Coding bootcamps are an increasingly popular avenue of ingress into the software development industry. There’s a lot to love about them. Bootcamps tend to be cheaper than four-year degrees, and have modern curriculums that reflect current hiring trends.
But that’s not to say they’re easy. The term ‘bootcamp’ is pretty apt; you’re thrown head-first into a genuinely challenging field and expected to keep up. That’s easier said than done, especially if you’re coming into it with no prior coding experience.
I spoke to five coding bootcamps from the US and UK, and asked what advice they’d give to a prospective student, so they don’t crash-and-burn in those first formative days.
Make it your life
Joining a coding bootcamp is a serious undertaking, explained Avi Flombaum from the Flatiron School. You’re essentially condensing what people learn over the course of a compsci degree into just a few months. Therefore, it’d be wise to minimize distractions, and tell your friends and family you won’t be around much.
The best thing to do is make the coding bootcamp experience your entire focus, your entire life. At Flatiron School, our goal is not just to teach people how to code and get them jobs, but to change a person’s life, to give them a new perspective on themselves and the world. If you’re looking for that outcome, you have to commit to the experience. It’s not a time to start a band, or join an Improv troupe, or pickup another hobby.
Give yourself as much mental space to just learn and participate. Let your friends and family know that you might be distant over the next few months, spend time with your classmates, make new friends, immerse yourself in the school and culture. The community at Flatiron School is one of the best parts of the program and will provide you with support, motivation, and inspiration. Be ready to be a part of it.
Be nice, and love what you do
As Avi alluded to, joining a coding bootcamp is a serious undertaking, and if you want to make a success of it, you have to make it your life. This is something Anna Propas, Lead Instructor at Coding Dojo’s Silicon Valley campus, agrees with.
Have a dog? Write a dog walking route algorithm in your head as you do it. Have kids? Write a school lunch packing algorithm. You’ll be a good engineer only if you throw your entire self into being one. This is part of the process of re-wiring your brain to think like a computer. Part of this process: do algorithms for fun. This will same crazy at first, but it’s the single best way to level-up your coding skills. Be curious, try new solutions to old problems in your code and in your life. Try different technologies just for fun. You don’t have to be passionate about code to be successful, but you do have to be engaged with and curious about the subject. Follow these guidelines, along with putting in the required hours, and you’re one step closer to being a code ninja!
Anna also emphasized the practical nature of coding bootcamps. You learn by doing, so don’t be afraid to fail:
Traditional education focuses on conceptual understanding above all else. A coding boot camp expects the reverse. Most boot camps say try it first, see how it works, then strive to understand it. We’re lucky to have this luxury, so take advantage of it. Imagine learning brain surgery and having your instructor say “Just get in there and mess around, we’ll see what happens.” It could never work! But with coding, we can try, fail, rinse and repeat. Those who are the boot camp superstars (and later the best developers) are comfortable with this rapid iteration process. Embrace it.
Jon Dando, from the Merseyside-based Coder Space, concurs, saying:
“For anyone attending a coding boot camp for the first time, jump straight in and give it your all. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can and you only have a short amount of time to do it in. Good trainers will do their best to impart their knowledge and years of experience onto you, but you need to make the most of it. Ask as many questions as you can (there are no stupid questions!) and, if you don’t fully understand something, ask to go over it again until you do.
Crucially, you should be humble. Be nice, be cognizent of where you are in your learning journey, and create the conditions for success. Anna Propas said:
You might think this [being humble] is synonymous with “Don’t be a jerk”. You’re half right. But most people struggle more with being too hard on themselves than too hard on others. If you’re busy comparing yourself to others, you’ll become anxious and may stop getting enough sleep. Anxiety and sleeplessness are the enemies of learning. Remember that sleep and mental relaxation allow your brain time to process and categorize what you’ve just learned.
Alex Belford, founder of Manchester’s Code Nation, also commented on the need for sleep, saying “we would always suggest that the students rests well, as there are weeks of learning ahead of them.” He added:
A boot camp is unlike any other learning environment that the students will have been exposed to. It is important that they understand this and don’t panic! People can often start to question themselves in new surroundings and surrounded by lots of new faces. Students must remember that everyone in the room is in exactly the same position. The earlier they can get through these potential concerns the better. This comes back to the school and the trainer to ensure they are creating a collaborative environment, conducive towards support and learning.
Speaking over email, Mahnken suggested prospective students spend time with those already working in the industry, to figure out what they’re getting themselves in for.
She also recommended students start easing themselves into a problem-solving mindset by solving non-coding puzzles, like crosswords, sudoku, and algorithmic puzzles.
This is something the Flatiron School’s Avi Flombaum agrees with, with preparation integral to the course. He said:
… prepare before the bootcamp. At Flatiron School we offer a free Bootcamp Prep course to help applicants and students get ready for our program and any other. Once admitted, we additionally require our students to complete another 100 hours or so of prework. That ensures everyone is coming in at a base level and we can move fast.
Don’t get overwhelmed
Bootcamps are deliberately intensive environments. You’re learning a complex and fiercely intimidating subject within a relatively short amount of time.
If there’s one thread linking the advice here, it’s to keep your head above water. Keep calm and carry on, as the iconic World War 2 poster goes.
Preparation helps. So too does making the course your life for the brief time you’re there, asking thoughtful questions of instructors, and engaging fully with the material.
Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that most people in your cohort are in the same boat, trying to figure things out while keeping with the pace of the course. Don’t feel bad if you don’t get something right away, or if you’re not progressing as fast as you should be.
And yes, I suppose you should find the time to get some rest, too.