A note to anyone ‘learning to code for free’

Jordan Poulton
Dec 13, 2016 · 6 min read

This article was inspired by another article by a young lad who got a job as a developer after 12 months’ work on FreeCodeCamp. Congrats!

TL:DR — Free very rarely means free, especially when you factor in the cost of your time and future earnings

There are many organisations claiming to ‘teach you to code’ — lots are awesome, while a small handful are run by the sorts of snake oil salesmen that could probably win a US election. When deciding how/where to learn to code, you should be wary of basing your decision entirely on price — here’s why.

Not all course are created equal

A common question we get here at Makers Academy runs something along the lines of ‘I can learn to code for free with Codecademy, so why should I pay you guys £8k?’

It’s a worthwhile question to ask, but it rests on a few misunderstandings — firstly, and most importantly, sites like Codecademy are about getting a taste of writing code, not about becoming a professional developer. It’s like learning to swim with armbands — inspiring and fun, but not something a would-be pro will want to use for very long. There are free courses out there, designed to make you job ready, but they themselves admit that it’ll take between 1 and 2 years to complete, not to mention the time you spend job hunting afterwards. I’ll go into more detail later about how the finances of this stacks up to a bootcamp, where you can go from writing your first line of code to your first paycheck in 3–6 months.

In the article, the gentleman mentioned only applying to the sorts of jobs where he wouldn’t have to compete with bootcamp grads. He references conversations with recruiters who said that companies prefer bootcamp grads, and admitted to having avoided applying to the ‘best’ companies for fear of not being in the same league as bootcamp grads.

This makes me sad.

While he may have saved the cost of tuition of a higher quality course, the salary and happiness he misses by not feeling comfortable/able to apply to the best jobs available must be seen for the loss that it is. I won’t try to put a price on it, but, for me at least, joy at work, being surrounded by the smartest people, getting paid well and being on a high-growth trajectory… All are worth a lot more to me than a few grand.

It always makes me happy to see stories of people like the gentleman that inspired this article, people who have the self-discipline to push themselves through such a gruelling process, and the chutzpah to get themselves out there and hustle their first job. In my experience, these people are unicorn-rare. For those candidates without the herculean personal discipline to succeed alone, courses like ours provide community, daily support, up-to-date curriculum and job hunting support that no free online curriculum could ever hope to provide. This is where the real value of programming courses like Makers Academy come in. Most coding curricula are written by developers, not educators. The two require very different skills. At Makers Academy we’ve hired both, and they sum to more than the sum of their parts. But even if we put the curriculum aside, it’s the pedagogy, community, culture and job support that provide the real value. If it’s a choice between a £35k job at ThoughtWorks or a £21k job at a Company X that doesn’t care about best practise, I know which I’d choose, regardless of the cost to get there.

Your time is worth something — include it in the calculation

By most calculations, self-teaching to a professional level would take, on average, 12–24 months. Assuming an average salary, this is a time investment of anything between £25k-£60k.

Now, admittedly, it’s possible to get there in a year, while also working, and be job-ready at the end. But it’s also possible to run the hundred metres in under 10 seconds, yet no-one I know has managed it. Realistically, we think the time investment of £25-£30k is fair. I won’t even bother comparing this to a 4 year degree at a (conservative) cost of £10-£20k+ per year.

Contrast this with an £8,000 bootcamp. Yes, it’s expensive up front, but within 3 months you’re job hunting, and many will have 6–9 months worth of salary to offset this investment before their self-teaching friend has even completed their course and started job hunting. Let me reiterate — the bootcamp grad has already paid back their course fees and made a profit before the self taught developer has started their first day in a job. This is important.

Yes, it’s expensive up front, but within 3 months you’re job hunting, and you’ll have 6–9 months worth of salary to offset this investment before your self-teaching friend has even completed their course and started job hunting.

When time is taken to account and you factor in projected earnings, suddenly an £8k course can be seen to provide significantly more value than a free course, on whatever time scale you choose.

Cost/Benefit Analysis of learning to code over time

You can afford it, even if you can’t

Many people say they’d do a bootcamp if they could, but they “just can’t” afford it. I always smile that so few of them mind investing thousands of hours of their own time to achieve something that could be done in a fraction of the time — for a price. Given that around 3–7% of people finish these ‘free’ courses, and over 99% of bootcamp students complete their course, even a ‘free’ course might not offer the investment parameters that it might initially appear to offer.

The main point I’m trying to surface is — you are paying for something, even if no cash changes hands. Your time is worth something, and so are future earnings, especially if you hope to make programming a full-time career.

On top of all this, students of Makers Academy can apply for a loan which, historically, is paid back by the end of the graduate’s first year in the job. At the risk of flogging a dead horse — their self-taught friend, if they’re exceptional, will’ve just about started their first programming job, while the MA graduate has already paid back their loan and been earning for months!

Free almost never really means free

You’ve probably heard the phrase “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Funnily enough, the best known ‘free’ coding course, Free Code Camp, really is just that. There’s no catch. It really is just a kind donation by Quincey Jones (mad props bro) and has been given freely to the world to help make it a little better.

But for how long can we depend on Quincey and the community to keep creating these educational materials? Whether we like it or not, the only reason courses like FCC are free is because awesome people like Quincey and the open source community have paid the costs for us — by donating their time to create high-quality materials. I worry this isn’t sustainable. Tech moves fast. Curriculum has to be constantly rewritten to stay relevant. Quincey is a legend, but he isn’t super-human.

More importantly, As the author of the original article pointed out, he had to go elsewhere for the more relevant, more complex, more up-to-date stuff like TDD, Pairing, Git and React. Given all my comments about the ‘real costs’ above, I find it fascinating that the exact skills that companies tell us are the ones which set our graduates apart are the exact skills that students of ‘free’ courses aren’t getting. Makers Academy courses are written by a combination of developers and educators, and kept up to date with feedback from our wide network of hiring partners. Maybe investing a few grand up front wouldn’t have been a bad idea after all, given that Makers Academy graduates write test driven code, in pairs, using version control, from day 1?

Conclusion

For the vast majority of people, it’s absolutely possible to learn to code — many have done it through formal education, many have self taught and many have gone through bootcamps. The right course really comes down to you. I’m not trying to say that Bootcamps are right for everyone, I’m simply pointing out that the ‘cost calculation’ is more nuanced than you think. When you factor in the costs of your time, the specifics of what you learn, and more importantly what you don’t learn, you might be a little less hasty saying you learnt to code for ‘free’.

Jordan Poulton

Written by

Startups, Tech, Science, general geekery, occasional rants and random flights of fancy. I’m ex-@makersacademy and now Founder/CEO of FutureBuilders.co :)

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