Is Coding Bootcamp Right for You?
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth. — Mary Schmich
I’m living the coding bootcamp dream. Last spring, I quit my project management job, spent the summer at a program in San Francisco, and quickly found employment at a truly awesome company, CircleCI.
Even during my darkest moments of self-doubt and panic (throwing away a perfectly good job can do that), I never regretted the decision to drop everything and become a software engineer. That said, I don’t recommend coding bootcamps to everyone, and I only recommend them with reservations.
In this two-part blog series, I’ll discuss how I decided to attend a coding bootcamp, as well as the costs and benefits of attending one. By “coding bootcamp,” I mean the roughly three-month-long programs that claim to turn programming muggles into software engineers.
One thing that I am not going to do in this series is debate the merits of coding bootcamps over traditional education. I hold a Bachelor’s of Science and am glad that I do. I have peers who don’t think credentials should matter. That’s a debate for another place.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s do this!
How I Chose Bootcamp
My decision to attend a bootcamp was a long time in the making.
Two years before actually attending a program, I started toying with the idea when a college friend completed one. At the time, I was working as the project manager of a technology group at an S&P 500 company. While I enjoyed aspects of my job, I didn’t see any roles at the company that I actually wanted down the line. I didn’t know what to do next, so (naturally) I applied to business school.
Given the opportunity cost and dubious ROI of business school programs, I applied to the three top schools in the US and was summarily rejected. Completing the applications required a lot of soul-searching; essay prompts like “What matters most to you, and why?” can be pretty uncomfortable.
By the end of this experience, further motivated by rejection, I wrote down the things I did know about myself and my work experience to date:
- I liked problem solving.
- I loved translating between business and technology needs.
- I missed building things.
- I preferred product-driven work. Intangibles are the enemy!
- I wanted to hit a reset button in my career.
- I missed being an engineer. So respected! So intellectually unquestioned! Love it or hate it, people treated me differently when I was an engineer. I didn’t feel like I needed to prove that I was smart because, duh, I’m an engineer.
I knew I’d be comfortable programming because I’d already done a fair amount as in undergraduate while studying mechanical engineering. As a professional, I’d hacked for years in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), Microsoft’s business-oriented programming language. I spent time automating mundane tasks and customizing in-house “heritage databases,” an undertaking that makes bona fide software engineers cringe.
Given what I knew about bootcamps, they seemed like a reasonable path forward. I calculated that I could afford to attend one without any loans, and started researching different programs.
I was frustrated by the extremes of the information I found: five-star and one-star experiences, with nothing in between. I trawled LinkedIn for second and third-degree connections who would be willing to talk to me about their bootcamp experiences and was pleasantly surprised to discover that many would.
After numerous calls assuaged my fears surrounding the legitimacy of bootcamps, I was in. I fully committed to the process of attending a bootcamp, and here I am today.
Before Taking the Plunge
If you’re thinking, “Awesome! This worked for Hannah, so it will definitely work for me,” slow down! I would only recommend going to a coding bootcamp if you:
- Enjoy coding.
- Have budgeted how much it will cost for you to attend.
- Are able to drop the rest of your life responsibilities for 12+ weeks.
- Know that over 25% of bootcamp graduates do not become software engineers.
- Are willing to let your ego get a bit bruised.
The Costs of Coding Bootcamps section discusses several of these items in more detail.
Do You Like Coding?
I am going to assume that you do. If you don’t, coding bootcamp is not the path for you. This may seem obvious, but the lure of a cushy engineering life can blind the normally rational decision maker. Much like trying on a pair of pants at the store: if you don’t like them in the dressing room, you won’t wear them at home. Sad but true, they won’t make your backside look better in different lighting.
The Costs of Coding Bootcamps
Now that you’ve decided to become a software engineer, let’s take a look at some important things to consider before applying to a bootcamp!
Let’s start with the obvious: bootcamps can be expensive, with many programs running between $15,000 and $20,000. You’ll need to pay for living expenses during the bootcamp and after while job-hunting.
Here are some assumptions to help you estimate your expenses. These numbers are ballparked based on public information online (like this piece), as well as what I’ve seen and heard in wider groups of bootcampers.
- Most bootcamp grads who successfully get a job will make between $80,000 and $120,000 (in San Francisco). The average software engineer in SF earns significantly more than in any other city in the US. For comparison, junior developers make $105,000 in SF but only $71,000 in Austin. The SF cost of living is correspondingly outrageous, so pick your poison.
- A minimum of four months will be spent unemployed. Three for class and one for logistics. If you’re super lucky, you’ll be employed immediately. However, most job hunts take three to six months, so it’s safer to assume seven to ten months of unemployment.
- Loan rates are around 6%. If you plan to take out a loan, do more research. Interest starts compounding immediately, and rates can be as high as 12%.
Don’t forget to budget for:
- Health insurance
Keep an eye on which of your current expenses will change, and what new ones may be added.
Bootcamps are a major time commitment. You may be unable to go to weddings, childcare will be difficult, and commuting will come to represent a shocking percent of your me-time. It isn’t 24/7, but don’t be surprised by 12/6.
Bootcamps Expect You to Learn Fast
It’s cliche but true, bootcamp is like “drinking from a firehose.” You’ll be exposed to an immense volume of new material, and some programs cut students that can’t keep up. This can be both stressful and motivating. You’ll probably have to face your own personal learning limits, and your ego will suffer a few dings along the way.
You will most likely end up feeling impostor syndrome — described by Wikipedia as “an inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” You’ll need to embrace a certain “fake it ‘till you make it” mindset to get through bootcamp and into a job as a full-time software engineer. But how do you know if you’re just faking it?
Thinking about the Dunning-Kruger effect is sure to provide you with a constant mind-fuck throughout this process. You’re welcome. ❤
Seriously, though: everyone feels impostor syndrome to some extent. Editorial comments from my coworkers on this post ran from a senior engineer’s observation that, “I legit thought they were gonna figure out what a mistake they made and fire me for my first four months” to “You guys still haven’t figured it out here for me bahaha.”
You’re not alone. You’ll get there eventually.
Speaking of not being alone, not everyone you work with is going to be on the same page as you; the range of people entering bootcamps is just too diverse for that to happen. This may have relatively little impact (so-and-so wants to found a startup after graduating, you want a full-time job) or immense impact.
“Immense impact” will manifest in your peers’ professionalism and commitment to completing group projects. Compare the drive of a working parent living off their savings with a teenage student on summer break funded by their parents. You might be surprised which archetype is more motivated.
Word to the wise: your bootcamp peers are likely to form a big part of your professional network one day. This goes both ways. Would they enjoy working with you again? Would they cringe and feel the need to provide a disclaimer for your language or comments? Would you recommend working with them?
As bootcamp graduates flood the market, it becomes harder to get a job as a fully-fledged software engineer. Not impossible, but definitely more challenging. Nearly 25% of graduates from “the Harvard of bootcamps” do not find work as full-time software engineers. Some programs fare worse.
The Bright Side
If you are comfortable with the trade-offs listed above, coding bootcamps offer an effective way of getting from Point A to Point B.
Most of them won’t guarantee a “cool” job immediately after graduation. However, as bootcamps become more mainstream, it’s exciting to look at all the interesting things that graduates do a few years down the line. Take a gander at the LinkedIn profiles of various bootcampers and try to spot a few trends of your own.
In my next post, I’ll dive into the benefits of attending a bootcamp, and will highlight some potential pitfalls to consider as you choose a program.
Hannah is (finally) a software engineer at CircleCI.