Coding Bootcamps and Career-Switching and Admissions Strategies, Oh My!
July 11, 2014 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting to seriously plan for a career-switch to programming, going the Coding Bootcamp route as a way to jump-start my skills, my portfolio and my networking. I want advice on how best to prepare and what to expect. Snowflakes, as always, inside.


Married, 29, living in a large metro area with lots of technology companies.

I have a BA in a social science field from a prestigious university and an eclectic job history over the last eight years (copywriting, editing, research/higher ed admin, political organizing).

I never got into programming when I was younger (other than copying BASIC programs out of Boys' Life back in the early 90's), but I was always a quick study on various related tasks. Recently, after being lavishly praised for what seemed to me a relatively simple semi-technical contract job (not involving actual coding, but something very similar), I decided to look more seriously into learning to program. I've spent 50-100 hours over the last two months teaching myself Python through various online resources (MITx, OpenCourseware, Codecademy, Project Euler), and I've found myself enjoying it immensely. I know that a programming job won't be as much fun, but I find the actual act of coding much more relaxing, enjoyable, and rewarding than the main tasks in my previous jobs. (Writing and organizing were enjoyable and rewarding, but very stress-inducing [not to mention difficult to get paid for], admin work was stress-inducing without even being enjoyable or rewarding). I actually get home from work in the evening looking forward to spending a couple hours working through coding courses or coding up a solution to a Project Euler problem.

I'm currently working temp jobs of varying pay and crappiness at the University where I was a full-time employee before I ran off to become a political organizer.

Our financial resources are such that the tuition and other expenses of a coding bootcamp would be very manageable, but we can't very well afford just to throw away such a sum on a wild goose chase.

My plan:

I'm targeting a coding bootcamp with a good reputation both for teaching and supporting and placing its graduates that starts in my city in November. My plan is to keep working the crappy temp jobs until then, while spending as much spare time as I have beefing up my skills. Hopefully that then gives me the credentials, portfolio and contacts I need to land a full-time job.

My questions:

I feel like I've done my research and pretty much already settled the "Is a bootcamp worth the time and money?" question, although if you have strong opinions, especially if they're related to my specific situation, I'd be happy to hear them.

What should I do to make myself attractive to a good, and presumably selective, coding bootcamp? The bootcamps say that they don't expect any prior experience, but is it actually realistic to get into one of these with only a couple months coding experience, let alone succeed?

Should I apply right away? It looks like applications will remain open for a while. My instinct is to apply right away and get it over with, but would I be a more compelling candidate if I stuck my nose to the grindstone for another month or two and had something more to show for my work than an EdX certificate and my code for the first 15 project Euler problems?

What can I do between now and November to best prepare myself for a bootcamp and get the most out of it?

What is the market like now for junior Ruby-on- Rails developers? What's the going rate for the entry level? (Boston-specific information especially appreciated)
posted by firechicago to Work & Money (4 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "Is a bootcamp worth the time and money?"

It's different for different people, but I like to say that that $10,000 I spent on an unlicensed career school housed in a former methadone clinic was probably the best $10,000 I ever spent.

What should I do to make myself attractive to a good, and presumably selective, coding bootcamp?

Honestly the bootcamp I attended (which I suspect you are also applying to) was mostly looking for moxie rather than specific skills. Judging by the way you're presenting yourself here I think you'll very likely be able to get into at least one of the Boston-area bootcamps.

Should I apply right away?

I don't recommend it, but not because I think you need more qualifications! As soon as you're accepted, they're likely going to ask for a deposit within a very short time period. There is the chance the class could fill up in the meantime though. So, I don't know, if you're sure you want to do this, you can go ahead and apply.

What can I do between now and November to best prepare myself for a bootcamp and get the most out of it?

Code as much as you can! Keep going with the Project Euler and also get yourself building apps and writing scripts that do things you think might be fun. Get familiar with the command line if you're not already - learn to navigate folders from the cli and get at least a little familiar with basic vim.

Go back and rewrite those Project Euler problems. Rewrite them in Ruby (a good intro Ruby book is Learn to Program by Chris Pine). Refactor them (i.e. figure out a better, cleaner, faster way to do what you already did). Read other people's code. Get yourself a Github account if you don't have one already. Learn git, at least the rudiments.

Try the Hartl Rails tutorial. It's a little too Rails-before-Ruby, but it can get you writing an actual web app! How cool is that!

It's a Rails bootcamp but you're also going to need to understand a fair amount of Javascript and SQL (databases), so read some books or do some online tutorials or whatever to get yourself up to speed on that.

Also: build up as much goodwill as you can with your spouse, because to a large extent the more time you can devote to the bootcamp the more you'll get out of it, so if your home and relationship can stand a little bit of neglect for a couple of months, you'll have more time to learn. On the same note, now is the time to simplify your life - think about what you avoid doing for a couple of months and what you need to do to make that happen.

Oh! And if you're female, or have a female friend who is also interested and will bring you, sign up for the September RailsBridge workshop.

You might even want to start going to Boston Ruby meetups, but they can be kind of daunting/alienating if you don't already know a fair amount (the Boston Python meetups feel a bit more beginner-friendly to me - you might want to go to those too/instead, but it's also good to meet people in the community you're planning on working in). Free pizza and usually a free beer afterwards - welcome to the glamorous developer lifestyle!

What is the market like now for junior Ruby-on- Rails developers?

It's not bad. It's not, like, you finish the program and people run up to you and shove fistfuls of money in your face. You need to hustle to find a job, but to a large extent the jobs are there. My impression is that starting salaries for bootcamp grads are all over the place, but as a wide range I would say probably $45,000-$80,000?

(Oh also feel free to memail me.)
posted by mskyle at 11:44 AM on July 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've been in software development since starting my career at 21; I'm 35 now. I have a BS in computer science and an MS in ECE. I have zero experience with coding bootcamps and what kind of developers they produce, so unfortunately I don't think I'm equipped to handle your question. However, I'll share some thoughts:

If your coding bootcamp has good placement stats than that is excellent. Before I read your question fully, I was going to comment that every company I've worked for has had bright line hiring restrictions on hiring anyone who doesn't have at least a BS in a STEM field, even if they are a bona-fide coding genius and demonstrate this in the interview. This MAY hinder you if you want a different job after whatever job your bootcamp places you in.

Honestly, in my jobs, I haven't used much skills beyond college freshman year CS classes, and (at my current job in particular) some highly specialized knowledge from a single grad school course -- while the grad school class helped, it was knowledge I could just as easily have picked up on the job. What I'm saying is that it's been my view that a CS degree is just an expensive formality. Tons of employers require it, but it's my view that all necessary skills could be picked up in a different environment, such as a coding bootcamp.

Once you have about 3-4 years experience, it doesn't really matter about the degree, but it can still end up being a bright line requirement, unfortunately.

I see more demand for Python than for Ruby-on-Rails, but that may vary depending on what area you're in. I live in the DC/Baltimore area -- so -- lots of Federal government contracting jobs, and government just tends to move slower than industry with respect to technological changes.

You'll probably be a more attractive candidate if you put in some effort for a few months to demonstrate interest and ability; though if you've already decided to change careers, it's probably better to apply and get it over with so you don't have to waste any more time than you have to in a career you've decided isn't for you.

You mentioned you currently work at a University. Do they have a Computer Science, Information Systems, or similar department? Talk to someone in the department office. You might be able to get on some sort of short-term coding project (probably unpaid, but who knows) that would look great on your bootcamp application.

There's Google's Summer of Code, but looking at that it seems to be mostly for college students; I'm not sure if individual people can apply (it looks like you have to be affiliated with a participating "mentor organization" such as a college). Your boot camp might participate.
posted by tckma at 11:45 AM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh you're in Boston! I spent the first 8 years of my career in that area.

I found a job at small startup through a headhunter company called KForce, though I forget the particular recruiter's name. I believe their office is near Downtown Crossing, but my memory isn't great.

(The job wasn't that good, as I didn't fit in with the corporate culture, and I felt pressured by the recruiter to take the job even though I wanted to continue looking for something that was a better fit for me. I ended up looking for something else about six months in, talking to the same KForce recruiter, who seemed upset that I'd come back to him and all but refused to look for something for me. So take that as you will. I found an awesome next job on my own, and they paid my relocation to the DC area... and then promptly laid me off after only a year. Grrr.)
posted by tckma at 11:53 AM on July 11, 2014

I'm a hiring manager that frequently hires entry-level engineers. The only bootcamp I'm familiar with is Hackbright, but I can say with confidence they produce outstanding engineers.

I have one engineer on my team who was previously a recruiter. We hired her after Hackbright (about a year ago) and she's been doing fantastically. We have an offer out to another Hackbright grad for whom engineering would be a career change, and I hope very much she accepts.

My understanding is that Hackbright is extremely selective; I don't know about other bootcamps. But at least for that example, yes, it's absolutely worth the money.

mskyle hit all the nails squarely on the head about what to do to prepare. Just keep writing code, fixing code, etc.

Some additional ideas:

Look for an open source project you may be able to contribute to. There may be some small bugs that would be relatively easy to fix.

At a conference I attended recently, one of the speakers suggested that everybody should try to write their own implementation of the Postgres FEBE Protocol, because it's both informative and fun. You could try to do something like that, too. Write your own HTTP agent, for example.

Good luck!
posted by colin_l at 12:42 PM on July 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

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