Coding bootcamps are expensive, hard work, and you don't have to look far to find scathing reviews of both quality of education and job-hunting experience from graduates.
Yet people continue to do them. Do the pros really outweigh the cons?
The data shows that companies are continuing to hire bootcamp grads in 2021. So if you have the time and money, attending a bootcamp could still be worth it for your career. But—as the increasing number of self-taught developers suggests—it's not the only path to a successful career in tech.
In this article
- What is a coding bootcamp?
- My coding bootcamp experience
- Coding bootcamp pros and cons
- Should you do a coding bootcamp?
What is a coding bootcamp?
A coding bootcamp is an intensive program designed to teach you the skills to become employable as a software engineer or web developer in a short amount of time (usually 3-12 months). Tuition costs range from $10,000-$20,000, and, according to a report by Career Karma:
The average tuition for attending an in-person bootcamp was $13,293 in 2019, and the average tuition for an online bootcamp was $14,623.
The track record of bootcamps
Coding bootcamps first started to emerge around 2012 in an attempt to satisfy the growing demand for developers. As a result of the booming tech industry, there were (and still are) many more open tech roles than university graduates from STEM fields, so the industry started to look for other sources of talent to fill these roles.
The coding bootcamp industry has steadily grown since then. At the time of writing, there are over 100 bootcamps in the U.S. and over 500 worldwide.
Over 140,000 people have now graduated from coding bootcamps in the U.S. alone. Many have had success, and now work as software developers or found careers in other technical roles, but others have not been so lucky. Unfortunately, despite the career assistance provided by bootcamps, many graduates find the process of getting hired is not as easy as they were led to believe it would be.
Some of the more notable bootcamps
One of the first coding bootcamps, and the largest to this day, General Assembly has been operating since 2011. They offer short and long courses in web and mobile development, product management, data science and more, online and in-person, across 15 campuses in 4 continents.
Founded in 2012, Hack Reactor is a 12-week immersive coding school providing software engineering education, career placement services, and a network of professional peers. Hack Reactor has campuses in San Francisco, Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City, as well as an online, remote immersive (full-time and part-time).
Flatiron School offers immersive on-campus and online programs in software engineering, data science, and cybersecurity in NYC, Brooklyn, Washington DC, Houston, Austin, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, and online.
Hackbright Academy is a software engineering school for women in San Francisco, California founded in 2012. The school offers a 12-week, immersive full-time software engineering program and a 24-week, part-time program, both of which cover the fundamentals of computer science and modern web development.
My coding bootcamp experience
I completed General Assembly's Web Development Immersive program (since rebranded as Software Engineering Immersive) in 2013.
Any bootcamp program, and the industry as a whole, will of course be very different today than it was 7 years ago. But I do know what role the bootcamp played in my journey to becoming a senior engineer, and how useful it was with hindsight. I also now have 4+ years of experience interviewing other engineers (some of them bootcamp grads) so I can offer perspective from the other side of the table as well.
Coding bootcamp pros and cons
Faster than the alternatives
Coding bootcamp programs are typically just months long, with some taking as little as 10 weeks. This is much less time (and money!) than it would take you to go back to school for a traditional 4-year college degree in computer science, which is the typical career path for a computing-related role.
It's also faster than it would take the average person with little to no previous coding experience to self-study their way to employability, given the highly structured curriculum and hands-on mentoring of a bootcamp.
Which brings me to the next point...
Learning without a structure or plan is at best inefficient, and at worst a waste of time. After all, you may end up never reaching your goal if you get distracted by learning unnecessary things, or give up part way because you don't know what to learn next.
Structure is therefore especially important when you're trying to achieve a specific and ambitious goal (changing career) in the space of a few months, and, in my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of attending a coding bootcamp. When you're completely new to programming, it's very hard to devise a learning program for yourself, because you don't know what you don't know, and don't have the ability to tell which resources are good or bad, or if an online course is going to be worthwhile.
Having a rigid plan of topics and projects, and somebody telling you exactly what you're going to be studying, when, and in which order, is necessary for anyone who wants to learn to code in a short amount of time.
Support and motivation
Learning to code is hard. The emotions you will experience are not unlike the highs and lows of being on a rollercoaster.
One minute you'll feel awesome because your code worked, something clicked in your understanding, or you figured something out without help. The next, you'll feel like giving up because your code isn't working and you can't figure out why (even though you've been stuck on the same problem for 4 hours). You'll regularly convince yourself you're not cut out for it, and you'll have to get used to ignoring these thoughts and pushing through anyway.
Many people start learning to code and do give up, so it can make all the difference to have peers and mentors around so you don't have to power through the tough times alone. They can help you to get unstuck faster, but also provide moral support, and it is reassuring to see that other people are going through the exact same struggles (it's never just you).
Bootcamps don't just provide support during the course; it is very much in their interest to help as many of their graduates get hired as possible. As a result, most of them have developed their curriculum specifically around employability, and have dedicated career support programs for graduates afterwards. They also maintain relationships with local tech companies interested in hiring bootcamp grads, so you get access to—and potentially interviews with—these companies as well.
When you graduate, your classmates will be going through the job hunt process at the same time as you, so you can support each other as you go through your interviews. These people will then form the start of your professional network of industry contacts, and can be a resource years to come. I've certainly had introductions to companies through people I met during my bootcamp, and have been able to refer some of them for roles too!
At an average cost of over $13,000, while undoubtedly cheaper than a 4-year degree, coding bootcamps are still cost prohibitive to many people. Part of the reason you're considering getting into tech is likely the opportunity to earn a higher salary, so chances are you don't have that kind of money just lying around.
Many bootcamps now offer flexible financing options, with schemes like deferred tuition and Income Share Agreements (ISAs). Deferred tuition does not need to be paid back unless you find a job, and ISAs are only paid back if you are successful at finding a job that pays over a certain amount.
There are also independent financing options available, such as loans designed specifically for coding bootcamp tuition costs and living expenses.
Many bootcamps offer scholarships or assistance to students with low incomes, and some programs are even tuition-free. These programs are usually exclusively for students with low incomes and/or from underrepresented backgrounds in tech.
So there are options available, but don't forget you'll need to factor in living expenses as well as tuition costs. Can you afford to live without an income for the duration of the bootcamp? Consider your options carefully, especially before going into debt for thousands of dollars, and especially when there are cheaper options available.
Bootcamps are designed to be immersive. You can expect to work full-time, all day every day, with homework in the evenings, and likely on weekends too. You'll need to be fully committed, and say goodbye to most hobbies or social life for the duration of the bootcamp.
If this sounds hard, it's because it is. If you're not sure if you'll even like coding, I'd recommend learning the basics on your own before applying to a bootcamp. If you're not sure you want to commit to something that will turn your life upside down for a few months, I'd consider learning to code at a slower pace through part-time or self-directed courses. You'll take longer, but it's still totally possible to have success this way.
No job guarantee
Despite their best efforts to help you hone your interview technique and connect with potential employers, no bootcamp can actually guarantee that a company will hire you when you graduate. There is always that risk that you spend significant time and effort learning these new skills, only to go back to what you were doing before.
One of the things you won't find in bootcamp marketing materials is the real reason many graduates struggle to find work: the average coding bootcamp is just not enough to take the average person from zero to employable engineer.
What bootcamps provide is a whirlwind introduction to a lot of different topics, but the reality is that most people will graduate barely proficient in any of them. And that's because some things are just too complex to teach in 3 months.
When you're learning to code, you won't get everything first time. Some concepts you'll need to hear about, read about, try to use in a project, and probably encounter several other different ways before you really grasp their purpose.
But you've heard stories of people getting job offers right after graduating! "Are those stories fake!?" is probably what you're thinking right now.
Well, not necessarily. Some people do manage to find a job quickly, and of course bootcamps love to promote these success stories. But you should bear in mind that these people almost certainly had significant programming experience from before they started the bootcamp. If that's you, awesome. Someone in my bootcamp class even had a computer science degree already! But I certainly wasn't one of those people. If (like me) you go in with little to no coding experience, it's just not realistic to expect to get hired immediately upon graduating.
This is not to say bootcamps don't have value; just that they're not a silver bullet. It's better to be prepared for the reality now, so you can be aware of—and make a plan for—the extra work you'll have to do after you graduate to become employable.
Should you do a coding bootcamp?
If you have the time and money, a bootcamp will provide value. How much value, and whether this value will be worth the cost, will depend on your personal circumstances.
If paying full price for a bootcamp is out of the question for you, don't give up yet—a career in tech is not out of reach. If you have a low income, it's worth looking into free coding bootcamps to see if you qualify, or researching the deferred tuition or ISA programs now offered by many bootcamps.
There are also advantages to learning on your own, at a slow enough pace that you can grasp more of the material as you learn it (and for a much lower cost).
The Coding Bootcamp Value Flowchart
This flowchart can help you decide whether a coding bootcamp will be worth your time and money:
Your result: what to do next
It might be worth it
It looks like a bootcamp could be an option for you. But remember there are still risks: although many people have positive experiences, others struggle to find jobs after, or feel like they could've achieved the same results with self-study.
If you decide to go ahead, be sure to carefully research which bootcamps fit your needs (financial and otherwise) before you apply. And don't forget that even with the chance to attend a bootcamp, it likely won't be enough to get you hired on its own. You'll still need to work hard after, and have a plan for how you're going to stand out when it comes to your job search.
It's probably not worth it, explore other ways to code
Don't worry, there are plenty of advantages of not attending a bootcamp. You'll save a lot of money, and absorb more of the material you cover by being able to learn at your own pace. One thing you won't have is a pre-made support network, so try to build one yourself. Look for groups of other people learning to code (there are plenty of communities online) so you won't have to power through the difficult times alone.
It's not worth it
Learning to code is hard. If you've tried out some online courses and you just hate coding, chances are you'd be wasting your time and money at a bootcamp. If you're still interested in getting into tech, that's totally possible—there are many roles in the tech industry that don't require coding.