For the 19 students of Devschool online coding bootcamp, September 27 started off like any other day. They hopped on their computers, checked email, and logged into the Slack messaging app to talk about coding with one another and Jim O'Kelly, their instructor and the founder of the school.
Just one day before, O'Kelly had been on the Slack group talking with students and teaching. But on this Tuesday, O'Kelly was more quiet than usual. He posted a snippet of code on Slack at 10:45 a.m. PT, and after that, he was nowhere to be found.
The students chatted among themselves wondering where O'Kelly could be. Certainly O'Kelly, a tattooed man known for his quick temper, was a quirky fellow–he taught the students out of the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for example–but he was always accessible online. Some who had lectures scheduled for that day were angry to find they'd been stood up. Others were concerned.
"We were thinking maybe there's a family emergency or maybe he's sick," says Jane Lundgren, 26, of Las Vegas, who enrolled in Devschool in April.
Jim O'Kelly teaches his online Devschool coding bootcamp class.
CREDIT: Courtesy Devschool Students
The following day, O'Kelly didn't show up for any of his scheduled appointments with the students. He didn't answer their phone calls or emails. The normally loud O'Kelly was radio silent.
His uneasy students began to formulate theories. "We really didn't want to believe that we had been deserted," says Lundgren, who had paid $5,988 in tuition.
Candy Davis, a 35-year-old student from Gary, Indiana, had paid $5,488 to enroll in the school in late April as a way to get back into the work force. She reached out to O'Kelly's assistant, who tried answering the many questions the students were posting. And then, according to Davis, on September 28, the assistant broke the news that all but confirmed the students' worst fear: O'Kelly had changed all of the passwords to the school's bank accounts.
"This dude is gone," Davis recalls thinking. "He is gone."
All sympathy for O'Kelly evaporated. The students began searching for any information they could find about him over the following days.
They ditched Devschool's Slack group and set up their own. They Google-searched O'Kelly's name, email addresses, usernames, and notable tidbits he'd mentioned. They took screenshots of everything–their Slack conversations, the website, their email exchanges. And they reached out to anyone they could find who might be able to help.
Someone gave one of the students a tip: O'Kelly had previously gone by the name Eric James O'Kelly. The student, 32-year-old newlywed Joe Carlino of Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, typed the name into Google. The first result was a photo that resembled O'Kelly. Carlino followed the links. He ended up on the Most Wanted list of the Sheriff's Office of Clackamas County, Oregon. He scrolled down, and there he was–the likeness was unmistakable.
"Eric James O'Kelly is wanted on charges of Assault, Menacing and Criminal Mischief," the webpage reads, describing an alleged attack by O'Kelly on a relative that included a threat to burn her house down. O'Kelly failed to appear in court on the charges, says Clackamas County Sheriff's Office Sergeant Brian Jensen.
The mugshot of Eric James O'Kelly, as it appears on the "Most Wanted" list for the Sheriff's Office of Clackamas County, Oregon.
CREDIT: via Clackamas County Most Wanted list
Angry and disgusted, Carlino shut off his computer, launching into what he later described as "an expletive-laden tirade" mere feet from his wife. She asked him what was wrong, and Carlino showed her the computer. "We just lost $5,000 dollars," Carlino recalls her saying.
In total, the students estimate O'Kelly may have made off with more than $100,000 of their money.
Since O'Kelly's disappearance, the students have reported the incident and the bootcamp founder to a variety of authorities, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, their respective state attorneys general, the FBI's Cyber Division, and the tip line of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office. They have also contacted their respective credit card companies.
Inc. reached out to O'Kelly for comment by email and telephone on multiple occasions, but he did not respond.
A wild and booming market
In recent years, the market for privately owned coding bootcamps has blown up across the U.S. Every year, dozens of new schools open, promising to teach anyone who can type the skills necessary to make a career in software development. These schools, most of which teach students in person, charge a fraction of the tuition that computer science programs at traditional universities do, and they promise to teach students in a matter of weeks, not years. More important still, these schools often guarantee jobs or boast of job-placement rates well above 95 percent for students who graduate.
It's a market that has already attracted tens of thousands of students, and it only keeps growing. These schools will graduate nearly 18,000 students in 2016, up nearly 75 percent from last year, according to a forecast by Course Report, a coding bootcamp review site. It's easy to explain the surge of student interest: Tech companies are creating more jobs than they can fill, and these jobs pay drastically more than what professionals in other fields earn. On average, a software engineer in the U.S. makes $104,000 a year, according to ACT | The App Association.
For bootcamp founders, there is almost no barrier to entry when starting up. To lure in customers, all that is needed is someone who can teach how to code and is bold enough to promise students a job. This might require a small office if the teaching is to be done in person, but for online-only schools–and there are a handful–all that's needed is a Slack group and video calling tools.
"It is easy," says Gregorio Rojas, head instructor of Sabio, a Southern California-based coding bootcamp. Earlier this year, Sabio received approval from the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education. "It is easy even for people with no coding experience. Someone with a technical background could produce a very credible online presence in no more than a day."
There are several bootcamps that have proved their worth as respectable institutions. Schools like Hack Reactor, Thinkful, Wyncode, and Turing School, for example, regularly publish their student outcomes as a way to be transparent and build trust with prospective students and the public. Other schools–Flatiron School, MakerSquare, Epicodus, and Zip Code Wilmington–have launched partnerships with established universities in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education.
Collectively, however, coding boot camps have struggled with self-regulating. Last year, many top schools tried forming a trade association with the goal of creating universally accepted standards for outcome reports, which can include stats such as job placements, program completion rates, and average salaries. But ultimately, the organization fell apart, with bootcamps saying they disagreed over standards. Several top schools also initially failed to deliver on a promise to President Obama to report outcomes audited by third parties.
Since then, more schools have begun reporting outcomes and increasing transparency about what portion of their students graduate, get jobs, the types of jobs they land, how much they pay, and how long it takes to find those jobs. But generally speaking, lack of regulation makes it easy for anyone to enter the market. That includes O'Kelly.
"There are a lot of good bootcamps out there, but among them, there are some that are only looking to take advantage of this market opportunity to make a profit," Lundgren says.
To avoid scams, experts advise that prospective students look for bootcamps that regularly report outcomes. Schools that have received government certification or are working with traditional universities are also safer bets.
"If bootcamps are vague about results, who their instructors are, and who their typical student is, then be very suspicious," Rojas says.
Many in tech and education have warned that students should be wary of all coding bootcamps.
"Bootcamps have a lot of success stories already, but it's still such early days. For-profit education has left a lot of scars, and it'll take years for bootcamps to remedy that reputation," says Darrell Silver, co-founder and CEO of Thinkful, an online coding bootcamp based in New York City. "Bad actors slow us down, so it's in all of our interests to call them out quickly and fix the situation for students."
A trail of questions
The students aren't sure if it was O'Kelly's plan to scam them all along, but it's clear he had been acting questionably for quite some time.
The Devschool website prominently features testimonials from several "alumni," with the individuals' names appearing alongside company names and small photos.
One is "Eric Douglas," who is listed as an employee for Intuit. "Our records do not indicate that anyone by that name has ever been employed by Intuit," a spokeswoman for the enterprise software company says.
Another individual is listed as "Meghan Holden." But the photo belongs to someone of a different name, who posted the picture on her Facebook profile. The version on Devschool's website appears to have been flipped and put through photo-editing software. That person says she was shocked to find her likeness used on the website.
"It's super weird and terrible," says the woman, who denies having attended Devschool or written the testimonials on the website. The woman did, however, write a seven-word review in April 2015 for O'Kelly that was published on Codementor.io, a website where programmers turn to one another for help. She says she vaguely remembers having used O'Kelly's tips on Codementor to help a friend learn more about the Ruby on Rails programming language. She also does not work for "Akai Marketing," which is the company following the name Meghan Holden on the Devschool website.
"I had no idea that I was being used to market a dev bootcamp," says the woman, who asked that her name not be used to avoid problems with her employer.
Some of the names used in these testimonials, such as Meghan Holden, also appear on coding bootcamp review websites alongside glowing reviews of Devschool. The students say they now suspect most of those reviews, if not all of them, are fake.
More testimonials are listed at the footer of the website, including one credited to the New Jersey student Carlino, who denies penning it. "I never wrote that," says Carlino, who enrolled in the school in February and paid $4,988 in tuition. Carlino completed 21 of the 50 Devschool sessions his tuition was supposed to cover, he says. None of the affected students completed their 50 sessions, the students report.
Elsewhere on the web, O'Kelly's claims fail to add up. He has included employment by the likes of Intel, Apple, Callaway Golf, and Robert Half, among others, on his AngelList profile. O'Kelly said he worked for Microsoft in a Q&A with Course Report.
None of the companies say O'Kelly has ever worked for them.
A spokeswoman for Intel says the tech company could not find any employees with either version of O'Kelly's name. A spokesman for Callaway Golf echoes that statement. Similarly, a spokesman for the human resources consulting firm Robert Half says that company does not have any records of anyone with O'Kelly's name having worked at or been placed by it the past decade. Microsoft also confirms that it has no record of any current or former employee or contractor with the last name O'Kelly in its files.
People who worked with O'Kelly say he showed little regard for playing by the rules.
Justin Frevert, 23, a Devschool student, served as an intern for O'Kelly for a few weeks in August. He says O'Kelly was a self-taught coder but boasted about falsifying information about attending schools to get jobs. "It's just been the strangest situation I've ever been a part of," says Frevert, who adds that he enrolled in the school in late April and paid about $6,000 in tuition.
Tolley says O'Kelly told him more than once he didn't pay taxes. The message, Tolley says, was clear: "I'm paying you, and you have the freedom of whether or not you want to pay taxes on this because I'm not going to pay taxes." Tolley says he plans on paying those taxes. "He billed this almost like a benefit to me."
It all starts to spiral
O'Kelly was always an eccentric character during lessons, says Erika Johnson, 40, of Washington, D.C., who enrolled in May and paid $5,488 in tuition. He had a penchant for oversharing personal information and sometimes ripped hits from a colorful glass bong during video lectures with the students. His body was covered in eye-catching tattoos (his right forearm says "b. social" in an old-timey typewriter font while his left features a variation of the red Amsterdam flag with three bold black X's). But at least in the early months of 2016, students say they were learning from him.
"I did learn some stuff," Johnson says. "I can write some code, and I didn't know anything before I started."
The students were drawn into the school for a variety of reasons. Johnson, for example, needed a flexible school that she could attend during a cross-country move. Others, like Benjamin Soung, 25, of New York, liked that it was a go-at-your-own pace curriculum, allowing them to work as quickly or slowly as they needed to. And many of the students, like Frevert, liked that the school touted a job guarantee. All students who graduate are promised a job paying $55,000 a year, the website claims.
"How can we boast such a thing?" a portion of the website reads. "Well, it is actually VERY SIMPLE (hint, we like simple). You don't graduate until you get hired, therefore 100% of our graduates have jobs!"
After seeing the enthusiastic reviews on various websites like Course Report and SwitchUp, many of the students thought Devschool, which claimed to be nearly two years old, was legit. (A Whois search shows the school's website was created less than a year ago. The site is registered to a "Jim OKelly.")
"[I looked] pretty much everywhere just to be sure I wasn't just throwing my money away," says Carlino with a chuckle. "It seems funny now, looking back."
Over time, the mood at Devschool started to change. The quality of O'Kelly's teaching declined, students say, as he lost patience with them and appeared disinterested in their projects. Simultaneously, his live video webchat sessions became more sporadic, the students say.
One such instance occurred in July, according to Tolley. He informed O'Kelly how he had taught a certain lesson. It was different than the method O'Kelly preferred, and that appeared to set O'Kelly off. He became hostile and accusatory, Tolley says. Ultimately, O'Kelly disconnected Tolley from the Slack group. According to Tolley, O'Kelly sent him an email informing him he was fired and that he would not be paid for his last couple of weeks of work because he had mishandled lessons (Tolley contests these claims, and the students say Tolley was an excellent instructor).
After Tolley tried collecting unemployment, O'Kelly fired off another message, calling him a "loser" who had been only a contractor and therefore gets "shit for being fired chump," according to an email reviewed by Inc.
"It became a very unprofessional relationship very quickly," Tolley says.
A new student had a similar incident with O'Kelly. After taking her first class in early July, Sissy Wang, 24, concluded she had made a mistake. Wang says she didn't think O'Kelly had done a good job teaching, didn't live up to the marketing of Devschool, and was rude. He told her that if she wasn't happy, she should leave and that he would give her a refund, she says.
Wang says she dropped out based on the promise, but when she tried collecting her refund, O'Kelly gave her back only $3,581 of the $5,600 she had paid. Having taken a single class, Wang says she was shocked and disappointed by how little O'Kelly refunded her. After she protested the refund, O'Kelly became aggressive, she says.
"He said some really mean things … something like 'If you quit the school, it's all your fault. You can never become a programmer,'" Wang says. "I was talking about money, and he tried to personally attack and humiliate me."
Hoping to help others, Wang left negative reviews about the school. That appeared to set off O'Kelly in a way the students had never seen. In the Slack group, he threatened to ruin Wang's reputation.
"I'll write a fucking website about her crazy shit. I could make her unhirable [sic]," he wrote on Slack, according to a screenshot sent to this reporter by one of the students. "I am sooooo fucking mad."
O'Kelly sent her threatening emails and attacked her on review sites, posting her personal information publicly, which he later deleted, Wang says.
"He started pressuring students to write responses and talk about how great the school was," Davis adds. "I was not willing to do that because I'm thinking to myself, 'Until I can actually get through this school and say you've filled your end of the educational contract, I'm not going to vouch for you.'"
"He started spiraling," Davis says. "It became too glaringly obvious to overlook the shortcomings in the education that we were receiving."
Between the two incidents, several at the school became rattled. Many began looking to online sources to fill the educational gaps O'Kelly was leaving. Some decided to quit and ask for refunds. Among them was Soung, the New York student.
Tolley's and Wang's departures "threw off red flags," says Soung, who enrolled in July and decided to leave after just a few weeks. "Things started to feel a little suspicious to me, a little fishy."
After only a few sessions, Soung, who says he paid $14,000 in tuition, approached his request for a refund with care. He came up with a serious albeit vague emergency as an excuse for why he had to leave and get his money back. O'Kelly refunded about $12,500, Soung says.
Around this time, the students also began to see the number of new enrollments drop steadily.
"Like any business, it is important for there to be cash in the bank to be able to handle down quarters," Sabio's Rojas says. "Too many students asking for their money back at once for a young bootcamp could pretty much kill the class midway."
Davis says she suspects that's exactly what happened.
"The discontent of all the students started showing up," says Davis, explaining that students stopped logging into the Slack group as frequently and began rescheduling their appointments more often. (Davis requested a refund on September 27, but did not hear back.) "At that point, what're you going to do? You flee. That's what I get from the whole thing."
A cautionary tale
It's been a little over two weeks since the students last heard from O'Kelly, but they remain shaken. They feel disgusted, defeated, ashamed, and "angry that some schmuck freaking got over on me," says Darin Thompson, 27, who is a petty officer second class in the Navy. He says he paid about $7,000 for the program, only completing three out of 50 sessions.
Thompson enrolled in Devschool in the hopes of being prepared to find a job in tech when his military service ends in 2018. Now, Thompson says he is too stretched to invest in a more reputable coding bootcamp.
Brett Rogowski, 32, says he is in a similar boat. Rogowski joined Devschool to switch out of his job as a trucker. He took a loan from his mother to pay the $4,988 tuition, and he spent the past eight months focused on Devschool.
"I'm pretty much screwed. Yeah, I've gone through this program, but I have no way to prove that I went through this program," says Rogowski, who began applying for jobs after O'Kelly vanished. "Basically, I've been out of work since February, and I have nothing to show for it."
If there is any good that has come out of O'Kelly's disappearance, it's how the students have come together. Through the Slack group they started, they have continued to work on their coding, sharing online tools to keep their dreams of becoming professional coders alive. They also reached out to Tolley, who offered to give each of the students three coding sessions pro bono.
"They've all banded together in this amazing community of soon-to-be-developers, but right now, they're doing a pretty damn good job of being private detectives," Tolley says. "If I can give Jim any credit, it would be that he picked the students really well."
Many of the students believe they'll recoup their money, but already things have started to look up.
On Wednesday, Thinkful announced that it would help any former Devschool student. The online school says it will apply half of whatever any Devschool student paid in tuition toward Thinkful's web development bootcamp.
"Please don't distrust all schools just because of one fly-by-night player," says Silver, the Thinkful CEO. Already, Lundgren has signed up, and Soung joined in September after leaving Devschool.
The former students believe O'Kelly is still operating out of Mexico. He had mentioned plans to relocate from Puerto Vallarta to Puebla, a major city in central Mexico, from which he logged into the Slack group once on September 11, according to students.
"We want people to be wary and our tale to not be the norm," Lundgren says.
The students can be reached at [email protected] if anyone has a tip. They hope their experience will inspire the coding bootcamp industry to become more transparent about policies, outcomes, and what exactly they are offering to students.
"Since we take a leap of faith when we pay large amounts of money to enroll, bootcamps should be fully transparent," Lundgren says. "I love this new wave of coding education, allowing people to learn such a great skill, but it absolutely is easy to exploit and that's what I hope our story can help curb."