For anyone looking to become a professional developer, there are only three ways to go from zero to coding hero:
- Traditional Route - Study a bachelor of computer science at a university or college
- Modern Route - Become a self-taught programmer
- Industry Route - Enroll in a coding boot camp
All of these routes are viable paths to your first paid developer role, they are just not all equal. While each has benefits and drawbacks, there is one that is more likely to launch your dev career to the stars.
But first, a short story...
When I left high school, I was convinced I wanted to be a doctor. If I could go back and tell my younger self I would eventually be hired to help build the world's first blockchain-based superannuation* platform, I doubt he would believe me.
For all the non-Australian readers, superannuation is the Australian system for compulsory contributions to a retirement fund, similar to a 401k in the US.
I went to university, studying a bachelor of medical science, eager to pave my way to 'Dr.' status. To my surprise and dismay, I hated it. With no passion or clear direction, I ambled my way through my degree, putting in an embarrassingly small amount of effort.
What seemed like the longest three years of my life, the end of my time at university was looming around the corner. I joined a charity sales call centre to get some cash and work experience. I know, one of 'those' people.
It was at this point I first discovered the tech industry, being recruited into the sales team for a global software company. I was flown around the world, the commission was great and I was loving life, but four years and a few companies later, the rose-coloured glasses had begun to crack. It was time to choose a career that suited me, instead of letting a career choose me.
I was seven years past the optimal point to start a new career, and another bachelor's degree was one of the least appealing options I could imagine. Was I really about to start all over again?
You have probably guessed which of the three routes I think is the best, but if not, it is the industry route, a coding boot camp.
While boot camps can have many different types of successful students, it is really best suited for those looking to switch careers, balancing the need to finish ASAP with the need to gain enough proficiency to land a job.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here are the top reasons why you should seriously consider enrolling in a coding boot camp if you want to be a professional developer:
The most obvious advantage is the content delivered in a boot camp. Coding boot camps originated in Silicon Valley, run by the industry to teach only what was current and relevant for new coding initiates. These courses have been popping up all over the world and provide an education opportunity for those who want to learn about the tools they will be using on a daily basis as a junior developer.
There are a number of advantages that come directly from the people you study with.
When you are surrounded by people who are on the same journey, it is significantly easier to get help when you need it. While it is possible to find online communities, it just isn't quite the same. You will have peers that are coming across the same problems and have found a way to solve it that they are willing to share with you. Alternatively, you will always be able to ask your lecturers and educators who typically have a wealth of experience to draw from. This support network will significantly reduce the learning burden that comes with solving every single problem you face by yourself.
It may not be the case for everyone, but I certainly find it easier to stay motivated and commit to the task at hand when I am part of a group. There is an intrinsic level of competitiveness that helps drive my behaviour towards delivering my best work. I also found the work my peers would deliver and present gave me insight into novel solutions to problems I hadn't yet encountered as well as inspiration for future projects.
Finally, a more long term benefit, you will have met a group of developers that make their way into many different areas in the industry (or other industries entirely). These connections will be invaluable, as you will be in the loop for any new job opportunities that appear before they are posted on sites like LinkedIn, Seek and other job boards.
A boot camp provides students a well-defined structure of increasing project difficulty. Whenever I looked back at the previous week, I was consistently blown away by how much I had learned. It was truly exponential, and what I considered really difficult at the time became totally trivial in a matter of days.
I was luckily able to escape the dreaded 'tutorial purgatory' by joining a course where I was given larger projects to sink my teeth into, with specific requirements that provided scope and direction, support from my peers and educators as well as deadlines and goals to drive my learning momentum at a rapid pace. For more reading on breaking down your first small projects, check out this guide on How to Plan and Build a Programming Project.
While there are many good reasons to enroll in a boot camp, one should nevertheless be aware of the following considerations:
Boot camps ain’t cheap. While they are a slightly lower cost option than traditional degrees you are still likely to need a HELP debt loan to cover the course fees.
This may be the primary reason many consider the self-taught route, but in my experience, it was worth every cent.
The head start you get in your education by learning from industry experts is unparalleled and will save a significant amount of time in the long run.
While not impossible, it is incredibly unlikely you will be able to learn at the same pace in a self-taught environment. Studying at a boot camp will allow you to start your professional development journey sooner, leading to an earlier salary start date and earlier access to promotions. In most cases, this acceleration will translate to a larger financial benefit across an entire career than the initial cost of the boot camp course fees.
For all the advantages boot camps bring, there is one factor that will dictate your ultimate success. Make no mistake, boot camps are hard work! Speaking from my own experience, what I’ve seen from my peers and read from previous students, to do well requires 60-70 hours per week (in a 6 month, full time course). It is a sure fire way to burn out if you don’t prepare a self-care routine in advance. If you aren’t able to dedicate this much time to a course, you may still be able to graduate, but as the saying goes, you only get out what you put in.
Universities are a very traditional form of education, steeped in history. They date back to the original Platonic Academy of Greece in 387 BCE, and now form the bedrock of tertiary education in most countries around the world.
Due to their large size and moderately antiquated ways of working, a course syllabus will typically be updated every 3 years. For some perspective, there were 17 brand new programming languages developed and 11 framework releases in the 3 years leading up to 2014.
In contrast, the internet is less than 40 years old, and changes more frequently than the average job tenure of a millennial. Learning modern web-based skills in this traditional environment is likely to provide you a deep understanding of computing theory but put you behind the 8-ball in practical skills.
A drawback of trying to follow the traditional education path is the high bar set for entry. In Australia, most universities require a minimum ATAR of more than 90 (the 90th percentile of high school graduates) in order to be accepted into a program. As ATAR requirements tend to be driven by popularity more than technical difficulty, there are plenty of people who would be perfectly capable programmers that will never be accepted into bachelor of computer science.
On the other hand, for all of those that make it into a bachelor, a key benefit of studying at university is the ‘prestige factor’. Even though a large number of employers are starting to rethink the hard requirement of a degree for recruiting new hires, many still value traditional degrees over any other type of qualification.
With the rise in short online courses at basement bargain prices, it is becoming increasingly popular to study online. It is even possible to learn everything you would find in a boot camp or bachelor degree syllabus online for free, if you know where to look.
The obvious problem for developers just getting started, is they won’t know where to look, how to read the technical documentation, what topics should take priority in their learning journey or whether you are progressing at a reasonable pace. Even if you could determine all of this on your own, there are so many areas in the industry you can branch into, there is no real way of knowing which languages and frameworks to focus on until you get there. It is also likely to take some time AFTER your first gig as a developer before you find exactly which type of programming you enjoy most.
A large barrier to measurable learning progress as a self-taught programmer is having no concrete accountability. If you haven’t invested much money into your education, you have no skin in the game. This makes it so much harder to stay motivated when faced with challenges (of which there will be plenty) and all the more likely you will abandon the idea of becoming a dev all together.
If you are able to stay motivated and disciplined, get by with a few low cost courses and subscriptions and find a well-laid out blueprint for your learning journey, it is possible to skip all of the education debt outright. If you choose this road it will be incredibly challenging, but anything worth doing is never easy.
Everyone has a different situation, with different priorities and challenges to face, but if you are still reading and haven't been deterred by any of the points above I would highly recommend enrolling in a boot camp as soon as possible. They are definitely not for everyone, but there are a number of different courses to choose from with different options for flexible study. If you are dedicated, enthusiastic and committed you will go very far, and nothing will be able to stop you from reaching your goals. I wish you all the best on your coding journey, and regardless of which route you take to get into the industry, the learning in this profession never stops.