Software developers boot up careers at camp

BOULDER – Sean Daken figures he’d like to be a student at his own software-developer boot camp one of these days.

His technical skills admittedly are rusty, for one thing. More importantly, as someone with a background in product management, Daken likes to be able to see things from his customers’ point of view.

But somebody has to run RefactorU LLC, and if early returns are any indication there doesn’t seem to be much of a study break on the horizon for Daken, the boot camp’s founder and chief executive.

“There’s just a massive disparity in the supply and demand of this type of talent,” Daken said.

The value proposition of boot camps is one that could catch the eye of just about anyone looking to further their career or transition to a new one.

RefactorU’s first cohort of 19 students is to graduate Nov. 15 after a rigorous 10-week slate of classes. For $13,500 in tuition, they enter a job market where starting developers in Colorado can make $60,000 to $80,000 depending on other experience and skills.

Daken, 34, was a director of product management and interim chief executive at Boulder startup Kula Causes Inc., when the idea for RefactorU began percolating. He spent about eight years before that in product management at Intuit and stints at Deloitte Consulting and Sun Microsystems.

RefactorU, at 5717 Arapahoe Ave., is tucked back in some office space a parking lot away from Avery Brewing Co. The only similar programs in the area are Galvanize’s gSchool in Denver and DaVinci Coders in Louisville. Both gSchool and DaVinci focus their curriculums on Ruby on Rails, as do the majority of boot camps around the nation. That’s why Daken made RefactorU JavaScript-focused.

The boot camp idea is one that’s taking off in various technology hubs. Dave Jilk – founder of multiple startups, including recently sold Standing Cloud – said university computer science degree programs often lack a few key components needed to produce developers. Conversely, those same programs also have added elements that aren’t necessarily needed for those who want to be developers, thus adding increased cost and time to the programs.

Jilk has ideas about creating a one- to two-year program that could be a happy medium between the university education and the entry-level developer boot camps, one that could turn out more advanced developers. But he acknowledges the need for the shorter-term boot camps, given the lack of developers at all levels. He compared the current developer situation to the labor shortage during World War II when industry was trying to find ways to educate people faster.

“That’s why I think the boot camps are important even in the presence of an idea like mine,” Jilk said. “I hope it encourages more activity like this.”

Daken acknowledged that the program could be longer. GSchool itself is a six-month program. But Daken went the route he did with the idea that no matter how long the program, the majority of learning is done on the job.

“We’re creating people that are really sort of world-class from their nascent perspective,” Daken said.

Just because the program is 10 weeks doesn’t make it easy. The program essentially is a full-time job, with students in the classroom for 40 to 50 hours per week.

“These people are actually dreaming in code after eight weeks now,” Daken said. “You’re not learning a lot of low-level stuff. You’re not learning a lot of theory. It’s hands on. It’s intense.”

The clientele is a diverse bunch, mostly ranging in age from late 20s to early 40s. Everyone has a bachelor’s degree, although it’s not a requirement for acceptance. Their backgrounds range from marketing to engineering to biology to graphic design. They’ve demonstrated that they’ve tried to learn how to code on their own. Most, Daken said, will get entry-level web application jobs after graduation.

Daken said he had 60 to 70 applicants for the first cohort. Ten-percent tuition discounts are given for women, military veterans and their spouses, and current students or those who have graduated from Colorado colleges within the past three years.

RefactorU has three full-time employees, including Daken, plus two full-time contract lead instructors who transitioned from web-development careers, as well as various part-time or guest instructors.

The revenue model is mostly tuition-based. There will be four 24-student cohorts in 2014, plus separate special courses geared toward UX, game design and data science.

But RefactorU also functions as a referral agency and recruiter for employers, charging companies with which the school works a percentage of the graduates’ first year’s salary. Students who find a job with an employer that works with RefactorU get 50 percent of their tuition refunded.

Daken said he is looking at other locations outside of Colorado for expansion, but is focused on getting Boulder rolling for now. He declined to divulge startup costs, but said he’s turned down capital and likes being a bootstrap business.

“I like the fact that we don’t have to grow if we don’t want to from a revenue perspective,” Daken said.

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