What I Learned From Researching Coding Bootcamps

Graduation rates of coding bootcamps compared to Computer and Information Science degrees in the US. Sources: CourseReport, National Center for Education Statistics

A year and a half ago, my wife, Kristen, was an English teacher. Now she is a full-time software engineer at Microsoft. I followed her journey with excitement as she went from writing her first “Hello World” program, then her first full stack web app, to getting an apprenticeship and finally a full time job.

Along the way, I was intrigued by how many options she had for learning programming: online tutorials, in-person classes, intensive coding bootcamps, and more. Each option had different benefits and drawbacks, each one felt like a disconnected piece of a path (hopefully) leading to a software engineering job. The challenge was finding the right pieces and connecting them in the right way.

While Kristen didn’t attend a bootcamp, she met many people who did, and we heard about their own journeys and challenges. With Kristen’s encouragement, I decided to study the barriers that bootcamp students face. I interviewed 26 coding bootcamp students, asking them about their experiences, and wrote a peer-reviewed research paper on them.

I was inspired by the stories I heard of people working hard to face each barrier as they tried to enter the software industry. Here is what I learned, along with quotes from some of the bootcamp students I talked to:

Motivation for Attending Coding Bootcamps

People attend coding bootcamps to get jobs in the software industry. Students had different motivations for seeking these jobs, including desires for intellectually stimulating work and better pay.

I wanted to do something that I actually enjoyed and was fun and was challenging, so I figured if I liked [programming] at home […], that I might as well [attend a bootcamp]. 
- Female interviewee
[Our bootcamp instructor] told us, “It’s going to be a dark long tunnel. You guys are all going to hate me, but if you […] do all the things we’re telling you to do, […] there is this light, and the light is a big pile of gold.”
- Male interviewee

A Second Chance or Alternate Path

For students who felt they had missed earlier opportunities to enter the software industry (by getting a computer science degree in college, for example), coding bootcamps offered a second chance. This was particularly true for women who thought programming wasn’t for them or had been scared off by the lack of women in computer science.

I’m a good example of somebody who easily could’ve gotten into this field the first time around. When I was in college … it just wasn’t floated as something I could do. Nobody ever said, “Oh, you can’t be a computer scientist.” But nobody ever said, “Oh, you can be a computer scientist,” either.
- Female interviewee

Other students considered bootcamps an alternate path into a software industry career, such as this student, who attended a bootcamp instead of finishing a college degree:

I didn’t want to commit to something that I wasn’t passionate about, and regular school is boring. […] I started to lose interest in school, and I just needed to go to a bootcamp, because it’s going to keep me focused.
- Male interviewee

What Software Industry Employers Look For

As students tried to enter the software industry, they faced barriers in trying to get hired. Students mentioned five things employers in the software industry were looking for:

  1. Relevant educational credentials
  2. Software industry work experience
  3. Online portfolios
  4. Networking with employers, software engineers and other students
  5. Interviewing abilities (in particular “whiteboarding”)

The Complicated Paths into the Software Industry

We drew the paths each student took as they tried to enter the software industry, showing how diverse these paths can be. Some students had successfully changed careers when I interviewed them, while others were struggling. Many students had taken online courses or in-person classes and a few had computer science degrees. Some students had quit their bootcamps and a few had attended more than one bootcamp.

Paths of 26 bootcamp students trying to enter or having entered the software industry through bootcamps. To keep these students anonymous, we labeled them P1 – P26.

Note: We tried to interview people with all types of experiences, so we can’t say how common each type of experience was. We did, however, have several students question the official success rates posted by their bootcamps.

Also, we noticed that at least four students happened to be married to programmers, and at least seven others had parents, siblings or other important people in their social circle who were programmers.

The Time It Takes to Get Into the Software Industry

Even though bootcamps could be as short as three months, a full career change into the software industry could take up to a year or more, which surprised some students. This time could be financially costly for students as well:

During these nine-months, I pretty much devoted my time to [the bootcamp’s] prescribed job hunting methods, which means financially, I have no money. I couldn’t work because I really needed to do job searching full time. And that’s a big sacrifice I made, which reflects on my family because now we’re low on funds. 
- Male interviewee

The Challenge of Bootcamp Intensity

The most common description of the experience of coding bootcamps was of their “intensity,” in particular with the speed of the material and the time needed to keep up:

My kitchen is a disaster. My whole house is just a mess. Anything that is not directly related to [the bootcamp] or to keeping me up and functioning, just goes by the wayside. […] I don’t remember the last time I had a shower.
- Female interviewee

Dealing with the intensity required students to have confidence, commitment, and determination.

Fitting in at Bootcamps and in the Software Industry

In addition to the challenges of succeeding in bootcamps and getting hired afterword were challenges of fitting in, both in bootcamps and in the software industry. There were several types of fitting in that students mentioned:

  • Knowledge expected of software developers (e.g., programs, terminology)
  • Stereotypes and subcultures (e.g., “programmers are all gamers”, “programmers are all nerdy”)
  • Demographics (e.g., gender, race)
  • Programming background (e.g., those who had taken programming classes before starting a bootcamp vs. those who had never programmed before)

In trying to make themselves “real programmers,” and to be recognized by others as such, many students mentioned struggling with Impostor Syndrome.

Costs, Risks and Rewards of Bootcamps

The costs of attending bootcamps and changing careers was significant for students, including time away from friends and family, bootcamp tuition (often over $10,000), and lost income while searching for jobs. This could put students in difficult positions:

To be extremely honest, in choosing this path, I’ve come the closest to being homeless that I’ve ever been.
- Female interviewee

These costs were particularly devastating for students who were unable find a job. But for those students who succeeded in making the transition into the software industry, the costs were worth it:

I would say that going to [my bootcamp] was probably the best decision that I’ve ever made […]. Going from not knowing anything about coding [six months earlier] to being here today is pretty ridiculous… I love [my bootcamp].
- P4 from the paths diagram

Suggestions for People Considering a Bootcamp

  • Prepare for a career change to take a year or more.
  • Consider what support you can rely on during and after a bootcamp.
  • Learn what you can from online resources and available classes before starting a bootcamp.
  • Be cautious when looking at official bootcamp success rates. Talk to former and current students at the bootcamps. Look at the numbers reported on http://cirr.org/. Ask the bootcamps: “What types of jobs were counted as successes?” “What backgrounds did successful students have?” etc.

Suggestions for People Running Coding Bootcamps

  • Know what programming background your students have and what outside resources they are using.
  • Inform students about the extra time and resources they may need to succeed before they sign up for your bootcamp.
  • Be clear about how you are calculating success rates advertised by your bootcamp. Some students were unclear on what exactly the success rates meant and some thought statistics were being used deceptively.

Suggestions for the Software Industry (Especially for Those Wanting to Increase Diversity)

More Information

The research paper I wrote was peer reviewed and accepted at the 2017 ACM International Computing Education Research conference. I will be presenting these results in August in Tacoma, Washington.

Kyle Thayer and Andrew J. Ko. 2017. Barriers Faced by Coding Bootcamp Students. In Proceedings of ICER ’17, August 18–20, 2017, Tacoma, WA, USA.

You can contact me at kthayer@cs.washington.edu or visit my website http://www.kylethayer.com.