Story and photos by Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Graphic artist Koddie Becker loves the art of typography. She massages “b’s,” “o’s” and “a’s” and words and phrases into big, fat, bold titles or slim-and-trim conference names or minimalist logos.
But at Grand Canyon University’s Innovation Center, in Building 66 near Camelback Road and 27th Avenue, Becker shunned artistically-pleasing-to-the-eye typography for the technical and exacting demands of Java coding. She exchanged prettily designed “b’s” and “a’s” for commands such as “system.out."
Talk about a life reboot.
Becker -- seated in a group of three in front of a white board with the challenge of the day written on it, to create a salary calculator app -- is one of nine aspiring coders who are part of an immersive 15-week pilot Java coding cohort, the first in GCU’s coding boot camp offerings.
The pilot program, which spans eight hours a day, five days a week, is unusual in that it is being offered free of charge for this test run. Future coding boot camps won’t be.
The average cost for a similar program nationally is $11,400, said Vince Grell, Vice President of GCU’s Non-Degree Technology Programs. But in keeping with its model of affordable access to education, GCU is planning on a tuition rate that is lower than the national average.
Focusing on Java
Grell said what the University wants to do in this first coding test run is to get a good look at the curriculum and refine it.
The certificate program, which will compete with about 100 boot camps across the country, isn’t expected to jibe against GCU’s bachelor’s degree offerings.
“Coding schools report that 65 to 80 percent of their students already have a bachelor’s degree. So it isn’t an either-or question (either a coding certificate from a four-month boot camp or a degree from a four-year university). It’s both,” said Grell. “Ninety-five percent of the job-description requirements that you find on the market looking for coders require or strongly prefer a bachelor’s degree. So students who successfully move through an immersive boot camp are especially well prepared if they meet the degree requirements as well."
The cohort initially was offered to fall bachelor’s degree graduates before opening up to community members. The challenge was to find students who had four months to dedicate to an immersive program like this one.
“A few of these people walked away from their jobs to come do this,” said Scott Bromander, GCU’s new Head of Education of Non-Degreed Technology Programs and the instructor for the pilot cohort.
The test-run course is leading up to 16-calendar-week coding boot camps.
GCU is starting with Java, the coding language suggested by an advisory board for the Phoenix market. Grell said coding school graduates often get jobs in a language outside of the one they learned, but because of their foundation, it’s easier for an individual to pick up another language. Java seemed like a good place to start.
He added that GCU will be seeking approval for federal financial aid as a payment option for these future boot camps, though that approval hasn’t yet happened.
Even before seeking approval for federal financial aid, Grell said, GCU officials must provide program details to the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education (AZPPSE) for its review. If the program is approved, credits earned in the boot camps will transfer toward a GCU undergraduate degree.
What’s interesting about this pilot group is its diversity. According to Bromander, two participants are under 25 and seven are older than 35, and the gender split is four women and five men. Two are GCU graduates.
That type of diversity is something he saw at boot camps he led when he was with Prime Digital Academy in Minneapolis. Classmates don’t seem as if they would have much in common -- at first. Then they start coding.
Grell said Bromander has talked about the unlikeliest people who discovered they have a knack for coding:
“He talks about a baker that graduated from Prime Digital Academy. … He talks about a lady who worked in a brewery who was over 35 and had never done anything technologically, but it was a great fit for her mind and the way her mind worked, and now she’s doing great things with her coding credential. It’s just great to see his (Bromander’s) enthusiasm and passion for helping people to learn and for keeping on top of the latest trends in the industry.”
Like many of her fellow Java coding classmates, Becker heard about this pilot training through Career Connectors, a nonprofit group that connects professionals in career transition to hiring companies and career resources, much like the coding boot camp.
The graphic designer didn’t hesitate in signing up for the course.
“It was too good to pass up,” Becker said of the offer of free training – a thought echoed by Lori Tie-Shue.
“The past three months, I’ve been trying to find work. When this opportunity came, I said I would be foolish not to take it,” Tie-Shue said.
Mark Feinman has worked in finance, insurance, sales, marketing and customer service in his career.
“It just wasn’t my personality,” he said as he worked on developing the salary calculator app with recent 20-something GCU graduate Zech Heneveld. “I kept doing the same thing because it was a paycheck.
“Doing what I was doing, I just saw that the future wasn’t going to be worthwhile and I wasn’t enjoying it, whereas something like this got the creative juices going. So I just saw that opportunity, and the growth is just not going to go away.”
Heneveld, who graduated from GCU in the fall with a degree in physical therapy, still has more schooling to go but won’t start for another year. Looking at a year’s gap in his schooling, he snapped up the chance to learn to code. Even before he saw the email from GCU telling him about the pilot Java cohort, he said he had been teaching himself web design.
“I found it really interesting and wanted to do it as a hobby or side job,” said Heneveld, who wants to start his own company. “I feel like having this as a background will definitely increase my knowledge and enhance my ability to succeed later on.”
Kymbrlee Hsu, who manned the white board during her team’s app writing session said, “I think we’ve learned a lot in the past three days. Already we’re learning to write some code and the methods and rules behind it. I love that it’s so hands-on.”
These boot camps usually attract people between ages 25 and35 with a bachelor’s degree and more than eight years of experience in their professions. Bromander looks for people who seem to have the ability to learn something technical, can teach themselves a little HTML or CSS, and, “frankly, who want to do this.”
The bigger picture
The pilot cohort will culminate with students spending four weeks on a group project that will emphasize GCU’s cornerstone beliefs – to honor God while serving others and to become global citizens and critical thinkers. They will look for non-profits or startups to see “how we can use code to solve some of their problems,” Bromander said.
Many of his students in this pilot Java coding boot camp “graduated from college and had a vision for their life,” he added. But that vision, for whatever reason, didn’t turn out like they expected. He’s hoping these cohorts might give them the life reboot they need.
“If we deliver an experience they love that gets them a job they never thought they would do, they’ll become our biggest advocates,” Bromander said.
After the pilot cohort winds down in April, GCU’s expects to launch its first paid coding boot camp in May.
You can reach GCU Today senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.