Main image of article How to Recognize a Good (or Bad) Coding Bootcamp

Coding bootcamps are polarizing things. Detractors say they’re useless, and you’re better served with a proper four-year degree from a university. Proponents note it’s less time spent in school, costs far less money than a four-year degree, and could land you a job upon graduation. How can you tell which coding bootcamp is the real deal, and which may be a scam?

There are three key questions to ask, but we’ll caution you straight away: there are no clear or correct answers. It all comes down to your comfort level with the program; even the most notably nefarious bootcamps have successful graduates. Rather than risk your money and time, here are some ways to discover if your program is promising or a problem.

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Are You Being Pressured to Join a Coding Bootcamp?

The first person you encounter when you reach out to a coding bootcamp is likely some sort of recruiter. Their job is to get you to sign up; oftentimes, they’re paid (at least in part) on commission, and almost all of them have goals to hit based on how many students they can sign up in a given time. They will present you with financing options, and possibly federal grants or scholarships you can tap into.

Coding bootcamps are for-profit entities. They want you to sign up so they can take your money. This is a harsh reality, but it’s true. The recruiter may be positive and friendly, but it’s also their job to get you into a seat. They see you as a metric.

If a recruiter has a sense you’re willing to sign up for a bootcamp, they’ll pressure you to sign up for classes that almost always "start soon." It’s important to know that, unlike a traditional university, you don’t pay for classes; you pay for the program. If you decide two months into the bootcamp that it's not for you, getting a refund for the rest of your course is unlikely.

Pressure is one way bad bootcamps entice students. Woz U, a coding school/bootcamp we’ve been highly critical of, reportedly engaged in this very practice. When considering whether to join a bootcamp, take all the time you need to consider your options.

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Find Out: How Many Graduate the Program and Find Jobs in Tech?

Entities such as CIRR, or the ‘Council on Integrity in Results Reporting,’ aim to keep bootcamps honest about graduation and job placement rates. They do what they can, but the reality is that coding bootcamps and schools self-report their data. Individual bootcamp transparency is comforting, but doesn't mean much without an independent review of the results.

CIRR data is handy, but there are some metrics you should pay close attention to with any school’s job placement data. First, how many graduates are actually working in the field they studied for? Sometimes coding bootcamps will report a graduate of a coding program works at some notable tech company, while failing to mention they might be in a department having nothing to do with their field of study.

(The data should also show you how many finished the program, and even how many finished on time.)

It’s also advisable to pay attention to how many remain unemployed 90 or 180 days after graduation. This tells you how long you should reasonably expect to be out of work. (And keep in mind: The tech interview process can be long.)

Also, pay close attention to how many students are no longer looking for work “in-field,” or for the very thing they studied in the bootcamp. This is a good barometer for discovering what percentage of students feel their time at the bootcamp was wasted.

Not all schools report to CIRR, but graduation and job placement data is something you should request before signing up. If a school won’t share the data with you, that’s a huge red flag. It suggests the school doesn’t care how many finish the course, and makes no earnest effort to actually place students in (good) jobs once they’re done with the program.

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What's Being Offered?

Coding bootcamps tend to offer three things to prospective students:

  • ”You will work in tech immediately after graduation!”
  • ”Our graduates make lots of money and have amazing lives!”
  • ”You will graduate with a mastery of the thing you study.”

We’re ad-libbing, but students tend to field promises of big money, immediate job placement, and a mastery of their newly chosen profession when they’re handed a certificate of completion.

None are guaranteed. First, nobody ever fully masters any programming language or technology. Such things are always changing, and someone is always discovering a new way to perform tasks. New services launch constantly. Graduating with the idea that you’re done learning is dangerous.

Some newly minted graduates probably make great salaries, but those examples are rare. You might graduate and find a job in tech making far more than you did before you entered the program, which is amazing. Schools like to get prospective students in the mindset they’ll walk out of graduation and over to the Ferrari dealership, stopping along the way to sign a lucrative contract with a top-shelf tech firm. No. Chances are very high you're not getting immediately rich.

Finding a job is highly dependent on your understanding of the technology you studied, not a result of you finishing the program. This is where most schools fail their students; they get them through the coursework and hope the students grasp what’s being taught, rather than making sure they understand concepts. If you can’t show your knowledge in an interview, you won’t get a job in tech.

The opportunity to learn is signal; talk of fancy cars or six-figure salaries a week after graduation is noise. Schools like to get you dreaming before throwing you into a $10,000-plus program you may get nothing out of.

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It’s Not All Bad News

Good Bootcamps exist. Big Nerd Ranch is wonderful. SwitchUp is a sensational resource for discovering coding and online bootcamps, and has reviews from students. This is as close to independent review for coding bootcamps as we’ve seen.

We also suggest Udemy, which is not a bootcamp or online school. For $10, you can start your journey and decide if the language or program is right for you. It’s a down payment on your potential future; if you decide you don’t like something like ‘data science,’ there are other paths to pursue for $10. We’d much rather see you spend $50 stress-testing your desire for tech than $10,000 or more barking up the wrong tree.

Similarly, check the App Store or Google Play for apps that help you learn coding. YouTube can be a handy resource, too. Follow some developers on Twitter and see if they retweet online courses, or teach their own curriculum. And a simple web search is also useful; just be critical of what you’re being fed from search results.

Remember, there’s no timeline for starting your journey, and nothing saying you must attend a bootcamp to learn tech. What matters is your drive and enthusiasm: two things you just can’t learn in a bootcamp.