Special Report: Are more tech professionals skipping grad school for tech vocational programs?

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Published on Feb. 28, 2015
Special Report: Are more tech professionals skipping grad school for tech vocational programs?
Graduate school isn't what it used to be.
At least that's the growing sentiment among some entrepreneurial professionals, especially in fields like computer science and business. Instead of earning a graduate degree many are attending new tech vocational schools as an alternative — a choice that might be the start of a new trend.
They are attending schools like General AssemblyGalvanize and 1871’s XBA program — programs that are pushing off academic and theoretical curriculum and pulling in lessons to be quickly applied within the tech industry. The result is a post-college education that is less abstract than typical graduate programs, and according to its creators better at producing results. 

Teaching practical tech skills


General Assembly’s Los Angeles campus, for example, has set out to train full stack web developers through 12 week intensive courses, and to instruct students in subjects like digital marketing, business fundamentals, and product design through eight to 12 week evening and weekend courses. These courses are designed to update or boost the skills of professionals who often already have college degrees, but who see traditional graduate school as too expensive and removed from the tech industry for their career advancement.
“I think there’s been a huge realization that graduate school is not creating the type of outcomes that it used to maybe 15-20 years ago,” said Ryan Meyer, regional director of General Assembly. “Getting an MBA, for example, that's very valuable if you’re going to a top 25 or 30 institution. If you’re going to an institution a little further down the line the value is a little skewed.”
To fulfill the demand for more practical, bite-sized, and relatively inexpensive programs, General Assembly has developed a line up of vocational courses designed to teach students about the tech industry through a series of projects that mimic real tech industry work. The courses are constantly updated by instructors who have worked in the industry and through consultations with tech companies. 
“It’s iterative. To stay on the bleeding edge you have to take a bleeding edge approach,” said Meyer. “As the pace of change has increased dramatically in the last decade, new ways of teaching skills have emerged.”
That differs significantly from traditional undergraduate and graduate programs, which have changed little in the last 30 years. In fact, after learning their education was too far removed from the demands of the job market, many college graduates are scrambling into industries they did not study. In 2013, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that only 27 percent of college graduates had a job closely related to their major. Many of those graduates are surviving on skills learned on the job — skills desperately needing enhancement if they want to advance their career.

Partnering with the tech industry

Galvanize, a Boulder, Colorado-based vocational tech school, has a similar strategy to General Assembly. The company runs coding classes and co-working spaces across Denver, Boulder and San Francisco and has plans to expand to Seattle, Ft. Collins and an additional campus in Denver.

“We are really hoping to build the next generation education institution,” said Ryan Orban, general manager of Galvanize’s gSchool. “Having a degree without the practical knowledge of how it is applied in industry is not setting someone up for success.”

Similar to General Assembly, many of Galvanize’s students tend to be well educated, but looking for more practical skills — skills they want to translate into employment and higher pay. 

In particular many students are looking to learn data science, a field that is growing quickly and offering high salaries. Unfortunately, masters degrees in computer science — once the route for learning data science — don’t always cut it. 
“You can actually go and get a masters in computer science without writing a single line of computer code,” said Orban.
To learn which skills the industry demands Galvanize has built partnerships with local tech companies. For example, GalvanizeU, a 12 month Masters of Engineering in Big Data program based in San Francisco and launching this year, has over 300 affiliated “member companies” which give Galvanize critical information on their curriculum.
Member companies also let students shadow their data scientists on the job, a part of the course which Galvanize hopes will close the gap between their students' experience and the job market. 
“It’s like a teaching hospital but for data scientists,” said Mike Tamir, chief science officer and head of Galvanize education. “There is something to having an onsite experience.”
The hope is, when GalvanizeU graduation comes around many of the member companies will hire students.
Galvanize said it has had success with this approach before in its other Colorado-based courses. The company also runs a shorter 12-week data science immersive program that it claims has a 93 percent employment placement rate. Its six month full stack web developer intensive program has a 98 percent placement rate. 
By closely tracking individual tech companies through partnerships Galvanize claims to have improved the education to employment pipeline.

Even tech entrepreneurs want alternative education

While Galvanize and General Assembly are a hack into the tech industry, 1871’s Fullbridge XBA in Entrepreneurship program is designed for tech insiders.
1871 is a co-working space and incubator in Chicago and is offering a new XBA program to member companies two nights a week for 15 weeks to teach them practical business lessons. The program came about after 1871 CEO and founder Howard Tullman noticed there was something missing from member companies — something they were hungry for.
“Over and over again there was a sense that they were good at tech, but they didn’t understand the non-technical components of building a business,” said Tullman. 
However, traditional MBA graduate programs didn’t seem like a good fit. 
“Who has the time to put their business on hold while they go back to school?” said Tullman. And, “none of the business schools do even a remotely good or primitive job at teaching people about selling.” 
Thus, the XBA program honed a startup essential tool kit.
“What do they still need to be successful in building their business?” said Tullman. “We’re shrinking it down to what is really the meat.”
The program has come up with five areas of focus essential to a startup’s success: sales, the investor pitch process, tools around finances like Excel, what the venture capital world looks like, and financing alternatives to venture capital.
Many of those subjects are covered in a traditional MBA program. However, instead of going for the breadth of a traditional MBA program, the XBA tries to cover entrepreneurship studies more practically and narrowly. The hope is by keeping the program focused on startup skills, 1871 can help a group that was poorly served by traditional programs. 
“Even entrepreneurs can use a practical skills boost,” said Tullman. 
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