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Prateek Shukla (right), co-founder and CEO of Masai School, which started coding bootcamps in June 2019, addresses a batch of students.
Prateek Shukla (right), co-founder and CEO of Masai School, which started coding bootcamps in June 2019, addresses a batch of students.

Bootcamps are fixing the coder shortage in India

Startups are putting newbies without a coding background through a programming regimen to set them up for jobs

The fast growing startup ecosystem in India has a mounting problem—finding coders with the skill sets for these emerging domains. India churns out 1.5 million engineering graduates annually, but only a small fraction of them have what it takes for serious software development.

The gap has been documented time and again, starting with a Nasscom-McKinsey report a decade ago, which pointed out that only a quarter of graduating engineers were employable. Aspiring Minds, which has been conducting an annual employability test in engineering colleges, claims that less than 5% of those tested had the minimum requirements for a programming job. Employability has been declining in proportion with the rise in the number of technical colleges.

Attempts to tackle the problem in the past had limited success. IT services companies would hire en masse from campuses, train in-house or on the job. But this is hard to do in a startup dealing with software product development and testing.

Shift in scene

One of the first startups to tackle this problem was Venturesity, founded in Bengaluru in 2013 to rope in instructors from the tech industry to impart relevant computing skills. But it struggled to monetize the venture with fees of 10,000-20,000 for 30-hour courses. The startup pivoted to focus on recruitment through coding challenges or hackathons, changing its name to Skillenza. “Parents were unwilling to pay higher fees for job-oriented courses after already shelling out money to private colleges," recalls Subhendu Panigrahi, founder of Venturesity and Skillenza.

But now, it is launching SkillDojo, a coding bootcamp that promises a tech job after a one semester course “with no upfront cost." A lot has changed since the Venturesity days, says Panigrahi.

Connectivity and tools for online coding classes have improved. Covid has raised acceptance of online learning. But the main hook is ‘no upfront cost’. This became an option with the growing adoption of income share agreements, which let students defer payment of fees as a cut from salaries when they’re hired. US colleges offered them as alternatives to loans, and they became an onboarding vehicle for coding bootcamps like Lambda and General Assembly.

“A lot of people without a coding background, who didn’t know whether they could become coders, were willing to join bootcamps because the companies selling these were ready to take on the risk of employability," says Panigrahi.

“You need to have skin in the game," says Prateek Shukla, co-founder and CEO of Masai School, which started coding bootcamps in June 2019. It has campuses in Bengaluru and Patna apart from online operations. Last week, it announced a $2.5 million funding round led by Unitus Ventures.

Masai promises placement with a “minimum CTC" of 5 lakh per annum for its basic course that requires no prior coding skills. Students learn full stack web development or Android development for mobile devices in a “military regime" from 9a.m. to 9p.m. six days a week for 24 to 30 weeks. This costs 2.5 lakh plus GST under an income share agreement. Those who opt to foot the bill upfront pay 1 lakh less.

There’s an advanced track that offers an annual CTC of 8 lakh and costs 3 lakh plus GST in the deferred payment option. This is aimed at professionals or students who know algorithms and data structures.

It’s still early days for coding bootcamps like these with grey areas in regulation as well as the quality of guidance they can offer at scale. Masai takes undated cheques from students as collateral against any breach of the income share agreement. So far, into its fourth batch, there’s been no cause to use them, says Shukla.

The toughest part is to find instructors who have both the software development experience and the mindset to deal with learning issues in bootcamps that go flat out to make students job-ready in six to eight months. The first teachers at Masai were the three co-founders.

Shukla, whose earlier startup Grabhouse was acquired by Quikr, helped build the curriculum along with the CTO, Nrupul Dev, who was his senior at IIT Kanpur. The third co-founder, Yogesh Bhat from IIM-Bangalore, who worked earlier in sales training, handles soft skills like communication which are increasingly a prerequisite for jobs in the age of remote work. Over time, faculty was hired, and alumni pitched in. Guest faculty came from established startups like GreyOrange and ShareChat that want an assembly line of coders.

An innovation at Masai is the admission process which focuses on aptitude to learn coding rather than a student’s background. Those who want to join are provided materials in subjects like probability, statistics and logic that are fundamental to programming. Then they do the admission test.

“More than half of our students don’t have a computer science background and over two-thirds are from economically weaker sections. We first train them in basic concepts and then test them on those for admission. That way we know we’re selecting people with a high motivation to learn," says Shukla.

Learning by doing

Pedagogy also varies from one platform to another. Mumbai-based School of Accelerated Learning (SOAL), which has been running coding bootcamps in Mumbai and Hyderabad as well as online, believes in giving students problems and letting them find their own paths to solutions with the help of guides.

“If I’m creating a Sudoku puzzle with JavaScript, I should probably use the concept of functions rather than the concept of arrays. To make that choice, I would need to explore two or three concepts together. Then I develop the ability to understand what computation principles to use in which context," explains Varsha Bhambhani, co-founder of SOAL, who earlier worked on learning methodologies as a researcher at the R.N. Podar School in Mumbai and a project officer for the UN’s Global Schools Program.

“We don’t provide a step-by-step manual. We give learners a brief on concepts they could explore in figuring out ways to build something. By the end of the session they would know there may be 20 or even 100 ways and none of them is perfect. It depends on the context. They realize they could use one concept or a combination of several concepts."

The biggest lacuna in classrooms, whether they’re physical or the digital ones in MOOCs like Coursera, is the low level of engagement from learners listening to lectures, which explains the high rate of dropouts. For SOAL, which began with bootcamps in co-working spaces, the challenge is to manage a transition to a fully online mode after covid-19. It had already started creating the digital infrastructure for it to reach more learners, but covid gave it a push.

Malavika Velayanikal is a consulting editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu.

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