The Lambda School Fallout and Not Getting Screwed: How to Choose a Coding/Design Bootcamp
In the wake of The Verge’s article about the dangerous pitfalls of Lambda School, I wanted to give some commonsense advice about how to choose a design or coding bootcamp. I spend a lot of time talking to people looking to transition into tech, and since I’ve attended a part-time course, full-time bootcamp, and taught a remote, part-time course, I have plenty of insight into what works and what doesn’t.
If you’re not even sure that a bootcamp is right for you, check out my previous piece about common misconceptions. It also has lots of general advice about what makes a bootcamp student successful or not.
My story of transitioning into tech has a few more details than the average story, but it gave me a lot of insight into various components of bootcamps, so bear with me as I try to keep it as short as possible.
I started my transition into tech while working in non-profit. I had absolutely zero computer, coding, or design skills or knowledge. I enrolled in Dev Bootcamp’s web development program (they’re now closed). I did the first 10 weeks of learning, which was all done remotely, and dropped out before the in-person part began (since I could still get most of my money back). I then enrolled in General Assembly’s web development immersive, since I felt the culture was a better fit and it was entirely in-person. I had to push off my enrollment after a bike crash that broke my hand, but during that time did their part-time front-end web development course. This gave me a good view of in-person part-time courses, and what it was like for me, working part-time, versus my classmates, who were all working full-time. This course made me realize I wanted to be in the front-end world, and ultimately led me to enroll in General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive, which I started after the front-end course had finished.
I’m now 4 years out from graduating from General Assembly’s full-time UX Design Immersive. About a month after graduating I got hired at a software consultancy called 8th Light, where I started with a 5 month apprenticeship, and was then promoted to the role of designer. I do both UX and font-end development, and my current title is Principle Designer.
More recently, I taught a few sections of General Assembly’s part-time remote UX course, and learned a lot about the difference between part-time and full-time courses, how remote courses work, and saw first-hand what makes students successful, or not.
No, General Assembly is not paying me for any of this, and I’m going to give an honest view of my various experiences learning and working with them.
I’ve spent a lot of time answering questions in a transition-to-UX slack group, and regularly do phone calls or get coffee with people who are interested in transitioning into tech but don’t know where to start. Basically, I talk and think about these things a lot, and because of my experience with learning in multiple types of bootcamp courses and teaching at one, I have a lot of thoughts about how to make it work that others have found helpful, and hopefully you will too.
OK, onto the good stuff!
How do I know a bootcamp is legit?
- The best thing you can do is find alumni of the bootcamp to talk to, ideally recent alumni who had the same instructor you would have. Figure out who the instructor is from the admissions person at the bootcamp, and then ask if there are any alumni of the most recent cohort you could talk to. You can also put this request on twitter or LinkedIn and hope to get connected to someone that way. I had two amazing instructors at General Assembly, and my cohort was overall very happy with the experience (though you should read more about how even at good bootcamps, each cohort has a few dissatisfied customers who didn’t put in the work and expected to get an amazing job anyway in my other piece on bootcamps). However, I talked to students in later cohorts who were less happy, and it was because they had a different teacher who they didn’t feel was experienced enough to give them what they needed. I think that instructors can really make or break a bootcamp, so figuring out who you’ll have and what former students think of them is one of the best things you can do.
- If you can, try to talk to a current instructor yourself. While many bootcamps have high instructor turn over (I was one of those instructors who left after teaching just a few courses!), and may not yet have an instructor hired, a legit bootcamp will likely be able to connect you with the instructor for a video call or in-person chat at the bootcamp’s location. Ask about their experience, what they think of the bootcamp and its curriculum, and what advice they have for you. If you felt a good connection, that’s another sign that this will be a good bootcamp for you.
- And of course, you should do a lot of online research. Look for negative news stories, like the recent one from The Verge about Lambda School, but also look for positive stories. Remember that finding a few individuals complaining on message boards about their bootcamp should be taken with a grain of salt, as plenty of people phone it in and expect their bootcamp to magically get them incredible jobs that pay a super high salary right of the bat, and complain a lot when that doesn’t happen (I get deeper into this in a different Medium article that has general bootcamp advice). There’s lots of reporting on bootcamps out there, so you should be able to find the pros and cons of whichever ones you’re considering. But remember that bootcamps are businesses, and may be paying for positive pieces or for good rankings from ranking services. The only way to really know how good or bad a bootcamp is is to get in touch with alumni, so make doing that your number one priority.
Should I do a full-time or part-time course?
The most important things to think about when answering this question is your background and current skill level, and how much work you’re able/willing to put into a course. Part-time courses are typically less of a time commitment and cost much, much less than a full-time course.
When I taught a remote, part-time course, I had a few revelations:
- Part-time courses are perfect for people who are already in the tech field or have a strong background in the subject already. The people who were able to keep up with the coursework and get a lot out of the UX class I taught were designers who had never formally learned UX, graphic designers who wanted to move over to UX, and others who already work in the industry, such as project managers and developers.
- I have found that the marketing around part-time courses doesn’t properly convey that this is the type of student who will be successful. When I was teaching, I found that many of my students were not the right fit for the part-time course, but that the marketing materials and admissions staff had convinced them otherwise. A part-time course requires a lot of work outside of classroom hours. It’s not just the 4 or 6 hours per week of classes; it’s many hours of work on your projects outside of class. A lot of people with no background in design who were working full-time jobs and/or had children to take care of really struggled to keep up with the curriculum.
- Also, part-time instruction is a part-time job, and usually these instructors are also working a full-time job. This means you can’t expect them to be available 24/7, and turnaround for asking questions, getting feedback, and getting homework returned is slower than in a full-time class. It’s very different from doing a full-time course, when you have a teacher available to help during the whole day that you’re working. You’re much less likely to stay stuck on something, and your progress is a lot quicker.
- That said, if you don’t have a tech background already, you can still make a part-time class work, but you need to have ample time and energy to commit to it. You’ll need to go down every rabbit hole, do additional reading, take advantage of your instructor’s office hours, and be aggressive about getting feedback and implementing it right away. This is what I did when I was in my in-person, part-time front-end coding course at General Assembly. I was in an unusual place in that I had quit my full-time job to do a full-time bootcamp, but was then unable to do it because of my bike crash and broken hand and pain medicine that made me sleepy and gave me a limited amount of time to focus during the day. I knew I couldn’t handle a full-time course during that time, so enrolled in the next cohort and did the part-time class as a way to not lose steam. My experience in that class mirrored my future experience teaching a part-time class: my classmates who were working full-time struggled a lot to keep up with the curriculum, and that people like me, who weren’t working full-time and/or already had a bit of coding experience (which I had from my 10 weeks of Dev Bootcamp) learned a lot more and were much less stressed out about keeping up with the work.
- My main takeaway here is that if you have no prior coding/design experience, don’t be lured into the marketing materials that tell you you’ll be just as successful with a part-time course as a full-time course. If you aren’t working, or are willing to hustle extremely hard during the part-time course, you can make it work, but you should really consider taking the plunge and going all-in with a full-time course. The part-time course is great for people with some previous experience or who are in a related field in tech, but the marketing materials aren’t honest about this reality.
Should I do an in-person or remote course?
- Think long and hard about how you learn best. Some people are good at remote learning, but many aren’t. I was absolutely miserable during the remote phase of Dev Bootcamp. Sending a message to the instructor asking for help felt really different than raising my hand in a classroom. Having someone explain something to me over a video chat just didn’t feel the same as it happening in-person, and I never absorbed things the way I was used to from my in-person college experience.
- Consider what your learning environment would be like if you do a remote course. Do you have a quiet, peaceful place to sit all day? Do you have a strong Internet connection? Do you have loud family members or roommates who will be home during the day, or a dog who might interrupt your learning with demands to be taken outside?
- Think about your need for routine. Some people can get up and put on real clothes and get into the mindset of learning or working when they’re staying home and doing their work remotely. I am not one of those people, and while the appeal of not having to leave your home during bad weather is strong, you need to be very realistic about your ability to manage yourself all day, every day, for 3 months or more. There’s nothing wrong with saying “remote learning doesn’t work for me — I need to be in-person.” While the jury is generally out on whether in-person or online learning is best, many studies have found that in-person learning tends to be more effective, or that online learning should be mixed with in-person learning for the student to get the most out of the experience.
- Be really honest with yourself about if you can keep yourself on a strict schedule without having to leave your home. I need to get up and go somewhere in order to keep myself on a schedule, and even now, when I have the option to work from home, I only do so one day per week, since by the second day I’ve already started to lose my routine and begin to feel anxious and isolated. I also struggle a lot to learn remotely, and do best when I can simply raise my hand and have an instructor walk over to give immediate, in-person help or feedback. Make sure to be honest with yourself about how you learn best and how you’d feel sitting in a room alone every day, connecting with your peers and instructors through your laptop.
Is it better to take out a loan now, or pay later (through an income-sharing agreement)?
It depends. I think the more important question to consider is the quality of the bootcamp and how likely it is that it will prepare you get your first job in tech.
That said, I do think it’s important to weigh the costs of both. This story about Lambda School makes it clear that a bootcamp that’s free now but requires you to pay once you have a job isn’t always the best deal. Lambda’s bootcamps for UX and code are free, but come with an income sharing agreement that students agree to that stipulates that once you have a job with an income of $50,000 or more, you start handing over 17% of your income until you’ve paid $30,000.
I’m about to get into some very specific numbers, and share exactly how much I paid and got a loan for. If this isn’t really relevant to you, skip to the end.
Consider the math of Lambda School’s income-sharing agreement: 17% of $50,000 is $8,500 per year. And $50,000 feels like a pretty typical starting rate for someone fresh out of a bootcamp; you’ll likely increase that number quickly if you work for a solid company and work hard to improve, but that feels like a reasonable number to get in your first or second year as a developer. So, 17% of $50,000 is $708.33, which is how much you’d have to pay back per month. Now consider that a salary of $50,000 doesn’t mean you’re taking home $50,000 per year — some of that goes to taxes, and if you choose to get healthcare through your employer (which most people do) and contribute even a small amount to your 401(k) (which most people do), the amount showing up in your bank account is going to be even less, and a payment of $708/month is a lot, especially if you’re also making payments to other student loans from college. Also consider that at $708/month, it will take just under 43 months to pay it back, or about three and a half years.
Now consider that attending a full-time, in-person bootcamp at General Assembly currently costs just under $14,000. Paying that amount back in a loan at $708/month would take 20 months, or one year and eight months. However, depending on the loan you take out, you could choose to pay it back less aggressively, which is important for people who have other expenses, like other education loans or kids or elderly family members to take care of.
You also need to consider living expenses. The cost of a school like Lambda isn’t truly “free” — you’re still paying for rent, food, and other essentials.
I understand that the ability to take out a loan to pay for a bootcamp requires a lot of privilege. My personal opinion is that the financials are more in your favor to take out a loan than to agree to an income-sharing agreement for such a high amount. When I decided to pursue a career in tech, I took out a loan for $20,000 to cover the cost of tuition plus some living expenses. I was denied a loan from every regular, non-exploitative lender because of my husband’s credit score (which got messed up by a family member when he was a teenager). Finally I found a company called Upstart, which understands the concept of bootcamps and the earning potential of graduates, and gave me the loan I needed. (No, Upstart is not paying me for this, but if they ever asked me to be in a commercial about how Upstart was the only lender that would take a chance on me and how it completely changed my life for the better, I’d say yes immediately.) A friend with a similar financial situation got her loan through a company called Affirm. Anyway — if you can take out a loan now for $20,000 to cover tuition and living expenses, or one for $15,000 for just tuition, that’s obviously going to be a lot better than $30,000 later. Additionally, taking out a private loan means you have the power to drop out of a bootcamp if you realize it’s not working for you, like I did, and enroll in a different one that will be a better fit, whereas students who enroll in Lambda don’t have this option. Most legit bootcamps have a deadline a bit before halfway in that you can still drop out and get the majority of your money back. I was able to drop out of Dev Bootcamp a week before the halfway point and get all but $1,000 of my money back. Considering that I had learned a lot, and that I now knew exactly what I needed out of a bootcamp (completely in-person with no remote element), this felt more than fair.
All that said, if you can’t get a loan now, enrolling in a bootcamp with an income-sharing agreement could absolutely still be worth it — so long as the bootcamp is legit. If you’re confident about the bootcamp, getting into the tech field, where you have a solid ability to have a high income after only a few years, makes the trade off of a higher overall fee worth it. For me, even with the lower starting salary of an apprentice, I paid my $20,000 loan back extremely aggressively and had it paid back in just over two years. Considering I now make more than triple what I did when I worked in non-profit, and have a job I love, it was 100% worth it.
Bootcamps can be incredible, life-changing learning experiences that help people with absolutely no design/coding skills get into high-paying jobs and careers they love (I’m one of those people!) Taking out a big loan or signing an income-sharing agreement is often completely worth it, but you have to make sure that you’re going to be getting a good value for your money. Do your research, talk to alumni, be honest about how you learn best, and remember that something that seems too good to be true usually is. If you’re committed to doing a bootcamp, check out my advice for how to be successful (scroll past the first few sections, which are more about what bootcamps actually are). And whatever your experience ends up being, be sure to share it and help other people who are in the spot you’re in now.