Is it really possible to become a highly employable developer in just a few months? It certainly sounds that way if you look at the Facebook ads. A new coding bootcamp at Rutgers, for instance, says that you can “become a developer in just 24 weeks,” while Full Stack Academy, a for-profit startup, goes seven better–just 17 weeks–and has a 97% job placement rate to boot.
But if you have no prior coding experience, and are looking for a well-paid computer-engineering job, you should be wary of such offers.
The attractions of these courses are obvious. Software jobs routinely pay some of the highest wages in the country, and founders are often heard complaining about the “battle for talent.”
What’s more, the U.S. government has joined wealthy investors in supporting these shops. Until recently, borrowing for a coding bootcamp was relatively rare, but last October, President Obama announced a new pilot program to let prospective students pay for these schools using government grants and loans. Now, it’s as easy to attend a coding bootcamp as it is to go to any other college.
But coding bootcamps are starting to garner skepticism and for good reason. They’re still very new: the oldest have been out in the field starting careers for a few years at most. There’s also an increasingly vocal group of people who say that they cut corners, and that they can’t possibly impart in just a few months the skills that a coder needs to be effective on the job.
I spoke with one skeptic, Antonio Reyes, an experienced web developer, working mostly in finance. He’s currently the CTO of Trading Ticket, which makes dashboards and stock tickers for finance websites. He is pretty unequivocal about bootcamp graduates. "They don't have the resumes to even pique my interest yet to be honest," he told me.
Reyes says that instead of teaching their students how to think like coders, most coding bootcamps teach very heavily to the tests that recruiters at the big firms are known to give out. So bootcamp grads can get in the door, but they don’t know enough to build a career in coding.
“They can answer my questions," said Reyes. "But if I work in even the smallest complication, like for instance write a scroll that counts down instead of counting up, they can’t do it.”
Part of that might have to do with Reyes’s hiring needs. At a smaller startup like Trading Ticket he needs coders who can pull more weight than would be expected of an entry-level developer at Google. Still, one study found that only 63% of boot-camp graduates landed full-time jobs as developers (although to be fair, law schools don’t do much better, and they’re a lot more expensive).
Adam Enbar is the amiable CEO of Flatiron School, a New York-based school that teaches people to code. Enbar talks a ton about his teachers and his company's collaborative approach, saying that he's "maniacal" about community. "40% of our students are women," he says. "We have fellowships [for underrepresented groups] and a lot of diversity."
Enbar believes in smaller cohorts, more one-on-one instruction, and lots of collaborative work. None of which comes cheap. Flatiron charges $15,000 for a 12-week course. It defends the cost by pointing out that many of its approximately 1,000 graduates have gone on to start their own companies, including seven who went on to be incubated by Y-Combinator, a prestigious accelerator.
A big problem with these schools is that, like the companies they’re training their workers for, most of them are startups themselves. Regardless of how many six-figure job listings there are out there, it’s still a very big risk to trust your education to an institution that’s still iterating. If you’re going to borrow money to pursue continued education, it’s a far safer bet to take some computer sciences at local colleges which are accredited, offer more generous financial aid, and tend to be a lot cheaper. (A certificate in web development from Hunter College, one of the most prestigious city colleges, sets you back about $4,000, considerably less than most bootcamps.)
It’s a misconception that everyone who does one of these programs is completely green: many are already professional developers. Kathleen Mullaney, a VP at Udacity who is focused on career placement, told me that students use bootcamps as ways to stay up to date on the latest languages. If you came into the field ten years ago, for instance, you might be used to doing things in Java, but want to learn code for iOS or Android so you’re stronger in mobile.
If that doesn’t sound like you, then be wary of bootcamps: they’re often better bets for people who already have coding skills than they are for complete beginners.
Beginners should instead look to other startups – the ones offering cheaper, if arguably less effective, options that will give you a sense if coding is right for you without making you fork over a five-figure sum. EdX’s Introduction to Computer Science, for instance, was developed at Harvard.
Once you’ve decided that coding is indeed for you, a reputable coding bootcamp can help get you get interviews at top tech firms. But remember that technically inclined hirers care a lot more about what you can do than where you came from. Use your bootcamp intensive to get examples of work that you can put on your resume.
So, if you’re thinking of going to coding bootcamp, ask yourself first if you fall into one of three groups.
- People who can spare the money and just want to be able to understand/manage developers better (a lot of successful coding graduates tend to be aspiring founders as opposed to aspiring CTOs).
- People who are already good developers but maybe their skills are a little out of date.
- People who are already decent coders, but don't have enough or the right samples of work to get the job they want.
If you’re not, then it’s probably a good idea to pick a cheaper way of finding out whether coding is for you.
James is a writer from New York City who has worked for startups, and now works at a brand consultancy focusing on tech startups. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Investopedia, The Street, BlackBook and AmericaBlog.