How to Pick a Bootcamp
Making the decision to enroll in a Bootcamp is stressful. Having completed three of them, and made a career switch in-between, I've seen some patterns that I'm hoping might help you grapple with the decision.
Likely the most important factor in deciding where to enroll is making sure the program's infrastructure is set up to support students.
At this point, most programs are unlikely to give you what you need to switch careers.
The best programs will have:
- An easy, transparent option to leave after an extended evaluation period (1 month+) and receive everything but the deposit back
- An on-demand system to ask for help
- Staff specifically dedicated to student success in the program (different from career services)
- Independently verified outcomes (job placement)
- Capped class sizes (no more than 20, ideally fewer than 12)
- A graded pre-course before day one to evaluate readiness
There are a lot of Bootcamps out there. Arguably, most of these programs are bad experiences (pre-recorded, unengaging, disorganized) or don't do a good enough job preparing you for a career switch. Inevitably with the proliferation of programs, the amount of noise makes it difficult to find the diamonds in the rough. In my experience, I've been through:
- A part-time front-end engineering program that taught me enough to build a site, but not enough to get a job. This program cost $2500 USD.
- A full-stack immersive (full-time, ~75hrs/week) program that was the best learning experience I've ever had in my life (including college/school). This program cost $18,000 USD, but I was fortunate enough to secure a scholarship.
- A part-time Machine Learning bootcamp where no one took responsibility for a disorganized and broken curriculum, that failed to leverage community learning and lacked student support. This program cost $5500 USD.
Although I got everything I had signed up for from program 1, only program 2 was worth doing in my experience. A 33% success rate may sound bleak, but program number 2 drastically changed my career and life.
There are many, often obscure, risks involved in enrolling in one of these programs. A good program will be upfront about risk, while others might downplay risk in order to hit an enrollment metric.
- Financial - bootcamps are expensive - but there's also a cap. Tuition should never be more than $20,000. More expensive programs generally won't guarantee a better return on investment, so carefully evaluate what you are getting for the extra cost. The majority of bootcamps will cost less. Financing is often available through ISAs and loans, and tech salaries tend to make repayment easier. However, failure to complete a program after taking an ISA or a loan can be financially devastating.
- Time- Immersive bootcamps will mean you'll have to leave your job. This means sacrificing up to 3 months of time and income to learn, and 1-5 months of additional income during the job search. Part-Time bootcamps are still intensive, a good program may require around 20 hours of work outside of class. This means that in addition to your current job/responsibilities, you'll need to budget an additional 15-20 hours a week for up to nine-months.
💡 These burdens tend to make bootcamps less equitable, and if you think might struggle with the above time and financial commitments, check here for scholarship opportunities and here for some other options.
Make sure you figure out how to leave a program before making the first payment. The most honest programs will have a prorated tuition reimbursement program. This means that as the class progresses, you'll get less of your refund back but you can withdraw at any time.
Other programs might give you an "evaluation period" where you have maybe two weeks to trial a class with the option of leaving for a close-to-full refund. This is terrible for two reasons:
- Two weeks is not enough time, especially in part-time programs, to evaluate a class.
- The general advice for bootcamps is to “push through the discomfort because this is where the learning happens” so you're likely to stick with the class.
- The first week is usually intro, pre-requisite review, and light ramp up, so students don’t get an accurate picture of instruction quality or course difficulty.
You don’t want to realize after a month that the class isn't for you and be stuck for another 2-6 months.
The best programs might implement a combination of the following:
- A graded pre-course before day one, so students are sure they know what they're getting into. It's important that everyone is on the same page about what you can do coming in. A graded pre-course is a financial and labor commitment to getting to know you as a student.
- Prorated refunds that can be awarded during withdrawal at any point in the course.
- An option to retake the class at no cost if you fail the midterm assessment. (Not a requirement, but generally an indicator they want you to succeed).
💡 If you're considering a newer program, with five or fewer graduated classes, I personally don't think you should be paying more than $2000. At this stage, the camp should still be eating the costs as you will likely be getting a vastly inferior experience to someone who takes the program a few cohorts later.
At this point, you should be getting an idea of how to spot the difference between an honest school and a money grab.
How/Where to find a good program
Online resources and ratings do not paint an accurate picture of schools. Many schools incentivize reviews and positive posts (often bribing alumni with swag). Ratings are often arbitrary and unfortunately, the negative reviews tend to be more honest. As such, it’s easier to tell which programs to avoid as outstandingly bad programs will likely also have terrible ratings.
Additionally, there is a ton of variation in quality. Teaching staff generally has high turnover (especially online) and in-person programs vary from campus to campus.
Your best shot is to find someone you know (or reach out to someone) that has been through the exact program you're considering (ideally recent graduates). I've got several messages on LinkedIn from prospective students, and I've taken the time to answer them honestly. Reach out to a few folks for the full picture.
Evaluating and comparing programs
Once you've made a shortlist of programs, narrow it down with the following criteria, in addition to your own.
Teaching Method - your program should employ all of the following:
Live Instruction - you shouldn't be shelling out thousands for a curated YouTube playlist. It's ok if ~50% of the content comes from external resources, but external resources should complement the learning that happens in class (either from instructors or your cohort when doing assignments).
Project-based learning - For technical programs, you'll look for a project-based approach where you learn by completing assignments/building portfolio pieces. For most schools, you can find assignments from previous cohorts on sites like GitHub. Make sure they're actual projects where you're required to do most of the work and not just fill in the blank code-libs.
Knowledge Checks - Staff should be actively invested in your performance. There should be weekly testing, and you should be getting strong feedback on your assignments. Ideally, there will also be review groups. Staff should be able to see where you're struggling and help you fill the gaps.
Cohort size. Generally the smaller the better. It's likely you'll learn a lot more at your second choice program with <12 students than at a major Bootcamp with 50 per class.
The lead teaching staff should be full-time hires. If the lead instructor is part-time, they may not be as invested in the curriculum. There are exceptions, but again this is riskier.
Co-learning - It's not enough to stick students in the same zoom call. Assignments and projects should be collaborative. Ideally, the majority of projects will involve one group submission, while assignments might be split.
How you ask for help - If the response is just to go to office hours, or post in slack, that might not be enough. The best programs will have help available daily on demand. Bootcamps move way too quickly for you to be stuck on anything for more than an hour.
Financial Risk - do they have prorated refunds? Is bootcamp C really worth $9k more than bootcamp A?
💡 Some might argue this is too much hand-holding - shouldn't you be taking charge of your own learning and filling in your own gaps? Yes, but as a student, the onus of learning is not 100% on you. These programs are intensive & expensive, you’re paying for the support. Schools should constantly be tweaking their methods to produce the best learning outcomes for students.
Alternatives to Bootcamps
I'd argue that most bootcamps suck because of misaligned incentives. Sometimes programs may start off with the right priorities, but are bought or scaled to prioritize only new enrollments. Other programs are created from the start with a profit motive over quality.
In an ideal world, the goal of a bootcamp should be to place as many graduates into tech careers as possible, but most of the time the profit motive doesn't align. If you don't want to take the risk, or you can't find a program that fits. Consider some alternatives:
- Find an apprenticeship program. Many will pay you to learn. These will provide real-world experience from day one. Some great programs might include these at LinkedIn and Pinterest.
- I wish that instead of taking the ML program last year I had read technical books on the subjects. Publications with a generally high bar include Manning & O'Reilly. Most books include digital content like git repos for each chapter. Some platforms incorporate assignments, forums, and other learning resources.
- Countless resources exist for low-cost or free self-paced online learning, like the Odin Project, etc... Premium options may offer office hours, feedback and/or more interactive learning materials.
- If you have a group that's interested in learning a skill, build your own class around reading material or an online resource and keep each other accountable. At a previous employer, one of my colleagues started a code group that would meet during lunch/after hours, and devs would often be happy to host office hours.
I hope there’s enough info above to help you make a decision. Everything above is just my opinion, and if you want to share yours, find me on Twitter.
Despite the slightly bleak outlook, I do want to share that a bootcamp did change my life. It gave me the option to choose where I wanted to work for the first time in my life. I sincerely wish that if you pursue this route, you have the same wonderful experience I did with my SWE program. If not, I hope you don’t take the skepticism here as a sign to give up on changing careers. I’ve seen all sorts of folks make career transitions. Bringing the perspective that comes with a plethora of different experiences is a huge advantage both at the interview and at the job.
Best of luck!