The Honest Guide for Coding Bootcamps: Considering a Bootcamp
This chapter is part of The Honest Guide for Coding Bootcamps, a collection of thoughts after a full-time software engineer bootcamp.
Here you are, considering a career change. You’ve been working for years in accounting, music, not-for-profits, mechanical engineering, or teaching. Now you want to transition into the tech industry as a software engineer. Maybe you already work in tech but want to transition into engineering roles. In any case, you might be actively considering quitting your job, going back to studying and starting from scratch as an entry-level software engineer.
These decisions are never easy. You want to invest in your future but, at the same time, the amount of uncertainty you will be facing is high.
First, think about why you want to work as a software engineer
On each interview that you will have after the bootcamp, you will respond to the same question over and over: why you decided to start a career in software engineering.
There might be as many reasons as bootcamp students. You probably like problem-solving thinking: dissecting a problem, researching potential solutions, deciding amongst different options, planning the implementation, and executing it. Indeed, working as a software engineer is intellectually challenging and stimulating.
But, let’s be honest: the career opportunities that exist in tech do not exist in most other sectors. Overall, salaries are higher, benefits are way better, and your career development and mobility can increase dramatically. You can keep adding more arguments.
Voilà! You know this is a smart and exciting move. You can do it, you’ll like it, and your quality of life will improve.
When I was in this exact decision-making phase — going around asking my friends in tech about their thoughts — another recurrent question was “do you think you’ll like coding for 8 hours a day?”. Again, it was a pretty fair question but naive at the same time. While some people already know or believe they would hate writing code, working 8 hours as a software engineer isn’t much different as working as an accountant, program manager, freelancer, or any other middle-class job.
We should all be a little bit more holistic. Starting and planning a new long-term career is an indicator of intelligence, confidence, and work ethic. Learning software engineering to improve your quality of life does not invalidate your ability and interest in coding.
I strongly recommend checking two media posts. First, listen to the NPR podcast Are Big Cities Overrated? Economists Say Yes, In Some Cases. It reinforced my internal belief that I was making the right decision if I wanted to pursue higher career opportunities. Second, check this short video: The Algebra of Happiness.
If you found the video interesting, I also recommend reading The Defining Decade: And How to Make the Most of Them Now. This book was mentioned at the 2019 QuestBridge Alumni conference early this year. Some of the most bright students in the United States were encouraged to read this book. Some of the smartest people I know have read it. It’s a short reading with a lot of wisdom in it.
Indeed, many of you might be considering a bootcamp as a way of “making the most of your twenties.” At Flatiron School, the majority of my colleagues were in their twenties while I was in my thirties. The book helped me understand that my previous career in sustainability was not a waste of time or rather part of my valuable personal capital. It convinced me that the sooner I started this new adventure in tech, the sooner I would begin to capitalize on it and get to the life I wanted.
For those of us who are past our twenties and look at the number of years (and debt) we have invested in your previous careers, it might be useful to read about the sunk cost fallacy. Beware that nobody reading your new software engineer resume will care about 95% of your previous jobs and achievements. All that experience can position ourselves as stronger and more rounded candidates — but only for companies pursuing diversity.
Most importantly, whatever your drivers are, you MUST tell a solid story connecting your background and your passion for coding. Interviewers will keep asking you “why do you wanna work as a software engineer?”, and they don’t want to hear that tech jobs and their benefits are very appealing. Start reflecting on it because you’ll have to convince everyone that you were born to code, and, if it’s not the case, you’ll have to fake it until you make it.
Second, should I invest my money, time, and efforts in a software engineer bootcamp?
My colleague from work graduated and got a Ph.D. in Computer Science. In contrast, I paid 17K and spent a year of my life studying the basics of software engineering and my starting salary was two-thirds of his. In this case, it might seem that investing in a bootcamp paid off with high returns.
When I started seriously considering going to a bootcamp, I talked with two friends who went through the same experience a few years ago. Their success stories were very inspiring to me: both started in entry-level roles in tech and got their way to manager and director positions. They convinced me that the bootcamp way wasn’t just marketing. Nevertheless, there was a critical factor that I did not account for: timing.
When my friends went to their respective bootcamps five years ago, they were part of the first student cohorts. In 2014, bootcamps were something new and unheard of. Most companies didn’t know what a coding bootcamp was. Companies didn’t have software engineers with bootcamp backgrounds in their teams. You needed a Computer Science degree — or to be a successful drop-out — to work as a software engineer! However, tech companies love disruption. Who needs a college degree if you can teach yourself and be ready for the real work? Tech companies got curious about it. “Wait, you quit your job and learned how to code in 4 months? Cool! Let’s whiteboard some algorithms. Damn, you know stuff!” Hired.
If we think in investment terms, the higher the risk, the higher the potential return. And, back then, quitting your job and investing thousands of dollars to pay for it was perceived as a bold move — and a smart one compared to four years of college tuition. Only those passionate about coding would take that risk.
Let’s come back to the present. The bootcamp model has proven to be successful. Schools started growing, multiplying, specializing and diversifying. As an example, Flatiron School went from a single campus in NYC to 12 locations in 3 different continents and his online homologous. When I was attending Flatiron School, there was a new cohort starting every three weeks on the Manhattan campus.
The model proved to be so profitable that even Ivy League universities now offer bootcamps! For example, Columbia University.
After five years, there’s an extensive network of bootcamp alumni that started successful careers in any imaginable tech company, and some companies have created apprenticeship programs to hire software engineers with non-CS backgrounds. Bootcampers get hired, companies recruit new talent, and bootcamp schools use their placement ratios to keep selling their products — win-win-win for everyone.
Despite the gained visibility and increased accessibility to the tech job market, the perception of risk around bootcamps has changed. It’s no longer the risky, unconventional path. Now, it’s become the new quick and safe route to get in tech: we go to a bootcamp taking for granted that we’ll get a developer job.
As a consequence, the hyper-growth in the bootcamp industry affected my job search experience compared to my pathfinder friends. I found many alike at any networking event I would go. Many job posts explicitly discouraged applicants from bootcamps. I went to many job fairs where nobody was hiring entry-levels. My coding projects didn’t generate interest because they were considered toy projects. I wasn’t an UNOde50, just a cheap Warhol.
It took me nine months to receive my first job offer. That said, not everyone from my cohort had to wait that long. Here it is additional exposure-biased data: most of my fellows from my Flatiron cohort got jobs in tech, and most of the bootcamp students that I’ve come across since then are working as engineers.
Bootcamps have proven to be a great gateway to software engineer careers, but its successful formula might come with tradeoffs. Nowadays, there are so many bootcampers looking for jobs that you’ll have to work harder to outshine among the desperate entry-level-job-seeking crowd.
As an alternative, you can invest your money, time, and efforts in your future career in different ways. The immersive bootcamp prescription might not be your best option. For instance, it might take longer, but I’ve met several self-taught software engineers that made it. You might also prefer part-time or online classes rather than full-time immersive courses while keeping your job. Do your research and evaluate the pros and cons of different options.
If you’re looking for some stats, you might find job-placement reports from different bootcamp schools. Because I went to Flatiron, I’ll share their latest report (as of November 2019). You might also want to check Levels to compare salaries by experience level and tech company.
If you found this article useful, share it with anyone considering a bootcamp or already in the process of becoming a software engineer.
Thank you for reading this article and good luck with your future endeavors!