Advice for People Interested in a Coding/Design Bootcamp
This is for anyone who is thinking about applying to a coding/design bootcamp or has recently been accepted. After I graduated from General Assembly’s (GA) User Experience Design Immersive, as well as completed their part-time course in front end web development, I got a lot of people asking me if it had been worth it, looking for advice on a specific program, and worrying that they wouldn’t be able to do it. I decided to do a proper write-up of my answers, as well as dive a little deeper into the ways people can be successful at bootcamps. I also received input from people who had done different programs. And no, this article isn’t being sponsored by any of the programs mentioned.
First, a few terms for people who are brand new to this whole thing: I use “bootcamp” and “immersive” interchangeably, since different programs use one or the other, but they mean the same thing: an intensive, accelerated program meant to give you the skills to get an entry level job in a new field that usually lasts 10–18 week.
Programming = development = coding. These are all terms to describe the act of writing the code that makes websites, apps and software function.
Designers and developers are not the same, and there are lots of misconceptions about what they entail — if you’re confused about this, here’s a great article that breaks it all down. To put in a nutshell that won’t do it justice, designers typically do research, create mockups, do user testing, and modify their designs based on user feedback. Some designers only do one part of the process, some do it all — it just depends on the company. In essence, there’s no agreed-upon definition. After the design is complete, they give it to a developer, who writes code to make the website a reality. People usually don’t do both, but high quality people will have a firm familiarity with the one they aren’t working in. Design and development are both huge, complex fields, and they are constantly evolving, so being able to truly learn and keep up with both would be impossible. Get ready to explain this over and over again if you go into either of these fields, since the general population doesn’t understand the difference.
Onto the good stuff. Here are my answers to some of the most commonly asked questions I receive. (Thanks to Anna Brenner and Glenna Mowry for input with these answers.)
“Coding seems cool, I wish I could do it. But I’m not good with computers, there’s no way I could write code for a living.”
Being “good with computers” isn’t a gift that people are born with, it’s a skill people learn. The world is filled with people (mainly white dudes) who grew up being encouraged to explore any small interest with computers, and by the time they’re adults it seems like they just have this amazing inborn ability that of course you would need to be successful for a career in tech. This is false. The reason you aren’t “good with computers” is because you have never sat down and actually learned anything about computers. Not because there’s something lacking in you. It’s just a skill you haven’t learned yet. This is the whole point of a bootcamp — to give you a structured way to sit down and learn it. If bootcamps only accepted people who were already good with computers, they wouldn’t stay in business.
“I’m not artistic, there’s no way I could ever be a designer.”
First things first: art and design are not the same thing. Art is what an artist does to communicate something to the world. Design is a process that ends with a solution to a problem. And just like the coding-is-a-learned-skill-not-inborn-talent thing above, design is a process made up of a bunch of components that you need to sit down and learn. No one is born knowing how to design a better toaster, or shopping experience, or app. You learn, you practice, you do it a bunch and then you get good at it. It’s also important to know that while we often think of “web design” as purely visual — colors and fonts and shapes — the field of web design involves so much more. For example, I’m a User Experience (UX) Designer. I too was a bit worried about my lack of artistic skills, but UX is just what it sounds like: I specialize in designing experiences that are intuitive and user-friendly. This does of course involve some visual knowledge (no one will click a button to sign up if that button is tiny and the same color as the background) but mostly it involves human understanding, doing lots of research, empathy, creative problem solving, and user testing. These are all things I had to learn (minus the empathy) and did learn in my bootcamp. The visual part is just a component that comes at the end, and during my class I would get input from my teacher and a more visually-experienced friend to create a pleasant looks for my projects. You do NOT need to be an accomplished artist to be a great designer. You just need to have empathy towards other humans and be able to work your ass off during your program to learn the rest.
“OK so coding and design are learned skills. But I‘m still scared I might suck at it.”
You’re right, doing something like a bootcamp is scary and yes, there probably will be parts you struggle with. There will also be people who shake your confidence because of how good they are. Plenty of people in development bootcamps have been teaching themselves code for a long time before they get there. In my UX Design cohort, a classmate had already been employed as a visual designer and seeing his work never failed to knock my confidence down a few pegs. But at the end of the day, everyone is there because they need the skills the program has to offer. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be paying thousands of dollars to do it. By the end of the program, you’ll all have more or less the same skills — it’ll be things like the quality of your portfolio, previous experience and personality that set you apart. And again, if bootcamps only let in people who had extensive previous coding/design experience, they would go out of business. Bootcamps are for people like you, with no previous experience. That’s what they do; they take total beginners and make them into employable junior developers or designers. And if you get into one, they’ve assessed you and determined you can do it. So try to push aside the voice in your head saying you could never do it and start an application.
“I’m worried my previous work experience in non-profit/sales/education/administration/whatever won’t be relevant. I never did anything related to computers or technology.”
You’re right that your random work experience probably won’t apply directly to development/design, but it absolutely will be relevant to actually doing a job in these fields. You’ve likely had to manage your time, meet deadlines, work with difficult people, and build relationships with clients or stakeholders. These skills will translate to any job you take later on. Also, the tech community can be an extremely homogenous place, which is bad for business. They need people with varying life and work experiences. My previous career was in non-profit, and I was surprised to learn that my ability to mediate a group’s conflicts and give a solid presentation were assets that many people struggle with. Whatever you’ve done before, you will definitely be able to apply it to a new career in the tech world.
“Isn’t it true that the tech world is run by lots of straight white men and it’s a hard place for women/people of color?”
Yup, that’s true. But luckily for all of us, it’s slowly changing and getting better. And nothing will propel the tech world out of it’s shitty practices like the entry of more people who are queer, women, and/or of color. You will absolutely face trials if you identify within any of these groups, but the rewards of the field make it desirable nonetheless. As a woman, I faced some spectacularly terrible behavior from men in my cohort, before I’d even entered the workforce. But the fact is, the field is too amazing for minority groups not to join. The work is creative, interesting and intellectual, the community is thriving, the field is growing, and the perks and opportunities for growth and financial security are huge. And if you’re one of the many white men who is considering entering a bootcamp reading this, you have a responsibility to not be a terrible person to your classmates and future coworkers. You have the responsibility to use your power and privilege to increase opportunities for minorities and advocate for things like diversity training and the creation of respectful workplaces where everyone is paid equally and gets the same opportunities for advancement. At the very least, you need to not make your classmates/colleagues feel uncomfortable with things like rape jokes or racist accents. You can (and have the responsibility to) educate yourself more about this issue.
“Are bootcamps actually worth it? I’m nervous I’m going to throw away a ton of time and money for nothing.”
Bootcamps are absolutely worth it, but only if you’re there because you want to be and are willing to put in a LOT of effort. You can’t take any shortcuts when you’re learning a new skill in 3 or 4 months. Don’t learn design or coding just because you’ve heard it can lead to a cool job. Do you homework, and, as much as possible, try to figure out if you’re actually going to like working in this field. Try a free coding course on codeacedemy, and read about what both jobs entail. To test out design, go to a website you like and spend a few hours trying to recreate it in a free mockup tool. Bootcamps are a lot of of work, and you’ll be miserable (an unsuccessful) if you don’t enjoy learning about the subject matter. You have to be all in, and not only should you be working long, intense hours to create high-quality classwork, you should be working hard to learn even when your whole class isn’t staying late to finish a project. If you actually enjoy design or development, the excitement of really learning it will make the long hours manageable. But if you’re not actually interested in the work and aren’t willing to put in the time and energy, don’t do a bootcamp.
“I’ve heard these bootcamps are really competitive — what are my chances of even getting in?”
Any bootcamp worth its salt is going to have an application process to weed out people who won’t be successful in an intense, fast-paced environment. Some are much more competitive than others, and it often has to do with the pay structure. Some, like App Academy, don’t require upfront payment and instead takes a percentage of graduate’s first year salaries. Obviously this is a great model for the students lucky enough to get in, and it makes it incredibly competitive. General Assembly, where I went, is more traditional in that it requires a down payment and regular payments before and throughout the course, with students paying the entire amount before they graduate. This doesn’t mean anything about the curriculum, though — you’re still going to get a great experience with bootcamps that have traditional payment models.
My advice is to do your research on bootcamps in the city you want to attend one in and apply to a few. (There are lots of articles out there comparing the various options.) It’s likely you’ll find one that seems like the best fit for you based on the content, cohort start date and culture. Take the application seriously. For coding bootcamps, the next step is typically an interview where you’ll complete some logic puzzles and a coding challenge. Complete some free online courses for the development language your challenge will be with, and focus on mastering the basics — go deep in the beginner content rather than broad with trying to learn everything, since the challenge will probably be a basic little program. For a design bootcamp, you’ll likely complete a design challenge, and possibly have to find a poorly designed site and explain specifically why it’s bad design. Learn some basic design concepts and don’t go into your interview saying “it’s just ugly and doesn’t work” — make sure you can explain WHY it’s ugly and doesn’t work. And this should go without saying, but at your interview, be it in person or over Skype, dress and act professionally.
“How much of a loan will I have to take out?”
Take out a loan for the amount program, plus your rent and other living expense for the number of months of the program PLUS 3 months afterwards. It often takes this long to get a job, or you might be in my situation — accept an amazing offer within a month of graduation but it doesn’t start for another five weeks. You’re going to need to survive — and hopefully even enjoy! — that time between school and your new job, so plan accordingly. And I know loans are scary, especially as someone who finished paying off her college debt and then immediately went back in for a bootcamp. But I’ve got a great job an I’m confident I’ll pay it back quickly — it’s very different from my situation when taking out college loans. Don’t let the idea of taking a loan scare you off from doing a bootcamp.
“They say bootcamps are intense but are they really THAT intense?”
Yes, they are really that intense. Absolutely do not plan on working a part-time job or really doing much of anything else. I had a super easy job writing product descriptions a few hours per week and couldn’t keep up with it by the second week of class. My close friend in the program was trying to date and meet new people but consistently cancelled her outings under the strain of our workload. I even had to hire a dog walker to help out when I had to stay late and couldn’t get home to my pups at the normal time, which, especially towards the end, was nearly every day of the bootcamp. Plan accordingly (and work things like a dog walker into your budget/loan amount).
“In general, how can I be successful in my bootcamp?”
Once again: GO ALL IN. During my UX Design Immersive, I read design books and listened to design blogs on the train. I signed up for workshops and events that GA offered and even though I didn’t make it to all of them when project deadlines got close, I went to plenty, and it really increased my overall experience. Other examples of going all in include making time to meet with any type of mentor that your program hooks you up with (and if this is optional, you should of course opt in) as well as going to networking events (more on this later) and workshops, especially ones that deal with software you’re learning. Towards the end of my program, the last thing I wanted to do was give up an evening of precious work time to attend a 3 hour workshop on Sketch, but I went, and the tricks I learned were incredibly valuable and helped speed along my work for the rest of the program. Unless you’re physically ill or on the verge of a mental breakdown, suck it up and do the extra enrichment work. Remember, it’s only 10–18 weeks of this ridiculous schedule. You can do it!
Be open and humble. You need to be able to say “I don’t know this — how can I learn it?” Be honest about what isn’t clicking and work hard to figure it out. Even after graduation, you won’t know everything and you’re never done learning. Be proud of the knowledge you’ve gained but humble enough to admit what you don’t know.
“Will I really be able to get a job? Really though?”
This answer has a lot going on and is broken into sections:
Your job hunt starts on Day 1.
From the moment you step into your classroom, you’re already applying to your next job. Your fellow classmates are going to be the ones vouching for your technical skills and amiableness in group settings on LinkedIn, and will maybe even help you get a job somewhere they get hired on. Your teachers are seasoned professionals with tons of connections to the people you want to work for, and those colleagues will reach out to them to ask for the names of students they thought might be good for their open junior developer / designer / whatever role.
Don’t blow off your career coach and don’t leave your career work/portfolio till the last minute. Different bootcamps handle this differently — GA sprinkles their career sessions throughout the program while Dev Bootcamp is an example of a program with a “career week,” a week where students do it all at once. Whatever the program, you’ll doubtless be told to do certain things throughout the bootcamp, like going to networking events, meeting with your mentor and figuring out what your want your portfolio to look like. And when your career coach is talking to the class, pay attention. It can be hard to break away from the pressure of getting a project done, but step away for a bit and participate. A few people in my cohort consistently blew off the career-focused work and found themselves incredibly stressed when we had to hand in our final project to our real-life clients and hand in our portfolios to the career coach during the last week of the immersive. Don’t do this to yourself.
Be present in whatever it is that’s going on that day. Mock interviews with seasoned professionals in week 4 might seem like something you can do halfway in favor of working on a big project, but don’t. Like I said earlier, your job hunt is already on, even if you’re not actually applying to jobs yet, and you never know who you might connect with that could help you out later. A classmate of mine actually got hired by the person who did her mock interview, and it never would have happened if she hadn’t shown up for that hour totally prepared and present in the moment.
Networking. You just have to do it, but it doesn’t have to be all bad.
In the beginning and middle of your program, the job hunt can seem so far away that you don’t have to worry about it now. This is not true, and if you wait to start networking until after you graduate you risk being unemployed for longer than necessary. Aim for one event per week and get some of your new friends from your cohort to go with you. Choose events that sound interesting so that you’ll have some incentive to go despite the fact that you’ve just had long day of classwork. Once you’re there, try to collect a few business cards from people who might have job leads later on. Connect with them on LinkedIn. Essentially, do whatever your career coach is recommending in terms of networking. It does suck, but by targeting events where you will learn something interesting and relevant and going with a few friends, it can be less miserable and even fun. And if you have any acquaintances, friends or friends-of-friends in the field you’re going into, offer to get them a coffee and meet for half and hour to get advice on breaking into the field and learn about how they got to where they are.
“I’d rather just really focus on the technical things I’m learning. Developing those solid skills is better than spending time networking, don’t you think?”
Nope. Some people come to a bootcamp and think that if they focus really hard on the technical parts they’ll be good when it comes to a job because they’ll be so amazing at UI/Ruby/whatever. But that’s not enough; you need both. There will be people who justify not attending networking events this way, but don’t get sucked in my their rational. It’s a false choice. You don’t have decide between mastering what you’re learning in class or going to an event. You need to do both. It’s hard to manage and you’ll have plenty of late nights, but you knew that going into this.
People in tech often look at your twitter. Most events have a hashtag, and it’s nice to tweet a thank you to the organizer and the company that donated the space along with the hashtag — it’s not asking much when these events are usually free and often include free food and drink! Also start tweeting about your projects, what you’re reading, anything at all related to your new field. It shows future employers that you’re serious and have been for a while. Also, put your Facebook profile on a restricted setting for a while. Recruiters don’t hold Facebook to the same level as twitter, but might as well play it safe.
Build strong relationships with your teachers and your career coach.
These will be some of your best resources coming out of the program. The few weeks after I graduated included five interviews, three of which I landed because one of my teachers had recommended me to someone they knew who were looking for junior UX designers. One was because the career coach had recommended me to someone who reached out with the intent of hiring someone from my cohort. When a teacher or career coach get asked by a colleague to recommend a few of their students for an open position, do you think they’re going to send the names of the people who were on Facebook during lecture and did the bare minimum for their projects? No, they’re going to pass along the students who they saw staying late, attending extra events and, most importantly, presenting thoughtful, beautiful projects on presentation day.
It comes down to this: the people who go in 100% and work their asses off to have a great portfolio get good jobs coming out of bootcamps.
It can take a month or two, but this is more due to the way hiring processes work than anything else. The people who slack off usually get jobs too, but it takes longer and the jobs aren’t as good. They’re the ones using temp agencies to get contracts that will help build up their portfolios to the point that cool companies will want them. Other people leave the program with these strong portfolios already in hand. There’s nothing wrong with working contract to contract — plenty of people want to do this for the flexibility — but if you want a normal job with full benefits and a growth trajectory, don’t fall back on this. Get your portfolio to a good place right off the bat by working hard during your program. There are no shortcuts here. You have to work hard to make a strong portfolio during the bootcamp to get a good job afterwards.
“I know someone who finished a bootcamp months ago and is still unemployed.”
I think every program has these people. No admissions team can avoid accepting people who are actually a terrible fit. There are people who slack off during the program and have a terrible portfolio, people who only apply to one job a week, and people who try to get great jobs they aren’t qualified for. One person in a previous cohort complained to me about not being able to get a job, but then told me he was only applying to the limited places in the suburb he lived in, and wasn’t willing to take the train into Chicago where lots of jobs are. And then there are also people who are generally sort of awful and can’t do an interview without it showing. My program has one of these, a guy who graduated a few cohorts before mine and shows up at some workshops. During the question portion of a panel, he and another graduate used the forum as a way to vent their frustration about being unemployed, and this guy described how humiliating it was to be being supported by his wife. After it was over, I heard him talking to one of the panelists about his application at his company. I can only imagine what the panelist thought about him after that. This person is still unemployed. It’s likely the person online complaining that their bootcamp was a ripoff and lamenting the lack of jobs pouring into his lap has one of these issues. If 95% of graduates are satisfied with a bootcamp, don’t let the angry 5% detract you from what common sense says likely a good program.
“This all sounds really stressful and I’m worried I won’t be able to handle it.”
Did you manage the stress of exams during college? Of starting a new job? Of some other intense experience, like studying abroad or planning your wedding or even a sudden tragedy? You’re always going to have that voice telling you that you can’t do it, but chances are you can.
This is not to say that you should take on a bootcamp if the time isn’t right for you. I personally spent a while working on my mental health before I took on the intensity of a bootcamp. If you’re already to the point of a mental breakdown, or already feel constantly overwhelmed, or sad, or empty, start seeing a therapist to work on these things before you start your bootcamp, and make time to continue seeing them during it. This is actually just life advice. Therapy — once you find the right person — is amazing and can change your life for the better. Listen to yourself and don’t sign up for an experience you know will be too stressful if you already struggle to manage your stress in healthy ways. If you are in a decent place with your mental health, go ahead and apply. You will never know if you don’t try, and thousands of people who aren’t geniuses have already successfully completed bootcamps and gone on to great jobs. Imposter syndrome is real, but if you like coding/design and are ready for an awesome career in either of these fields, it’s time to tell the little voice saying you’ll fail that you’re doing it anyway and are going to kill it. All you need is a laptop, the right attitude, and a strong work ethic.
A bit of info on life after a bootcamp:
Be prepared for a long hiring process — the process in tech takes a long time. For most full stack developers, it’s: apply, interview (for cultural feel) OR you get a coding challenge to do before the interview. Then they might ask you to come in and pair, and then you might have a second interview with a VP, then you might get an offer. Designers typically have a similar process with a design challenge instead of a coding challenge. Plan for this, and don’t be daunted by the drawn-out timeline.
Don’t stop learning and working once you graduate.
People will ask “what are you working on now?” You need to show that you’re dedicated to learning beyond what you just learned in your program. Teach yourself a new language or make a mockup of a website you’d like to redesign. If you can, take on a small freelance project that lets you practice your skills while earning a bit of money to get you through that long hiring process.
For me, the decision to attend a bootcamp has turned out to be well-worth it. Best of luck as you start your journey.
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Thanks for reading! My name is Eva and I write about UX, design, feminism and mental health. Check out my work here.
Feel free to reach out to me if you have and questions or would like to connect, either through Twitter or regular old email: firstname.lastname@example.org.