Navigating the Wild West of coding bootcamps
Coding bootcamps have made headlines with an unprecedented promise in the world of education: complete three months of training and you’ll get a well-paying job with growth opportunities. Shockingly, many bootcamps fulfill that promise.
Adam Jonas is one example. He spent six years working in professional baseball back-offices, including three years with the Milwaukee Brewers. The experience led him to try his hand at a startup to help aspiring professional baseball players navigate the process of making connections with teams, working with a contract web developer to build his application. The experience, he said, was so frustrating that he resigned to learn the skills himself.
He made his first foray in the web developer job market with an introductory Ruby on Rails class that he found through Skillshare taught by Avi Flombaum, now the Dean at Flatiron School. When Avi co-founded the Flatiron School weeks later, Adam joined its inaugural class. Less than a month after graduating, he landed a job at a digital agency in Brooklyn, where he worked as a developer for a year.
Not all students share Adam’s “too good to be true” outcome. Too often, students choose the wrong school, relying on press or brand instead of facts to decide where to attend. I spoke with one student, Jennifer, who had attended the second class at one of the most reputable bootcamps. Six months of self-teaching, she said, prepared her well for the fast-paced, intensive learning style. Three of peers, in a class of 20, were less fortunate: they dropped out (or were kicked out) after they fell behind the set schedule. All three had quit jobs to attend the bootcamp, and used years of savings or took on debt to afford the program. In the end, they were left scrambling to return to their old jobs, losing months of income in the process.
So, how does someone choose where to invest 12 weeks, 840 hours, and upwards of $10,000?
There's a strategy for picking the most prestigious bootcamp you get into, and maximizing your chances of landing a job. Bootcamps are still the wild west of programming education. There are over 50 bootcamps in the world yet none are more than two years old and almost none publish reliable data on graduation or placement rates. With the launch of our Bootcamp Finder, we plan to work with every bootcamp to make the industry more transparent, allowing aspiring programmers to access the information needed to make a worthwhile investment in their future, making sure there are more success stories and fewer horror stories. We’re already talking with some about publishing graduation and placement rates that are reliable and up-to date.
If you’re considering applying to a bootcamp, work backwards from your goal of landing a job as a developer to pick which to attend. The school with the highest job placement rate is likely the “best” option, yet it’s not the way most students choose.
Do research to determine which of the bootcamps you’re considering is actually the best one for you. My advice is to focus on two factors: selectivity and teacher quality.
Some bootcamps only take students with high motivation and strong preparation, making it easier for them fulfill their promise of making them job-ready. From there, a cycle is born. Bootcamps that start with a strong class will drive more interest in subsequent semesters, giving them a greater pool to choose from, starting the cycle again.
High-performing students make each other stronger. Research shows that groups of peers at similar academic levels learn faster than groups with mixed levels. Strong students are better equipped to challenge each other, collaborate, and offer feedback that promotes faster learning.
There’s a reason US News & World Report considers admissions rates for college rankings among the most important factors: selective schools are more successful. If you simply picked the most selective bootcamp, you’d likely end up at the right school.
Discerning a bootcamp's selectivity requires an investigation into the admissions criteria and the school's mission. To determine a bootcamp’s selectivity, ask the founders about their admissions criteria. Are they looking for people with demonstrated skills? Have most incoming students built anything before starting there? Do they focus primarily on a 100% success rate, or on serving every student who wants to become a developer?
Do the necessary digging online. Morgan Polotan, an alumnus of Thinkful (Disclosure: That's my company), who is now an engineering fellow here, went on a treasure hunt of sorts for the information he needed when he was deciding on a bootcamp. He dug through the threads on Quora, tweeted at bootcamp alumni, and explored each school’s marketing materials.
Morgan gathered the data he needed to figure out where he would succeed: he found the bootcamps full of students with backgrounds in engineering, and those with self-proclaimed n00bs. He found which schools were trying to scale their tuition revenues by starting new classes every week (forcing them to lower admissions criteria) and which bootcamps staked their profits on student success. After a few days of digging, he had a clear sense as to which bootcamps would make him most likely to succeed, and which wouldn’t meaningfully help his trajectory.
Most of us who work in education found our passion because of great teachers who helped us get where we are. Adam Jonas exemplifies that inspiration: after working for a year, he returned to the Flatiron School to be an instructor.
In contrast, when we’ve spoken with students who failed to get a job after attending a bootcamp, we’ve heard again and again that their teachers were new and inexperienced. Teaching quality is the biggest lever schools have to impact student achievement – bigger than facilities, class size, or school leadership.
The impact of great teachers is permanent. Replacing an average teacher with an above average one leads to a greater chance of a student attending college and achieving higher lifetime earnings. The same logic applies to bootcamps: teacher quality will impact your experience and outcomes.
Though there aren't formal ratings for teacher performance, the information can be gathered by talking to students and instructors. Some schools expect teachers to stay as they would at any other job, while others hire only contract instructors and expect them to burn out after teaching only one class. Teaching takes years to master: favor teachers with a track record over first-timers.
How to Pick a Bootcamp
Pick the best bootcamp you can get into to maximize your chance of getting a job. Adam Jonas worked hard for his success, but readily admits that he isn’t fully responsible for it. He owes some of his success to his teacher, and some to choosing a bootcamp that had a job fair full of employers that judged the bootcamp worth their time.
There are obvious factors we haven’t discussed: price, location, and other life constraints that you have to work within. Soon, balancing those factors with important statistics about bootcamps’ success will be easy as more data becomes available; however, in the meantime, you should do research to judge bootcamps’ selectivity and evaluate their teachers.