Dear Lifehacker, I'm interested in getting a job as a programmer, but I don't have any formal training. I heard boot camps can get me into a job in just a couple of months. They seem intense and expensive, though. Are they worth it? Thanks, Could-Be Coder
Title image by Tina Mailhot-Roberge. Photo by DBCphotography.
You're definitely not alone in your interest in coding as a career. Programming is one of the highest paying and most in-demand careers you can find these days -- and it doesn't require a four-year degree. Coding boot camps promise to get you job-ready in a relatively short amount of time.
These programs -- usually 8 to 12 weeks long and often costing $10,000 or more -- offer hands-on training, career guidance and community support, and the opportunity to work on personal projects you can showcase to prospective employers. They're like trade schools for the digital age. Although they can be a great way to become a professional coder, boot camps (or similar high-speed training courses) aren't for everyone. Let's look at the pros and cons.
Boot Camps Versus Self-Study And University Degrees
In terms of costs and time commitment, coding boot camps fall in between self-study and the traditional university computer science degrees.
Self -study: Many successful and awesome programmers are entirely self-taught. Propelled by their natural interest, they tinker with and break others' code and otherwise learn by doing -- sometimes with their own personal learning plans or through the myriad of online coding courses and resources available. The benefits of this approach are zero tuition cost and the flexible schedule, but you need a great amount discipline to learn in your free time, as well as the skill and insight to put together your own curriculum, so to speak. Also, without any kind of formal training, you might have a harder time landing a job unless you have a solid body of work to prove your programming skills and experience.
University degrees: On the other side of the spectrum are formal university degree programs and classes. A degree in computer science will give you a broader foundation and open more job doors for you when employers are looking at candidates' credentials. After all, some argue it's more important to learn how to think like a computer scientist than to learn how to code. Degrees, however, are expensive, and for those who want to start their career as soon as possible in a particular programming role, a traditional degree can feel like overkill or even like a waste of time.
Boot camps fall in between both of these, both in terms of cost and time investment. They offer a much more focused education in programming languages or tracks. While boot camps can get you job-ready faster than the university route, there's still no guaranteee of a job and you need to be confident that you'll be learning relevant skills. As The Wall Street Journal reports in an examination of the US market (emphasis mine):
Entry-level coders earn less than programmers with university degrees who enter the job market. Some major IT companies contacted by SeedPaths haven't been interested in its boot-camp graduates because they usually lack a college degree. And because boot camps are so new, the jury is out on whether they are producing successful programmers.
"Hiring someone straight from school, from a coding course or a four-year university, is an investment," said Will Cole, director of products for Stack Overflow Careers, which employs 40 software developers. "We don't have the infrastructure to train new people without much experience."
But Mr. Cole said he does like boot camps for "taking the mystique out of programming."
Compared to self-study, however, boot camps offer more support and additional motivation to learn and succeed. After all, you're investing a large sum of money and 10 sleepless weeks of your life to this one purpose. Because of that investment and the immersive nature of these boot camps, you'll learn more quickly and thoroughly through a boot camp than you likely would on your own. Plus, you'll become part of a community of coders, a very valuable resource in itself.
So far, enrolling in a boot camp might sound ideal if you're dead set on a programming career, but it does cost thousands of dollars, and most programs will require you to quit your job and drop everything for weeks, so enrolling isn't a decision you can make lightly.
What Boot Camps Are Like And What You'll Learn
It was intense. Mornings were spent learning a new concept along with an instructor and afternoons left us mostly on our own to apply the new concepts in daily challenges. I rarely left the classroom before 10pm. Weekdays were basically wake up, work in class, go home, go to bed. Even weekends, though there was no class, rarely offered a reprieve. By the end of the 8 weeks I couldn't imagine going any longer. But I loved every moment of it.
Because of the round-the-clock time commitment, boot camps aren't ideal for people who hope to keep working (or having a life) while they study, as most are in-person programs with set schedules. A few online boot camps like Bloc and Career Foundry offer more flexibility, but even these courses require you to put in a significant amount of time each week -- for several weeks -- to acquire the skills you seek.
Depending on the boot camp, the intensive courses can also teach you more nuanced, professional skills that can be invaluable when starting out in your new job. Victoria Barr, who had almost no prior tech experience before attending Makers Academy and just started her first developing job, said:
I'm not a software expert by any means, but Makers definitely prepared me for a number of aspects of my job: diving into the code, learning on the fly, asking the right questions to get myself where I need to be. I was able to dive into the legacy code I'll be working with and know what I was looking at.
Boot camp is incredible because you get to learn by doing. There are a lot of great online resources out there, but things like Codecademy exist in a vacuum. When you're just starting out on your own, you don't even know what you don't know and what kinds of things you should be looking to learn. Makers taught me more than just syntax for programming languages. It taught me TDD, SOLID principles, how to take sort of nebulous programming logic and turn it into something concrete in the form of a web site with a lot of moving parts. You also get to learn with others, pair programming, working together. It's better than learning alone. We had really long days. A lot of us were at the office from 9am to 9pm. But we had lunch together, played a lot of ping pong, grabbed a few beers after hours. It was hard, but fun and oh so educational. I'd definitely do it again.
More important than learning a specific language is the basic ability to pick up new technologies quickly -- something boot camp alumni should be able to prove easily to employers. Siena Aguayo, who attended the all-women Hackbright Academy says:
Once I started working, I was put on our iOS team, which was a stack I had no experience with (iOS is programmed in Objective-C and Hackbright had taught me Python, and programming mobile apps has a different set of challenges than programming for the web). But, I had proved that I could learn a ton in 10 weeks and was prepared to do it again -- I was part of the team that shipped our first iOS app in July of last year, and then dove right in to do it again for Android, which shipped in December. I'm now working on our web site, writing mostly Angular and Rails, so I've basically completely changed my tech stack every 6 months. There's only so much you can learn in a 10 week boot camp, but the important thing is that you prove you can pick up new technologies quickly, which is an essential skill for a software engineer, since the landscape changes all the time. So, in that way, I did feel as prepared as I could have been for someone who had really only been coding sincerely for less than 5 months. There was still a ton I had to learn on the job, but it was mostly things that you only learn from working with a team in a professional environment, and not things you could learn on your own.
The end goal for most boot camp attendees is to go in and a few weeks later emerge with the coding chops and confidence to not just get a job as a full-time software engineer, but make a career out of it. And some boot camps offer job searching as part of the curriculum, which is one of the reasons Curtis Mitchell chose Hack Reactor:
About halfway through their program the focus shifts from learning programming to actually making web applications to build a portfolio, followed by interview and job search preparation. HR had staff and former alumni dedicated to helping students with their job search. They taught us how to sell ourselves and our skill sets, talk about our portfolios, and search for relevant companies and suitable roles. They had frequent checkins with students and recently-graduated alums during the job search process.
All but one of the 15 or so people who shared their boot camp experiences with me were positive about it, even though a few people aren't working as programmers now but instead working as project managers and founders of their own startups. The majority went into it with some programming experience already and were completely sure about their decision, however. That surety seems to be critical.
How To Tell If A Boot Camp Is Right For You
As with other educational choices and career paths, making this big decision boils down to what you hope to achieve. The ideal boot camp candidates, according to Jesse Farmer, co-founder of CodeUnion, meet four criteria:
- They want to change careers and become a full-time (junior) software engineer.
- They can afford the opportunity cost, i.e., they can quit their jobs, move across the country, etc.
- They can afford the tuition.
- They know they can thrive in intense environments.
Although anyone can attend a boot camp (if accepted), because of the high tuition cost and the drop-everything-you're-doing, full-day and full-week courseload, boot camps are most suited for people committed to a career change and sure they want to go into programming.
Most of the people who talked to me about their reasons for attending a boot camp had a similar background: They had some to little background in coding but they knew that if they wanted to go to the next level they had to do something drastic.
Not everyone has to have some experience in coding to get accepted to a boot camp, but it helps. You don't want to invest thousands of dollars, quit your job, and go full-time into one of these programs only to drop out mid-way when you realise this isn't the path for you. So if you don't have much experience in programming or aren't sure about it as a career, first: try one of the many free options like Codecademy to see if you actually like programming, join a Meetup group like Girl Develop It or Railsbridge, and take an online, community-driven class to test the waters, Skillcrush recommends. (Skillcrush offers a free 10-day career-focused boot camp as an introduction to boot camps, at least online.)
Everyone who I've talked to since who has been interested in attending this bootcamp I've told the same thing: you have to want it. Like, REALLY want it. You can't go in just hoping to scrape enough from it to get a new job. It will defeat you. You have to want to learn for the sake of learning or you'll never make it. If you don't have a passion for it, boot camps aren't for you. You'll get frustrated, you'll give up, you'll tell yourself it's just not for you or that you're not good enough. I saw it happen in my own cohort. I had a little prior experience that gave me a slight leg up from others coming in fresh, but I don't think that's why I succeeded. I got what I wanted out of it because I wanted it more than anything so I put everything I had into it. So I tell people if they can do the same then they will get everything they want from the experience and then some.
In other words, like all other experiences with the "boot camp" name (think Navy SEAL training and baby boot camp), this is not a casual experience and you will have to be fully invested in it.
Will Boot Camps Get You A Job?
If you're dedicated to it, a boot camp can turn you into a software engineer in a couple of months, but the bigger question might be: will it get you a better job?
Graduates of boot camps surveyed by Course Report had an average 44% boost in income after attending the boot camp. (The survey included 432 graduates from 48 programming schools.) Before attending the boot camp, 48% were employed full-time, and after attending the boot camp, 63% were employed full-time. The majority of boot camps surveyed offer career services such as resume assistance or internship/apprenticeship placement.
If your goal is to land a career in programming, you'll probably want to look carefully at each boot camp's job placement rates and career services. According to Launch Academy co-founder Evan Charles on Quora:
As of now, there is not a standardised calculation for placement rates amongst boot camps (we're going to try our best to help the consumer out on this over the next few months). At Launch Academy, our placement rate is calculated as job seekers who obtain paid positions with companies within 90-days of graduation where 'job seekers' is defined as graduates who are actively communicating with our Talent Director, attending scheduled interviews and/or participating in any of the various career service resources we offer during the Post Grad Support stage of the program.
Some schools offer a job-offer guarantee: You'll land a job within a set number of months of graduating in set locations (you must be willing to relocate to tech-friendly cities) or your tuition will be reimbursed. Code Fellows and Viking Code School offer a guarantee or refund of tuition if you don't get hired. Some schools also offer a partial tuition reimbursement -- of several thousand dollars -- if you get a job with one of the boot camps' partner companies.
Although most of the people who emailed me about their experiences said they got job offers before or shortly the program even ended, unless the program offers a 100% job placement guarantee, there's no assurance your time and financial investment will lead to a job. Rachel, a Bloc.io graduate who took the online boot camp from Crete, Greece because she could do it while still working, said:
I haven't yet gotten a job and I've been looking for over a month. Starting to get worried. A recruiter told me that initially web dev boot camp graduates were having a lot of success getting hired because it was such a new thing, but it's not the case now. I wish I had work experience to show that I'm a developer. I just got denied from a job because I had no work experience in Rails.
So while a coding boot camp looks like a promising fast track to a career in coding, being a boot camp graduate in itself probably shouldn't be your biggest selling point for potential employers. Also, despite the high job placement rates, it could take months to get a job after graduating from a boot camp.
How To Choose And Pay For A Coding Boot Camp
- Check this list of the factors you should consider when choosing a boot camp from Jeff Lee -- from the technical and non-tech skills they teach to the facilities, payment plans, typical schedule, and culture of the program
- Read reviews at Thinkful and Switchup to see what others are saying about the programs. Read all the reviews you can find, in fact, on Quora and Hacker News too, because you might find some horror stories like these
- Ask graduates and program directors or teachers more about the program -- things like how many students are in each class, what kinds of job assistance they offer, how much experience students are expected to have upon entering, how they help students who are struggling, and what daily life is like at the boot camp
Not all boot camps are the same, and you'll want to make sure you pick the best one before you spend tens of thousands of dollars on one. But it could be life-changing and the easiest way to break into a programming career if you're not fresh out of college with a computer science degree. Makers Academy graduate Christopher Batts adds:
Probably the most amazing thing about the course that I saw throughout it, and often isn't discussed, is that for many this is the last chance for that career change. It's really really hard to break into the tech world as a coder from a non-coding job. Usually coders are self-taught from a young age or went the computer science at uni route. If Makers didn't exist, I'm sure a lot of the guys that have gone through it would still be stuck in a role they hated, doing something that didn't challenge them. Makers really was one of the only options for them to make that career change.
Just know what you're getting into and be ready to dive in.
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