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How to hire a developer straight out of bootcamp — without getting burned

Startups are most likely to hire devs without degrees, so make sure you do it correctly

How to hire a developer straight out of bootcamp — without getting burned
Chris Cardinal
Story by

Chris Cardinal

Founding principal, Synapse Studios

Chris founded Synapse with his partner in 2003 and has since grown it into a firm of over 50 employees. Chris founded Synapse with his partner in 2003 and has since grown it into a firm of over 50 employees.

There’s a worldwide talent shortage in software development, and nearly one-third of hiring managers have hired someone from a coding bootcamp to help fill the void. 72% say bootcamp graduates are just as good or better than other hires, but 28% feel they are not equipped to handle their jobs.

Considering coding bootcamps graduated more than 23,000 students in 2019, there are likely thousands who entered the workforce unprepared last year.

That’s not to say coding bootcamps are bad. They offer efficient and affordable paths for people to jump-start careers in software development, and they help expand talent pipelines for businesses. 83% of graduates report being employed in programming jobs, and bootcamps help normalize the informal, self-directed education that’s already common among developers.

But if you’re thinking of hiring a developer straight out of bootcamp, don’t expect to throw them into the deep end on day one.

The reason some bootcamp grads are set up to fail

In my experience, not all bootcamps are created equal. They vary widely in acceptance processes, curriculum, program structure, and quality of instructors. They’re designed to push candidates through courses that will have them writing some code fairly quickly.

As a result, programs are forced to strip away a lot of fundamentals — those basics that help developers understand the “why” behind the code they’re writing.

When young software developers learn by copying and pasting, it can make troubleshooting difficult when they come across something that doesn’t fit the pattern they’re used to.

Small businesses and startups are those most likely to hire developers without degrees, but I’ve seen too many bootcamp grads take jobs at startups only to find they haven’t learned enough to make any real impact.

This doesn’t mean your startup should write off coding bootcamp graduates altogether. But you do need to be judicious about the people you bring on, and you should have processes in place to monitor, mentor, and upskill them.

Here’s how to hire a software developer straight out of bootcamp — without getting burned.

1. Look for bootcamp grads with personal projects

The best bootcamp grads are those who already considered themselves hobbyists. They didn’t enter a program expecting to learn everything they needed to know in 12 weeks.

They were already passionate about software development and enrolled in a bootcamp for some structure and guidance, and to level up their skills.

Ideally, bootcamp grads should have a portfolio of GitHub projects (or one larger personal project) they’ve been working on outside of their program. Taking something you’re passionate about and figuring out how to make it work is the best way to learn.

It forces you to explore the code you’re writing and learn more about how things work at a low level. Instead of working on fixing small snippets of someone else’s code in isolation, it’s all your code.

That experience is invaluable. It forms a strong base for bootcampers to build their skills upon. If a recent bootcamp grad doesn’t have any personal projects, that might be a red flag.

2. Adjust your interview process to test for fundamentals

Because bootcamps are, by nature, time-constrained programs, some will blow right past the heavy lifting of helping developers understand why things work the way they do.

The result is that some graduates come out of bootcamps using pattern recognition as their primary skill and an understanding of how to get by with copying and pasting code.

Whenever I’m interviewing candidates straight out of bootcamp, I’ll put them through an initial screener and a technical screener before putting them through a full-blown technical interview.

The screener is simple: an entry-level software developer should be able to talk you through (and write) vanilla JavaScript code (or insert your stack here) rather than just know what things to change in React to make it work.

If they can’t write a for loop, every day they work for you will be a struggle and a LOT of time on Stack Overflow.

3. Hire natural problem solvers and nurture their intellectual curiosity

All engineering is problem-solving. Junior developers won’t be architecting anything right away, but you should look for people who show a predilection for understanding the problem they’re trying to solve and evaluating potential paths forward.

Even when your newest developers are working as order takers, they should be thinking critically about why those orders are issued. A good mentor can help initiate those conversations about the “why” behind each assignment and help new hires see what they might be missing.

I hired one junior developer straight out of bootcamp who didn’t have a grasp on all the fundamentals but did have a lot of intellectual curiosity.

She kept working to build her framework of knowledge while understanding the “why” behind tasks. By the time she had a good grasp of the fundamentals, she was also an excellent problem-solver.

Now she’s on track to become a senior-level developer, and she’s absolutely killing it by continuing to improve and grow in her role every day.

4. Set new hires up for success with appropriate oversight

If you’re hiring someone fresh out of bootcamp, don’t expect them to come in and start developing complex applications by themselves. Most bootcamp grads have never worked in a real-world programming environment before, and you can’t expect them to be self-directed from day one.

You need a strong new-hire onboarding process and support system that makes new hires feel comfortable asking questions and continuing to learn.

My company assigns a mentor to every new hire, which is crucial for junior developers straight out of bootcamp. If you set a new hire loose on a project and expect results, they’ll likely be overwhelmed by day two.

If they don’t come out of that imposter syndrome spiral, they’ll be terrified to ask for help by day five. Or they might start a project off on the wrong foot and waste several days before their work goes through the code-review process.

Mentoring new hires helps keep imposter syndrome at bay. It also helps you learn where new hires fall on the skills ladder so you can calibrate future assignments and identify areas for further development.

A good mentor encourages questions and helps newcomers course-correct quickly so they don’t waste a lot of time spinning their wheels on their own.

That’s why we have an explicit ’20-minute rule’: if you’re still banging your head trying to solve a problem after 20 minutes, come up for air and ask for help. (It’s worth noting this rule applies to literally everyone in our company: senior engineers aren’t immune from needing help from their peers.)

Choose mentors who are both skilled developers and empathetic enough to see where newcomers are stumbling so they can help them get to the root of the problem.

Coding bootcamps are exploding in popularity for a reason: they provide an accelerated learning path for people who want to code, and they’re providing a much-needed lifeline for companies desperate for talent.

Bootcamp graduates can make excellent additions to any team, but throwing them into the deep end will only leave everyone frustrated and slightly traumatized. You should be prepared to thoroughly vet bootcamp grads and invest in developing new hires.

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