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Elite S.F. coding bootcamp fast-tracks programming training

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Students attend a Hack Reactor session in downtown San Francisco on a recent afternoon. The coding school accepts one student for every 30 applicants. - EVAN DUCHARME/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Evan DuCharme/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Students attend a Hack Reactor session in downtown San Francisco on a recent afternoon. The coding school accepts one student for every 30 applicants.

Eight floors above the chaos of Market and Fifth streets on a Tuesday morning, the coding academy Hack Reactor buzzes with the intensity of an honors library wing. A tall coffee machine burbles, the Wi-Fi signal is at maximum strength, and the doors are all locked at 8:57 a.m. sharp.

In the back corner, Hack Reactor co-founder Marcus Phillips leans back on a stool, puts his tennis shoes up on the podium, and looks up at a projection screen covered in the computer language JavaScript.

"Let's get really naive," Phillips tells the class of 30 or so new students. "What does it want? It wants the first specifications in the array."

It's only Day 2 of this honors coding academy's 12-week course, and Phillips is deep into teaching the theory and practice of building websites in JavaScript. Soon the group will break up and work individual problems in the neat rows of nearby computers, raising their hands when they hit a problem. Within 90 seconds, an instructor swoops in to help them figure it out. This is the routine for 11 hours per day, six days per week, for three months. In the end, Hack Reactor says, nearly everyone will get a job that regularly starts in the six figures.

While politicians pay lip service to training a 21st-century workforce, Hack Reactor is doing it — and at a time when a new tech boom has made it hard for Bay Area technology companies to hire enough software engineers. Meeting the new demand is a group of coding boot camps such as Dev Bootcamp, App Academy and Girl Develop It — and now Hack Reactor, which takes talented amateur coders and transforms them into highly sought-after journeymen in an insanely short 12 weeks.

About 75 students have survived the grueling computer language immersion course, which combines lectures with individual, group and commercial freelance projects and caps it all off with a concerted search for new employment. The most expensive boot camp in The City, Hack Reactor costs $17,780 per student. But the program says it has a 98 percent job placement rate. Hiring managers, entrepreneurs, and current and former students rave about the program, calling it the future of education.

That future confounds even co-founder Shawn Drost, a University of Southern California graduate who received just the kind of traditional, expensive, impractical four-year education that he now hopes to marginalize.

"The most common misperception is that it's impossible to teach anything useful in the time that we have with the students," he said. "It's so difficult to countermand — not the least because I would have said that myself."

Drost started Hack Reactor with two friends from USC: brothers Marcus Phillips, formerly of Twitter; and Tony Phillips, a former Fulbright Program member in South Korea. Tony couldn't learn fast enough in a traditional San Francisco boot camp, which can be geared toward beginners. So the founders envisioned something akin to language immersion school for high achievers who already knew a bit about coding. They launched the program as "Catalyst" in August 2012, and the first Hack Reactor class began in November 2012.

Admissions are brutal. Hack Reactor accepts just one student for every 30 applicants. Candidates apply online and go through a series of one-on-one interviews, said Drost, who based the admissions process on lessons he learned working for the online dating site, OkCupid.

"There's a big group of people who want to code, but they see it as a means to an end," Drost said. "We're really optimized for people who want to be software engineers as their main, day-to-day work. Their life's work."

Hack Reactor student and Ohio native Andrew Delikat, 25, has dual degrees in economics and East Asian studies from the University of Michigan. After working abroad, Delikat thought about getting a master's degree in computer science. Surveying San Francisco boot camps, Hack Reactor's promise of apprenticeship and computer science theory drew him in.

His friends and parents were skeptical.

"It's quite a lot of money," he said, especially for a school with no accreditation or affiliations. But once they saw the curriculum, caliber of instructors and hiring outcomes, they were pleasantly surprised.

"Once my friends saw that it was a deep dive into data structures and algorithms, they were pretty stoked at how rigorous it was and similar to the undergraduate experience," Delikat said. "They're not training people to become typists and code monkeys. It's excellent. It's everything I had expected."

Omar Restom, founder of the food delivery app Chefler, used Hack Reactor students to prototype his mobile software and website in the lightning pace of one month.

"I think this is the educational model of the future," Restom said. "Folks are getting impractical majors from college and getting into debt. This is accelerated, practical experiential learning."

Hack Reactor graduate realizing startup dreams

Fall Hack Reactor graduate Greg Hilkert didn't understand what a political animal he was until he left his home state of Ohio and founded a California startup.

With the Golden State solidly Democratic, the former University of Akron mechanical engineering major almost missed the saturation bombing of political ads on TV and radio back home. So after seven weeks of theory and exercises at Hack Reactor, Hilkert designed a personal project motivated by his fears about where we're going as a country.

Hilkert and his peers built the prototype for Tilden — a website and app that sucks up vast amounts of political information such as campaign finance reports, important votes, congressional speeches, etc. — and presents it in a digestible format for a mainstream audience. After two weeks of coding, Tilden became a Hack Reactor group project and went live in September.

"I figured if I could do something that would allow political information to be used by anybody, or make it more easily accessible, then it might spark a conversation about a topic," Hilkert said. "I don't care what direction it goes in, but the more people talk about it the better informed we all are, the better off we'll be in the country."

Look up Rep. John Boehner and you get a clean, well-organized page with contact info, basic information, leadership positions, human campaign donors, and more. The site allows users to compare members of Congress, analyze pending legislation, and generally explore the influence of money upon the U.S. political system.

Pulling 13- and 14-hour days at Hack Reactor paid off, he said.

"I had the ability to take three months of my life and not have a life while I was doing this," he said. "It turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made."