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Providers search for lucrative coding bootcamp models

Cracking the code

by Lauren Holtmeier

If anything about the future can be claimed as certain, it is this: The jobs of the future will be different from those of today, and jobs across various sectors will more heavily rely on skills such as coding and programming. This shift has already begun, and Lebanese entrepreneurs, such as the founders of SE Factory, Codi, and Torch Academy, began looking to break into the coding bootcamp market about five years ago and educate fresh job market entrants. 

Information on the size or value of the global coding bootcamp market is not readily available, but a quick scan of available camps shows, at least anecdotally, a fairly large number of these bootcamps emerging globally. One estimate from Technavio, a company that conducts market research, predicts that the global full-time coding bootcamp market will reach $331.96 million by 2021, an 11 percent growth over the five-year forecast period. The Investment and Development Authority for Lebanon (IDAL) reported in 2018 that the Lebanese ICT sector was a fast-growing sector, whose impact, whether direct or indirect, on GDP was expected to be $7 billion by 2025. Such expectations reinforce the notion that Lebanon’s knowledge economy and tech startup ecosystem are an apt destination for the funds provided under Circular 331 from Banque du Liban (BDL), Lebanon’s central bank. Even before this data was published, entrepreneurs had identified a need and began looking to fill that gap and hopefully turn a profit. 

Learning how to code is not just for tech whizzes designing the latest hit app. Working Lebanese must be prepared and equipped to move into these jobs of the future, as more traditional sources of income are lost to technology. In 2018, PwC, a global consulting company, conducted a survey of 29 countries—of which only Turkey and Israel were surveyed in the Middle East—which estimated that 3 percent of jobs were at risk of automation by the early 2020s, increasing to 30 percent by the mid-2030s and putting 44 percent of low-educated workers at risk from losing their jobs to automation. A June 2019 Oxford Economics report found that up to 20 million manufacturing jobs—or about 8.5 percent of the global manufacturing workforce—could be replaced by robots by 2030. Since 2010, the report states that the number of robots in industry has more than doubled worldwide. 

Finding the right skills

Lebanon is not immune to these pressures. Of the local labor force, 21 percent work in the industrial sector, according to IDAL, and the country hosts over 4,700 industrial firms—meaning the rise of automation and robots could impact the makeup of the Lebanese labor force. But with disruption comes opportunity, IDAL identifies gaming, e-health, adtech, software as a service, media streaming, and financial and e-payment solutions as key investment opportunities in Lebanon. Bottom line, with millions of jobs likely to be automated in the future, the living labor force must adapt to define and subsequently fill new roles. 

In Lebanon, a 2017 skills forecasting study conducted by the national employment office in conjunction with UNESCO, the EU, and NET-MED Youth—a five-year project implemented by UNESCO and funded by the EU—identified close to a combined 13,000 jobs across the ICT sector, including systems analysts and various developers and programmers; while a 2016 UNDP labor needs assessment for the ICT sector estimated 2,000 new jobs would be created annually for new graduates. With around 800 ICT enterprises in Lebanon and approximately 2,000 university ICT graduates looking to join the workforce each year, these estimates would indicate that the sector is capable of absorbing these new graduates. However, this projected 15 percent job creation rate should be questioned with the country headed toward austere times and real GDP growth at just 0.2 percent in 2018. Even if these projections prove correct, there is still a gap in that degrees do not necessarily set students up for the workplace. 

Fadi Bizri, founder of SE Factory, a coding bootcamp for recent graduates, says there is a skills mismatch, in that universities focus on theoretical knowledge and fail to instill in students the practical knowledge needed to succeed in the field. “If there’s a supply, and there’s a demand,” Bizri asked himself. “Why isn’t it working?” The UNDP report cited a lack of “blue sky thinking” in the current collective skillset, meaning the current labor force lacks the ability to think critically and creatively.

Bizri and his co-founder Zeina Saab recognized this knowledge gap, especially for graduates coming from what he describes as second-tier universities where receiving a high-quality education is hit or miss. SE Factory, which focuses on full-stack web development, is one of multiple endeavors, alongside Torch Academy and Codi, across Lebanon that aims to provide students with this practical technical knowledge while simultaneously boosting critical thinking, but it also teaches soft skills and has career services that include CV writing and mock interviews. All three of these programs target young adults and recent university graduates, and all claim a 90 percent job placement rate of their graduates. 

Such endeavors have popped up over the last five years, and a few seem to be operating relatively healthily in their early stages. One that failed to do so though was the popular France-based Le Wagon program. Le Wagon has bootcamps in 35 cities globally, and a branch opened its doors in Lebanon in 2015, but closed after just two cycles. Malik el-Khoury, Lebanon’s Le Wagon founder, says this was for multiple reasons that included the price, the coding language taught, and the fact the teachers hired from the US and Europe were more expensive than local instructors.

The price tag for an intensive nine-week program was $4,500, and 80 percent of Le Wagon’s students came from abroad. Finding people who were willing to pay that high a price in Lebanon was difficult, and the number of Lebanese employers who use the language taught, Ruby on Rails, can be counted on one hand, Khoury says. Ruby on Rails is great for people who know little about coding, but is not exceedingly useful in a country that primarily uses PHP and Java, he says. When asked what model may be more sustainable in Lebanon, Khoury says he thinks something where students can go to school in the evenings and still be working during the day could prove more lucrative.

Finding the right model

Torch, which began in 2015 as well, is now beginning to shift to this “short course” model in which students attend classes three evenings a week and choose to learn IOS, Android, or web development, with a focus on building practical skills. Traditionally, students enrolled in a 14-week full-time program for $1,200, and while they have trained more than 350 students and have three or four courses a year, Inaam Hassoun, program coordinator at Torch, says that they are struggling to attract interest in this intensive program in which they would need 10 to 15 students to run a cycle. Hassoun believes this is because most recent graduates do not have the necessary funds and are focused on getting a job to use their recently obtained degree.

SE Factory, on the other hand, have stuck with the 14-week, full-time model since incorporation in 2016, operating three cycles annually with around 20 students in each cohort, but where they are targeting recent graduates with some background in computer science from the middle and lower socioeconomic classes, they charge just $100 for the course. In the beginning, this was achievable through grants and heavy fundraising, and now SE Factory charges a success fee for students and companies. For students, once they land a job, one month’s salary is owed that can be paid over three to 18 months. For companies, if they hire a graduate and are satisfied, SE Factory receives 1.5 times a month’s salary once the employee makes it past the probation period. Bizri, one of SE Factory’s co-founders, says that currently they have about 60 companies in their network, including employers outside Lebanon. Regarding growing SE Factory, he says that while they are on a path to sustainability, they still rely on some grants, and they have recently raised money to open two new bootcamps, one in the north and one in the south, but the exact locations are yet to be determined. 

Where SE Factory charges an, albeit very affordable, fee for their services, Codi, a similar program that targets marginalized youth, including low-income Lebanese as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees, who must be at least 17 years old to enroll in the program, offers six-month classes for free, relying heavily on fundraising from corporate or individual donors. In operation since 2017, they tend to target members of the Lebanese diaspora for funds through cooperation with the Lebanese International Finance Executives (LIFE), a group that works to link Lebanese finance executives abroad back to their roots. 

still in demand

Joseph Atallah, director and head of operations at Codi says that they receive their physical operating space for free and only pay for utilities, helping lower operating costs. Beyond having tuition-free courses for the near 30 students each cycle, Codi partners with Al-Majmoua, a nonprofit microfinance organization, to provide microloans of $2,000 spread over the six months to students who need financial assistance. Graduates must begin paying back the loan within four to six months of graduation, assuming they find employment; if not, Codi covers the costs. 

With these four programs all emerging within a two-year window of the others, and three left standing—and where at least one, Torch, has expressed trouble attracting new students for their full-time coding bootcamp—the question arises: Has the market reached saturation? Torch’s Hassoun says she thinks it is a possibility, but SE Factory’s Bizri disagrees. With only a handful in Lebanon, and with those in operation targeting different markets (marginalized youth, lower income youth, and middle to upper class), he argues it is doubtful that the market has reached saturation. Regardless of these programs’ presence, the jobs they seek to prepare their students for will continue to emerge rather rapidly over the coming decades, and demand for skilled workers will not dwindle. In turn, the demand for coding bootcamps—unless Lebanese universities drastically alter their curriculum to ply their students with more hands-on experience—is not likely to decline. 

However, prospective students’ demand for full-time coding bootcamps, for the time being, seems to be contingent on pricing. Of course, many other factors that may affect demand could be at play, such as preference for programming language, skills taught, or offerings on teaching soft skills, but where these offerings seem to be similar across the board, price varies dramatically. Le Wagon’s failure was in part due to the Ruby on Rails programming language offered, despite it being a full-stack program, but the other three offer full-stack training on commonly used coding languages. If students have a preference for learning a certain language, this could affect the landscape as well. The experiences of Le Wagon and Torch in struggling to attract people for their relatively pricey full-time courses compared with SE Factory and Codi’s relative ease in identifying students indicates that there is at least a partial link with affordability in a country that is undergoing an economic crisis. How coding bootcamps adapt and continue to fare in stormy economic times will require identifying a model that is affordable for recent graduates that teaches the right content, or, like Torch, adapts by shifting to a model where those in the labor force already can earn a living during the day and learn in the evenings. 

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Lauren Holtmeier

Lauren Holtmeier holds a masters of International Affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M and has worked on refugee issues at the American University of Beirut.

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