Dear Bootcamps: Raise Your Admissions Bars or Get Out of the Way

bootcamps-admissions-bar.png

The abundance of coding bootcamps with low admissions standards is a ticking time bomb, and it’s already claiming casualties.

Effects of low admissions standards are most immediately felt by underprepared students who later become bootcamp dropouts or unemployable alumni. Beyond that, the feedback loop created by low entry standards is leading to wider harm across the industry.

Who am I and why do I care?

Bootcamps have been my life for the past two years. I previously worked as instructor in the space, and then I left to found my own program designed to prepare and advise prospective bootcamp students. I’ve now advised hundreds of people through interviews and enrollments across over a dozen different programs at this point.

Alumni from my prep program typically experience one of three outcomes:

  • Ignition: After a lot of studying, coding eventually “clicks.” They realize they love it, and they make it through rigorous entry challenges into well-regarded bootcamps. We consider this to be an excellent outcome.

  • Realization: Despite intense practice, even basic coding structures like for loops and if statements remain a struggle to apply practically. Eventually, these students come to accept that coding might not be the best career choice for them. This is also a great outcome, because the student has scratched an itch and come to a wise decision.

  • Slow Failure: Coding remains a struggle, but the student is still intent on pressing forward. They fail coding challenges at selective programs, but they get excited when they are admitted to low-bar programs that still promise six-figure salaries. They take out loans to get started, and the struggle continues. At the end, they’re worse off than where they started.

I try my best to prevent the third outcome, but it’s tough to talk someone out of sprinting toward a dream that millions of marketing dollars have cultivated. It’s painful to watch, and I want to do whatever I can to help.

At this point, I’m convinced that the most helpful step most bootcamps can take now to help with this problem is to collectively raise their admissions bars.

Low admissions bars aren’t doing students any favors.

Let’s be honest here: not everyone is cut out for being a software engineer, just like not everyone is cut out for being a rock star. When you admit a student into your bootcamp, you’re signaling that they show promise in this career. Your students deserve to be thoroughly evaluated before receiving this signal. Otherwise, you’re doing them a great injustice.

Letting in a student who isn’t adequately prepared will also impact other students in class. It allows for a large differential between your highest performing and lowest performing students. This will impede student collaboration, and it makes the job of teachers immensely more challenging.

Even more fundamentally, if your students have to spend 33% of their time at a bootcamp just getting down the basics, they will have far less time left in the program for learning the applicable skills that will actually make them employable.

Low admissions bars are also problematic for bootcamps and the industry at large.

Bootcamps ultimately live and die by their reviews and outcomes statistics. Large marketing budgets can compensate in the early stages, but in the long run, there’s no escaping it. Naturally, when the entry bar is low, the exit bar will be too. This means worse outcomes for your students and unsatisfied reviews eventually coming back your way.

On the larger scale, consider the thousands of underprepared bootcamp graduates pouring out into the world. Over time, this leads to diminished expectations from employers of what a bootcamp grad can be capable of, and eventually, it leads to closed doors. This does a huge injustice to the thousands of bootcamp graduates entering the market who truly are ready to deliver value as junior developers.

Minimum competencies for being admitted to a bootcamp

It would be wonderful if the industry could rally around this question and come up with a minimum standard. Personally, I would never advise someone to start a bootcamp (or admit them) until they were able to fluently use functions, looping, array of objects, and state variables to solve problems on the fly. A problem like this one should be easy for anyone admitted to a bootcamp.

It’s purely mechanical to know how to write a for loop when prompted, but it’s proof of a much greater competency to be able to understand when and how to use one based on a problem description. 

Advice for prospective bootcamp students

If you’re thinking about joining a bootcamp, you might be on your way to a truly life-changing pivot. However, you should be confident you understand what you’re getting yourself into, and you should be sure you’re truly prepared. Here is my advice:

1. Talk to a few software engineers about their day-to-day. Does it sound like a routine you would like?

2. Talk to recent bootcamp alumni from programs you are considering. Most recent alumni will be very receptive to talking about their experience, especially if you’re willing to buy them a coffee. The “recent” part is also important because bootcamps change quickly. A program that was excellent a year ago might be terrible now.

3. Don’t go to a bootcamp that doesn’t make you solve a challenging coding problem to get in. Most likely, it’s not a place you want to be.

4. Prove to yourself that you’re truly ready by applying to some programs that have a reputation for being selective. Or, consider taking our Bootcamp Readiness Test (my company offers as a service at a break-even price).

5. Consider taking a bootcamp prep course before you get heavily invested in a bootcamp and potential career pivot.

6. Spend at least 100 hours coding, and be honest with yourself. Are you making steady progress? Are you having fun? If “Yes!” isn’t your instantaneous response to both of these questions, you might reconsider what you’re getting yourself into.

Some bootcamps are truly doing wonderful work for the world.

To end on a positive note, let me say clearly that I am a true believer in the bootcamp model. I’ve employed bootcamp grads, and I’ve been astounded with how much some bootcamps are able to transform their students.

There are a handful of bootcamps who are doing everything right and keep innovating to get their students on track for success. Props to you guys! If we haven’t spoken already, I’d love to get to know you. Feel free to reach out to me via andy@firststepcoding.com.

To everyone else, you’ve got two options:

  1. Adapt quickly, starting with your admissions bar. If you're looking for advice on how to approach this, feel free to reach out. I'm happy to offer my two cents, even anonymously if you prefer.
     
  2. Fail, and clear the way for others doing this right. You’re doing more harm than good in the mean time.