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Are coding bootcamps worth the investment?

Fast-track software development programmes often promise a quick way into a high-paying and lucrative career, but you’d be right to approach with caution

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It was only until recently that, for many, software development seemed like an out-of-reach career reserved only for the most intelligent whizzkids everyone knew at school. But with the proliferation of self-paced online courses, free tutorials, and software development bootcamps – plus wildly contentious government promotion – a career in programming has become less intimidating to a wider pool of individuals.

Bootcamps have arguably become the most popular route for prospective programmers to reskill themselves towards a high-paying, secure career path. However, that popularity has given rise to organisations, of varying degrees of trustworthiness, selling the dream of becoming job-ready in often unrealistically short time frames. The harsh reality is that many come across as little more than grifters trying to spin a quick profit.

Indeed, it can be difficult to wade through – and verify – the scores of organisations claiming to deliver a new career within weeks. It can also be equally difficult to understand which one will equip students with the most employable skills. Not all programming bootcamps are the same, though, and there are some gems out there, with hallmarks including large numbers of positive reviews and commendations from well-known companies.  

The debate between hiring programmers who’ve undertaken three or four-year computer science degrees, against those who’ve completed a 12-week development bootcamp, has been simmering away for years. Senior engineers and IT recruiters, who are the only ones standing in the way of prospective developers and their dream jobs, reveal what bootcamps really offer and whether they're worth the money in today's job market.

What are the differences between computer science graduates and bootcamp graduates?

It’s the age-old argument: academic knowledge vs hands-on experience – two hugely valuable qualities in any profession but ones rarely taught together. As far as coding bootcamps versus computer science degrees go, experts echo this sentiment. They agree a computer science degree offers a holistic understanding of programming, but can’t offer students the same level of hands-on experience as a bootcamp can.

Among them is Mark Chaffey, CEO at hackajob – a platform for companies to hire software developers and assess them based on their overall competency. He adds, however, that going down a self-taught, or bootcamp route, doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t learn the theory at a later date. Some even raise the prospect of those at university potentially ‘wasting time’ by learning material in the first year of a degree that’s later irrelevant towards the end of the programme.

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“A computer science graduate will learn more of the theory required to be a software engineer, whereas a bootcamp graduate will have more hands-on experience,” he says. “We’d always suggest that bootcamp engineers study computer science theory in their spare time, as this will really help them to upskill overall.”

Sam Rowlands, co-founder and community director at Distributed – a company that manages flexible teams of software and web developers – tells IT Pro that unless you have a degree from a top university, graduates will face the same struggles as those coming from bootcamps. Experience reigns supreme, and without a solid portfolio of work, aspiring developers will need to undertake internships and other schemes to get the experience they need.

“Graduates can, of course, tick the ‘I have a degree box,” he says. “Although the saturation of degrees means each one is becoming less impactful to prospective employers, [the university courses] should guarantee that students will leave with a relatively good understanding of coding fundamentals.

“Through bootcamps, attendees should leave knowing syntax and the basics of writing code, with some portfolio pieces too. They should also know how to ask the right questions to find the answers they need.”

Do employers hold different perceptions of coding bootcamp graduates?

From an employer’s perspective, there are drawbacks to both routes and both types of graduates will have to spend their own time developing the key employable skills needed to be successful in the job market. But there can be a lingering doubt over how a degree-less candidate will be seen among the stack of applicants for any given development job

For some, a candidate’s mettle is only really tested in the interview when the stakes are high. A good application can be clad with all the degrees under the sun, but how they perform on the day, and how well they can demonstrate their suitability for the role, will be the ultimate determining factor.

On the flip side, some corners of the industry accept software development bootcamps can produce highly skilled programmers, depending on the quality of the course, and providing the individual has internalised its content. As Nick Sewell, UK head of software development at Expleo says, bootcamps are still relatively new and, as such, there's a lot of misinformation around them, and the programmers they produce. Often, it’s thought that bootcamp graduates lack the same approach to problem-solving and programming as computer science graduates, for example. 

“Coding bootcamps can be perceived in different ways,” he says. “However, as they become more popular, businesses are starting to recognise that job candidates coming through coding bootcamps successfully often show a practical approach to solving problems in a fast-moving environment. This can mirror a real work environment.”

Smaller companies and startups are more likely to be receptive to hiring those from alternative backgrounds, whereas large companies often still prefer those with CS degrees, he adds. The bootcamp route will also naturally be more favourable for junior roles rather than more senior positions where experience will really be the key differentiator between candidates.

Do coding bootcamps offer a sufficient earning potential? 

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Higher than average salaries in tech, against many other industries, naturally leads us to question whether a short-term coding bootcamp can really offer the same financial prospects as a dedicated multi-year degree. While it’s one of the most marketable aspects of bootcamp programmes, the financial prospects of these graduates are slightly worse – at least in the early stages of their careers.

Computer science graduates can expect better salaries, assuming the level of experience is broadly similar, Sewell says. “They have the practical skills that can be applied immediately to the job rather than needing training to get up to speed – which comes at a cost to the employer.”

This conclusion, of course, will depend on the bootcamp, the employer, the specific position, and each role’s requirements. Experts tell IT Pro, for instance, they’ve seen some bootcamp graduates secure better offers than their counterparts with degrees, although it’s certainly a rarity.

The prevailing advice is that prospective programmers should focus less on the total compensation, especially when looking for their first job. Instead, they should find a company with which they can develop their skills in a way that sets their career up for life. The money will come, but having the right first job can make a huge difference in the long term.

Are coding bootcamps selling a false dream?

The phrase ‘if something looks too good to be true, it probably is’ rings true in most scenarios in life. When aspiring developers are served, for example, a targeted advert through social media promising a high-paying career in as little as 12 weeks – or even eight weeks – that same scepticism can take hold. 

The truth is bootcamp graduates can expect to be job-ready, at least for a junior developer position, and that employers certainly are open to hiring them. What might not be communicated well enough, though, is how much additional learning they will need to do on the job compared to their university-graduated peers.

It’s likely that if a company hires two junior developers, one from a bootcamp and another plucked straight from university, the latter will progress quicker thanks to their existing theoretical understanding, experts say. Similarly, if it’s a case of the same two candidates vying for the same junior role, then a computer science graduate with a robust GitHub portfolio will – in most cases – be seen as the safer choice. However, that doesn’t mean bootcamp-trained developers are at a significant disadvantage. There are plenty of employers that realise the value such individuals can add, and, as bootcamps become more popular, the quality of their graduates may be perceived more favourably in time. 

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