Watching workplace automation accelerate, Chok Ooi’s brain percolated on a crucial question: How can we help all those people who are going to be left behind in the transition?
As he saw it, people had two options: short-term coding bootcamps tend to better serve those with an existing degree, or traditional four-year higher education programs. Both require hefty tuition fees (and often result in long-term debt). Also, these programs don’t build the soft skills industry increasingly demands. As a final barrier, they focus on helping students find jobs in large tech hubs, forcing people to leave home or face unemployment.
So, calling on years of engineering experience, Ooi kicked his problem-solving skills into high gear and developed a third option. Kenzie Academy is a unique bootcamp, where students with little to no coding experience learn highly sought after UX Engineering or Software engineering skills in just one year.
What makes Ooi’s solution stand out is that students can attend classes online or at Kenzie’s brick and mortar location in Indianapolis. The programs offer soft skills development, built-in local job search support, and a tuition model that makes a mid-career pivot far more financially feasible. To date, Kenzie has 244 students and graduates and a 90 percent job placement rate.
We sat down with Ooi to discuss his unique spin on coding bootcamps, why he’s focused on supporting students outside of tech hubs, and how new funding will propel his vision forward.
During the last recession, there weren't many alternative options available, so people went back to degrees or master's programs.
EdSurge: Why are employers turning to bootcamps right now to find skilled workers?
Ooi: Pre-COVID, the job market was so hot that, if you asked any employer or CEO what their biggest struggle was, the number one answer would be access to talent. Last year, major companies like Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and even JPMorgan Chase started saying, “We no longer require degrees in our hiring.” Having the right skills and mindset is becoming more valuable than a degree.
Traditional universities aren’t designed to scale to meet these demands; the only other options are bootcamps or new, alternative education models. But not all programs are created equal. The ones that can consistently produce high-quality talent will be successful over time.
What attracts students to Kenzie Academy?
A lot of our students started out in asynchronous programs and quickly hit a brick wall, realizing they want to learn in a more structured environment. They also need people who know what they’re doing to curate and point them in the right direction so they can learn and be job-ready in a shorter amount of time.
By having a mix of online and in-person instruction, we’re actually training our students for the future of work. Successful online-synchronous education is not just slapping on Zoom and then teaching the way you teach. We create the right structure so people who are distributed online can work effectively; then we train them on how to engage with colleagues effectively when everyone’s apart.
Catering to students outside of tech hubs is also essential to our approach. If you live in rural Ohio, Michigan, or somewhere in the South, your options are limited. The goal of Kenzie is to bring that high-quality training that you typically get in major cities to an online-synchronous model so that you can learn from the best people coming out of the tech industry.
The benefit is that people coming out of Kenzie can stay closer to home and not have to move to San Francisco or New York if they want to have a successful career in tech.
We include the full job search in our curriculum. From day one, students attend Career Fridays, learning how to interview and problem-solve on a whiteboard.
Networking and connections are critical to finding jobs, so we form partnerships with employers, talk directly with hiring managers to know what their needs are, and then put our graduates and students in front of these companies, helping them skip the HR line.
How has the current climate affected your application load?
We're definitely expecting higher enrollment over the next few quarters. We’ve already seen a major spike in leads and applications coming into Kenzie in recent weeks. That’s because our industry in some sense is countercyclical. When people lose their jobs and get laid off, they look for new opportunities.
During the last recession, there weren't many alternative options available, so people went back to degrees or master's programs. But today, with so many options available, we expect a lot of people will consider programs like Kenzie over traditional higher ed.
What makes your approach to an online bootcamp unique?
Our learning is all project-based and flipped classroom, instead of lecture-based. Students are actually learning by building things every day and by using all the same tools, lingo and collaborative approaches the industry uses.
Besides training them on how to code, we’re focusing on a lot of soft skills—problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and networking—that you typically get from a four-year college experience. We produce talent that’s a lot more well-rounded and a lot more desirable to employers.
Before Kenzie, a lot of our students made less than $30,000 a year, some as little as $15,000. After our one-year training, a lot of students double or triple their income.
Then we use the 2U model for instruction, where we hire the best practitioners who happen to be the best teachers. But instead of having them teach a small class, we productize them. They focus on creating programs, curriculum, videos, and demos, and they maintain the quality. Every student gets to learn from great instructors.
Our program is also very high-touch compared to a lot of online universities. It's online-synchronous, with instructors available starting at 9 am Monday to Friday, with evening coaching hours all the way to midnight. Students have far greater access to instructional staff compared to many universities where professors are only available for a small window of time.
You’ve also taken a unique approach to tuition, specifically your ISA (income sharing agreement). What led you to that approach?
Because our programs are high touch; our 12-month program tuition is $24,000. But a majority of our students can’t afford to pay that, so they finance a big chunk of the tuition using ISAs. Then after they graduate, and if they make more than $40,000 a year, they pay back 13 percent of their income for 48 months.
Kenzie Academy Resources
Kenzie grads in the Midwest are making around $58,000, and the range is $50,000 to $90,000 per year. Before Kenzie, a lot of our students made less than $30,000 a year, some as little as $15,000. After our one-year training, a lot of students double or triple their income.
We have this really great ISA fund with San Francisco based Community Investment Management (CIM), and that's a very powerful part of our strategy. We raised $100 million for student tuition financing in 2019 and it will help thousands of Americans access our programs while helping us expand our learning offerings across the country.
You just raised a Series A investment round totaling $7.77 million. How will Kenzie grow as a result of that funding?
Our vision for the next five years is for Kenzie to be a movement that opens doors for the hundreds of thousands of underdogs in this country and globally, where people that are determined and hardworking just need someone to give them that first opportunity.
I am an immigrant. I came here 22 years ago, not knowing anybody. I always joke that McDonald’s wouldn’t give me a job even if I begged them. I was able to get to where I am today because people opened doors for me and gave me opportunities.
We want to open that first door for students.