Should you join a code bootcamp?

I’ve been meaning to get my thoughts on this matter into words for some time now. I get a good number of messages on social media asking me if a given web developer bootcamp is right for them. Even my tax preparer expressed interest when she casually asked how I got started.

I am always happy to help strangers, and I am happy that I have actually convinced a couple of people to take the plunge and they ended up getting really great jobs. But I feel like a lot of what is driving people to these bootcamps is desperation. The economy has failed a lot of us. Take me for example. I have way too much education and I was making $14 an hour (no benefits) doing mind-crushing bullshit before I moved into web development. I’m afraid that when people ask me whether they should enroll in a bootcamp, they are really asking whether it works as advertised. Whether this magical charm actually does the trick. This kind of concerns me that you might be attracted to web development for the wrong reasons, i.e., it’s one of the only professions on earth available to you with minimal training that virtually guarantees good job prospects and intellectually rewarding labor. We all want that, but not everyone should become web developers.

I fucking hate it when high-earning tech douches throw out the whole ‘well you should have learned to code’ when people air legit grievances about their place in the economy. Someone has to teach the kids, bake the bread, write parking tickets, file your taxes etc. And everyone should absolutely feel entitled to some financial security. Teaching JavaScript to everyone in San Francisco and New York won’t make it a better place. Affordable housing, sensible tax policy, free health care, those absolutely would. But I digress.

First off, I think “Should I apply to General Assembly or Flatiron, or whichever other one?” is the wrong question. I know first-hand that General Assembly has some fantastic instructors, and my cohort is mostly doing amazing. It’s almost ridiculous how far we have all come in the two years since we graduated. I’ve also worked with some Flatiron School grads, and they were all brilliant. Picking a school shouldn’t be your first question. A better question is are you the right person for web development.

Here are a few things I think you should first ask yourself before taking the plunge.

Oh, before I begin, here is why I feel like I have ever right to speak on this issue:

  • I went through a bootcamp class myself, General Assembly’s Web Development Immersive Feb - May 2014

  • It fucking changed my life so much for the better.

  • I’ve worked with other bootcamp grads some from GA, some from Flatiron, sometimes in much more senior roles than me.

  • I played a pretty strong role in a decision for my company to recruit a recent GA grad and she has turned out to be exceptional.

  • I mentor graduates of GA WDI every week for two hours. I know the kinds of struggles that recent grads go through second hand through them.

I definitely lean towards feeling that bootcamps, at least the good ones, are the most incredible opportunity towards a great career and I really hate how snooty Stanford types write them off. I just can’t say unequivocally that it’s great for everyone. Journalism school, yeah I can say its the dumbest idea ever for everyone. Anyway if you ask yourself these questions, you should have a better idea of which direction to go in.

Do you like to code?

This might sound obvious, but I am 100% adamant about this. If you have never written a line of code in your life or at least tried, you should not be considering changing your entire life and plunking down about $11,000+ for the privilege. You should only be considering becoming a web developer if you are actually sure that you want to write code all day every day. This kind of goes for any profession, but more so for development.

In my personal case, I had been noodling around on my own, attending hackathons, taking part time classes and online classes before I decided that programming should be a profession, as well as a hobby.

There are loads of online resources that you can start teaching yourself with. I am a big fan of Free Code Camp, which, as advertised, is free. It teaches a wide variety of web technologies in a snackable format. After a certain point, they farm you out as free labor to non-profits that need tech help. What

When you get to a certain level where you feel like you can’t go any farther without a teacher, you found your path. If you are at work filing TPS reports and you can’t wait to get back home and code, yes. Do it. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Just do it and you will kick yourself for not taking the plunge sooner.

Can you afford to spend 6 months jobless?

Fuck what you heard, it’s insanely hard to find a job as a junior developer with only a few months of experience. I know, I know, you read in the Wall Street Journal or something about how companies compete fiercely for the tiny amount of tech talent there is. That will be your world in a year or so. Not straight out of a bootcamp when nobody can vouch for you and your skills are still wobbly.

New York City is seriously awash in junior web developers. They will all pay their dues for a few months before getting their hands on a rung. In my cohort, I was anomalously lucky. I was in the right place and right time and met the right people out in the meatspace and landed a job in less than a month after graduating. Don’t expect that. Most of my classmates got full-time work in less than 3 months, but that generally seems to be the moment when calls back turn into offers. A few people took almost half a year to get hired full-time, supporting themselves with freelance work (which is not too hard to come by, fortunately). Those students weren’t bad coders, either. One of them that I have in mind eventually beat me out for a job that I applied to!

Getting hired as a bootcamp grad is rough. You are competing with a lot of people with exactly as much experience as you, and even for senior developers, the way we hire in tech is nothing short of insane. That warrants its own rant altogether. Is it as hard as finding your first job as a journalist? No fucking way. And unlike journalism, there’s a career at the end of the rainbow.

You will face a lot of obstacles as a junior dev, but if you stick to the job hunt, you will come out okay. But be prepared to spend a lot of time with no cash flow. That made perfect sense for me (basically no cash flow to sacrifice), but me in 2014 is not you today.

So before you go into this, either get some savings or find a good cheap loan somehow. You will spend some time in the wind.

Are you an insanely fast learner?

Take all of your math classes from high school. That’s three classes a week times 50 minutes, times 36 weeks in a year, times 4 years. You had about 360 hours of in class time. (I don’t actually remember how many math classes I had per week in high school but I think it was three.) In 12 weeks at GA, I had 420 hours of instruction, plus the attention of a teaching assistant after lessons were over at 5 or 5:30 p.m. or so. Plus weekends and nights tirelessly working on projects and homework. Some of us were there until midnight.

For me, this is a fantastic way to learn. The basic wax-on wax-off stuff is still fresh at the end since it was only a few weeks prior. I personally learn well when I have a monomaniacal attention to one thing (web development is not ‘one thing but you get the idea). Hell, I wish I learned math that way, I might have been good at it.

That is not to say that a lot of stuff kind of washed over me before I had it down pat. I freely admit that I occasionally look at the notes that another student took during WDI from time to time when I forget stuff. That’s now, two years post graduation.

You will have to keep up with that pace, but if your instructors were good, as mine were (whats up HAMCo!), you will have the support and attention you will need to get through it.

That’s basically what you should expect. You aren’t going to earn Mark Zuckerberg money a day after graduation. This is not a piñata full of candy. It’s a demanding, often frustrating, but incredibly rewarding trade. I’m crazy thankful that I was around when this sort of educational opportunity was available, otherwise I would have never thought that being a coder was even possible for humanities grad. Hell, there are even people in their later years attending these things and getting a second wind in their careers. There aren’t many moves that you can make that come close to how much learning to code really quickly can benefit you. Some of my classmates are digital nomads seeing the world as they freelance, some are managing entire dev teams, but I don’t know of any of us regretted it. Just take a deep breath and make sure its for you before you dive in.

I swear to god I mean this, if you need advice on this, I totally don’t mind talking to you about learning to code. I’ve done this for multiple strangers before, and I like doing it.