What if someone said that you — a regular person who’s never programmed before — could become a software developer in three months and earn over $100,000 a year?
Would you believe them?
Though you might be shaking your head, that’s the promise made by the “coding bootcamps” springing up all over the country. After 12 weeks of intensive training and an investment of over $10,000, they say you, too, can learn to code software and land a high-paying job.
It sounds like a great way to jumpstart a career in the quickly growing tech sector — but is it realistic?
We wanted to find out whether these coding bootcamps are worth your valuable time and money, so we dived deep into the industry and talked to both graduates and insiders.
Here’s what we learned:
The Explosion of Coding Bootcamps
You may not have heard of coding bootcamps — sometimes referred to as “hack schools” — but they are booming businesses. The first bootcamps appeared in 2012, in response to demand.
“A lot of the original bootcamps were founded by developers and people who had been trying to hire,” says Liz Eggleston, co-founder of Course Report, which offers comprehensive bootcamp reviews and resources.
“They realized they needed to invest in junior talent as opposed to trying to find and recruit all these senior developers,” Eggleston explains. “[Bootcamps] sort of launched as a response to that very real feeling that people just couldn’t hire developers fast enough.”
When Eggleston launched Course Report in January 2014, there were about 40 bootcamps; today, there are more than 200. “It grows every week,” she says.
This year, more than 16,000 students will graduate from full-time, immersive bootcamps, according to a recent survey. That’s more than double the number that graduated in 2014 — and doesn’t even account for part-time or online students.
With numbers like these, it’s easy to wonder if the job openings can possibly keep up.
“The demand is there,” she explains. “Every company, no matter how non-technical it seems, has developers.”
The industry is growing so fast — and with so few qualified candidates — that even the White House is getting involved.
In May 2015, President Barack Obama launched the TechHire Initiative, a $100 million program to work with traditional schools and coding bootcamps to train more high-tech workers.
Could You Triple Your Salary?
Software development jobs are plentiful, and growing — but do coding boot camps help you get them? The answer appears to be yes.
In a 2014 survey of 500 bootcamp graduates, 75% reported “working in a job requiring the skills learned at bootcamp,” compared to the “5% working as full-time programmers beforehand.”
One such success story is Maigen Thomas.
She only attended one semester of college, which in her words, “didn’t go well.” (The only class she passed was marksmanship). Then at the age of 32, after six years as a flight attendant, she experienced “somewhat of a mid-life crisis.”
Though she’d never programmed anything before, she took a few online coding courses and discovered she “enjoyed the process of figuring out how things worked.” She decided to drop $3,400 (a bargain among bootcamps) and attend Epicodus in Portland, Oregon.
Now she works as a front end developer/UX designer for Unigo, earning three times what she did before.
“I love what I do,” she says. “I get paid well and I work with an amazing group of people. I feel really, really lucky to be where I am.”
However, Thomas’ background isn’t ordinary; according to Course Report’s Eggleston, only 12% of bootcamp grads didn’t previously complete a four-year college degree.
A more typical bootcamp attendee is Cody Norman, who earned a bachelor’s in economics in 2009. Frustrated with life as a mortgage loan officer, he enrolled in a programming course at his local community college.
“But the course progress was really slow,” he says. “Everything seemed kind of outdated.”
To accelerate his learning, he moved to Mountain View, California to attend Coding Dojo (current tuition: $13,495).
After nearly 12 weeks of grueling work, he was offered an internship at a startup in his hometown of Philadelphia. He stayed for nine months, and in July 2015, was offered a full-time backend developer job with WebLinc Commerce.
“It’s definitely not for everyone, and it’s not a silver bullet,” he says. “It just gives you a good foundation and kind of springboards you into the new career… It allowed me to get jobs that otherwise would’ve been pretty tough.”
Believe the Hype… Sometimes
Coding bootcamps appear to offer a smart solution, but it’s important to be cautious when reading about people who go from waiting tables to suddenly making a six-figure developer salary.
“From the outside, that looks really appealing, right?… But everything has another side to the story,” warns Jeff Winkler, co-founder of Origin Code Academy.
“In my opinion, I would almost guarantee that guy wasn’t working at that startup three months into it.” (Winkler is speaking in general terms and not in reference to the article hyperlinked above.)
Winkler says that, after receiving funding, startup founders often scramble to find developers. If they can’t find experienced candidates, they turn to bootcamp graduates and “pray they’ll know code.”
And when the bootcamp grads aren’t prepared enough? “They’ll get fired after 60 or 90 days,” he says.
In regard to the 90% or higher job placement rates touted by many schools, Winkler explains, “I’m a little skeptical… I think a much more telling stat would be six or 12 months later — how many people are still working?”
Another strategy to boost job placement rates, Winkler says, is schools hiring their own graduates.
After graduating from The Iron Yard in Orlando in April 2015, Winkler witnessed first-hand what he called “underwhelming” job placement results.
“A lot of the marketing I came in contact with made the assumption that you’re going to get a job,” he says.
But, according to Winkler, only one of the eight students in his class found a developer job afterward. He blames that on a lack of job placement support: “no direction” about where they should apply and how to prepare for interviews.
Susanna Miller, campus director for The Iron Yard Orlando, strongly disputes Winkler’s statements.
Of those eight students, she says, two didn’t graduate (and declined repeated offers for extra help); three, including Winkler, never intended to work as developers; and the other three found full-time employment in development roles.
“They continue in those careers to this day, more than a year after graduation,” she wrote in an email. “We have a set job training and assistance program, in which Mr. Winkler declined to participate.”
On Course Report, The Iron Yard has a rating of 3.6/5, but that’s based on reviews for all 19 locations. The one review for Orlando’s campus is very poor — but given that it’s anonymous, it could still be the reflection of one student’s experience.
Miller says The Iron Yard hired an external firm to audit its graduation and job placement statistics, and will share the information when it’s available.
If you’re considering bootcamp, the important thing is to ask questions, read beyond the headlines and remember that — unlike traditional educational institutions, which are almost all non-profit — coding bootcamps are businesses.
Booming businesses: Course Report estimates tuition revenue will reach $172 million in 2015 (more than three times the $52 million earned in 2014).
Should You Go to Coding Bootcamp?
So you want to be a developer? Before running off to drop half your salary on a coding bootcamp, ask yourself several questions:
Have You Taken (and Enjoyed) Free Coding Courses Online?
All of the bootcamp students we spoke to took free or inexpensive online courses prior to applying.
“Take a long weekend and maybe spend $20 on a class on Udemy,” suggests Norman.
“See how much you can get done and see if it’s something you enjoy… A couple days of doing it eight plus hours a day — of being frustrated and trying to get something done — is probably a good gauge of whether it’d be a good fit for you in the long run.”
Not only will online courses help you assess your interest, they’ll also help you prepare for actual bootcamp.
“The in-person [course] will be fast,” says Marquina Iliev, digital marketing director for Riffle, a book sharing and discovery platform. “It’s good to have a basic idea of what you’re going to see before you actually have to produce homework and projects.”
Can You Afford It?
Let’s get one thing straight: bootcamp isn’t cheap.
The average tuition is $11,063, according to Course Report’s most recent survey, not including lost wages or room and board. Though that’s significantly less than a four-year college degree, you won’t be eligible for federal education loans.
So, it’s essential you go into bootcamp with realistic expectations.
It will probably take two to three months after graduation to find a job, and when you do, it probably won’t come with the highly-advertised $100K salary. On average, bootcamp attendees increase their salary by $25,000 per year.
“[Don’t] count on making a six-figure salary the day you graduate,” Winkler says. “It’s really more of a process.”
If you can’t afford the upfront investment (or uncertainty), a few schools — most notably, App Academy — only require payment when you get a job as a developer. However, this means their acceptance rates are low and attrition rates high.
Are You Prepared to Work Really Hard?
To be a good programmer, you don’t necessarily need to be a math whiz or computer geek. What you do need? Drive.
“I was horrible at Spanish and I was horrible at calculus, but programming is completely effort-based,” says Winkler. “In my personal experience, the people who did the best in the class were the people who worked the most.”
Eggleston agrees. “There isn’t a certain background that indicates you’ll be really good in a bootcamp,” she says. “I’ve talked to people who were teachers, poets and baristas before.”
What matters, she says, is “grit.” And, of course, a strong desire to actually program software.
“This has to be a career you really want to do,” she says. “Developers spend all of their time behind a computer, so if you don’t want to do that, this is probably not the job for you.”
How to Choose a Coding Bootcamp
Did you answer “yes” to all of the questions above? Then coding boot camp might be a smart career move.
But with more than 200 programs available, how do you choose one?
Coding bootcamps don’t receive accreditation like traditional schools, so research is essential. Winkler says the most important thing is to talk to previous students. He also recommends Course Report, which he calls “the industry standard for reviews.”
Eggleston urges prospective students to visit the school to see if you jive with the culture, and then to “ask one million questions.”
Here are some you can start with:
Where Is It Located?
One of the biggest benefits of in-person bootcamps is the opportunity to network and use local job placement services. So it makes sense to attend school in the city where you’d like to work.
Also keep in mind that, although we’ve focused on immersive in-person bootcamps here, many schools also offer online or hybrid options, which are good alternatives for people who have tight budgets, families or both!
What Are the Admission Requirements?
Different bootcamps are meant for different people. “Zero to 60” bootcamps are targeted at people with little or no experience, while “20 to 120” bootcamps require some programming experience.
If you’re not sure which category you fall into, look online. Some schools, such as Flatiron, post their pre-enrollment work online.
Admission rates vary widely among schools. Some of the extremely competitive programs, like Hack Reactor and App Academy, only accept 3-6% of applicants, Eggleston says.
On the other hand, she notes, “Some bootcamps are actively trying to get people in the door.”
What Language Do They Teach?
Developers use several different languages to program software. Before choosing a school, it’s good to know what type of work you want to do when you graduate.
Norman, for example, specifically chose Coding Dojo because it taught three languages in just 12 weeks.
“A lot of the other schools focus on one language or one tech stack,” he says. But with Coding Dojo, “you had a little bit of experience in a lot of different sectors.”
One other note: Programming language is heavily geo-specific.
“If our code school was in Austin or San Francisco, we’d be teaching a completely different language,” says Winkler, whose school is located in San Diego. So be sure to learn which language is popular in the city you hope to eventually find a job.
Alternatives to Coding Boot Camp
Don’t forget: Coding bootcamp isn’t the only way to become a developer.
You can still follow the traditional route and earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science. It’s a significant time commitment, but federal funding might help offset the cost.
But, during those four years, you won’t earn any money — and you probably won’t learn the latest technologies.
“Even now, employers will tell me they’d rather have a 12-week bootcamp student than a four-year computer science degree,” says Winkler. “The old style of education just can’t keep up with what the job market needs fast enough.”
That being said, computer science degrees are still in high demand — so if you want the college experience, you certainly won’t lack for a job if you graduate with one.
“We’re sort of in a transition phase right now,” says Eggleston. “Hiring managers are getting more and more comfortable hiring people who have experience over a computer science degree… [but] we’re not at a place where job listings say you can have a four-year degree or you can graduate from Hack Reactor.”
Another alternative? Teach yourself. With all of the online resources available today, this is becoming more and more of a viable option.
One successful example is Laurence Bradford, who learned to code independently. She’s since created Learn to Code With Me, a resource for others interested in doing the same.
“I looked into intensive coding programs — don’t get me wrong,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I could never justify spending (over) $12,000 (and living expenses) on a coding bootcamp. In my opinion, coding bootcamps are ideal for people who want full-time jobs as a developer and/or software engineer.”
Self-education worked for her (albeit “slowly and painfully at first”), but she acknowledges that progress at a bootcamp is quicker, and is also accompanied by “hand-holding” and career development.
“If you have the flexibility, the finances, the dedication and an intensive program is a direct line to hitting your goals — then it is for you,” she says.
Still interested in coding bootcamp? Try some free online classes.
If you enjoy programming, then begin the research process. Take your time reading reviews and visiting schools, and then carefully consider whether this big leap is right for you!
Your Turn: Would you ever invest in a coding bootcamp to become a developer?
Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!
Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.