Adventures in Codeland: Is a Bootcamp Right for You?

Congratulate me! After almost six months of starts and stops, two weeks ago I finally graduated the DevBootcamp (or DBC) computer coding “bootcamp,” one of a burgeoning number of “indie education” programs that are springing up in the US right now, unaccredited traditionally but promising to teach you an entire two-year college degree of information in eighteen weeks, so that with a lot less time and money you’ll be actually out in the workforce in a job that’s hot right this moment, but won’t necessarily be in another four or five years after a ton of people have already gone through these programs.

There’s a number of tricks we’ve learned now about how to increase your chances of getting hired afterwards; and one of those is to keep a blog about all the things you’re learning in your job search, as well as tips on new coding things you’re learning on your own, as a way of helping out other beginning developers who are going through the same thing. I’ve started up this Medium account specifically for these blog entries, which I’ll be doing as mini personal essays; and I thought I’d do the very first one on the most natural subject for a fresh graduate, on whether or not I recommend that you go through one of these programs too.

To be clear right off the top, let me say that in my general opinion, yes, I had a great experience with DBC and highly encourage others to do it too, if they have the time, money and inclination. Although it was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever tried doing as a grown adult (but more on this below), it was also one of the most satisfyingly, and I came out with not just a whole new career’s worth of skills but literally as a different person as before, one who’s more emotionally ready to take on the rigors and BS of the corporate world than I was before, who understands himself better and is more physically fit to boot (but again, see more later). But that said, I’ll be the first person to admit that DevBootcamp isn’t right for everyone, and that there are some things about these programs I wish I had known before I had agreed to go through it, stuff that every person deserves to know about coding bootcamps before they commit the $10,000 to $15,000 and the third of a year of their life to it. For the sake of fairness, let me outline these below, with the understanding that in general I strongly recommend such programs if you find yourself saying “Yes, I can handle this” to the following caveats…

Bootcamps are emotionally exhausting. DBC’s particular program operates for nine weeks from home at first, where you learn the fundamentals of Ruby and JavaScript by yourself, supplemented by a lot of online conjunction with your classmates and tutors (via email, message board, shared coding sessions, video chats, etc); and that alone takes 20 to 30 hours a week of your time, once you add together both the assignments and the reading. Then the second half takes place at their physical headquarters (in the tech-trendy West Loop/River West area), where I in particular literally put in 14-hour days, every single day of the week, once you added in my one-hour bus ride plus walk each direction in the mornings and evenings. (Typical day: wake up at 5:30 am, get on bus by 6:30, be coding by 7:15, typically stay until 7 pm, back home by 8 pm, dinner and homework for an hour, then to bed at 9:00 and asleep by 9:30.)

There are no breaks. There is no let-up. There are no moments to catch your breath between projects. The goal is to cram as much learning as medically, physically possible into your head in a 18-week period, and they maximize this up to and right at the edge of the level of you possibly having a nervous breakdown because of the overload. Which I did. Twice. Which is a heavy toll to go through just for the sake of changing careers. In my particular case it was worth it; but I wish I had understood this better before I went through it, could’ve prepared myself mentally for it more, and could’ve gotten a lot more of the loose ends in my personal life tied up. (For example, I absolutely should not have tried continuing to run my small press, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, while I was in bootcamp.) There’s a reason programs like DBC require you to do yoga twice a week, and have a therapist on-staff for free weekly sessions with any student who wants one; because you stand a real chance of cracking up otherwise, something to seriously consider before you commit to a bootcamp yourself.

Bootcamps largely teach through the ‘abstract random’ method. This is a reference to the four styles of learning invented by Anthony Gregorc, split first between whether you prefer learning things through “abstract” methods like random trial-and-error, or “concrete” methods like the rational scientific process, then split between whether you prefer learning things through a “sequential” order like a textbook, or a “random” order like Googling individual words. For example, if you’re like me and got along really well as a kid in the traditional Western educational system as it’s been taught since the Victorian Age, in which bound textbooks are handed out, a student reads them from start to finish with no skipping around, then is tested on how well they retained the information, you’re a “Concrete Sequential” person; but unfortunately, it’s the opposite way that most learning in tech happens, the “Abstract Random” way of hearing about random new things, Googling those things in no particular order, then trying through practical trial-and-error to teach it to yourself piecemeal by actually building something with that knowledge.

And since this is the main way that coders learn new things out in the real world of paid jobs, this is the way that DBC teaches the “classes” too, which aren’t really classes per se but more like a series of individual coding “challenges,” the material moving way too fast and way too fluidly to have a formal syllabus make much sense. This is an extremely challenging way to get used to learning things for fellow Concrete Sequential people like myself, and takes some getting used to before you get comfortable with it. Eventually you will, and things will flow just fine for you as a coder; or maybe you never will, which means that a life as a coder was never for you in the first place, which is why you deserve to think seriously about this before you sign up for a coding bootcamp.

Bootcamps require you to throw yourself feet-first into a lot of new situations. Perhaps the most surprising detail for an industry mostly known for introspective nerds (“Jason, that’s why you should be a coder! You hate the human race!” — My friend Carrie, last January), DBC and other bootcamps are trying hard to undo the reputation of the tech world as an exclusive home for backwards white males; DevBootcamp in particular has a multi-month series of “engineering empathy” workshops that are done as the same time as the coding, on subjects like how to handle delicate conversations in a work environment, how to get along with people better, how to give effective feedback, how to know yourself better, how to take better care of yourself, etc. As part of these activities, you’re required to do things as varied as starting a personal blog for public consumption, sharing personal details about yourself in a group environment, practicing yoga, participating in an improv comedy night, and other such activities that many coders-to-be have never tried before; and that’s going to be a real challenge for those who have never done it before, or who identify on the far end of the introvert scale. It’s an important thing to do if you’re going to get involved in the tech world during this current start of the “third wave” of internet history — it’s the way the entire industry is moving, to a more diverse one in gender and race, much more cooperative and interactive — and you owe it to yourself to question how ready you are to throw “your whole self” into such activities.

There are other things to be on the lookout for with bootcamps, of course; but like I said, mostly I’d like to encourage people to try one, so we’ll just leave it as these big main issues to contemplate before actually trying one out. I look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks and months ahead, including a look next time at how to “benevolently stalk” during your next job search, plus other posts soon on the subjects of Ruby/Rails blog frameworks, jQuery, AJAX, SASS, and the Sublime text editor. As always, you can drop me a line anytime at ilikejason [at] gmail.com, or find me at Twitter, LinkedIn, GitHub or my arts center.