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Tony Cimaglia
Tony Cimaglia

Posted on • Originally published at tonycimaglia.com

Are Coding Bootcamps A Rip Off?

My Start In Software

Hey, I’m Tony. I'm a software engineer. And not long before I started writing code I was a bartender, finishing up a ten year stretch in the service industry. I worked my way up from my first job as a fry cook at a Five Guys to managing the bar at one of the best restaurants in the Southeast. I knew just about everything there was to know about my field, but ten years of long shifts full of lifting and bending was starting to take its toll on me physically. The combination of my aches and pains and an increasing feeling of boredom led me to the conclusion that it was time to find a new line of work. And, like many people who find themselves looking for the ever-elusive path to a new career, I found myself researching coding bootcamps.

The Bootcamp Model

Most of these “learn to code quick” programs boast the same basic structure: immersive learning for a small amount of time and a quick turnaround to a high-paying entry-level job. They promised that in just three months I could join the other grads (with a 97% hire rate!) who landed jobs at major companies. It sounded amazing. But what was the catch? Was it too good to be true? The answer was yes. But also, no. Allow me, a true bootcamp survivor, to share a few of the good, the bad, and the ugly truths about coding bootcamps.

Bootcamp Success

I decided on General Assembly, where I completed their Software Engineering Immersive course. Within a week of finishing I was starting my first job at a small start-up. Was it a hard three months? Absolutely. But on paper, it “worked” for me. I got a job. I was making money. I was writing code, when three months prior I was creating cocktail menus. I became another perfect success story for the bootcamps to advertise. But the truth of the matter is that a lot happened behind the scenes that contributed to my success, and not everyone in my class had the same outcome. When deciding if a bootcamp is right for you, it’s important to know what will make or break you.

The Grind

What these bootcamps don’t tell you is undoubtedly more important when deciding to attend than what they do tell you. Because what they don’t tell you is this: You will be teaching yourself most of the material. While there are teachers and TA’s to assist you, the structure of class is not designed for people who need a lot of instruction or extra assistance. Active instruction accounts for only 3-4 hours a day while the rest of the class time is devoted to solo practice. Many of the teachers are recent grads themselves. The material moves quickly. Very, very quickly. After all, the whole bootcamp model is based on making money from pushing a lot of students through in a short amount of time. If you fall through the cracks no one will catch you. If you’re not a fast and self-motivated learner, it’s easy to become one of the many students who drop out or drag themselves to the finish line just to end up unemployed because they never truly grasped the skills.

Finding Work After Graduation

They also don’t tell you that in order to find a job, you absolutely have to network. On your own. Yes, there are career coaches and presentation days all designed to steer you in the right direction and provide some opportunity for networking. But depending on your bootcamp, these resources might be minimal or even nonexistent. Even at GA, where job assistance is a point of focus, my resources were… flawed at best. My career counselor was working at GA on the side while she pursued her true passion for online matchmaking, which took up most of her time and energy. Emails went unanswered for days on end. Deadlines passed before she would notify us they existed. And while this might be a fluke, the hiring statistics are designed to hide a lot of unsuccessful students.

At GA, if you drop out you’re not counted in the statistics at all. If you do graduate but don’t participate in their career outcomes program (or miss even a single step) you’re automatically counted as a success, even if you’re never hired. “No problem, I’ll just participate in the career outcomes program, that sounds great!” You might be saying to yourself. Not so fast. The outcomes program requires you to spend a lot of time meeting application quotas and attending meetings. Most successful people I knew used that time to go out to networking events or sharpen their skills on their own, and the general consensus among my class was that outcomes was a waste of time. Could it work for you? Of course. But it’s not the 97% foolproof plan they advertise.

That Doesn't Sound So Bad...

At this point you may be thinking, “Great! I’m a self-motivated learner and I think I could handle networking. This could work for me!” And it could. But let me point out that all of the information in coding bootcamps is available online for free if you know where to look. freeCodeCamp.org is a great place to start if you're looking for a way to learn web development that doesn't cost 5 figures. If you’re truly comfortable teaching yourself and looking for your own job,
why not teach yourself how to code on your own time and save the cost of tuition? According to Course Report, coding bootcamps on average cost $13,584. While that's cheaper than a traditional associates or bachelor’s degree, it still isn't cheap.

So, Are Coding Bootcamps Worth the Money?

None of this is to say that coding bootcamps are inherently a rip off. I’m still writing code, I love working as a software engineer, and there’s no way I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t taken the leap. I won’t deny that I was successful by the bootcamp's standards. But they're not designed for everyone to succeed. The shadowy, unreported numbers represent the people who, by their standards, failed. Don't expect them to care much if you're one of them.

Have questions about bootcamps? You can tweet them at me @TonyCimaglia.

Discussion (20)

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sheriffderek profile image
sheriffderek

Agreed!

When we started building our curriculum at PE, we could see where things were going and so - we've stayed away from the term "boot camp." When every course calling itself a boot camp - and everything being so drastically "streamlined" once there are no in-person options... it's almost a meaningless term. (There's even a covid vacine bootcamp!) oh my.

I made a video a while back about how to vet boot camps / or just classes or teachers in general:

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andrewbaisden profile image
Andrew Baisden

Boot camps are still useful. But at the moment in this covid world that we live in. Self learning at home is going to be the best choice. Already heard about many developer focused events turning to online only or cancelled altogether. Self learning at home is great however we miss out on that face to face in person meeting where you can really bond and get to know people. It is not quite the same over some chat on a video conference.

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author

Not only do you get that bonding experience, but there's so many studies that show that physically being in a classroom with other people helps you learn better. I think one of my issues with the online model for boot camps is that they haven't really updated their prices. In my view, the classroom environment is probably the most valuable thing you pay for, and there's no way they should be charging the same amount for online settings that they did when they held classes in-person.

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sheriffderek profile image
sheriffderek

I try and get people to take the class with a friend or family member. Technically... there's nothing stopping you from paying for 1 boot camp - and then teaching your 4 friends as you go. You'll probably learn 5x more.

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sheriffderek profile image
sheriffderek

I feel that the actual curriculum and teaching styles are a much bigger problem than the fact that it's through video-conferencing. I teach people on video all the time and it works great. In person-schools have a lot of great benefits though! I'd love to have one of those one day.

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author

Completely agree on the teaching, not as much on the curriculum. I've found them all to be fairly similar to each other, and pretty comprehensive (that's not to say there isn't room for improvement, and you probably did just that!).

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author • Edited on

Just seeing "meet the instructor" on your site already tells me that you're thinking about the whole concept differently. I always try and tell people to try and meet whoever will be teaching you. The whole experience can vary so widely based on the quality of the instructor. I've seen all of the students in a class at one bootcamp get a job in large part because they had a phenomenal teacher. Then I've seen half the students in a different cohort at the same institution never find work because they had terrible instruction.

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sheriffderek profile image
sheriffderek

I've been tutoring and keeping tabs on people in almost all of the mainstream boot camps - and it's pretty clear what they're teaching and how. It's probably is a necessary jump-start for some people: but they are missing a LOT of the foundations. That's hard to correct. I started school because it's too hard to teach people at any scale if they are all at totally different levels and have wildly different mental models for things. So, I can't really help people once they get too far along. I created a 'boot-camp-rehab' discord to at least help them fill in the gap: you know HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author

Having a better grasp on the foundational stuff beforehand would have been really helpful to me. We spent maybe 2 days on HTML and CSS (in a web development boot camp!). Certain companies eagerness to throw people into their courses with little screening really irks me. They'd have higher graduation rates if they required people to really take the time to build up some of those foundations first.

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sheriffderek profile image
sheriffderek • Edited on

And for me - I mean (I've been writing HTML and CSS every day for 10 years... and I learn new stuff every day!) - I think it's just about the order things are introduced and getting the right exercises to help them set in.

Most people (even senior devs) don't know the difference between display properties like inline and block, or how to position things - or basically - the main things you absolutely need to know. That's inexcusable and it's not just boot camps. It's youtube and everywhere.

I think that "knowing how to code something" and being able to "teach" it - are very different. I've answered thousands of "It isn't working" type questions. Oh, it's working. It's doing exactly what you told it to do. That's how computers work. The schools aren't teaching people the actual concepts - just what to type. And they aren't teaching them to ask good questions.

They aren't spending money to figure out the best way to teach - they're spending like 20k on a technical writer and the rest on advertising and scaling.

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hmboyles profile image
holly boyles

If you are lucky enough to live in Tennessee and currently don't have a degree, you can get an associates degree tuition free. This is the route I chose mostly because I didn't have a degree and it is very much affordable. Had I had a degree, I would have most likely looked into bootcamps or self learning more.

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author

That's awesome that Tennessee does that. I used to live in Franklin! I should have stuck around a little longer, lol.

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hmboyles profile image
holly boyles

It is a bonus for sure! I am not too far from Franklin actually. Where did you move to?

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author

I've been all over the southeast since. I settled in Atlanta now.

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aaron profile image
Aaron McCollum

Hey Tony, thanks for writing this! I've been checking out a few bootcamps where I live. One of them has a fairly rigorous process for getting in that involves prep and pre-application reading. That's the one I'm targeting. A big factor for me this year will be the in-person vs. online plan the bootcamps will have. I agree with some of your other comments, I do not want to pay money to sit by myself and watch videos of lessons.

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author

If they're doing any kind of vetting beforehand that's a good sign. From what I can tell, most bootcamps are still doing live instruction, so you can at least ask questions and be in a class with other people. Definitely check out some of the great / free resources online if you're feeling hesitant at all though!

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aaron profile image
Aaron McCollum

Thanks!

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author

Anytime! Please reach out if you ever have questions.

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leslieanneg profile image
leslieanneg

Any thoughts on good alternatives to bootcamps for those who know self-study isn’t the answer for them? Looking at some post-bacc and masters programs, but not sure how well those translate into job search success.

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tonycimaglia profile image
Tony Cimaglia Author • Edited on

I'm definitely not an expert when it comes to university studies and courses. I know that jobs in machine learning, ai, cloud computing, and devops are fairly future proof at this point. I feel like a program focused on one of those disciplines could translate into job success, but again, I'm no expert.