Not your typical coders
Tempted by an explosion of tech jobs, workers rush to programs that offer coding skills — sometimes with a hefty price tag.

In late 2015, Thomas Dailey, a 29-year-old steelworker from McKees Rocks, visited his dentist’s office and waited for the exam.

He picked up a newspaper and read an article claiming there would be an estimated 1 million open jobs in the information technology sector by 2020. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects about a 31 percent increase in software developer jobs by 2026.

Maybe he could fill one of them, he thought. 

“I wanted to use my brain and not my back for my work. ... The guys I work around are hurting their backs at 40,” Mr. Dailey said. 

He is one of the masses reading the future in computer code — technical languages allowing humans to communicate with computers, empowering machines to do everything from crunch numbers on marriage rates to help self-driving cars “see.” Code is the basis of all software, the reason you can post puppy photos on Facebook or flick tiny red cardinals on your Angry Birds app.

The rush to learn coding has driven a do-it-yourself economy. 

Coding bootcamps alone produced 15,077 graduates in 2016, then another 22,949 in 2017, according to Course Report, an organization cataloging industry trends. More than 90 bootcamp programs offer remote or in-person training in North America.

Course Report estimates the industry pulled in about $266 million in revenue last year.

Meanwhile, the report calculated 79,650 undergraduates completed computer science degrees from accredited U.S. universities in 2016, a jump from a 2015 estimate of 61,408.

It’s well documented in the U.S. that piles of student debt are being accumulated at four-year institutions, but many coding bootcamps aren’t cheap either. A 14-week bootcamp can cost $6,000 to $20,000.

Hopefuls looking to tap into tech’s opportunities must answer some key questions: Is learning to code worth the effort? Will it guarantee a job? And does the free stuff online work or is it better to pony up thousands of dollars for training?

Coding-related jobs in Pittsburgh and their pay Bureau of Labor Statistics data as of May 17, 2018: Number employed, by occupation
Created with Highstock 6.1.08 ,2908 ,2902 ,1302 ,1301 ,8101 ,8101 ,8001 ,800920920Number employedSoftware developers, applicationsSoftware developers, systemssoftwareSoftware developers, systems softwareComputer programmerComputer network architectsWeb developers02k4k6k8k10k
Annual median wage, by occupation
Created with Highstock 6.1.0Annual median wageComputer network architectsSoftware developers, systemssoftwareSoftware developers, systems softwareSoftware developers, applicationsComputer programmerWeb developers$0$20000$40000$60000$80000$100000$120…$120000Post-Gazette
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics | Post-Gazette
Jamaal Davis has a degree in philosophy. He also has a full-stack web development certification he earned online from FreeCodeCamp.org. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Coders are notorious for entering the job market in unanticipated ways. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to build social media site Facebook. Steve Jobs quit Reed College in Portland, Ore., before co-founding Apple Computer.

So can anybody code their way into a career?

One way to code

Valerie Monaco, coding mentor in the office of programs and partnerships at Carnegie Library, has broken down the free courses into five categories to cut through the noise.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

While they are partially intended to illustrate what class may be like for incumbent students, they're also a launching point and guide for building your own course of study. These are commonly offered through MOOC providers edX and Coursera.

Where to find them: Check out Harvard's CS50 Introduction to Computer Science course, Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Java Programming and Software Engineering Fundamentals Specialization from Duke University to start.

“I’m not going to deny that there is bias in the employer network toward college degrees. ... A lot of folks in human resources rely on the presence of a college degree,” said Anthony Hughes, CEO of Tech Elevator, a 14-week, $14,000 coding bootcamp that originated in Cleveland and set up its fourth shop in Pittsburgh on the North Side this year.

Research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggests the higher the level of your education, the more you’ll earn.

Salary data compiled from employers who hired computer science students in 2017 shows graduates from four-year institutions can expect an average salary of $65,540, up nearly 7 percent from $61,321 in 2016. Master’s recipients earn an average of $81,039 and Ph.D. graduates earn $110,841.

Course Report found in 2016 that bootcamp graduates had an average salary of $66,887, in line with bachelor’s grads in computer science. 

Bob Harper, a programming language researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, said training at the university level is generally more scientific, that college students are educated on underlying principles of programming.

“What is happening more and more is this artisanal view, because people can learn and get jobs to a limited extent,” he said. “You get the crappy code quality you have today.”

Jamaal Davis prefers to practice coding at his local library branch in the Hill District. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Jamaal Davis, 26, began teaching himself HTML in 2016 at the request of his former supervisor at the Carnegie Library, where he worked on community outreach. After he finished, he would lead a free, introductory course.

At Carlow University, Mr. Davis studied philosophy. Now, that degree sits alongside a full-stack web development certification he earned online from FreeCodeCamp.org.

Another way to code

Video-based learning not associated with a university

Many free coding resources use video to explain concepts, but these tend to present the content in a more informal manner.

Where to find them: Try out Udacity's Intro to HTML and CSS module, WordPress.com Essential Training by Lynda.com (which you can access for free with a library card) or Coding for Entrepreneurs Basic by Udemy, touted as a coding class for the non-technical founder.

“You know how some people may go home and play video games? I’ll go home and code,” said Mr. Davis, who lives in North Oakland. 

Coding is like a puzzle, he said. You think about a problem and how you want to build a solution and then you write a program that puts the idea into action. It’s fun, he said.

Free online resources teach students to code in a formulaic way, CMU’s Mr. Harper said, though he recognizes not everyone can afford a collegiate-level computer science program. Self-taught coders and bootcamp grads may be stuck debugging a program or serving as an assistant.

“I think in the longer run [self-taught coders] are not going to have skills worth having,” Mr. Harper said. “Because programming is a lot of drudge work, there’s a market for people to do the drudge work.”

Mr. Hughes, at the Tech Elevator bootcamp, sees things in a different light. “Because there are such significant shortages [in the technology industry] ... it’s forcing people in the recruiting world to be more comfortable with those from non-traditional backgrounds.”

Tech Elevator has amassed a sizable network of hiring partners between cities in Ohio and now in Pittsburgh, including PNC Bank, KeyBank and Progressive, among others. 

A history of coding languages

Plankalkul (Plan Calculus)
Inventor: Konrad Zuse

Konrad Zuse, a German civil engineer and the creator of the first binary digital computer, began developing Plan Calculus for use in engineering. It is lauded as the first algorithmic programming language. Due to WWII, this development was largely isolated from others in computer programming at the time.

Inventor: Grace Hopper

Mathematician Grace Hopper completes A-O, a program that makes it possible for users to input instructions to a computer with English-like words, rather than numbers.

Inventor: John Backus

Computer scientist John Backus completes the first high-level programming language for an IBM computer, called Speedcode. A high-level programming language is strongly abstracted from the details of a computer, meaning that it can be easier to use and even hide some lower-level functions like memory management.

Inventor: John Backus, IBM

Mr. Backus went on to develop Fortran, the first widely used high-level programming language, in 1957. Fortran was originally intended for scientific and engineering purposes but became a staple of computing, still in use today. Due to its powerful computing capacity, Fortran is useful in computationally intensive areas such as numerical weather prediction.

Inventor: SRI International

ERMA (Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting) digitized the checking process for Bank of America by creating a font computers could read. In just one hour, ERMA could process the number of accounts that would have taken a well-trained banker nearly 17 work days to complete, according to the Computer History Museum.

Inventor: CODASYL

COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) was developed by a consortium of computer manufacturers and the Pentagon as part of a U.S. Department of Defense project to build a portable programming language for data processing with the hope that the program could run on any computer, independent of the make. COBOL is still used in legacy applications.

Inventor: Thomas Kurtz and John Kemeny

Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code was created for students at Dartmouth College who had no prior computer programming experience. It would eventually spread to other schools, globally.

Inventor: IBM

IBM developed the Semi-automated Business Research Environment to allow American Airlines to automate reservation bookings. It was first tested in 1960 but took over American's booking process by 1964. SABRE gave rise to Sabre Corp., a publicly traded technology company for travel services that owns Travelocity.

Inventor: Niklaus Wirth

Developed as a programming language for both commercial and scientific applications, Pascal became the entry point for a generation of students learning computer programming.

Inventor: Dennis Ritchie and Bell Labs

C is released in 1972 and is used to rewrite the source code for the Unix operating system. With widespread use of Unix, C became popular. It's still widely used.

Inventor: Jean Ichbiah

The U.S. Department of Defense funded the development of the Ada language to replace many obsolete and hardware-dependent languages then in use. Ada is named for Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. The countess is credited with being the first computer programmer.

Inventor: Bjarne Stroustrup

Billed as a general purpose programming language, C++ combined the ability to map hardware features of a computer with the ability to program in high-level abstractions.

Inventor: Stephen Wolfram

Used in mathematical, scientific, academic and engineering fields, Mathematica is a computing language that allows mathematical symbols for equations or functions.

Inventor: Tim Berners-Lee

As an independent contractor for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first specification of HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and its first browser and server software in 1990. He is credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Java 1.0
Inventor: Sun Microsystems

To free users from traditional software vendors like Apple and Microsoft, the first iteration of Java released to the public was famous for allowing users to write code once and run it anywhere.

Inventor: Brendan Eich

JavaScript, one of the core technologies behind the World Wide Web, is developed. It is widely used to make webpages interactive. While it shares a name with Java 1.0, it is not the same.

Inventor: World Wide Web Consortium; Tim Berners-Lee

HTML5, the most recent version of the HyperText Markup Language, is published. It's the standard for creating webpages and web applications.

Self taught coder Jamaal Davis has accepted a job at the Goodwill center developing digital curriculum for people needing workforce training. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
<Launch_to_the middle_class>

Josh Lucas, head of business development for the 12-week Academy Pittsburgh bootcamp in Allentown, isn’t worried if graduates are getting placed in roles with the “grunt work.”

The program’s graduates are rarely placed in positions where they’re being paid less than $50,000 per year.

“We’re thrusting them into the middle class in 12 weeks. … If that means they have to spend a year paying their dues … that’s better than four years for a computer science degree.”

His bootcamp’s program is in-person and requires at least a 50- to 60-hour time commitment each week.

Academy Pittsburgh has analyzed data on its first three cohorts, which each had 15 students. Of those, 73 percent were placed in a relevant job within 18 months. Those students pay back a $6,000 staffing fee after they find a job. The fee is waived if they don’t find one.

Graduates tend to first take temporary jobs to boost their resume. Health care providers rely on contract workers for their development work, he said, and Academy Pittsburgh graduates are often placed in these roles for six-, 12- or 18-week cycles.

They’re not usually hired in the banking industry or by large enterprise tech companies. Those have an appetite for applicants with four-year degrees.

After practicing for several months, Thomas Dailey built a Clash Royale deck-builder app with code.

Working as a member of the United Steelworkers union is a good position, Mr. Dailey said, especially for someone without a college degree.  But it wasn’t what he wanted for the rest of his life.

He stayed up until 1 a.m. practicing coding, before waking up five hours later for an installment of his 40-hour work week.

He borrowed about $9,000 for a semi-formal coding education — $6,000 through a private loan and another $3,000 from friends.

“I had a really basic knowledge of many things but nothing I could combine together into a career,” Mr. Dailey said. “I realized I needed a curriculum and had to pay someone for it.”

He joined Thinkful, a coding bootcamp promising a job or your money back. It’s one of dozens committed to finding learners a high-paying job for an upfront cost.

Code is the basis of all software, the reason you can post puppy photos on Facebook or flick tiny red cardinals on your Angry Birds app. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Most code schools’ tuition costs are not eligible for traditional student loans or subsidies.

Tech Elevator and Thinkful both have a relationship with SkillsFund, a loan provider for “non-traditional accelerated learning programs,” like coding bootcamps or even programs to acquire a commercial driving license for the trucking industry.

Another way to code

YouTube channels

Individuals create their own stations to teach coding. Since these are in video form, they're usually walk-throughs, not lessons with assignments.

Where to find them: Ms. Monaco recommends The Coding Train" by Daniel Shiffman. He has nearly 430,000 subscribers and a wall of videos that cover just about every angle of computer programming from the basics of learning a new language to building algorithms and data visualization.

To borrow the $14,000 to cover Tech Elevator’s tuition through SkillsFund, a deferred loan with a 36-month term has an 8.99 percent interest rate.

That breaks down to payments of about $480 per month. The same loan over 60 months would have a 10.99 percent interest rate. Those payments would be about $331 per month.

By comparison, federal fixed interest rate loans disbursed on or between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018, had a 4.45 percent interest rate for undergraduates, according to the office of Federal Student Aid.

An Obama-era pilot program — Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) — is testing eight partnerships between universities and non-traditional education providers. Students in programs can use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for low-interest loans that can be repaid based on income.

The temporary initiative by the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t have any partnerships operating in Pennsylvania.

Thomas Dailey writes code as a software engineer at Fragomen Worldwide, an immigration services provider. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

In 2016, Jim O’Kelly, the founder of a bootcamp called Devschool, was outed as Eric James O'Kelly, a man on the Most Wanted list of the Sheriff's Office of Clackamas County, Ore. After collecting payments from students, he disappeared for weeks.

While that situation may be unusual, other bootcamps might not be able to deliver on the promise of jobs.

The Flatiron School, a coding bootcamp based in New York City, recently settled with the state’s former attorney general, Eric Schneiderman. It’ll pay out $375,000 for falsely advertising its job placement and graduate rates.

The Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR), a nonprofit vetting code schools, created standards for rating bootcamps.

The council requires member schools to submit information on every student in a report detailing how many graduated on time; how many accepted a full-time position in their field within six months; how many secured part-time jobs; and what the salaries are for those working in their intended field.

One of 27 schools analyzed for the January-June 2017 reporting period, Tech Elevator in Cleveland, reported 90.6 percent of its students graduated on time. In 90 days, 72.4 percent of graduates found full-time positions in their intended field and 93.1 did so by the six-month mark. The median annual base salary for those students was $55,000.

Thinkful, the program Mr. Dailey completed, placed 64 percent and 80 percent of graduates into a full-time position after 90 and 180 days, respectively, with a $65,000 median base pay.

Balancing home life, church activities and coding wasn't easy for Thomas Dailey, who also had a full-time job. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

While Mr. Dailey completed the Thinkful program between December 2016 and July 2017, it was a slog. He spent about 25 hours per week on his bootcamp assignments while balancing a full workweek.

The 1 a.m. nights continued to stack up. Saturdays he tried to put in at least six hours, but as he puts it, “You don’t always have the cognitive resources.”

There wasn’t time to play guitar in the worship band at The Log Church in Banksville. Or teach Bible studies. Or work with the youth ministry.

He’s just one of many interested in learning to code.

This video tutorial shows how to use a language called cascading style sheets (CSS), which allows a user to change the appearance of a web page.

A book called “Cracking the Coding Interview: 189 programming questions and solutions,” by Gayle Laakmann McDowell is something of an SAT prep book for fledgling coders. It was also the most checked-out book from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Job & Career Education Center last year.

The Carnegie Library is gearing up to teach the community basic computer programming skills and literacy. Daniel Hensley, adult programming coordinator, said the traditional role of the library is to act as a hub not just for lending books, but for learning new skills.

This tutorial gives an introduction on computer programming languages.

“The difficulty is that we don’t have a lot of people who have the knowledge to facilitate or lead the classes,” he said. “We’re focusing more on how to self-learn.”

By giving people tools, they can build their own criteria for free and supplement it with support from real trainers. Or have enough knowledge to avoid snake oil.

Jamaal Davis now earns money on the side building WordPress websites. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

When Mr. Hensley tasked Mr. Davis with learning HTML, it was part of the library’s first experimentation in exposing more people to coding. 

Some days Mr. Davis didn’t emerge from behind his computer screen at all and he spent most of his free time at the Hill District library learning Javascript, HTML, CSS and other languages supporting web development.

Another way to code

Text-based learning

Ms. Monaco calls these lessons a "sandbox environment" because they present a lesson and some text on the left side of the screen, a text editor to code in the middle and a simulator on the right side to simulate how your code runs.

Where to find them: Common ones include FreeCodeCamp.org (which I started with) and CodeAcademy.com. These usually include a forum section to chat and troubleshoot with other users.

Now, he builds WordPress sites as a “side hustle.” His customers are primarily acquaintances and small businesses. He charges about $80 to build a simple blog.

Mr. Davis is upbeat and has a full-throated laugh. He’s brimming with positive affirmations for his students: Quit beating yourself up. There’s always tomorrow. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Maybe those are some of the things he told himself when he began learning to code — after all, he taught himself enough in two months to lead a class.

“Growing up a black guy in Homewood, you don’t see much opportunity,” Mr. Davis said. “But I saw it as possible. You have to accumulate skills.”

The library has moved on to more formal attempts at teaching code. It’s secured seed funding from BNY Mellon. Mr. Hensley did not disclose the amount of funding, which provides equipment and software and also pays for an instructor. 

Valerie Monaco, who holds a master’s degree in human-computer interaction from CMU, is teaching a cohort of six librarians how to program in Python.

When they finish her six-month curriculum, they’ll build a project to test their skills, like creating an application programming interface (API) for data visualization or cataloguing. The librarians will also offer coding programs to the public.

After six months of searching, Thomas Dailey landed a job as a software engineer. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Learning how to code has come full-circle for Mr. Davis.

In April, he took a job at Goodwill, where he serves as digital skills coordinator for the nonprofit’s local training centers promoting job skills. Funding for the effort came, in part, from a $1 billion investment Google will dole out to nonprofits over the next five years.

Mr. Davis now teaches digital skills at the center in Lawrenceville and is developing curriculum for other Goodwill training hubs in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Another way to code

Coding challenge websites

These are less developed, Ms. Monaco said, adding that they are environments where you can find learning modules but also contests with cash prizes to incentivize the learner.

Where to find them: Hunt down "HackerRank". Ms. Monaco said recently the website hosted its fifth three-day challenge called Women's Code Sprint. Participants used programming knowledge to solve a challenge with a $1,750 prize at stake. Plus, companies check out HackerRank for new hire prospects.

He’s noticed a skills gap among native Pittsburghers: The tech revolution here has disproportionately helped outsiders. He wants more people from Pittsburgh working tech in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dailey finished Thinkful in July 2017, determined to find a job that could pay off his debt. During the six months between finishing the program and the end of last year, he put out at least 60 applications.

“It seems to be an ongoing theme with newer developers, including myself, to have some impostor syndrome and feel like what we’re doing doesn’t amount to much or we don’t know what we’re doing,” Mr. Dailey said.

But after months of searching, he landed a job as a software engineer.

In early April, he began work for New York-based immigration services provider Fragomen Worldwide, working on enhancements for internal applications. His salary increased 45 percent.

In this gig, Mr. Dailey updates systems that a company has already spent money on, that are critical for operation.

He likes his job and he doesn’t feel like this is the brand of drudgery Mr. Harper warned bootcamp students might be stuck laboring over.

“I am definitely working on some of the simpler functionality for our applications, but it is certainly not ‘grunt work.’”

Courtney Linder: clinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. Twitter: @LinderPG.

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Courtney's first web page, with her code to the left and the results to the right.
Still not a programmer

It was 2007. I was in the basement. Dial-up internet. AOL.

I distinctly recall spending hours on some now-defunct code to make skulls shower over my MySpace page. Without realizing it, I was a junior high kid playing around with computer code, or more accurately, copying and pasting it.

That didn’t make me a programmer.

The extent to which I learned about computers in high school was limited — I became questionably proficient with Excel and had a knack for typing 70 words per minute on a good day without peeking under the orange key covers that hid the letters.

When I decided to learn basic front-end computer programming last December, so I could build my own website with the domain name I purchased (courtneylinder.com), I was in for a rude awakening.

Not only does a quick Google search for “free online coding” leave you lost at sea, with Buzzfeed-esque listicles shoving themselves at you (“12 Sites That Will Teach You Coding for Free;” “49 of The Best Places to Learn to Code For Free”) but once I did begin practicing, I learned I had very little time to dedicate to this new endeavor.

After a long day of work, I’d try to practice around 6:30 p.m.

I needed to cook, but there was coding to practice. But what about the gym? Nah, you should be coding. Keeping my apartment from falling into disarray, or coding? Sleep? Coding?

After signing up for FreeCodeCamp.org, I jumped into an early section on Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the same coding language I had been copying and pasting onto my Myspace page.

I quickly realized that while completing short modules spoon-fed to you on these free websites do make the user feel productive, it might not be indicative of your potential as a programmer or designer — even if you complete all of the assignments (disclaimer: I did not).

When I tried building my first web page from scratch — more or less a list of my favorite Nirvana songs with a quick intro section — it ended up looking like it belonged in the late 1990s. It was blocky and unprofessional. Perhaps a nice euphemism is “charming.”

Three hours spent trying to center a submission box so that visitors could enter their favorite song titles, and yet it’s still hanging out on the left-hand side of the page, mocking me. I also have no clue where those responses are sent. Probably nowhere. 

There was no one to hold me accountable while I tried learning to code and I didn’t have the resources to take out a loan for a bootcamp after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh.

The work week was long. My patience was not.

I took an aptitude test, anyway, for a new coding bootcamp on the North Side called Tech Elevator. The questions were reminiscent of the questions you’d study for the logic portion of the LSAT, the entrance exam for law school. I always struggled with those.

“Congratulations, you scored a 10 out of 12,” read my results email. “That's a pretty good indicator that you have the natural aptitude to become a software developer, which is most needed in today's economy.”

Not sure what the email would have said if I scored a nine, an eight or a seven.

My “website,” if you want to call it that, is shaky, but it’s mine. It was fulfilling to finish something, even if it isn’t perfect. I’m just glad I didn’t fork over any money.

I never took up other computer languages necessary for front-end development, like Javascript, but at least now I understand how to read other peoples’ code to a degree. And I know how to copy and paste. 

Better not quit my day job.


Writing: | Courtney Linder

Photography: | Jessie Wardarski

Design | Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman

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