New VC-Backed School Joins Ranks of SF’s Indie Coding Skills Shops

San Francisco hosts so many freestanding computer programming schools and code bootcamps now that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But make room for another one.

A trio of alumni from France’s European Institute of Technology is launching the new Holberton School in a 4,000-square-foot space on Battery Street, and they’re offering free tuition for the 32 students selected to join its first entering class in January.

The two-year program, unabashedly described as an alternative to college, is designed to train “full stack software engineers.”

That term can mean very different things to different people, as the scope of software development has expanded into machine learning, Web-based computing, big data analytics, and mobile device operating systems such as iOS and Android. But in general, it means the engineer has mastered a broader understanding of hardware, systems infrastructure, databases, and multiple programming languages than a newbie who just knows how to create a simple mobile app.

The school’s co-founders—Rudy Rigot, Sylvain Kalache and Julien Barbier (left to right, pictured above) announced this week they’ve raised a $2 million seed round led by Trinity Ventures. Other investors include Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang; Partech Ventures; Solomon Hykes, the co-founder of Docker; and Slideshare co-founder Jonathan Boutelle.

The curriculum is grounded in hands-on projects tackled by collaborating student teams who learn programming skills as needed to get the job done. The challenges can include building a search engine, cloning an existing online service, creating a computer virus, and building a scalable infrastructure to support applications.

More than 70 mentors from companies such as Google, LinkedIn, Docker, and IBM have signed on to guide the students’ work and suggest problems to solve, according to the Holberton School’s announcement.

Theoretically, some of the chosen 32 students may begin this program from a standing start. Programming experience isn’t required—nor is a high school diploma. The school’s name is meant to signal a commitment to educational access and diversity. Frances Elizabeth “Betty” Holberton was one of six math whizzes—all women—assigned by the Army in 1943 to program the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or Eniac, a pioneering all-electronic digital computer.

The Holberton School will grant a certificate rather than an academic degree to students who complete the two-year program, plus a six-month internship. The hope is that tech employers will accept it as a strong credential. The school isn’t saying yet how much tuition will cost for later entering classes. But the plan is to scale up the number of students served, with as many as four start dates a year.

Among the Holberton School’s more established competitors offering a form of full stack programming education in San Francisco are Galvanize and Dev Bootcamp, which was acquired by Kaplan.

Growing competition, diversification, and acquisitions are signs that the independent code school sector is becoming more than a cottage industry. San Francisco is a hotbed, with more than two dozen schools of various types and a dense concentration of potential employers inside the city and in Silicon Valley. But the concept is spreading to many other locales with active tech clusters, including Texas and San Diego. Like the Holberton School, code schools often cast themselves as a route into the tech industry for under-represented groups, such as minority members and women. For example, Seattle’s Ada Developers Academy was specifically designed to train women.

On the acquisitions front, San Francisco-based Hack Reactor announced this week it has acquired iOS developer bootcamp Mobile Makers Academy, which offers classes in both San Francisco and Chicago. Terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed.

Mobile Makers Academy, Hack Reactor, and six other schools will now be operated by a new parent company, Hack Reactor Core. That umbrella organization will share the best tools and practices among all its schools. The other schools include Code 7370, a programming course for San Quentin prison parolees, and Mission Bit, a non-profit program for high school students.

Total enrollment for all eight Hack Reactor Core schools is 355 students per quarter. The main Hack Reactor campus in San Francisco has 160 students at any one time, and graduates 600 people a year.

The website Course Report has been tracking the growth of independent programming schools, and estimates that there are now about 67 full time US coding bootcamps that will earn $172 million in revenues in 2015. Course Report, which counted about 2,100 boot camp students in 2013, predicted that such schools will graduate more than 16,000 students in 2015. The average program length of the schools it surveyed was 10.8 weeks, and the average tuition was $11,063.

The independent schools offer themselves as an alternative to costly college degree programs that may be long on theory but light on specific job-related skills sought by employers. However, some students may be using a stint at an independent programming school to prepare themselves for a college degree program. Other students may be college graduates in non-technical fields who are attracted to the high salaries at IT companies.

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