No engineering degree? Don't fret ! These startups will find you a tech job

#edtech, #India, #Lambda school, #Masai School, #online coding bootcamp, #Scalar Academy

Arjun (his last name has been withheld to protect his identity), a 2020 engineering graduate from Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi and in his in his early 20s, found it tough to get a job. His skills did not meet industry standards, an issue that haunts hundreds of thousands of engineers and he was looking for a way to upgrade his skills. 

Rohit Goyal, 28, worked in across multiple roles, including as operations manager in a coal company and startups for eight years, before finding his calling in software development. Late in his professional journey, he wasn’t sure where to start.

Both found their way to Masai School, an online coding bootcamp that allows students to learn first and pay after they get a job, based on the Lambda School model in the US. This trend has accelerated amid the Covid-19 pandemic that spurred digital transactions, helping college graduates and working professionals to tap the growing demand for technology professionals in India.

Moneycontrol spoke to the alternative schools such as Masai, AltCampus and Scalar Academy, students and employers to understand what is attracting people to these bootcamps, the evolving educational ecosystems in India, and more importantly, if they will help plug the tech talent gap India confronts today.

What are online coding boot camps?  

In simple terms, they are online coding schools that teach basics of coding such as full stack web development in 6-9 months for a fee. Rather than theory, the courses are designed to apply the knowledge students acquire in the camps. For instance, students are often made to develop their own websites or mobile apps as a part of their assignments. After the course, the students go through placements. The fee ranges from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 3 lakh.

This model, pioneered by the Lambda School in the US in 2016, has taken off in India over the last couple of years as entrepreneurs looked to disrupt the higher education market in India. The pandemic only accelerated their growth.

Prakeek Shukla, co-founder of Masai School, said: “I think from the company’s perspective, the demand was always there. But this, like right now, is crazy.” The demand for tech talent is such that the school doesn’t have enough students to place in the 600 plus firms it has partnered with for placements.

Coding schools

Shukla started Masai in 2019 with Yogesh Bhat and Nrupul Dev to bridge the skills gap.

“The entire higher education system that we have in our country is completely failing. People are not getting the right kind of jobs which they are getting trained on. And there’s a huge unemployment,” Shukla said.

India produces more than 1 million engineers annually and even more non-engineering graduates. “But the employability is still in single digit. So there’s a huge unemployment crisis that is happening around us,” he added. According to Shukla, this requires equipping graduates with practical skills instead of theoretical knowledge.

Masai School offers a 30-week training bootcamp that focuses on full stack development skills. Students have a packed schedule, from 9 am to 9 pm for six days a week. “It is highly focused on practical skills. We don’t teach theory. The best part about our education is that unlike institutions we don’t charge any fees from the students,” Shukla added.

The business model, Income Sharing Agreement, allows the students to pay 15 percent of their monthly salary after they get placed until they pay off the Rs 3 lakh fee, with a maximum time period of three years. This is applicable only for those who earn at least Rs 5 lakh per annum, and for those who don’t, it is as good as free.

The company had about 200 students till July, and increased the enrolment to 600 by August. It has about 1,200 students now. It has partnered with startups, large information technology services firms and multinationals for placements.

The lack of practical learning in college was what led Prashant Abhishek, co-founder of AltCampus, to start the company with two others. A graduate from a Tier-2 college in Gwalior, he realized that the colleges were not teaching what he had expected to learn, which is how to actually build a product.

“I wanted to teach students what I wanted to learn out of college,” he said. He started AltCampus from Dharamshala in 2018. AltCampus offers a 6-7 month full stack software development boot camp; students also have the option of following their own pace in a course spread over nine months. The entire course costs about Rs 81,000.

The company has placed about 160 people and has another 80 in the pipeline. The pandemic has been a clear game changer, Abhishek said. The company is planning to increase the batch size from 15 to 25 with three batches a month, he added. So far, AltCapus has had taken on one batch per month. The firm has also partnered with startups and service companies for placing its students.

If AltCampus and Masai School were focused on getting their students basic employment, Scalar Academy initially focused on professionals, who want to move up to Tier-1 technology firms, and has now extended enrolment to college students.

Scalar Academy was started by Anshuman Singh, a former Facebook executive, and Abhimanyu Saxena, an executive from Fab.com, in 2019. “During our time at Facebook and Fab, what we realized is that this talent scarcity is a massively global problem. What has happened is that the speed at which industry has gone ahead and technology, the universities, or the traditional education system, has not been able to keep pace with that,” Saxena said.

So both of them returned to India to bridge the gap through InterviewBit, a venture that helped candidates with what to expect in interviews by big technology companies. As it gained popularity and they started partnering with companies for placements, they launched Scalar to create top tech talent. The cost of software engineering courses is Rs 2.5 lakh. From 3,000 people in 2020, the company is looking to close this year with 12,000 to 15,000 students.

What makes the bootcamps attractive?

The guarantee of jobs is one of the key reasons.

Take for instance Sahil Sachdev, a full stack developer with inai, a financial services firm. A 2021 Class 12 graduate, Sachdev, who belongs to a business family in Rajasthan, was interested in coding. When he was exploring options like a Bachelor of Computer Applications course, his brother suggested that he join Masai. “Become a software developer at ₹0 upfront fee. Pay when you earn 5LPA+” — school’s USP appealed to him.

“My family was not in a position to fund the coding boot camp. So the fact that I can pay after getting a job was what made me enroll in Masai,” the 19-year-old said.

In case of Nipun Jain, who passed Class 12 in 2020, the promise of the job was what made Masai attractive. He is a software engineer for a startup now.

Abhishek agreed that given that job is a key motivator, the school’s growth is directly linked to the outcome it can create. In this case, the company’s ability to place the students.

However as the company packs in complex concepts in a short time, burnouts amid students and mentors are more common.

Burnouts

Burnout among mentors is one of the key challenges for the schools.

Each code written by students had to be reviewed to the minutest of details. Multiply that into 15 or 20 and add in the fact that the students are amateurs, handling a complex topic, and your success is directly linked to placing the students in jobs. That is a huge responsibility on the mentors.

“Mentors get burnt out in 9-12 months,” added Abhishek. This also means attrition is high and scaling the mentor network is one of the biggest challenges for the bootcamp startups.

It isn’t the educators alone who have to cope with burnout. Some students do too.

A student of one of the alternative schools, who identified himself as Rahul (name changed), said he burnt out four months into the program. “Unlike the other students, I was married, older and was not able to cope with the class. I approached the mentors and told them that I can’t cope,” he said.

For a week, he was given lighter assignments to not overwhelm him and work through the issue. It proved helpful. He is lead developer team in a startup, a year after he was placed and is earning close to Rs 12 lakh per annum.

Shukla agreed that burnout is a problem. The company has in-house counsellor and offers meditation classes daily to address the syndrome. The problem is worse for the mentors, who are working harder than any students. To mitigate the stress, the company offers generous leave for mentors to recharge.

Are companies open to hiring?

Since September, Masai School has placed 60 students with an average salary package of Rs 11.2 lakh. This was Rs 7.8 lakh earlier.

The transition to digital induced by the pandemic is boosting the trend. Companies are more than willing to pay 100-200 percent more than their current salary for the candidates with the right skills. In some cases, salaries have jumped from Rs 18 lakh to Rs 1 crore.

Clearly, for companies, employees’ skill far outweighs their college degrees. According to Abhishek, the company has seen an increasing trend of Class 12 students enrolling themselves in such courses. “While this may not be the norm, we are seeing more willingness from firms placing more emphasis on talent than degree,” he added.

Nikhil Jois, founder of BureauIdentity, a Bengaluru-based startup that facilitates secure mobile transactions, said the company is also exploring similar schools for talent and is open to hiring from them.

Can they replace traditional schools?

The jury is still out. Shukla and Saxena want to replace traditional IT schools and college through their bootcamp programs. “We are competing with colleges,” Shukla said.

There are enough signs that given time, more people like Sachdev and Gaurav will join the employment pool, forgoing higher education entirely and more companies will be open to hiring talented individuals irrespective of their degrees.

But that is going to take a few more years. Abhishek explained that while these courses can be considered complementary to college education, they might not be a replacement.

Jois said that given the broken Indian education system, alternative schools have a good chance of becoming successful. “They might replace the tier-2/3 colleges, where the quality of education is low. However, it would take a few more years,” he added.

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