Sometimes the path to college isn’t a straight line. If you plan to study computer engineering in college, maybe you should consider putting off matriculation in favor of some hands on experience.
Experience can be a valuable detour in many fields but the example I have is about an engineering student.
MY CREATIVE LIFE
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HOW ONE HIGH SCHOOL GRAD STUDIED COMPUTER SCIENCE DEBT-FREE AND NABBED A $90K-SALARY JOB
MASA BANDO DEFERRED ADMISSION TO MIT, WENT TO MAKE SCHOOL, AND GOT HIRED AS A SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT A STARTUP. COULD THIS HAPPEN TO YOU?
BY LYDIA DISHMAN
Masa Bando’s parents were not excited.
Their son had made it into MIT, but wasn’t planning to attend. At least not right away.
Bando was planning to take a year off to immerse himself in a more practical form of learning computer science than a textbook could teach. After graduating from high school, Bando attended a summer program at Make School, and then became a member of its founding class in September 2014. He figured that MIT’s generous deferral policy (which allows students to postpone admission for up to two years) could act as a safety net in case he wasn’t satisfied with the learning experience at the San Francisco-based alternative school.
One month shy of officially finishing Make School’s course—which included iOS, Ruby on Rails, and web development—Bando’s preliminary job hunt yielded an offer for a software engineering position at Papaly, a social bookmarking startup, at a salary just north of $90,000.
MIT will have to wait. And Bando’s parents? They are now “very supportive” of their son’s leap into the real world.
The other 10 students in the founding class (two of whom are women) just finished the program at the end of February. A couple had earned degrees already, while others left the likes of Bowdoin, Cal Poly, and the University of Maryland to come to Make School. Now, a few are headed to internships and the others are jumping into full-time jobs. All of which helps pay for their Make School course. But more on that in a bit.
For Ashu Desai, a cofounder of Make School, Bando’s story validates a long-held belief that computer-science degrees from traditional universities may not be the best path into a highly competitive job market in this sector.
The unemployment rate in the IT sector is about half the national average, at just 3%.
Desai himself was just 15 years old when he built an app that sold 50,000 copies on the App Store. “This was the coolest educational experience I ever had,” Desai tells Fast Company. He was able to see computer science as a really creative field that was about much more than getting grades. “It opened doors to internships and job opportunities,” he says.
Though he’d already built and shipped a product, Desai decamped to UCLA to earn a degree in computer science. It wasn’t long before he was frustrated by relearning some of the concepts he’d already put into practice and others that were not related to building products.
He dropped out after a year and teamed up with a high school buddy, Jeremy Rossmann, who was frustrated by the college experience, and left MIT. Though Desai admits he was lucky to have sold a successful app before even being eligible to vote, he and Rossmann believed there had to be a way to offer more students the same experience.
In 2012, they founded MakeGamesWithUs. Backed by Y Combinator, the summer intensive program focused on building games for the iPhone that high school and college students could then sell on the App Store and tweak, as needed, when customers report bugs or ask for additional features.
“The idea was if you can build a simple self-contained game, then you could build apps and more complicated products,” says Desai. This past summer, 120 students in New York, San Francisco, and Palo Alto took part in the program. The curriculum they developed is also being used at Carnegie Mellon and MIT. The expansion beyond games led to the name change to Make School.
Desai and Rossmann soon realized that supplementing traditional education with a short summer program on practical product development was not enough. Make School’s next class will be a full two-year program with a six-month internship sandwiched between two eight-month semesters. It’s longer and more intensive than a hack school, which Desai says often aims to take those with no previous knowledge of coding and turn them into ninja developers in eight to ten weeks (while still promising six-figure salaries upon completion).
Make School’s 50 open slots aren’t easy to snag and require that prospective students have some programming experience. Yet even with a two-year program—which Desai points out also includes theory and communication courses, as well as coding and developing practice—Make School isn’t accredited (yet) to give an associate’s degree. That sort of bridge diploma is offered by many technical colleges that focus on teaching students practical skills needed to get jobs in health care or manufacturing, for example, or to go on to complete a bachelor’s degree.
But why invest the money in higher education if there is no guarantee a company will hire you? College tuition is rising faster than inflation, according to a Bloomberg report. The total amount borrowed by all students currently tops $106 billion, and the average student debt for the class of 2013 was over $28,000.
In contrast, students at Make School pay tuition through their internship earnings and 25% of their earnings in the first two years on the job. If the employer pays a placement fee, that percentage is reduced. There is no official dorm, but Make School is working with a housing partner to place students who don’t live in the Bay Area with peer roommates. This isn’t free, but part-time contract work is available in the second term to cover part of those expenses. Teaching a Summer Academy class can also be used toward payment of living expenses.
Besides teaching coding and product development, Make School’s emphasis is on filling the skills gap and helping students find jobs.
The unemployment rate in the IT sector is about half the national average, at just 3%; and in the first half of last year, over 400,000 professionals voluntarily quit, signaling a confidence that it’s a candidate’s market.
Desai’s experience talking to friends in the startup world bears this out. They say it is hard to hire good talent and they were not finding candidates with the skills they were looking for even among students who had earned four-year computer science degrees.
When Jacob Rosenberg, the CTO of LendUp, found out that Desai and Rossmann were looking to place candidates with partner companies, he wanted to get his startup involved. “My goal when building a technology team is to hire people that are both smart and effective, and (in my experience) actually building something is the only way you learn to be effective,” he says.
The program is so new that Rosenberg has yet to hire a Make School graduate yet and admits that some hiring managers may not feel confident about a candidate who’s got only a handful of apps instead of a degree from a traditional university.
“It’s my experience that hiring managers still do favor candidates who have top-tier schools on their résumés,” says Rosenberg, adding that that only gets a candidate past the résumé stage. “Once you are participating in an interview or work-sample project, actually having relevant skills and knowledge and understanding how to apply them is what will matter,” he contends. “As a manager, I give special attention to entry-level candidates who attended a school with a work/co-op program, e.g. Waterloo, for the same reasons.”
What if we were the world’s first product university?
On the flip side, students like Bando were eagerly lapping up everything Make School offers. Bando says, “Right after the day technically ended around 5 p.m., I would not mind spending another seven hours on my current project,” sharing apps with the other students.
“Once you realize working and building can be so fulfilling, like when someone cares enough to report a bug, I don’t understand why more schools aren’t going into this direction,” Desai says.
Upending the current higher education model, in which professors teach the same thing every year, Make School would iterate just as the products its students build: through feedback. “How can we teach better?” he muses.
Desai points out that most universities focusing on research often don’t see the fruits of their work for a decade. “What if we were the world’s first product university?” he posits. In other words, he’s envisioning designing the entire Make School experience with teachers (currently a group of individuals with real-world, as opposed to academic, credentials) working with students on open-source projects. “They could be building really cool products that help people’s lives now.”