Why the Master’s in Software Development is Better than Boot Camp

An interview with Dr. Keith Levi, Dean of the College of Computer Science, MIU

 By Christine Albers

“We observed the success that top boot camps had with relatively short, intense programs to train web programmers. Web development was an area of strength in our highly successful Master’s of Science in Computer Science (ComPro) program. So, we decided to create a tightly focused Master’s degree program that would leverage our web development expertise for strong students with limited prior software expertise.”  Dr. Keith Levi

 Meet Dr. Keith Levi, who was instrumental in creating both the Master’s in Computer Science (ComPro) program and the Master’s in Software Development (MSD) program at MIU. Learn how MSD evolved as a better program than boot camps for aspiring software developers who lacked experience in computer science. If you’re thinking of getting into web development, this interview is a must-read!

CA: How did you first learn about MIU? And what is your educational background?

Dr. Levi: The first time I visited MIU I was a new meditator, attending my first residence course, in the spring of 1975. I liked the environment so I came back that same year in November to attend MIU, and graduated in 1979. I went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan, where I studied computer science, statistics, and mathematical psychology. I have degrees in all of those. My Ph.D. is in Mathematical Psychology and my MA and MS are in Statistics and Computer Science.

CA: What inspired you to join the MIU faculty?

Dr. Levi: I was a visiting professor several times and joined the Computer Science Department full-time in 1990. I was inspired by my experience as a student at MIU, and although I had great respect for all my professors in graduate school at Michigan, I had a special admiration for my MIU professors and looked to them as to where I would like to go in my career and who I wanted to become as a person.

CA: You were instrumental in starting the Computer Professionals (ComPro program). What is the history of ComPro?

Keith Levi, Ph.D MSD FacultyDr. Levi: In 1990 I was teaching Computer Science. We had small classes with 20 or so undergrads and a few graduate classes with about 15 students. By 1994 or 1995, the numbers were so low, we wondered how to recruit more students. I knew from my graduate school experience that every Ph.D. program has teaching or research assistantships, which provided employment to pay for graduate school in addition to experiential learning.

At that time, there were a number of tech companies in Fairfield that were doing well, such as Telegroup, USA Global Link, and others. With all these companies needing tech people, we had the idea to bring in students and give them assistantships. ComPro basically started out with students taking classes part-time and working part-time at local tech companies. We actually drove our students to work in vans and picked them up at the end of the day.

CA: That’s quite a history. How did ComPro grow into what it is now?

Dr. Levi: We got to the point where we had more students than available jobs in Fairfield. We wanted to see if we could replicate it, but the part-time model wouldn’t work outside of Fairfield.

CA: How did you resolve all this?

Dr. Levi: In 1999, we developed a new model for ComPro, where the students studied full-time on campus for one year. After a year of study, we helped them find jobs in the field, where they finished their last few courses remotely and part-time. That was a big step. We were fortunate in those early days to get some outside companies such as IBM in Minnesota and Microsoft in Seattle to hire our students.

CA: How did the new model work out?

Dr. Levi: It expanded quickly until the dot.com crash between 1998 and 2000 when we hit a hurdle. The crash was a big challenge for tech companies and that affected our program.

CA: I remember working in technical recruiting and there was no business at all. How did you pull through the dot.com crash?

Dr. Levi: We got through it with a lot of work, worries, and collaboration with our students. Quite a few students came back to campus and we gave them positions in our IT department to keep them in a holding pattern until the economy recovered. We were worried because we had so many students in the field who were linked to the university.  It took a lot of flexibility and hard work to keep the program going, but all of our students finished their education and graduated.

CA: How does ComPro stand today?

Dr. Levi: ComPro is one of the largest Masters in Computer Science programs in the country. We’re the second largest after the University of Southern California, producing Masters of Science in Computer Science degrees, and our graduates are in many Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Bank of America, Honeywell, Citibank, Amazon, IBM, and more.

CA: Congratulations on the success of ComPro. Let’s turn our attention to the Master’s in Software Development (MSD). I understand that MSD evolved out of ComPro. How did that happen exactly?

Dr. Levi: For a number of years, we were discussing how to manage the risks associated with ComPro, due to the ups and downswings in the economy, and international students who were dependent on visas. We had huge numbers coming from China, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Viet Nam, but when the Trump administration opposed immigration and tried to cut off many countries, our enrollment was affected negatively.

CA: How does that relate to MSD?

Dr. Levi: By January 2017, we had a very strong program in web programming for ComPro, and we could see that web software had become the core of the software development field.

Meanwhile, boot camps were springing up. A top program advertised to people who were relatively new programmers and promised to get them jobs earning $100,000 a year. They guaranteed these jobs or the boot camp grads wouldn’t have to pay their tuition. However, if you read the fine print, the job had to be in San Francisco or New York City, because salaries are highest in those cities. That program only took one out of 20 applicants, plus they had a 3-month prep course, and their students were expected to spend 100 hours a week in class and study.

CA: How did that influence the creation of the MSD program?

Dr. Levi: What interested us about boot camps was that they were teaching full-stack JavaScript. We had a strong curriculum in full-stack, so we knew we could create something like boot camps, but better. We developed a 12-month program that did not require 100 hours of work per week, and we marketed it to Americans, Permanent Residents, and Asylees, which eliminated visa problems. MSD was a different market than ComPro but utilized our existing courses and faculty.

CA: Can you say more about why the Master’s of Software Development is better than boot camps?

Dr. Levi: Some of the boot camps are great, but the people who do well are already experienced programmers though they may not know JavaScript.  They are mainly attending to learn that language. People without any computer background will find it difficult to be successful with only a few months of training. Many boot camps have been extending the length of their programs because it has been their experience that most people require more time.

CA: Does MSD require prior experience in Computer Science? What are the requirements to apply for this program?

Dr. Levi: Students can apply, even if they have no background in computer science, as long as they can demonstrate an ability to learn software development. We require a Bachelor’s degree in any field with a 3.0 GPA or above.

CA: How do the applicants demonstrate their ability to learn software development?

Dr. Levi: Computer Science has a particular way of thinking, learning, and problem-solving, and we test our students to see if they are able to succeed in this field. We launched our twelve-month program in September 2019. We also added an additional preparatory semester in fall 2020 for individuals that might need more time to refresh their mathematical and logical skills. Now we have a 12-month Accelerated program and an 18-month Standard program.

CA: How does our faculty compare to boot camp faculty?

Dr. Levi: Our faculty is generally stronger than the faculty at boot camps. They may have some top people, but most of their instructors are not university professors and do not have experience as educators.

CA: Do you have any examples of boot camp grads versus MSD grads?

Dr. Levi: One of our university trustees has a company in San Francisco. They have hired people out of boot camps and he said that boot camp graduates are pretty good, but their knowledge is fairly thin. The fact that they only get a fast 3 months of training shows that they don’t have strong knowledge of computer science and that’s something that we give our students.

CA: Many students would agree with you. Here’s what a current MSD student, Sirak Tekle, has to say:

“I wouldn’t recommend boot camps. It’s better to come here and join the extended track (18 months). People might save some money at boot camps, but it’s not about the money. It’s about their long-term goals. Students don’t learn enough at the boot camps because it’s impossible to learn that fast. If they know nothing to begin with, they won’t gain a deep core understanding of the programming language, as we do here at MIU. Here they teach us to think like an engineer, to solve problems on our own, and to understand the core of the study.”

CA: Has MSD been successful?

Dr. Levi: Yes, the program is doing very well. Our first class in August 2019 had 41 students, and in August 2020 we had 54.

Then, in February 2021 we started offering two entries per year. We admitted 53 in February, and 41 new students are arriving in August 2021 (a total of 94 students in 2021). Plus, we are having great success in placing 100% of the MSD graduates in top companies including Google, Citibank, USAA, Hays Companies, and others, with an average starting yearly pay of $91K, with a range of $70K – $130K.

CA: All of the MSD students learn Transcendental Meditation, but readers might like to know more about why we encourage them to learn the TM technique. From your perspective, how is this beneficial for MSD students?

Dr. Levi: MSD is a challenging program, and the students tell us that they couldn’t study for so many hours if they didn’t have 20 minutes of meditation twice a day. They say they are able to focus much longer and report that they have less anxiety and don’t get as stressed about doing well.

CA: Mo Hassan, another MSD student, said this about his meditation: 

“Honestly, I have no idea how, but the meditation works. If I’m tired or nervous or even panicking before exams, it helps. Meditating for 15 or 20 minutes settles me down and helps me focus. I think it will help when I graduate, move to a new city to start a new job, and have to learn everything about a new company and environment.”

CA: Do you think TM will help them in their new careers?

Dr. Levi: It takes a lot of time, energy, and dedication for people to be successful in the field of software development. Especially when they get into a company, it can be demanding, with many deadlines.  The software they write has to work. They can’t just do something that looks good, it can’t be sort of good — it has to work.  Technologies can be very challenging and there’s a lot of pressure to get it done on time and done right.

Software developers need to have quiet attention, the ability to focus, and remain calm so they won’t get upset when the going gets tough. We know from hundreds of research studies that the TM technique creates a state of inner calm and quiet attention, so it’s a huge help. And they need to be able to see the big picture.

CA: Can you say more about the “big picture?”

Dr. Levi: While software developers need to focus, they can’t get so attached to one point that they get lost in it. They need to step back and look at the big picture. Our students often report that they have the experience of working on a problem, then taking a break and meditating, and during that time they have some intuition or insight into a solution. It’s what we call an “aha experience,” which simply comes from taking the time to sit back and meditate.

CA: Can you tell us about the uniqueness of JavaScript and why it is the primary language taught in the Master’s of Software Development program?

Dr. Levi: JavaScript is the language of the web. All web browsers, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Firefox, etc. run JavaScript. When you use a browser, JavaScript is running in the browser to execute the front-end code for whatever website you are on. Every computer on earth that is connected to the World Wide Web is using JavaScript right now and it is evolving quickly. Our faculty is focused on keeping up with all the updates and teaching the latest frameworks and technologies. That is why our students are confident that they will find good jobs in the field.

CA: The students always tell me that they love the block system. Do you know if this is unique to MIU and why do you feel it is a great way to learn?

Dr. Levi: Our students do like the block system. For MSD, it’s critical to the program, and it’s one of the biggest advantages that we have over other universities doing a program like this. The big advantage of the block system is that the knowledge unfolds sequentially. We offer one subject at a time and each course builds on the next one. The students appreciate that they can really focus on each subject.

We can go very deep like that. In a semester system at other universities, students take 5 courses at a time and they don’t have the sequential building of knowledge that we can offer.

CA: Do you feel that your students are ready to get great jobs when they graduate?

Dr. Levi: They spent long enough, one year or 1½ years, and that’s sufficient time in an intense program like ours. Plus, they’ve learned the latest technology and frameworks which are in super high demand in the marketplace. The fact that they are US citizens or green card holders is also desirable in the market.

And they have the TM technique, the secret ingredient that is unique to MIU. It’s the greatest thing that comes out of this program, a hidden gem, and something that will be a huge boon in their career and throughout their lives, because it will keep them healthy and calm, with bright, clear minds.

Keith Levi and family MSD Faculty