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From BootCamp to College

James Walsh
I live & work in Salt Lake City as a full-stack engineer. I love being outdoors, synthwave, & playing video games🕹
Updated on ・7 min read

At the time of writing, I am 26 years old.
I'm a college drop out.
I’m a boot camp grad.
I've been working as a software engineer for 5+ years full time.

  1. I adore my career in software development.

I’m beyond happy with how everything has panned out and the success I’ve personally felt. I love this field.

Now time to queue the click bait. As of a week ago I’ve committed to going back to school to finish my CS education.

A Moment of Caution

I'd like to spend some time explaining how I got here. But before I do I'll start by painting a picture around my current, unfiltered worldview:

  1. I do not believe a Bachelors Degree in Computer Science is a requirement for becoming an excellent, productive software engineer who can write clean code and deliver value to the business. (Especially if you already have a degree that would be considered complementary toward a transition into tech)
  2. I do not believe that all boot camps adequately prepare their students for the onslaught of responsibility that is about to be thrown their way. I do not believe bootcamps are a shortcut or a replacement for college. However I do believe that bootcamps are a more capitalistic approach to education that allows you the freedom to take your learning and accountability toward success into your own hands. I also believe boot camps do a better job than colleges at teaching you "how to teach yourself".
  3. No one really knows what they are doing. We are all trying to learn from each other. There is no 1 size fits all solution to starting your career. I don't believe my experience will be true for everyone. The following is not a recommendation. Just a cautionary tale about how I arrived here.

The Boot Camp

From time to time I've heard friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances ask about my boot camp cohort with sincere desire for understanding. I've personally felt whether perceived or projected a plethora of responses both positive and negative toward pursuing the bootcamp life. I've sensed that some have felt some level of envy (esp after a 4 year investment at a large institution). While others have may have expressed in some sense an understanding that fresh bootcamp grads may not be as qualified as their graduate counterpart. Others yet may take a more middle of the road approach and feel that each candidate is expressly unique and dig at their true qualifications.

The truth is all are correct.

Pros of Bootcamps

  • Personally, I do not regret breaking into the industry as young and as unskilled as I was (Barely 21 and with only a basic understanding of JS and a tiny bit of Ruby on Rails). I was able to get an entry level web developer position with no debt, and one semester's worth of really hard work. Do I regret that? No.
  • I'm confident in my ability to teach myself and ask questions of mentors when I find gaps. Boot camps are fundamentally all about this. They give you some direction then send you off to fail on your own. Afterward they expect you to come back with answers, or questions that will get you closer to the truth. This style is much more applied and hands on which jives my personal style.

Cons of Bootcamps

  • Despite the praise I've given above, and even years later I still find myself occasionally plagued by knowledge gaps and imposter syndrome. And each time I've felt that imposter syndrome. I've been able to alleviate it through self lead education. Which sometimes leaves me puzzled as to what I actually paid for when most everyone knows how to google.
  • Even if you find success with a bootcamp you will still be required to pursue the right books, the correct mentors, and most importantly of all learning on the job. In my case by being able to write code with experienced devs on healthy teams was crucial. My coworkers helped foster my skillset and grow talent organically outside the classroom.
  • Bootcamps are unregulated. No two bootcamps are created equal. In my conversations with other bootcamp grads our education varied from cohort to cohort, company to company, and even instructor to instructor. The truth is some people are just going to luck out with their instruction and some people aren't. I don't like to admit it, but I played the lottery and happened to win. My experience was better than others.

What left me with an overall positive impression of boot camps was that my cohort left me with strong basic fundamentals to build upon later. Fast forward to day and I owe my current skillset not to the bootcamp, but rather to my coworkers who mentored me, the business problems that we're thrown at me, and the companies that were willing to take a chance and invest on me. Did the boot camp help kick start all of that? Absolutely. And fast as hell.

The Failings of Modern Education

So what's the answer then? Here I've gone giving a mixed review on boot camps. But do I feel any better about colleges? Generally speaking no. Modern education has failed us. It's expensive. It's hard. You are required to learn things that are not applicable to the job you will have. Modern testing has proven to be a terrible indicator of knowledge retention and job preparedness.

So if I feel as strongly as I do about why #CollegeSucks what would cause me to re-enter the educational cog as I approach my late 20s?

Enter WGU & Targeted Self Paced Education

Full disclosure. This is not a plug for WGU specifically, but rather the underlying principle. This is not an endorsement and I'm not being paid by the University. There are many other programs similar to this one across the country that mimic these principles. But I do think WGU is a great working example of what to do and how colleges can better adapt to a changing generation with different demands.

Because I have the job experience that I have WGU will allow me to potentially do the following:

  1. Before starting a course, student's are given the ability to take what is called a "Pre-Assessment". The pre-assessment tells you which areas of the curriculum you can skip, vs which areas of the course you need to study hard at. These pre-assessments are all about the student proving that they understand the concepts. If however, you pass the Pre-Assessment with flying colors, the course final is unlocked for you immediately allowing you to complete the class in record time (In my case this is useful as some of the more basic programming courses I would intend to fly past as quickly as possible)
  2. Ditching the idea of traditional semesters in leu of self paced education, moderated at the individual level. At WGU students are responsible for their workload. You come up with your own incremental schedule rather than be beholden to the traditional college semester paradigm. You take as many or as little classes as you can manage within a given time period, and go at a self-paced cadence to complete courses you've started. It may take 1 year, it may take 3 years. You decide.
  3. And most importantly... Getting rid of the fluff & busy work. WGU helps students work towards super targeted Bachelors & Masters programs only. There are no needless generalized courses. All courses listed on their SD program are cohesive & work directly toward my major of choice (in my case BS in Software Development). For example, take the math credit that is required for this diploma.
Ex: Math Credit (Applied Algebra)

Applied Algebra is designed to help candidates develop competence in working with functions, working with the algebra of functions, and using some applied properties of functions...

It doesn't make sense for me at this point in my career to be taking intro algebra classes, nor advanced calculus. However, one could make the argument that programming languages are fundamentally just applied algebra. When I saw the syllabus this clicked for me. Each course credit is working toward me, not needlessly against me.

I do believe programs similar to this one pose a healthy middle of the road solution to CS education. Coding Bootcamps that promise that in 12 short weeks they will take you from zero to hero are just plain false. Conversely spending 4 years of your life and potentially many thousands of dollars on outdated principles and high level theory before joining the workforce seems excessive at best, and totally unreasonable at worst.

Our education system is broken. But I do think things are changing for the better. And I intend to be the guinea pig.

Loose Opinions Loosely Held

The decision to go back does not come from a desire for career growth. Most employers support the concept of learning on the job. Especially where our tech stacks and tooling are every changing month by month and year by year. If you are a boot camp grad who has found success, please don't think my argument is for you to pursue higher education. It isn't.

What it all boils down to is this... In the last 5+ years my love for computer science has grown to a point that furthering my education is the logical next step. I feel a drive to harness deeper knowledge about how computation works. It fascinates me, it frustrates me, and it continues to humble me.

I want to learn more. I want to be more. I feel that I can take this deeper. I’ve justified not going back on a physical, mental, spiritual, and monetary level (and just maybe I'll be proven right in that justification). But when it comes down to it this is just something I feel I’ve left undone.

So what's the answer? Boot camp or college? Ask me in 2 years and I'll let you know.

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