Is reputation management dead?
The coding bootcamp industry is under scrutiny and threat. And the hundreds of bootcamps around the world are competing to stay alive. Most of them charge money up front, so they want students who are willing and able to pay. A few of them charge money later, on the basis of success in the job market, so they want students who will achieve monetarily rewarding employment. In either case, they try to cultivate their reputations.
Learners Guild in Oakland, California, where my 28th week ended on 17 November, is one of the few that get paid only later and only insofar as learners achieve high earnings. The fact that one can attend the entire 40-week program (which is being slightly shortened to 36 weeks) without paying anything in advance, and can even get paid a stipend to defray living costs, helps it recruit Learners from disadvantaged and underrepresented categories, which is the core of the Guild’s social mission. But the Guild’s reputation also matters.
So, how does Learners Guild build its reputation?
- It markets itself.
- It graduates Learners with in-demand technical and social skills, who then get rewarding jobs in industry and participate in open-source software development, demonstrating the value of the training one can get at the Guild.
- It cultivates alumni relations and industrial partnerships.
- It offers (or at least is planning to offer) software development as a service, leveraging the skills of its staff and Learners.
- It differentiates itself from coding bootcamps, framing itself as something essentially novel, based on apprenticeship, mentoring, and teamwork, not formal instruction.
As to this last point, has the “We’re not one of those bootcamps” assertion worked?
My father once told me, “You can’t decide whether you’re Jewish. If the world thinks you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish.” Analogously, the world thinks that Learners Guild is a coding bootcamp, despite its effort to be different.
You can see that in the inclusion of Learners Guild at websites that aggregate reviews of coding bootcamps. The reviews posted there have been harsh. Look at Course Report and Switchup. As of this writing, the Guild gets about 2 out of 5 points at both sites, on the basis of mostly scathing and anonymous reviews. It’s easy to imagine a prospective applicant looking at the Guild’s own marketing and this collection of reviews and deciding to believe the reviews.
But whom can one believe? Suspicion of the accuracy of promotional marketing is rivaled by suspicion of the honesty of customer reviews. Stories about reputation management in this world of review sites are rampant. Glowing fake reviews by friends and family. Fake diatribes by competitors. Reviews hidden when companies refuse to pay. What, then, accounts for the Guild’s nasty reputation among reviewers? I have a few (non-conspiratorial) hypotheses:
- The Guild has underplayed the instability of its learning environment. Its product is a prototype, only about a year old, and has been drastically revised every few months as the Guild discovers what does and doesn’t work well. Some Learners have welcomed the reforms, but others have decided that they aren’t getting what they were promised.
- The Guild has succeeded in its aim to recruit a remarkably diverse assortment of Learners, not only ethnographically but also emotionally, cognitively, and experientially. That success makes it difficult to design a program compatible with all the participants’ learning styles and needs.
- The major changes in the Guild’s program impair the predictive value of reviews that are more than a few months old, but most of the posted reviews evaluate a program that is no longer in effect.
- The Guild has not tried hard to break out of the coding-bootcamp model. If, as some claim, bootcamps simply cannot produce graduates with the deep and sophisticated knowledge that industry requires, that challenge affects the Guild, too. It may be even more serious there, since failing to become a professional developer is a worse (and more surprising) result if one has spent 40 weeks trying than if one has dedicated only about 12–15 weeks in a more typical bootcamp program.
- Out of the roughly 150 persons who have been passing through the Guild’s program, fewer than 20 have chosen to post reviews, and most of those are current or former Learners who were severely disappointed. I estimate that about 20% of the total Learner population has seriously regretted joining the Guild, about 20% has found the Guild a rewardingly life-changing experience, and about 60% is arrayed across a range of responses, mixing specific satisfactions and disappointments.
- The Guild is doing nothing to instigate Learners to post reviews. It does profile some happier Learners in its own marketing, but it is not appealing to such learners to spread the word on Course Report, Switchup, Yelp, or other sites.
If Learners Guild can keep experimenting until it finds a viable and clonable model, it will have done itself good by not trying to seed review sites with praise. It is forcing itself to focus on building a genuine and durable reputation by turning out successful graduates. And who knows, maybe the chaotic sequence of pilot projects that is the Guild’s reality will turn out to be great preparation for the dysfunctional organizations that most of us will work in.