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The Innovation Police: When It Comes to Code Academies, Where Is the Crisis?

Dean Florez

President, Balance Inc.

This piece is the second in a three-part series. Read part one here

Whether it’s code academies, Uber, Airbnb or other big data startups on the horizon, all new emerging tech industries are destined to square off with the “innovation police.” The police take their suspects down a legislatively created path to a sausage factory where they instinctively engineer their warrants:  increased privacy protection; curtailed tracking of consumers; opt-out provisions; or requirements of upfront notice for personal data usage.

It’s all in a day’s work at the sausage factory, where workers gleefully partake in this warrant-driven ecosystem—even if the benefits of innovation are slowed or harmed before new enterprises have reached mature fruition.

As a recovering politician, I have firsthand knowledge of this phenomena, and I’ve witnessed what bureaucrats do with a few well intentioned laws passed within the factory gates.

A past California Senate Majority Leader, I oversaw a good portion of the operations and had a front row seat at the tug-of-war between the need to maintain imperishable consumer protections while seeking to avoid inhibiting innovation by creating fear of penalties due to unwarranted government intervention.

Clearly, this decade has pushed the societal envelope in terms of technological innovation. And, it has also produced a bright light exposing outdated government policies that emulate a fading manufacturing and durable goods economy rather than reflect the service-based, tech-paced society we live in today.

As a result, innovation and technological gains threaten the sausage factory: They rearrange the old policy regime premised on “government protecting consumers,” rather than allowing accountability measures within a crowd-sourced, free market tech arena where recommendations and peer-to-peer suggestions provide enough information for consumers to make intelligent choices without government intercession.

In trying to keep up with the new economy, which many lawmakers do not understand, government decision-making has become reactive, not reflective, with decisions based on public assessments, not business realities. Here, bad press drives policy, and crisis moves policymakers. Combining both, the public witness’s far-reaching decisive action that, in an evolving tech arena, has significant impact on the innovation process itself.

But when it comes to code academies, where is the bad press or crisis?

The Innovation Police Produce Warrants

Nearly a year ago, letters from regulators at the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education — which licenses educational entities to operate as part of California’s Department of Consumer Affairs—arrived at code academies in California. The BPPE’s letter asserted that code academies were operating in violation of state law and threatened fines—and potential shutdown—if they did not apply for state recognition.

The underlying tone of BPPE’s letter inferred that a three-month web development course could not possibly provide the engineering fundamentals necessary to be a productive member of a coding development team.

Separately, according to Inside Higher Ed, a spokesman for the bureau mentioned being on a continued hunt for “unlicensed activity” by providers who “don’t have good intentions for students.” Sausage factory translation: We need additional fees to keep the factory running. (Note: The letters said to cease operations immediately or face fines of $50,000 if they continued to operate without being licensed.)

The agency official also stated that code academy startups qualify as educational providers under state law because they are “offering an educational course of instruction for which they are charging students.” Sausage factory lingo: You’re educating, not providing training for a profession—so we found our hook, and it’s your time to be put through the grinder.

Very little bad press. Small crisis. It’s like being pulled over by the innovation police for “looking a certain way” or “not conforming” to the rules of the road. It’s a case of innovation profiling gone amok on players with unconventional names such as App Academy, Dev Bootcamp, General Assembly, Hack Reactor, Hackbright Academy, Coding House, Zipfian Academy, Coding Dojo and their like.

A Promise Too Good to be True?

Maybe code academies brought this upon themselves. Given their unorthodox teaching methods and courses that do not conform to the tradition notion of the mandatory hours and seat-time, comparable to the computer programming degree granted in higher education. Maybe it sounds just too good to be true.

Who in our society today wouldn’t invest $15,000 to have a “99 percent” chance of getting a six-figure coding job with Google, guaranteed? Who among the thousands of college graduates frantically searching for a job that would allow them to pay back their student loans wouldn’t take a second glance at aggressive advertising promoting a 99 percent hiring rate upon completion of an offered $17,000 dollar 12-week coding course?

Fierce competition among coding academies seems to be creating a race to “faster completion,” and promising less time to train in promotions that have turned “Learn to code in 12 weeks” to “Learn to code in 8 weeks,” while others promise 4 weeks training. Some code boot camps have even pushed their curriculum toward a visionary goal, exclaiming “Let’s teach people how to work on ideas that don’t even exist yet.”

Needless to say, aggressive ads, nontraditional teaching methods and tuition fees that don’t fall into the federal or state financial aid system (which typically run between $8,000 and $13,000 for a six- to 10-week course), have gotten the attention of California government officials.

So how did these innovative code academies respond—and where do things stand now? Next Wednesday, Dean Florez will explain how the startups are not passively waiting to hear about their fate. He’ll explain how—and why—they’ve forged a new alliance to “self-police” themselves, recognizing that state-mandated consumer protections have their place. 

Dean Florez

President, Balance Inc.

Dean Florez is the president and CEO of Balance, Inc. and has 20 years of legislative & policymaking experience in the higher education field.