Are Coding Boot Camps Worth It?

This question has gotten the attention of those interested in transitioning to a tech career since roughly 2011, at which time the first coding boot camps began to appear. Studies examining data between 2013–2017 show that boot camp enrollment has increased by a factor of 10, from 2,178 students in 2013 to 22,949 students in 2017. These students are likely drawn in by the growth projections indicated by outlets such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which forecasts a 15% growth in jobs from 2016–2026, combined with the statistical comfortable salary. While this growth is promising for those who aspire to enter the tech realm, this number must be viewed in context with market competition, which is growing far faster than the number of openings.

I began my boot camp experience at age 41, with a background as a career mechanic, and only a few basic ed courses from community college. I had spent the previous year learning basic HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, so I had a reasonable foundation before beginning the course. I chose a 6 month program for full stack web development, which came at a price tag of $8,500. Upon starting the course, I noticed that I was likely among the top 3 oldest students in the cohort, which was not surprising from the research I had done prior. I was initially surprised by the number of engineers, chemists, and other professionals that were replete throughout my cohort, which I internalized as a signal that I was making a wise career move.

The curriculum started with the basics: CSS, Bootstrap, HTML, and wire frames, and then quickly moved into JavaScript (ES5) and jQuery. Although I felt that the course was moving fairly quickly through those early topics, I would later refer to the early part of the course as being much easier/slower, as the topics appeared to progress at more of an exponential level of difficulty than a linear one. I was spending approximately 50 hours per week on the curriculum in total, which included additional learning. I gathered that some students were spending significantly less, which was reflected by the lack of quality and completion rates of the homework assignments. Despite feeling overwhelmed at times, I performed quite well. I don’t draw that conclusion from my grade (although I finished with an ‘A’), but from feedback from the instructors, TA’s, and other students. After coursing through Node.js, relational and non-relational databases, and MVC patterning, the last trimester of the course covered TDD, BDD, React, PHP, Laravel, and a few others. Upon comparing the curriculum to other boot camps, I discovered that many homework assignments were exactly the same across many schools.

After graduating the boot camp, it was time to begin the job hunt. I had begun to apply to a few positions a few weeks prior to the end of the boot camp to get a feel for the market, but now I was completely focused on honing my resume and the articulation of my skills. I applied to anything that didn’t specify ‘senior developer’. The response rate was abysmal. In the month following the boot camp, I had applied to over 100 companies, which resulted in about 10 phone interviews and 3 de facto interviews. During phone interviews with recruiters, the questioner seemed very interested right up until I was led into disclosing the fact that my resume projects were from the boot camp. Neither their complexity, nor professionalism appeared to have been taken into consideration, and the interviewer would immediately begin to move toward ending the conversation. Of the 3 interviews I was granted, only one resulted in an offer, which was for a role that was tangential to development, but not an actual developer position. Although the position involved substantially less pay than the salary suggested by boot camp staff, I accepted the offer, as it came with an opportunity to move into a software role within a reasonable time period. Because I had exhausted most of my resources with a recent home purchase, and then invested in the boot camp, I was not financially able to extend my job search out over several months. It was interesting to note that it was the students who held degrees in STEM fields who were generally the first to become employed from my cohort, even though they were not necessarily the most exceptional coders in the group. The boot camp does not provide hard data for its alumni, which casts doubt that such statistics would show a favorable trend.

In conclusion, I found the staff at the boot camp to be highly competent and supportive, and I learned a large volume of information and skills in a relatively short time frame. However, my experience has been that the traditional degree in computer science is still overwhelmingly preferred among employers. The market is currently saturated with junior level developers, and most employers are adamant about having commercial experience and/or a relevant degree. Although it is possible to enter the tech industry by gaining skills from a coding boot camp, factors such as age and education will play a vital role in securing employment following the boot camp, irrespective of skill level. For a person below a certain age threshold who already holds a 4 year degree, a boot camp is likely to be a viable avenue to a career in tech. For all others, proceed with caution, as the market is not as friendly to older developers just entering the field with less education. Freelancing is also an option, but keep in mind that establishing a network and customer base will typically be a lengthier process than finding employment. Good luck in your pursuits!