As Tech Booms, Workers Turn to Coding for Career Change


After Paul Minton graduated from college, he worked as a waiter, but always felt he should do more.

So Mr. Minton, a 26-year-old math major, took a three-month course in computer programming and data analysis. As a waiter, he made $20,000 a year. His starting salary last year as a data scientist at a web start-up here was more than $100,000.

“Six figures, right off the bat,” Mr. Minton said. “To me, it was astonishing.”

Stories like his are increasingly familiar these days as people across a spectrum of jobs — poker players, bookkeepers, baristas — are shedding their past for a future in the booming tech industry. The money sloshing around in technology is cascading beyond investors and entrepreneurs into the broader digital work force, especially to those who can write modern code, the language of the digital world.

Internet giants like Google and Facebook have long fought over the top software engineers in the country, and that continues. But now, companies in most every industry, either by necessity or to follow the pack, are pursuing some sort of digital game plan — creating lucrative opportunities for computing-minded newcomers who, like Mr. Minton, want to reboot their lives.

Employees of Silicon Valley Bank work at their desks behind glass covered with equations at Galvanize, a coding school in San Francisco. CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times 

“These are skilled and ambitious people who are seeking an on-ramp to the tech industry,” said Jim Deters, chief executive of Galvanize, the school that Mr. Minton attended.

Whether the on-ramp proves to be a lasting pathway to high pay and stimulating work remains to be seen. The boom-to-bust cycles in the tech business can be wrenching, like the last downturn in the early 2000s after the dot-com bubble burst. Nearly everyone in the industry was hit. Yet software development and engineering jobs held up better than ones in finance, marketing, sales and administration.

For now, at least, it is a seller’s market for those who can master new technology tools for lowering a business’s costs, reaching its customers and automating decision-making — notably, cloud computing, mobile apps and data analytics.

A faculty member toys with a Rubik Cube at Galvanize. CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times 

Companies cannot hire fast enough. Glassdoor, an employment site, lists more than 7,300 openings for software engineers, ahead of job openings for nurses, who are chronically in short supply. For the smaller category of data scientists, there are more than 1,200 job openings. Demand is highest in San Francisco. Nationally, the average base salary for software engineers is $100,000, and $112,000 for data scientists.

In March, the White House announced an initiative, TechHire, to coordinate the efforts of the federal government, cities, corporations and schools to train workers for the thousands of current job openings in the tech sector. The Obama administration points to coding schools like Galvanize, Flatiron School and Hack Reactor, which offer accelerated training in digital skills as a way to “rapidly train workers for a well-paying job.”

The graduating classes of these coding schools support the trend. They will graduate about 16,000 students this year, more than double the 6,740 graduates last year, according to a survey published by Course Report in June. The 2015 total would be about one-third of the estimated number of computer science graduates from American universities. The largest concentration of the schools, often called boot camps, is in San Francisco, which has 12, followed by New York, with nine, and Seattle, eight.

“The good jobs were all in computer science,” said Savannah Worth, an English major in college. After a 24-week web programming class, she now works as a software developer.

Students are of a wide age range, but most are in their 20s and 30s. The typical student is a “29-year-old career changer,” said Liz Eggleston, co-founder of Course Report, which tracks these schools.

Past shifts and surges in the information technology industry — the early Internet boom in the 1990s, the personal computer revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, and the minicomputer and mainframe eras before — have often opened doors to job seekers of diverse backgrounds.

Lois Haibt was a freshly minted graduate of Vassar College when she was hired by IBM to join the original team that created Fortran, a pioneering programming language. Recalling the hiring practices of the late 1950s and 1960s, she said, “They took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills — bridge players, chess players, even women.”

Students brainstorm with Post-it notes at Galvanize.CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times 

One sure way to fill job openings in technology these days would be to attract more women. Only 18 percent of computer science graduates at four-year universities were women in 2013, the most recent statistic. By contrast, 35 percent of students at the specialized coding schools are women.

Savannah Worth majored in English and graduated last year from Colorado College. Jobs that might use her skills, she says, seem limited to writing marketing materials or blog posts for websites. “The good jobs were all in computer science,” she recalled.

In college, she had dismissed computer programming as all math and numbers, and not a creative pursuit. But she dropped into an open house one evening at the Galvanize school in Denver. She found it filled with creative, smart people — and not at all just dry math.

A unicorn mask at Galvanize, a coding school in San Francisco.CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times 

Ms. Worth, 22, signed up for the Galvanize 24-week web programming class and excelled. Shortly after completing the course, she was hired by IBM as a software developer in San Francisco. She helps IBM’s corporate clients design and build web and mobile applications that run in remote cloud data centers, and she earns a six-figure salary.

Galvanize’s 24-week web programming course is one of the largest among the coding schools. The average class length among the schools is just under 11 weeks, and costs $11,000. Galvanize’s web programming course is also among the most expensive, at $21,000. The company offers scholarships and deferred payment plans, and has partnerships with online lenders like LendLayer and Earnest.

The job placement rate for Galvanize students is 98 percent. “Graduation here is you get a job,” Mr. Deters said.

Employers are recruiting for immediate needs, but with the future in mind. “What we hire for is the ability to learn,” said Rachel Reinitz, an IBM distinguished engineer, who is Ms. Worth’s boss. “The technology changes so fast.”

Galvanize is selective, accepting about 20 percent of applicants. The vast majority are college graduates, but there are exceptions, like Reyna DeLoge. She grew up in northwestern Montana in a working-class family and logged long hours in part-time jobs throughout high school. She went to Montana State University, but dropped out after a year, uninspired and in debt.

Ms. DeLoge, 24, worked for years mostly as a barista and assistant manager. She moved to Denver, and a year ago, got a job at the coffee shop in the Galvanize building there. She found the environs, bustling with aspiring coders and fledgling start-ups, appealing. She applied to the web-programming course and was accepted.

To help pay for the course, Ms. DeLoge got a $5,000 scholarship and a no-interest loan from Galvanize. She graduated last month, immediately received a few job offers and decided to take one from Galvanize, as a teaching assistant and mentor to new students. In the past, Ms. DeLoge never made as much as $30,000 a year. Her salary now is nearly $80,000.

In a stroke, she is making more than her father, an experienced machine-tool operator and instructor. “That blows me away,” said Ms. DeLoge, who sees her new skills as a gateway to opportunity. “Who knows where I’ll be in a year.”

As Tech Booms, Workers Turn to Coding for Career Change