This post was inspired by a conversation on the Oakland TechEquity Slack group last week that started with the question “Does anyone know any tech companies that hire a good number of bootcamp grads?” If you’re curious to learn more about our community and the conversations we’re having, say hi!
Coding bootcamps: the months-long intensive training programs teaching programming and design skills to people with little to no prior experience. They’re taught from curricula that are designed to be iterative and flexible and are administered by people who are actually practicing those skills in the workforce. Where traditional academia struggles to keep pace with the rapidly evolving tech industry, bootcamps provide a practical solution to teaching the skills necessary to succeed in tech.
Even more importantly, organizations like Telegraph Academy, Hackbright, Floodgate Academy, Learners Guild, LearnTech Labs, and #YesWeCode are focusing their educational programming on creating a more inclusive tech workforce, graduating cohorts that are much more diverse than those out of traditional computer science programs — something from which the industry will benefit immensely.
There are nearly 100 bootcamp programs in the country today, with new ones popping up every month. As the barrier to entry into technology fields is reduced, hundreds of individuals with fresh skills are looking for jobs at companies — often startups — that haven’t quite figured out how to engage with this new category in the labor force.
Many bootcamp graduates are seeking opportunities at early stage startups, a decision often made by default, and to the detriment of their own priorities.
I’ve personally been able to witness the impact of this phenomenon over the past 4 years, where I’ve been able to garner a unique perspective around the topic of bootcamps and startup employment:
- I helped launch General Assembly’s LA campus. During my time there I worked intimately with curricula and programming covering technical skill-sets in bootcamp formats. I also managed cohorts of students through these programs end-to-end, often from “What is a bootcamp?” to a new job placement or career transition.
- I worked for a digital agency called Huge, that not only runs its own intensive training program, but also regularly hires and develops inexperienced talent internally, all while designing and building digital products for clients like Nike, Google, Twitter and a long list of other industry-leading brands.
- I’m currently the CEO of Josephine, an early stage startup. We recently made three technical hires and fielded over 250 applications (out of just over 330) from graduates of bootcamps and developer/designer training programs for our Software Engineer and Product Designer roles.
Out of our 250+ applications from bootcamp graduates, we’ve interviewed or had coffee with almost two dozen, and have actually hired three folks representing Hackbright, App Academy, and Tradecraft. Unfortunately this also meant turning down over 200 applicants, something we tried to do as empathetically as possible. This year alone I’ve taken 17 weekend or morning meetings with recent bootcamp graduates that we’ve turned down to help them refine their job search. In these conversations, a lot of people spoke about their decision to do a bootcamp with the explicit goal of finding a job at an early stage startup or even starting their own company. I‘ve often encouraged them to challenge this notion, starting with the same question: “What matters the most?” Here’s what I heard:
Priority 1: “I want to further develop my skills.”
Almost every single bootcamp grad I’ve spoken to has listed ongoing skill development as their number one priority, which is amazing. The people I’ve met are whip-sharp, hungry, and have a welcomed sense of humility not found in most job applicants. Many applicants have asked upfront about mentorship, pair programming, and ongoing education budgets/benefits.
Meanwhile, Josephine’s CTO, Tal, has extensive experience training inexperienced product teams, has learned best practices from his time at Pivotal Labs, and taught over 2,000 beginner students Ruby on Rails on Skillshare. In a lot of ways, Josephine is as well set up for training and developing junior talent as any early-stage startup could be.
So we started interviewing recent bootcamp graduates. We knew that conventional advice said to hire someone who could hit the ground running, but we felt like we could “play to our strengths” and train someone who had a few years fewer experience. We decided to hire a bootcamp graduate who had been working as a software engineer at a later-stage startup for over a year.
It didn’t take long for us to realize we had underestimated the time and cost of training a new employee. Our faith in Tal’s ability as a mentor and teacher wasn’t misplaced, but finding the time to flex those muscles was nearly impossible. In a 24-hour day, Tal was already trying to carve time out to be a founder, a CTO, a product manager, and a developer. Adding mentor and teacher to that list of responsibilities made his performance in every one of his roles suffer and took a heavy toll on both his health and our overall productivity, something we couldn’t take lightly.
That said, one of our values is ‘Give boldly, give first’. We use our values to make decisions we can stand behind, and in this case it meant admitting our shortcomings and mismanaged expectations to our first developer hire, and working with her to come up with a new approach to helping each other succeed. Tal and our developer ended up committing to a half day of weekly pair programming and creating a system and timeline to monitor and measure improvement. And it worked. Our developer committed more to her role and improved noticeably, becoming a bigger contributor week over week. Sadly, even this wasn’t enough.
When a company only has a year of runway, it‘s incredibly difficult to justify investing in a training program that will see returns over a multi-month period.
Cultivating talent requires time and energy, resources that are spread very thin at early-stage startups. When a company only has enough runway for a year, it becomes really hard to justify investing the time of both a mentor and a mentee, when the time of both of those people could hypothetically be used to improve the company’s chances of fundraising again or reaching profitability. The idealized transition from bootcamp right into a startup is incredibly difficult. It’s an expectation that is hopeful at best, misleading at worst.
On the contrary, agencies or larger organizations have business models that actively depend on their ability to successfully train and support new developers and designers. Agencies make money by billing clients for hourly resources at a rate marked up from their employee payroll. It’s in an agency’s best business interest to train people to do work that they can bill more for. This often translates to robust methodology around mentorship and education as well as many opportunities to move laterally within the company.
For example, at Huge, I saw countless examples of non-technical employees voicing interest in becoming developers and designers and promptly being introduced to project work under the careful and confident guidance of the most experienced technical managers. Given the project-based nature of agency work, employees were also constantly juggling work for different clients, allowing them to practice their skills in different contexts and giving them exposure that would otherwise only be gained through years of working at different companies. The business motivation for agencies to attract and develop their own talent is also the driving force behind programs like Huge School and their intentionally active role in the local design and tech communities of their offices.
Consequently, Huge became an incubator for some of the most impressive people I’ve ever worked with —tech startup or not. Many of my colleagues from Huge who had little to no technical experience prior to working for agencies have gone on to found or work at some of the most competitive and successful tech companies today.
I can’t speak from experience regarding non-agency opportunities, but I’ve seen countless examples of larger companies with formal and informal training baked into their business. For companies with more runway and stability, the investment in internal skill development is one that can pay enormous dividends over time — something that I hope Josephine can be thoughtful about in the near future.
The point here is, if your number one priority is to continue being trained and mentored in your new skill-set, screen for companies that have the business incentive, experience, and resources to align with your goals. Just because bootcamps are often early stage startups themselves does not mean that your search needs to restricted to similar companies. The buzz and appeal surrounding Silicon Valley does not mean that startups are best prepared to give you the skills and/or experience you’re seeking.
Priority 2: “I want to work in a progressive office culture.”
Culture is undeniably one of the biggest draws of startups, but the definition of culture is anything but consistent. Often it’s the superficial things that are easiest to identify and talk about — dog-friendly offices, catered lunches, open layouts with exposed brick walls, and fridges full of kombucha.
Not only are these poor indicators of culture, they’re also the easiest (and cheapest) ways to fake culture. Having leadership that is trying to be emotionally and socially aware is hard. Investing in diversity and creating intentional, safe spaces costs time and money. Cultivating a community that challenges its members to become more empathetic and thoughtful often feels like a counter-productive way to address high-pressure, fast-paced startup demands.
The reality is, most startups have horrible culture. Everyone is overworked and under immense pressure, making culture something intangible that competes for attention with growth, fundraising, and product. Teams are generally led by managers who have limited experience either due to specialized work experience or simply fewer years in the workforce. As a CEO, my hardest job is making sure that our team is doing things the “right” way (so that they’re worth doing), while ALSO making tough decisions to make sure that the company succeeds, so that our values have a place to be relevant and impactful.
On the other hand, agencies and more established companies have a different set of benefits and challenges. Huge represented the healthiest and most inclusive work culture that I’ve experienced. The work life balance was heavily enforced — managers would routinely encourage members of their team to take their PTO and find time for personal endeavors. People were discouraged from eating lunch at their desks, and employees organized yoga and workout sessions in the office before and after work. Leaving your computer at work was not only okay, but encouraged. Agencies like Huge don’t have 4-year vesting periods or product ownership to keep people at the company, so an inclusive culture that helps different people succeed is directly correlated to retention in a typically high-churn industry.
Good culture should manifest as diversity.
If you’re looking for a better work environment, assess both the visible and invisible diversity at a company. In addition to amazing gender and racial equality at every level of the organization, Huge’s LA office also represented a wide variety of life stages, life experiences, and lifestyles. Some folks were aggressively pursuing their careers while others were actively focusing on family, health, or side passions. Some of my fondest memories were around weekly Thursday morning presentations where people shared their unique passions and interests — everything from hand-ground coffee to DJing to playing the didgeridoo. Huge not only reserved space for people to have passions outside of work, but they celebrated them.
When I think about how Josephine can be most representative of the people we’re working to empower, the bar is set higher than just race and gender. Our diversity is proven in our family status, religious background, sexual orientation, mental and physical health, and heritage as well. Our ability to empathize with a wider spectrum of the world is powered by the variety of perspectives that we’ve experienced.
My advice to bootcamp grads:
My thoughts and observations about opportunities for bootcamp grads isn’t meant to be discouraging. My advice to the people I’ve met with and other recent bootcamp grads is:
- Practice what you preach. Use the research methodology that you’ve just learned on your new job search. Figure out your priorities and start your research at the highest level — including, but not exclusive of the world of startups. Identify your user needs and priorities, as well as your limitations and concerns. Try minimize uncertainty through research and break down your job search into as many small, objective pieces of work as you can.
- Run a process. Organize your research in a spreadsheet. Take meetings with people whose careers you admire. Reach out to organizations you’re interested in, regardless of their job listings. Give yourself weekly “sprints” and assign tasks so that you can measure your progress more granularly than number of interviews and number of offers.
- Don’t buy into the hype. Understand that early stage startups, despite their intentions, are very unusual and niche work environments. I speak from experience when I say that starting Josephine has not improved my financial standing, mental health, or emotional health. In fact, it’s been an opportunity afforded not only by my own lifestyle, but by the endless support and sacrifice of every person I love in this world. Not a day goes by where I’m not aware of all of the friends who deserve more of my time and the family who give more than they take. These are all sacrifices I’ve asked people to make by starting Josephine. Underneath the hype and the veneer, working at an early-stage startup requires a level of commitment that is absurd to give, and not one that should be lightly assumed.
Make sure that you’re considering what is really best for your life right now and engage with the people who can help you succeed in exactly the ways that you need.
If you’ve read everything above and feel that you’re in a place where you’ve got everything to give, we’re still hiring Full-Stack Developers. You can read more about our mission and the problems we care about in my last Medium post. If you want to talk about hiring or bootcamp grads, shoot me a note at charley at josephine dot com.
Note: this post was originally titled Bootcamp Grads: Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid, with multiple references to that phrase in the body of the post. I hadn’t considered it at the time, but that expression makes light of an event that was a nightmare for so many people, which is a sentiment so far off from what I’m trying to articulate in this post. Shout out to EricaJoy for sending me this article and helping me be more empathetic with my words. ❤