CR/LF Max Arturo's Various Thoughts

The Case Against Code Camps

I had a pretty enlightening conversation with a friend not long ago, a friend who has recently discovered the sometimes frustrating, but oh-so-sweet love for programming and enslaving computers to our will. He’s made a lot of progress learning on his own, and I’m proud to say we’ll be working on an actual (gasp!) project together IRL pretty soon. He obviously has talent and is the kind of person that would have excelled in a traditional four-year college curricula for CS.

He found a post about these now-famous ‘Code Camps’ and asked me what I thought of them. After pausing for a bit, I told him it probably wasn’t the best idea. Let me tell you how I came to that conclusion.

Code bootcamps fill a gap that is real and that has been identified before: the need for vocational institutions. In a general sense, a vocational institution, much like the ones that currently operate in many parts of Latin America and Europe, recognize the need for a specialized training that foregoes the typical 4-year college structure and instead focuses on skill development and on-the-job training. Interestingly enough, the type of laser-focus and highly specific tracks that vocational schools offer lend themselves perfectly to topics like programming and computer science, as a significant amount of a developer’s skill is acquired with practice and real-life experience (I pulled that inference off thin air, but I doubt there should be disagreement therein).

Vocational programs provide an entry point for people who want to make an industry switch or those who can’t (or don’t want to) go through college to pick up a new skill, such as CNC machining or programming. Often, these programs have offerings for a fraction of the cost of a four-year degree. In a time when college enrollment is at an all-time high and tuition rates are constantly increasing, vocational schools would logically stand out as a very viable alternative. This is all fine and well - however, there are several issues with the current state of dev bootcamps that I feel queasy about.

##Dat Six-Figure Salary##

This is invariably a surprise for the outsider peering into the Software engineering industry. The stereotype of hip 20-somethings touting macbooks, smiling confidently in a post-modern SF office is overshadowed by the BLS statistics and stories of people getting hired after their 12-week bootcamp stint with $100k+ in their offers. It is unavoidable that with these numbers and the incredible time-investment-to-payout ratio, those looking to improve their conditions and provide for their loved ones see this as a golden opportunity.

However, the hard truth is that programming is not easy. Developing the capability to think in terms of frameworks, how systems interact with each other and coming up with efficient and elegant solutions to complicated problems takes time. For some people it may indeed take only 12 weeks to develop a baseline - many bootcamps claim that the ‘immersive’ environment makes it happen -, but on average people coming in with no prior experience could very well experience a steeper learning curve. In looking into these programs, I did notice that a number of them do have some upfront requirements (Flatiron School requires 100 hours of previous practice). Even so, I am too skeptical to believe that all programs will be honest with potential applicants and will ensure that they are not swindled out of their tuition in hopes of getting a big salary increase.

##My Way or the High-tuition Way## And just how expensive are these places? It’s 18% of your first-year salary for App Academy (which at their quoted 100k expected salary comes out to 18k), $12200 for Dev Bootcamp, and $17780 for Hack Reactor (as of this posting). Just like the guys at Hack Reactor say, it is one full semester of tuition at a private college. This is without considering room and board in some of the most expensive cities in the US (in the case of physical bootcamps).

I take this to mean it is not cheap. Even so, for some it may still make sense. Why, I would put in 20K for those sweet six figures! But at the same time, there is that other way of going about making a change: learning on your own. If I may, I’d like to make the comparison that one is effectively paying ~15k for the support group, studying style and resources that the dev bootcamps provide, because all the sweat and tears come from within.

For some people, the structure and guidance more than pays over for itself, as single parents and people without much free time can probably tell you. But the heart of the matter is that regardless of your circumstances, you’re only getting what you put in. It’s as the Zen koan says when one goes to find enlightenment at the mountain: ‘You only attain the enlightenment you bring with yourself’.

I should make a strong concession here in regards to the value that pair programming and a mentorship provides as one’s learning. I have not been fortunate enough to gain a mentor while learning, and I do recognize that it has slowed my progress to some extent. With that said, I’m about to make a big leap and put out my thesis straight up: I believe that if you can succeed in a dev bootcamp and make a switch to a developer, you can do so without the bootcamp.

If you have the time and dedication, you can most certainly bite the bullet and become all the better for it. It may be slower and more painful, but it can certainly be rewarding. It doesn’t mean you have to go solo, you can certainly bring people along (as I’m planning to do) and pick up mentors and resources along the way. And whenever you need motivation, you can always hop on Reddit or read the amazing stories of other people who also had the desire to punch through. You could also drop me a line and we’ll be support buddies. Like the homies on /r/fitness would say, we’re all gonna make it.

Get yourself a project, with actual deadlines. Something you feel emotionally invested in and that you can see to fruition. Did you always want to make a pet rock website? How ‘bout making one for your favorite taco joint? You’ll get several things out of it:

  • Sense of ownership and commitment
  • Real-life feedback from people you don’t know (if it is a web project)
  • Experience with issues like server costs, database backups, user happiness
  • A potential revenue stream
  • An avenue for volunteering

And most importantly,

  • A final product that you can show future employers

##So is it really that bad?## Hell no! If you truly believe in your heart that a structured environment will get you what you need to succeed, go for the bootcamp! I would feel awful thinking that this post would just make a prospective person shy away from going into a bootcamp and muddle needlessly on their own. This is a personal judgment call, but one that need not be difficult if you know what your true objective is.

If you just looked up the salaries and want to jump in the dev bandwagon, be aware it may take more than just a quick bootcamp and some references to truly ‘enter the market’. It would be a much better idea to look at some free intro classes and see if this is really a good fit for you. However, if you’ve kindled a new fire in your heart to make things that didn’t exist before, then you’ve found your new home. You will succeed - now you just have to choose your path. When choosing, I would challenge you to give self study a chance.

Oh, and remember my friend? He looked up the prices and immediately noped out of the consideration. I guess money does help in making decisions sometimes…