FORTUNE — Hiring a good software engineer in Silicon Valley these days can seem almost as daunting as creating the next big thing. Just ask the companies.
“I think this might be the worst engineering market ever,” Jess Lee, CEO of the style community Polyvore, told Fortune recently. A former Google (GOOG) product manager, Lee now finds her profitable startup vying for talent alongside Facebook (FB) and Twitter. Added Lee: “The kinds of offers they’re giving out are astronomical.”
Indeed, the average annual salary for Google software engineers now hovers around $143,000 and skyrockets to as much as $550,000, according to job site Glassdoor, and that’s before factoring in generous signing bonuses and company perks. (Larger companies like Facebook and Apple (FB) aren’t far behind.) While the talent vacuum remains problematic for Bay Area companies, it presents a huge opportunity for candidates. And filling that void may be easier now more than ever.
Enter the Silicon Valley “boot camp,” a nouveau vocational school for the coding-inclined. Such nine- to 12-week accelerated programs, including Dev Bootcamp, Hackbright Academy, and Hack Reactor, arm students with the fundamental skills needed to compete as engineers — no previous coding experience required. That, coupled with pent-up demand is why program applicants come from all walks of life, from thirtysomething nannies to fortysomething attorneys and bankers.
“We’ve had plenty of students who are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s and realized that what ever they were doing wasn’t working for them,” explains Jesse Farmer, co-founder of the nine-week Dev Bootcamp, which taught its first class in early 2012. Another boot camp co-founder puts it more bluntly: “The promise is the promise of livelihood.”
Getting into a program can prove a challenge. The average acceptance rate averages below 20% and can go as low as 5%, as is currently the case for Hackbright Academy. The $12,000 10-week engineering fellowship for women is full-time, with classes taught Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., in San Francisco’s Financial District. Hackbright’s current class includes 26 students winnowed down from 400-plus applicants. And while previous coding experience isn’t required, CEO and co-founder David Phillips explains that Hackbright looks for people who have some sort of demonstrated interest in becoming software engineers. That includes applicants who have attempted teaching themselves the basics, whether via free or paid online resources or college courses in computer science.
Still, many companies remain skeptical that students educated in three months or less will meet their demands. And there may also be some engineering situations where the traditional four-year training from a top computer science school like MIT remains superior. “The more you get into breaking new technical ground — moving more data than has ever been moved, faster than it’s ever been moved, for example — the more relevant I believe a classical academic training may be,” says Roy Bahat, head of the $75 million venture capital tech fund Bloomberg Beta. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in materials science to be an artist, but if you have one, I bet you can do some cool stuff.”
Lisa Lee, Facebook’s Diversity Program Manager, concedes students with four-plus years of computer science fundamentals may fare differently from those exposed to them for just 10 weeks or so. But she also points out that intensive bootcamps have produced excellent candidates and that Facebook continues to screen them for technical and analytical roles. To wit, the company hired one Hackbright Academy alum for an engineering role working on internationalization. Says Lee: “Having a solid foundation is important, but it is also something that can be built on the job in real-life situations and work experiences.”