App Academy 2017 Survey: After Reaching $100,000, Coders Look for “Meaningful” Work

People choose a career in web development for many reasons. But an App Academy alumni survey and interviews with them reveal most do it for love of the work and that salary plays a key part.

The assessment comes from App Academy’s 2017 alumni survey, taken by a representative number of students throughout the bootcamp’s six-year history. The survey was created to find the specific impact App Academy has on people’s careers.

Among the results, we found:

  • The median salary of alumni prior to attending App Academy was $45,000
  • Within a year following the course, the median salary of graduates working as software engineers throughout the United States rose to $100,000
  • Within two-to-three years of graduation, salary went up to $130,000
  • At least 130 students went from minimum wage or poverty-level income to six figures

Most importantly, we were happy to find in the survey and through conversations that:

  • The first salary change, between $45,000 and $100,000, most raised alumni coders’ overall job satisfaction.

This result is probably the most consequential aspect of an App Academy education. The bootcamp takes people who are in difficult economic positions, gives them skills to get a job to get out of that difficulty, and once there, gives them the opportunity to look for meaningful work.

One of ways we used the data to find this result was by looking at the difference between “compensation levels” and “meaningful work” on a satisfaction scale. We found that the longer people stayed in the profession, the less money mattered. Things like making a positive impact on the world and meaningful work became more important. Here’s a table showing the difference. 

In order to contextualize the data, we reached out to Prof. Michael G. Katz from UC Berkeley’s Haas Business school. We wanted to see if the results matched what he knew about the relationship between software career trends and programmers’ levels of satisfaction. While there are exceptions, with some choosing development mainly for the money, he told us most do it because they enjoy it.

Most developers derive satisfaction in two ways, Katz says: through careers of achievement and careers of advancement. The former seeks great project challenges and expertise, while the latter wants decision-making power and status. Obviously, both can involve aspects of the other — a developer can enjoy building companies and a CEO can code. In a broader sense, though, Katz says most developers fit into the ‘achievement’ slot because they love it.

A Livable Wage

The traditional approach to an education in Computer Science can be expensive. Four years at university can lead to over $200,000 in debt, coupled with a loss of four years of opportunity cost.

In 2012, App Academy created a new option for people who wanted to start a career in web development – a 12-week coding bootcamp. App Academy is the first coding bootcamp to provide web development education with aligned incentives. You only pay once you’re hired. It’s tbut hat simple. The results that followed were high placement numbers and average salaries as high as $105,000. However, to ensure students consistently found jobs with high salaries, the curriculum had to be rigorous. And that rigor led to something interesting – it kept people in the program who really loved to code.

Judging by the survey and interview responses, this turned out to be true. But, students have to earn a livable wage first, says Jeff Fiddler, the long-time Senior Manager of Curriculum.

“So there’s a point where people need the money. Being able to go out and spend time with friends without worrying about money. But once that number is hit, the rest becomes about the love of the work,” Fiddler says.

According to conversations between alum and App Academy instructors, salary has been an important factor for applicants, but almost never the main motivation. Fiddler says this is more the case for applicants who’ve never supported themselves in their early 20s. Those in their late 20s and older, including students with family, do consider long-term financial security.

Specific salary numbers of programmers that go from being unhappy under a livable wage to one where they’re more comfortable, Berkeley’s Katz told us, are hard to find. But he says App Academy’s numbers match satisfaction levels he’s studied in metro areas with high living costs.

“Starting salaries [for programmers] are around $100K to $170K just in San Francisco. Those people have debt and…still have roommates. But happiness peaks at a certain level of income that some say is about $70,000. That’s not a universal number. That’s in the context of a living situation and environment. But there’s a tapping out on the material side of it. In careers of achievement like software engineering, work without love of work leads to happiness fading.”

Katz says research studies have shown moving from $200,000 to $300,000 in salary leads programmers to a level of happiness that’s not much different than when they make little more than $100,000. But the difference between $50,000 and $100,000 is massive. “It’s gonna be night and day for somebody that lives in the [expensive] Bay Area,” he says.

App Academy’s 2017 alumni survey reflected this difference. When we asked alums whether they were satisfied with their current job, post-App Academy, with a score of 1 for very unsatisfied, to 10 for very satisfied, the median salary for all scores was nearly identical, as the table below shows.

“I am satisfied with my job.”

Satisfaction Score

Median Salary

7 and above

$110,000

6

$111,000

5

$111,000

4

$110,000

3

$110,000

2

$114,500

1

$120,000

It’s important to note most of App Academy graduates — 83 percent — were “satisfied with their job” (with a score of five or more). This number fits the Livable Wage threshold Katz mentions and is also above overall median salary the Bureau of Labor Statistics found in its own survey.

Interestingly, alums who said they were least satisfied were so because of other reasons besides salary or career happiness. Instead, they said it was due to cultural unfitness, an inability to grow within the company, or not seeing their company make a positive impact.

One thing App Academy did notice about salary and dissatisfaction through conversations was that unhappiness was generally tied to feelings of being underpaid relative to colleagues. Fiddler said this is common.

“Most people get jobs where they feel adequately compensated. But people are pretty well-apprised of their worth and we keep tabs on [the latest salary trends to help them]. If someone is paid less than they deserve, that can really hurt happiness.”

Love of the Work and the Role of Expertise

So becoming a great programmer requires a love of the work, but how can people know if they love something they’ve never tried?

According to interviews, gaming is one of the top ways people discover an interest in coding. Most appreciate puzzle-like challenges that coding languages provide.

Jeff Fiddler says playing games can be challenging and creatively fulfilling.

“I’d say the general belief of [people who get in is that] they are actually interested and excited about writing software, about being able to make things professionally and to use creativity to solve problems,” Fiddler tells us. Seen another way, solving puzzles can be a rewarding experience that people can learn to love.

And enjoying coding doesn’t mean you have to reject or hate your previous profession. We’ve heard from successful App Academy students who liked what they were doing, but found software engineering equally or more fun. Later, they got into the bootcamp to turn their hobby into a profession, which was personally rewarding. Few said it was because of their satisfaction was rooted in earning a high salary.  

Choosing web development as a means to find creative happiness is probably still underrated. Fiddler says he knows artists who attended the course who loved making art and transferred their “maker” genes from physical canvases to digital ones and were just as happy.

Once again, the focus on enjoyment is part of the career “achievement” personality type Katz brought up. People choosing programming careers appreciate learning for its sake.

“With happiness, there’s a plateau from how much money impacts happiness. Particularly in tech because it’s such an achievement-oriented business,” he told us. “Research shows where people sustain themselves in the business, [they stay] interested in it because they love it and want to produce it. Whether they call it art or product or whatever, they identify with it.”

The Generational Change

Based on our interviews and survey, we can also make an informed assumption that now and in the immediate future, more people will be interested in joining a coding bootcamp because they care about coding.

According to App Academy stats, about 90 percent of people who completed the full-time program are between the ages of 18 and 35 and out of those, most said they sought to be happy above any other reason.

Katz says this generation, raised on a culture this type of purpose-driven work, will change industry values.

“You have Millennials pushing 40 and Millennials in their early 20s. In another 20 years this kind of mindset will lead to [full] achievement-orientation rather than advancement. People running companies now are still from the age when hierarchy mattered, [in Baby Boomers and Generation X]. So you’re going to see this trend continue just because of the built-in culture.”

Jeff Fiddler agrees. His conversations with alumni who are unhappy at their workplaces feel either poorly managed or poorly motivated. Those with great work environments and culture rave about it, he says. And even when that happens, their experience at the bootcamp and the skills they learn there help them get through and see the positive of any situation.

“People that come out of our program are the most committed, dedicated, grittiest people and we have so much confidence in their abilities. [So when I have conversations with alumni who are unhappy in their roles], I give them a reality check: You are incredibly employable and are a great fit somewhere else. You have so many other opportunities, I encourage them to consider their options.” Fiddler says. When it comes to App Academy’s alumni network, purpose-driven connections and work are not something we have to wait years for — they’re already an integral  part of the program that graduates carry with them everywhere they go.

Find a selection of data from the survey in an infographic we made

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