics firm, and another landed his dream job at MyCoin, a Bitcoin trading service headquartered in Hong Kong. Many others, however, are still searching. With each passing day, the prospect of not getting a job becomes more real, and old lives come knocking at the door. Roy went back to his mother’s Orange County home and has been waking up at noon every day. He has few friends there and wants to return to San Francisco.
José is jobless in Spain, returning $20,000 poorer to rejoin his wife without the job he came here for, disgruntled with the experience. “They’ve been talking about making a difference, how coding can change the world, then they give me a job lead for a gambling site?” he says. “I’m not that idealistic. I need money, but it’s not what they’re selling.”
He plans to move to Berlin, the buzzy new tech hub of Europe. With successful start-ups such as SoundCloud and Zoobe headquartered there, Berlin is different from San Francisco: Real estate is plentiful, rent is reasonable and the economy has room to grow. Companies there can afford to take an influx of high-ambition, low-direction programmers and let them experiment. Still, there are no guarantees. “I think some of them believe their own lies, and some of them don’t,” José says, trying to make sense of the disconnect between DBC’s marketing and the realities of the tech industry. “Shereef, the co-founder, believes in what he’s doing, but he’s not the one trying to get us jobs.” He sighs, resigned to his saner life in Europe. “In the end, we are meat for the grinder, as they say in Spain.”
In June, Kaplan announced it was buying Dev Bootcamp. The giant test-prep corporation had opened code schools in Boston and New York earlier this year, but they have yet to achieve DBC’s success. So Kaplan just bought the place. By then the school had moved into its sleek new South of Market building, complete with yoga room and nap area. Alumni who can’t land work tend to hang around after graduation, some returning daily to conduct job searches, network, hang out and tutor new students in basic coding. The pay is low and it barely advances their skills, but for those without leads it’s the best option.
Emmanuel, commuting two days a week and working from home, says he makes decent money working for DBC but has yet to land his dream job. His girlfriend earned her master’s degree and was offered an ideal position in Sacramento, so he opted to move closer to her, placing an additional hour between himself and the industry’s nexus in San Francisco, further hurting his odds of being hired.
What nobody told him, Anne, Ricardo, Roy or José when they arrived at DBC was that their success would have little to do with the coding languages they would practice. Programming is closer to reading an instruction manual than any hacker school marketing copy will tell you. DBC doesn’t give its students anything they couldn’t get for themselves, but it does provide a nine-week sense of exigency.
Those who prove worthy of the challenge are rewarded. Those who don’t will fail. The future of Silicon Valley remains unclear: Investor tastes could shift, capital may dry up and thousands could lose their jobs as the industry matures. Tech’s new-money ostentation, sexism and other symptoms of privilege without perspective could bring about its downfall. But for now, DBC and its students are merely exploiting America’s oldest myth: In our country, with enough motivation, focus and emotional intelligence, anyone can change his or her life. Reinvention is in our DNA. The difference is that here, moving at the speed of technology, it happens a hell of a lot faster. The challenge is to keep up. As Emmanuel puts it the last time we meet, “I feel like I’m running down a hallway blindfolded.”