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"An IT bootcamp should enable a real career shift" - Jozsef Boda, Codecool CEO

Codecool is a coding school operating in CEE countries - we have talked to Jozsef Boda - its CEO and co-founder on what should such a bootcamp provide, how to hire a good programmer for your startup and what skills he or she should posess, and why is coding a great skill to have. 

You are a Hungarian company, currently operating in different CEE countries - but how did Codecool start and what was the idea behind it?

Jozsef Boda: Originally there were two founders - Balazs Vinnai and me. We both come from IT. We have been working for IT companies for more than 15 years - I have delivered a number of IT projects for large companies, and there was a constant need for new developers. And I have noticed that the number of CV’s on my desk has started to decrease.

There was a time when finding a new developer was fairly easy. To find a new junior developer as a tech company or a startup you simply went to a university, introduced yourself and got two-three promising students. But this has changed, and the talent shortage is a global problem. There are multiple reasons for that, but the main one is that as the whole world is digitizing, the demand for IT staff is getting bigger. 30 years ago only companies that needed developers were IT companies, banks, maybe research companies… today there is a need for developers in every company, no matter the industry. This talent shortage is just going to grow. Traditional University system is not going to solve this issue in the short run - these sorts of organizations are too big to make quick adjustments, so we have devised a program that has the intensity of a University program, but the skills participants gain are tailored towards the skill demand of the market. 

This is how we came to be. We have noticed the growing skill shortage and devised a programme that would solve the problem faster than the traditional education system. We simply wanted to teach people with IT skills that you want to work with.

So the most important thing for you is the demand of the market. I have noticed that, at least in Poland, there was this boom for opening coding schools a few years ago, but their number seems to have decreased now. Have you noticed this from your perspective, and is it just a Polish phenomenon? 

I think it is the same situation we had in CEE with language schools in the 90’s. Everyone seemed to open a language school, but after a while the market consolidated, and the language schools that offer quality - remained. 

From a distance, opening a coding school is easy - if you know coding you can open a school, say you are a teacher and teach. But in fact it is more difficult - and requires not only coding skills and teaching skills, but also market knowledge, to teach skills that are needed by the market. I believe there is still work to be done in the field, as there are still a number of quite low quality bootcamps, that offer to teach you coding, and they teach some coding, but not enough for their students to make a career shift, and we at Codecool believe that the aim for such a bootcamp should be reskilling - to enable a real career shift. This is in our DNA, and we offer a job guarantee. Everyone that graduates from our school with a positive result is guaranteed to get their first job offer. 

How does it work? You have a number of big partners you work with - like GE, Luxoft or Motorola. With the guarantee everyone who finishes your course gets the job, it must be quite hard to finish.

Yes, it requires a lot of dedication. If you are used to traditional education systems - you are able to graduate from a university with relatively low effort. I’ve been there, I’ve seen that - if you are smart enough, and learn to swim in that water, you are able to finish a five-year-long MA course with relatively low amount of studying compared to length. We are an intensive course - we want our graduates to fill the exact same roles that fresh university graduates would do - and it requires a lot of dedication and studying. Still, our approach is very different. We are focusing on project work and practical exercises much more than on theory, but it is hard. Approximately 70 to 75% of our applicants finish the course, but if you finish it - you will end up in a well-paid IT job.

I think it is a great model for a junior developer - as there is this stereotype about people finishing bootcamps - they know something, but it’s not at the same level that the people who finished universities. I guess this comes much more from a senior programmer or team lead perspective than from a business perspective, but it is visible.

This problem is twofold. On one hand it is true that there are coding bootcamps that offer very shallow knowledge and you cannot say that you become a programmer after, say, ten weeks of learning programming. Perhaps you are able to do certain things in certain technology at a junior level, but it doesn’t allow you to start a long-term career. The other thing is that people who are hiring bootcamp graduates have university degrees. It is relatively hard for them to accept that someone can start on the same level they started after five years of education, but that is changing. More and more people and companies realize the advantage of such software academies, that allow you to get practical knowledge and focus on soft skills than the traditional system.

As you are working with tech companies, is there something they want that differs from what the students want to do? Is there any discrepancy?

I think technological stacks and programming languages are less important than the willingness for learning, soft skills, teamwork, developing applications together with multiple people, presentation… These types of skills become as important as technological skills, and some companies claim that they are even more important than the tech knowledge the employee has today. Every company has different knowledge requirements - there are different legacy systems, different issues programmers have to work with. It’s not the actual knowledge that differentiates you, it is the ability to pick up new things.

Especially that with Agile models you are working on almost every problem in a team of at least five people…

Absolutely. The old stereotype that software developers are geniuses with glasses, sitting in front of their computers in dark rooms and doing everything on their own is very outdated. There are very few cases when one person is responsible for writing a significant part of code. 

You are working in four countries - you are based in Hungary, but are also working in Romania, Poland and Austria, are there any differences between these countries - both from your perspective and the perspective of the market?

When looking at demand for software developers - there is no difference. Central European countries are considered to be very good nearshoring countries, where Western European companies outsource their development - there are big IT outsourcing centers everywhere, like Krakow, not only for IT, but for finances etc. This is a trend we see the last 10 or 15 years, but the exact same demand is there in Austria. It is an important market for us, as there are a lot of immigrants, a lot of foreigners there, coming from neighbouring countries - Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia… There are a lot of talented people, but it is hard for them to enter the job market without proper contacts. I do not think that there is a difference, and I do not think it will change in the next 10 to 15 years. I think that coding right now is the killer skill - both from the employability and quality of life perspectives. There are very few jobs that can compete.

There is some difference when looking at the behaviour of students - for example we see that Polish people are very willing to go the extra mile if they want to change their career. Our weekend courses are very popular here, which means that people need to keep their weekday jobs and sacrifice their weekends to make a career shift. These weekend courses are more popular here than for example in Romania or Hungary. 

That’s interesting.

For me as well!

And how did the pandemic change your business model? I am sure you had to move a lot of your courses online.

We did. We really believe in a mentor-led classroom education, where you collaborate with your peers - as this will happen in the future workplace of our students. We had to move things online, but we kept the same principles of the mentors leading the students, so it is not recorded material, not only videos, but talking to expert mentors, and we still kept working together with the peers. 

Covid taught us a lot of things. We could not imagine that we can educate fully online in our system, we couldn’t imagine hiring online… but during the pandemic a lot of things have changed. Many companies have noticed this. We have hired top managers without seeing them in person even once - totally unimaginable. Now we are planning to come back to physical courses, but also keep the online ones - to make them more accessible, so if you live outside of Warsaw or Cracow, where we have classroom courses, you can attend our online classes, and we still keep our promise of 100% job guarantee in such system.

Do you see this sort of students coming from smaller cities that join the online classes?

We absolutely do. Even before the pandemic there were many opportunities to learn online, but many of these were these Massive Online Open Courses, where you just read and watched videos, with some digital material and no help, or they were run in English. In our case, we are delivering a lot of training in Polish - although a part of the curriculum is run in English, as we believe that a good level of English is needed to get your dream job. But we have a large number of new students from smaller cities or rural areas. 

We are a startup-focused portal. As you said, there is always huge demand for IT people in the market. Startups have the same demand, but often they can not compete with the huge tech companies when it comes to hiring tech talent. Do you think there is something startups can do to hire good IT people?

The challenge for startups is that their brand is not known, and there are thousands of them, so it is hard to stand out from the crowd. For that reason they have to make extra effort to hire. On the other hand they have an advantage as well, as there are a lot of people - including experienced coders, that want to work in a startup environment where they can really make a change. In a large corporation it is hard to change the direction of such a big ship. In a startup your individual contribution is much more visible. We have a very good cooperation with startups - as bootcamps are great for startups that have access to a large number of good candidates year round. It is not a problem for Google to hire people, but startups, and large corporations where the brand is not that shiny - are great partners for coding schools.

You have already said what are the key features of a good student - but if you were hiring a junior programmer for a startup - who would you look for? What questions would you ask?

I would ask him… or her… to show actual projects they have delivered. I would ask to mention things they have learned and accomplished on their own. I would also like to understand how well they work in the team, what areas they are interested in, and only after that I would ask about the technologies they know. I would ask less questions about their coding skills, and more about the work they have done and their soft skills. 

And I would conduct the conversation in English - as startups need to go international - and in such a small environment even your technical people may talk to prospective customers at some point and be able to use the language.

You have said “her” - do you see change here? Do you see more women applying?

This is another stereotype that coding is not a “girls job” - but it is a wrong perception. Women are equally good at coding as men, and sometimes even better. Many companies have started diversity campaigns to get more women into coding. We are doing the same thing - we have started special programmes and scholarships for women. Right now they make up around a third of our students. We hope it will improve further.

So what products - not only aimed at women, you are offering?

Our flagship product is a 10 to 12 month full-stack developer course. We have daily, weekend and online versions of this course. Online course is daytime as well. We have short courses - that we will introduce in Poland in 2022. Our most popular short courses are front-end developer course and tester course, which last 4 months. We offer scholarships for women here, that allow a number of our female students to participate for free.

Beside this we are offering tailor-made reskilling and upskilling courses for our partners - we have, for example, run a very successful, multiple-round course with Motorola where we have trained young people specifically for company needs. 

Are these aimed at company employees, or can you join them as a normal attendee coming from the street?

There are both types. Sometimes corporations are upskilling their existing workforce, and often they are flexible to hire new employees from the street, but we, as an educational partner, train them in a relatively short time, according to their needs.

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