Blinded by passion? The relevance of coding bootcamps for creative industries

A look at coding bootcamps, a popular approach to learn coding, and how creatives can benefit from this accelerated way of learning.

Few creatives would tell you that they originally chose to work in the creative industries based on strategic, rational or economically motivated factors. Creative industries promote a culture that draws new recruits by appealing to a certain level of passion, commitment and love of the job.

Until recently, computer programming could be caricatured as anything but a creative activity: rational, technical and heavy on math. It would have been hard to believe that someone learned to code based on the same kinds of emotions that drive creators.

But this caricature overlooks the fact that computer programming has always had a passionate culture of its own. Books like John Markoff’s popular What the Dormouse Said to Gabriella Coleman’s more recent Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy detail how writing computer software has its own ardent devotees.

What’s more, as programming languages and coding platforms have become easier to use and more common in all sorts of creative industries, learning how to code has gained a cool new cachet and, with it, greater visibility and credibility for impassioned promoters and recruits.

In this post, we examine what is arguably one of the most fascinating developments of this fundamental shift toward popular approaches to learning how to code: the coding bootcamp.

We will show that while the ‘affective’ or ‘cultural’ dimension of coding may seem out of place to many (“after all”, you might think, “the appeal to emotion is fluff that only clouds your judgment about the things that matter, especially with something as logical as coding”), it is in fact one of the critical new frontiers for the future of the creative industries.

This training is ‘just right’

Coding bootcamps can be loosely defined as “intensive, accelerated learning programs” that take place over more than one month and that aren’t affiliated with traditional learning institutions like universities.

There is undeniably a growing demand across North America for opportunities to learn how to code through programs like bootcamps. According to a 2015 Course Report study of North America, the number of people registered for this type of program more than doubled from the previous year, from 6,740 to 16,056. This growth may have something to do with a relatively high industry demand for programming skills.

In Canada, some industry representatives claim that “the availability of homegrown ICT talent will not be sufficient to meet [future] hiring requirements [in] a growing industry.” However, this demand does not explain why bootcamps in particular have enjoyed such explosive growth.

Comparing this approach to other approaches to learning how to code may provide a clearer explanation. The most obvious alternative to bootcamps is a three- or four-year computer science degree obtained from a traditional university or college. For many, this may seem like an expensive and time-consuming way to learn—especially for someone who already has a career. Let’s all refer to this as the ‘extreme commitment’ option.

On the other end of the commitment spectrum are the kinds of online training courses available through initiatives such as Coursera and Khan Academy. We’ve already written about online platforms for learning how to code and why they may or may not be relevant to creative practitioners. More specifically, the basic coding skills they teach, although practical in the short term, have a limited shelf life and do not necessarily provide the opportunities to understand how coding skills connect to actual practices.

However, these platforms are also faced with mounting evidence that many courses have a low rate of completion. One of the reasons given for high dropout rates is the low level of participation in online courses exhibited by lurkers, drop-ins and passive participants. In a sense, many of the benefits of following these types of online courses—their flexibility in terms of when and where you can access them, the fact they are inexpensive or even free, etc.—are also reasons why people have a difficult time engaging with the course content.

This is where bootcamps come into play.

Bootcamps are different from the two previous options in that they tap into the implicit culture of code in a way that emphasizes an entrepreneurial developer culture. Take Lighthouse Labsfor example. When I asked one of its Vancouver-based representatives whether bootcamps would be right for someone working in the creative industries, he recommended their lower-stakes introductory programs such as ‘web fundamentals’ for someone with a casual interest in coding. According to him, bootcamps were more for someone who was passionate about becoming a developer:

“The bootcamp takes your life. It swallows you whole. You’re here for 8 weeks and… We call it immersive for a reason… This is what you do for 8 weeks and it’s a very taxing process. It’s demanding. Not everybody makes it. But those that do graduate, they have the full stamp and seal of approval. Once a Lighthouse Lab grad always a Lighthouse Lab grad.”

Lighthouse, like many other similar companies, offers a whole suite of services for bootcamp graduates that include work placements and follow-up support. In other words, the ‘intensive’ and ‘accelerated’ aspects of learning aren’t just about the retention of information but about being induced into a particular culture.

What is this nonsense?

Let’s further unpack this complicated connection between a coding culture and its newfound popularity. In October 2015, Stephen Nichols wrote a somewhat controversial article for TechCrunch claiming that “Coding Academies are Nonsense” (click here for a similar take on the industry with more of an investigative bent). At first blush, Nichols seems to argue that people should be weary of investing the amount of time and money needed to learn to code because of the fact that the software industry is continuously evolving.

Nichols is not a disinterested player in making this claim. After all, he is the CEO of a companythat helps people create games without having to learn how to code. But what is relevant for us here is how he underpins his overall argument: people who want to learn how to code have to be willing to do it.

While Nichols gives a few rational pieces of advice on how to choose what learning opportunities are best, he concludes with a set of questions that people should ask themselves before signing on to any coding bootcamp or academy:

  • Would I like to type text files for hours a day?
  • Do I enjoy decomposing problems into detailed lists of instructions?
  • Am I good at abstract conceptual thinking?
  • Am I comfortable with the idea of being a digital construction worker?

Three of these four questions have little to do with ability and everything to do with evaluating your level of dedication and emotional identification with programming as a profession.

In fact, Nichols argues that only a chosen few are able to transcend these questions and eventually become truly great coders, while most will only be able to muster a basic level of commitment to improving their coding abilities.

Although Nichols sets out to convince readers that learning how to code is boring, what he ends up doing is reinforcing a set of perceptions—i.e., that learning requires passion and dedication, that only a select few have what it takes to make it—that are entirely compatible with the creative industries.

As it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between the digital and creative industries, it is possible to see why people looking to change career paths or gain a competitive advantage in their current career may be tempted to dive into a learning environment that shares many familiar traits.

Ditching the cliché of ivory tower vs. the ‘real world’

It is Nichols’ type of ‘Can you hack it?’ provocation that can lead some to spend a lot of money on what are, in some cases, not at all helpful programs. Ontario and British Colombia (in line with other initiatives in the US, see also here and policy recommendations here) have begun regulating bootcamps to ensure that people get what they pay for.

Creatives, among many other professionals, are searching for new and better ways to develop some form of digital literacy. The main takeaway point from this emerging brave new world of accelerated and lifelong learning is that we need to acknowledge that the lines between teaching, learning and creative industries are becoming blurred with both beneficial and detrimental results.

As the popularity of bootcamps and other similar programs continue to grow, we must ask how appeals to passion and dedication are being deployed for good or ill.

Frédérik Lesage
Frédérik Lesage (Ph.D., London School of Economics and Political Science) is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. His research interests include digital media, creative practice, and mediation theory.
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