AMA Part 1: Coding Bootcamps

A recent #DevDiscuss thread on Twitter focused on developers' various education paths into the profession. The discussion was lively and a lot of good questions, answers and experiences were shared.

After the discussion ended, a few people contacted me to ask more questions about the industry, and two themes emerged: 1) the various, popular coding bootcamps that have flourished in the past few years and 2) what resources (books, online tutorials, etc) I would recommend for a new software developer to become well-rounded (and employable).

I'm going to address each question here in case it helps more than the folks who DMed me on Twitter. This post will be a reflection on bootcamps, and the next will collect programming resources I've found useful.

On Coding Bootcamps

First, a few disclaimers:

  • I have never been a student or instructor at any coding bootcamp
  • I hae nothing against short, intensive programs to learn a skill--I've taken a total of two computer-related classes, and both were short, intensive, and bootcamp-ish.
  • I realize different people have different learning styles; some do best alone, reading tutorials/books and writing tons of test code; others thrive with videos or podcasts; others still benefit from the focus and/or collegial learning you get in a classroom setting; etc.
  • I was a teacher for a few years, in college and adult ed, in standard quarter/semester-long as well as intensive summer programs; I've also spent a lot of time in the classroom as a student
  • I think it's fantastic that so many people (and especially underrepresented groups) are learning to become software engineers
  • I don't find a formal computer-science education is a particularly good predictor of talent or success in the software industry. Some of the best engineers I've worked with were humanities majors or high-school grads; some of the worst had MAs in CompSci from Stanford; there have also been great formally-trained engineers and awful self-taught engineers
  • My experience with bootcamps comes from interviewing about thirty applicants, offering jobs to two, and being friends with a couple
  • Some bootcamps may be fantastic. I don't know all of them, far from it
With that out of the way, here are some observations I've made about coding bootcamps.

I found two areas where bootcamps seem to be falling short: tool/technology independence, and low-level technical basics (how stuff actually works).

Technology Independence

Presumably because software engineering is a vast subject and you need to carefully limit the scope of an introductory course, I found bootcamps teach their students exactly one way to do things. with carefully selected tools, but not:
  • other ways to do the same thing (with other tools, or with no big frameworks at all); 
  • why those tools were chosen over others; and
  • what to do when you have to deal with a novel situation that doesn't exactly fit the standard paradigm.
The education seems limited to a very expensive Rails or Angular (or whatever framework) tutorial, carefully keeping students down the garden path of a basic application. There are a lot of tutorials available for free online; the majority 

The graduates I talked to had never been exposed to any other way of doing things than the Rails/Angular/whatever way, even though 1) there are many, equally valid ways to approach application development and 2) the vast majority of industry jobs involve mixed, heterogeneous assemblies of tools, practices, and code from different eras/styles/people, and finding a chunk of code that's exactly like the tutorial so you can comfortably understand and modify it is the exception, not the rule.

Students were able to tell me how they would use ActiveRecord to interact with a database and display a list of things in a Rails view, but were stumped when I added common variations to the data stack (e.g. combining data from a SQL database with a document store like ElasticSearch). And when I gave them pieces of existing, real-life code to pick apart and modify to implement a new or different feature, most of them remained stuck and unable to figure out a way to make any progress.

I'm not blaming them for not knowing how to use something they weren't taught (all devs have to pick up new technology all the time); what I'm deploring is that the bootcamps didn't give them the mental tools and technical knowledge to reason their way out of a predicament

Learning software engineering is a skill that will last you a lifetime. Knowing how to crank out an app with today's popular tools is a lot less valuable. Crucially, engineering skills like experimentation, figuring out how a piece of code works, exposure to multiple ways to do something so you're never stuck in one pattern you don't completely understand, those are arguably the hardest skills to learn on your own, and where a classroom setting, peers and a teacher to answer your questions, would be most beneficial. Learning how to use a framework, library or tool is the kind of stuff anyone can do with a little time and a browser, and a classroom setting isn't all that necessary. 

How Stuff Works

Another area where the bootcamp graduates I spoke to were entirely unprepared is the underlying low-level technology that makes a networked app work (web app or internet-enabled mobile app). I'm not talking about arcana of TCP packet management or running a DNS server--the very basics of how software executes on a machine and how network/internet requests are made: how your browser finds example.com, contacts it, requests stuff, receives said stuff, and displays it. The kind of thing you absolutely have to understand when you're troubleshooting a problem in your live app, or when you're setting up a CDN, or when you're doing Ajax calls to a third-party domain, or dealing with HTTPS, or redirecting people from one page of your app to another.

Anyone can write an app that handles ideal circumstances; what makes an engineer valuable is their ability to fix it when it misbehaves. None of the bootcamp graduates was able to reason through the network path or anatomy of a basic web request. Very few knew how headers and cookies work. That stuff isn't complicated, you just need to see it once to understand it; and it's very important in a world of open, unsecured wi-fi access points and personalized apps and services, so you know why putting credentials in a cookie on a non-HTTPS site is a bad idea. 

You don't need to be an expert; but not knowing the basics will absolutely hold a person back. Yes, those things can be learned on the job, but getting that job will be tricky if your education hasn't given you any information at all about the building blocks of your day-to-day work.

Silver Lining

Bootcamps are not all bad. I've heard and seen a lot of great feedback from people who genuinely got a lot out of them. Many bootcamps have industry partnerships or placement programs that help their graduates get hands-on experience in real software shops. The advantages of collegial learning are undeniable. Some people thrive in the pressure of intense, brief immersion into a topic. And you've got to start somewhere. 

The other good news is that some of what I discussed above can be remedied easily; the information can be absorbed and understood in a couple of days of guided study. 


Beyond the specifics I outlined above, what bothers me the most about the bootcamps I've been exposed to is that they both overpromise and underdeliver. Some (many? all?) claim to prepare future devs for the job market, but the ones I've been exposed to fall far short. And given how they seem to aggressively recruit from underrepresented populations (I've met a lot of non-male, non-white students from those bootcamps), it feels like the students are being sold a bill of goods and the promise of a fun, fulfilling and lucrative career, and are likely to be surprised and bitterly disappointed once they start interviewing for software engineering jobs.

I'd be happy to recommend a bootcamp education if I knew of one that gave its students more than a tutorial, and included a survey of the basic technology underlying the kind of software its graduates are taught to write. If anyone reading this has a recommendation, I'd love to hear about it. Find me on Twitter @roger_b_m or comment here.

Update 1/7/2017

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