Daily deal service LivingSocial just launched a new site called Hungry Academy to recruit developers. The twist: it’s recruiting people who aren’t developers yet. The new new recruits will be trained in Ruby and Ruby-on-Rails by Jumpstart Lab over five months in Washington, DC before having the opportunity to join the LivingSocial team. In many ways it sounds like an old fashion vocational apprenticeship.
At first blush, this seems like a great idea. There’s a talent war, and startups are going to great lengths to offer employees perks. But at the same time, even after a recent drop the unemployment rate in the U.S. remains over 8%. Meanwhile, tuition costs have increased faster than inflation, leaving many graduates in deep debt. There are lots of smart, motivated individuals that could make great startup employees but lack experience in software development, and lack the funds to go back to school to re-skill. There are also plenty of young people who would probably jump at the chance to by-pass a four year degree and get their feet wet as software developers in just five months.
But this is a difficult project. Paying employees who you don’t expect to be productive for at least five months is a big investment. Many, perhaps most college students struggle to learn to program and fail to learn even the most fundamental concepts. Computer science educators have been struggling with this issue for years.
There is, however, a rigorous application process and I imagine those who just can’t hack it will be dropped quickly. On the other hand, with salaries for developers approaching or in some cases exceeding six figures, not counting perks, this could end up being a bargain, depending on how much LivingSocial pays its staff. But Jumpstartlabs founder Jeff Casimir wrote on Hacker News: “Expect the during program salary to be a reasonable living wage in our expensive city and the full post-academy salary to be at or above other beginning developer positions,” so the company is at least claiming that it won’t skimp on compensation here.
LivingSocial offers no guarantee of a job for Hungry Academy “graduates” but those who do take a job at LivingSocial at the end will sign 18 month contracts.
As pointed out in the comments on Hacker News, the program is a little similar to Code Academy in Chicago. Unlike Hungry Academy, at Code Academy you pay $6,000 up-front. Many of the graduates get job offers from LivingSocial competitor GroupOn. Casimir is involved in both Code Academy and Hungry Academy and writes that the goal of the program is to be “better than college.”
Overall, I have to applaud this experiment. I hope it goes well and that other companies emulate it if it does succeed.