In spring 2020, Soumitha Bhaskara came very close to giving up her dream of becoming a software engineer. Growing up in the small town of Palamaner in southern India, her family’s finances had always been tight, but when an accident left her father bedridden and unable to earn even $5 a day as a brick mason, they became even tighter. The thought of spending four years pursuing a college education that would cost more than $3,500 was out of the question for Bhaskara.

But in March that year, through an NGO in her village, she found an option that would allow her to study which would eventually also help her family situation.

Bhaskara joined a 30-week-long “military-style” nine-hours-a-day online coding boot camp offered by Masai School. The Bengaluru-based startup allows students to pay a percent of income earned over a certain amount of time under “income share agreements” or ISAs, after they start earning. By December 2020, Bhaskara graduated with a full-time job offer from document management startup Revvsales. She now earns nearly $1,000 a month as a software development engineer and has already paid back almost 40% of her tuition to Masai. “After this job, everyone in my family and around started respecting me,” Bhaskara, now 22, told Rest of World.

“The entire education system [in India] is not equipped to handle the rapid pace of development that’s happening around us.”

Bhaskara is an example of a new breed of tech workers who are landing engineering jobs in India without the traditional four-year university degree, thanks to alternative technical education programs offered by Bengaluru-based startups like Masai School and Newton School. Masai’s courses cost between $2,600 and $4,000, compared to traditional engineering colleges that can go as high as $20,000.

While such educational programs have existed in the West for several years, in India, software-related technical education has so far remained limited to the four-year Bachelor of Technology degree offered at traditional college campuses. This education is often out of reach for young people from low-income families and rural areas.

“India is not the kind of country where people can do odd jobs and make enough money. So the base [earning potential] here is low, and then when they graduate from a school like Masai, the jump in what they will earn is significant,” said Madhukar Sinha, co-founder of early-stage venture capital fund India Quotient, an investor in Masai School. That leap may not be as significant for students in the U.S., but “in India, we are talking about people who don’t have any jobs, and with such schools, they suddenly have a $10,000 a year job.” Typically, an entry-level engineer in India earns nearly $6,000 a year. 

Since the 1990s, an engineering degree has been seen as a ticket to a better career and life in India. But while many can’t afford this education, in recent years, even those who can often struggle to find a job. Around 80% of the 1.5 million engineers who graduate each year are unemployable because they lack the right skills and the curriculum at engineering colleges hasn’t kept up with the times. This has left India with the biggest pool of “unemployable engineers.”

Startups like Masai School and Newton School are aiming to fix this problem by prioritizing employability and keeping their courses focused on industry needs. “The entire education system [in India] is not equipped to handle the rapid pace of development that’s happening around us,” Masai School’s CEO Prateek Shukla told Rest of World. “And more so in the tech space.”

Masai School was founded in June 2019 by Shukla, Nrupul Dev, and Yogesh Bhat, with the goal of becoming the largest college alternative for students in India. Students between the ages of 18 and 28 are selected for Masai’s web development course, based on an entrance exam that tests their quantitative and verbal skills. The startup also tests the students’ “willingness” to learn, and doesn’t allow students to continue if they show a lack of intention and grit. The company currently has over 4,000 students and more than 80 full-time instructors.

A typical day for a student at Masai School includes live online classes from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. These classes are held without a break for six days a week for 30 weeks. Students are taught both technical and soft skills, such as communication and spoken English. They also go through peer programming — where two programmers work together — as part of a collaborative learning practice. There are periodic evaluations throughout the duration of the program. “We test their level of mastery every week, every month,” said Shukla. “Students who don’t demonstrate that mastery go back and work on those bits until they get better, and only then move to the next stage.”

Over 700 students have graduated from Masai School so far, including candidates from low-income backgrounds and former delivery workers and cab drivers. The company claims that around 90% of Masai’s students have already landed jobs, some of which are at top Indian unicorns. “The IITs together place close to 10,000 people a year. In the next two years, we will surpass that,” claims Shukla.

Newton School, which also launched in 2019 and runs a similar course, has so far seen 1,500 students graduate, with 80% getting placed — some in companies like Google and Deloitte. Payoj Jain, co-founder of educational infrastructure startup Teachmint, hired eight entry-level coders from Newton, and said these students are flexible, knowledgeable, and  typically available to join immediately, making them a perfect fit for many entry-level positions.   

Newton School currently has around 3,000 students pursuing coding. Its  founder and CEO Siddharth Maheshwari told Rest of World that the idea is to prepare students for entry-level programming jobs. “If I have to look at the engineering hierarchy in organizations, there are managers handling big teams, and then there are architects who specialize in solving a niche problem,” he said “As we go lower, there are engineers at [a] junior level who are executing a lot of the tasks given to them. At this level, companies are simply looking for good programmers with good logic-building and problem-solving skills, and that’s what we cater to.”

But such alternate tech education is not without its challenges. “The duration of the course is very short, which I believe may not be enough, especially for people who are from non-tech backgrounds,” said an investor in the education technology space, who requested anonymity for this story as he was not authorized by his company to talk to the media. “A big hurdle would be for them to continue to have good teachers for courses as these schools expand.”

“A lot of such companies are preparing [candidates] for interviews and not foundational learning, which can become a big problem in the long run.”

And while India is currently experiencing a bullish tech job environment, these startups may also struggle to place students – and in turn recover their fees – in a slow job market, the investor said.

Others believe that such startups may become more like recruitment agencies that are mostly interested in placing students in jobs. “A lot of such companies are preparing [candidates] for interviews and not foundational learning, which can become a big problem in the long run,” said Ashish Sinha, founder of upskilling startup FWD. “So even if there’s initial exponential growth, there’s very little tech and product innovation that can happen [later on].” 

Companies like Masai School and Newton School may also have to deal with the bad legacy of Bloom Institute of Technology (earlier known as Lambda School) in the U.S., which garnered immense attention from marquee investors initially but ran into controversies due to business practices such as selling ISAs to investors without disclosing the details to students. Some of its students have filed lawsuits against Lambda claiming “misleading financial and educational practices.” The company has refused to comment on these allegations. 

For now however, startups like Masai and Newton are a ray of hope for many in India. Bhaskara has become something of a local celebrity in her hometown. Her success has driven more than two dozen other youngsters from the villages in Palamaner — a place where people mostly depend on agriculture and the terra-cotta industry for a livelihood — to join Masai School. “When I joined Masai, I had thought to myself that if I succeed, I can take these people on my path,” said Bhaskara. “There are so many of them who want to code but don’t know how — now I can tell them.”