Web Dev Bootcamps for Young People
January 4, 2022 7:39 AM   Subscribe

My son is a 19-year-old who, due to some physical health challenges, may not be well-suited to complete a four-year degree at this time. He is very interested in developing websites. What kind of training would be helpful for a young person interested in starting a career in web development? What is the feeling on bootcamps in this space?

For the past year he has been teaching himself laravel php with a mySQL backend and now is working with tailwind and vue to make art-related websites. His original plan was a bachelors in game art (he has years of art experience), but he's working on getting a diagnosis for a problem that is limiting his mobility, and the classic "walk around this large campus" college experience isn't a great fit right now.

I work in data analytics, so tech-related, but don't have good line of sight to what hiring patterns and requirements are like in web dev. Many previous questions on this point are evaluating bootcamp vs masters degree, and that's not an option here. I have observed that several reasonably well-regarded brick-and-mortar schools in my area are offering web dev bootcamps (UNC, NC State). Is this a better or worse idea than a typical bootcamp? Are the particular programs we should look at? How do we evaluate? Is there another route to this work that we're not considering?
posted by jeoc to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: One small supplemental note that Ada actually looks great for him (he's transgender), but the age requirement is 21. Anything similar would be very welcome.
posted by jeoc at 7:48 AM on January 4, 2022

I'm not in web dev but I'm in tech and work closely with web developers. My feeling, from a mile high, is that bootcamps will be valuable at helping your child get a foot in the door for job opportunities, since applying to jobs without a college degree may be harder, even though tech claims not to care about degrees. The bootcamp will also help introduce him to the most up to date frameworks and technologies. The actual learning may mostly happen on his own.

For getting interviews, having a portfolio of projects helps. Web dev is nice in that there are a dime a dozen opportunities to build sites (possibly pro bono) for actual people and organizations who need them, rather than just for practice or fun, which gives valuable experience dealing with clients and requirements.
posted by redlines at 7:57 AM on January 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that he needs a bootcamp to get a web development job. It sounds like he's developed a lot of skills through self-study, and that may be enough to get him started. If he has some websites that he can use as a portfolio, I think he should apply for internships right now and see what happens.

One thing that's not clear to me is whether your son wants to go to college. If he does, then I think that should be possible. Maybe he could take a gap year, get some work experience and whatnot, hopefully get a handle on his health situation, and then research campuses that would be able to provide him with the accommodations that he needs to have a good experience. If he doesn't want to go to college, that's totally fine, but he shouldn't assume that he can't go to college because of his disability.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:19 AM on January 4, 2022

I would highly encourage him to have a strong solo work portfolio if he chooses to go the BootCamp route (though really even if he were to go to college or be self-taught). If I see a BootCamp grad, and all they have on their resume is group projects from said BootCamp, that essentially tells me nothing about their qualifications.
posted by pyro979 at 8:57 AM on January 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've hired a bunch of web developers from various bootcamps. They function a lot like what we used to call vocational schools: the focus is on getting people ready to join an engineering team and be productive right away, so they tend to focus on a currently popular framework and business methods, and skim through the theory and fundamentals.

Personally I've come to strongly believe that for most entry-level roles this is highly preferable over a traditional CS or masters degree -- academics have the opposite problem, they tend to be strong on theory, but have practical gaps: all the Big-O and algorithm knowledge in the world won't help you work in software if you don't understand how async code works, why unit tests are valuable, or how to break a feature request down into tasks. This is not a universally-held opinion, of course, but personally I'm at the point where LaTeX-formatted resumes get extra side-eye.

The bigger challenge with bootcamps is not that they're generally perceived as inferior; it's that there are a lot of them right now, and they're churning out new web developers (in particular) at an astounding rate, so it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd. It's really difficult to tell from the resume whether a bootcamp person is worth the time to interview, because they all look basically identical: it's "whatever I did before bootcamp" followed by "bootcamp project #1, bootcamp project #2, bootcamp team capstone project".

(To give you a sense of the odds: I paused hiring over the holiday break and now have a stack of 665 resumes waiting for me. I'll have about 15 open positions to fill this year. Partly this is because the camps funnel resumes towards companies that have hired from them in the past, so we get a lot of them... but, yeah, there's a lot of competition.)

I'm not familiar with any of the "traditional school with a bootcamp on the side" programs -- possibly because any applicants from those are going to try to make it less obvious that they went to the bootcamp instead of the "real" school. In your son's position I'd want to evaluate those programs pretty carefully against the traditional CS programs at the same school to make sure they're not just a holding pen for also-rans.

If your son is motivated enough to already be working on his own, that's great; those extra portfolio pieces should serve him well, and the knowledge and context he's already building up will give him a head start in whatever program he joins.

Practicing on Leetcode (or similar) can also be really helpful for the inevitable, and essential, tech-screen interview.

Twice now I've lucked into hiring one talented person, who was able to refer a bunch of other talented people from their bootcamp cohort -- we have unofficial Team Grace Hopper and Team Hack Reactor in the dept now. So work that group project, make sure you get to know the people who are likely to get hired, so they can bring you along.

(One final note: web dev and game dev are very distinct industries and skillsets, there's not a lot of crossover from one to the other afaik. If your son't interest is really in games or game art, and he's hoping that web dev is the way to get his foot in the door, that's probably not going to work out. If he's just looking for A Job, backend work is slightly less competitive and for mostly historical reasons tends to pay more than frontend. Everyone claims to be "full stack" but for nontrivial projects there's really no such thing as that anymore.)
posted by ook at 9:23 AM on January 4, 2022 [5 favorites]

I don't have numbers to back this up, but my perception is that it is harder to get foot-in-the-door tech jobs without a college degree than it was in The Old Days. One benefit of boot camps is that they provide some kind of "I completed a hard thing" credential.

They can also help him present portfolio projects in a way that will be legible to employers — a github repo that "looks right," has the files in exactly the expected places, has a README that tells readers all the right things about the technologies he used, etc. This lets hiring managers who are skimming a million applications take a quick look and see, yeah, ok, he checks the right boxes, I won't throw his resume out yet.

I agree with others that he may find a bootcamp covers some things he already knows. But the same would be true in a college degree program: there are required classes, some of them are review, some are boring, it's how things work. (And frankly, judging from my friends who have done them, bootcamps are likely to move very fast, and a few weeks of "this is familiar" might be welcome.) It might be worth seeking one out that uses a framework other than Vue, so that he can show off projects in both and apply to a wider range of jobs.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:31 AM on January 4, 2022

I've hired and worked with more developers than I can count, and I can tell you that the actual degree doesn't matter. I dont care about schooling at all. Some of the best developers i've worked with are 100% self taught. I care about what you can do now, can you contribute? Do you understand how to do things "right" (and "right" is subjective, but if you have an opinion you're on the right track) vs hacking and slashing things together? Will my senior devs accept your work into "their" codebases, or are they going to complain to me they have to redo it all because it sucks and you wont listen to feedback? Do you have the ability it pick up new paradigms, new ways of doing things, and learn? Are you passionate, and can talk about the things you're worked on and explain why you did the things you did and the decisions you made? And most importantly, are you someone that people will want to work with? I can (or have senior devs who can) teach an interested passionate dev with good basics just about anything except how to not be a jackass.

Will a bootcamp get you this? I'm not sure. Apologies for not answering the question directly.

This also pains me to say, but I'd perhaps focus on something other than PHP. I personally love it (I'm old school that way and thats where my roots are) but PHP still gets a lot of hate in the industry. If i were just starting out, I'd focus on javascript based frameworks like React, and Node on the server. IIHO, that will get your further faster, or Python if you want something non-javascript. But that opinion is highly subjective, and there's something to be said for not following the crowd with regards to finding opportunities.
posted by cgg at 10:36 AM on January 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

I just transitioned into software and will probably Memail you more, or feel free to reach out to me. I agree that while it's not impossible to do this without a college degree, it will make job hunting much harder just because most of your competition will have one. I would also recommend that he start with either a free online, or a community college intro course in Python or Java if he hasn't done significant work in those. Among other reasons, IME, most reputable bootcamps will make you do a readiness interview showing that you have intro-level knowledge in one of those.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:39 PM on January 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'd nth the suggestions regarding focusing on Javascript or Python as a first language. My personal preference is towards Python as a beginner language but sounds like your son is enjoying front end development with Vue and Tailwind CSS (that's an excellent way to learn by the way!) so they might want to focus more on JavaScript rather than PHP since it's hard to beat JavaScript for front end development.

Since your son is doing a great job learning on their own I'd suggest they continue that path rather than the boot camp option. There are a ton of excellent free resources to learn JavaScript and Python online and I personally think boot camps are a better fit for people that enjoy more structured learning and/or would like an instructor to personally ask questions. (There are also free online forums to ask software questions if they choose to continue the self-learning path.)

Front end development is a great place to focus on for beginners if that matches their interests but I just want to mention for completeness sake that backend is also another option. I'm a beginner myself and I've enjoyed using the Python web framework Django and the Java web framework Spring Boot for projects. There seem to be a lot of Java Spring backend jobs and I plan to start applying to those soon.
posted by mundo at 2:58 PM on January 4, 2022

It's not a bootcamp, but it sounds like the Recurse Center might be a good fit. I did RC when I was younger than your son, and it was a great experience for me, and I ended up getting a tech job afterwards (not directly through RC, but definitely as a result of attending — people there were great about helping me prep for interviews and giving advice about job hunting).

They also provide grants to people under-represented in tech, which it sounds like your son would qualify for, if that's helpful.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have questions about it/my experience there!
posted by wesleyac at 3:59 PM on January 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

Seconding wesleyac's recommendation of the Recurse Center. They have a modest but positive reputation and I find them much less hype-driven and scammy than many bootcamps. The emphasis on self-directed learning (within a community of peers) might work well for your son.

More broadly, I generally believe that the value of a formal educational space for web development is:
  • Finding people who can teach along an optimal learning path or recommend resources for you to teach yourself optimally
  • Finding peers who will direct you towards the most sought-after and valuable skills right now, and help you grow and stay motivated
  • Developing a network that will help you understand what the interviewing process is like and how to navigate it
I'll digress briefly to back this up with some of my own experiences. I went to one of the top 3 programs in the US for computer science and had to teach myself nearly all the web design and development skills I have today. The education was not intrinsically helpful for web development, actually (although it prepares people well for certain kinds of software engineering problems).

Many of my most employable peers (some weren't even in the CS program) learned web development on their own and developed portfolios (and thereby developed and exhibited the practical skills we were never taught)…or they leveraged their formally useful but practically inadequate CS knowledge, plus the prestige of the institution, to get internships at well-known companies where they actually learned early-career web skills. So I second what ook said about how more vocational bootcamp education can prepare entry-level engineers much better than an academic program, in many cases.

The things that were most tactically helpful about my program: being in an environment where I had a lot of access to other people's interview experiences (so I could learn how to position myself, what skills were useful, how to navigate the job application and interview process); and developing a network (for referrals and insider information).

There are so many nuances about what skills are in or out, how to position himself and talk about himself in a way that reads as 'capable, confident, self-taught whiz kid' (people really do love self-directed learners in this industry!) and turns his background into an asset. I would prioritize learning about how good the peer/alumni network is at different places and the quality of their career advising.

Your son is actually in a great position: he's self-motivated and capable of teaching himself. I have a number of friends who had unrelated, non-STEM degrees and taught themselves (without a bootcamp) to be capable web developers. Once he breaks in with his first web dev job, or once he gets his first Well-Known Tech Company Job, he'll have a great career.

Some more specific advice:
  • Have to echo the comments to not focus on PHP. Fundamental JavaScript fluency (it's a core web language and this will always be helpful) to then learn some currently-dominant JavaScript frameworks (React, Angular, Vue) will be very useful. My personal recommendation would be React.
  • Web dev bootcamps offered by traditional universities like UNC are not, in my opinion, more likely to be taken seriously or teach better fundamentals.
  • He really can get a job with just a portfolio (and no degree or bootcamp credential), but the most difficult part—if he already has the motivation and commitment—will be learning what a meaningful portfolio project looks like, and how to navigate the interview process and get the first few interviews.
  • I can highly recommend reaching out to people kind of doing what he wants to do, kind of with similar backgrounds (bootcamp grads, self-taught web developers, people doing projects he admires, etc) and ask for advice. If they're someone kind of small (e.g. a bootcamp grad two or three years into their career), they might be delighted and gratified to be contacted.
  • Some fundamental computer science knowledge will be helpful, but it's not a prerequisite for a lot of web dev work. I do think it will deepen his knowledge/conceptual frameworks. I recently saw this book recommended by a career switcher; places like Coursera have intro courses from excellent CS schools that he can watch at home and try for free. Paying money for the formal certificate may not be necessary.

posted by w-w-w at 7:52 AM on January 5, 2022

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