Should I go to Coding Bootcamp or College for a Software Developer Career

Edited and approved by: Stefan Bradstreet

The Unpopular Truth About Breaking Into a Coding Career

If you are considering a career as a software developer then you have no doubt had the question; how do I achieve my dream and which program is right for me? It’s a big decision to make considering the time investment, technical aptitude, educational discipline, learning style, career goals, and financial requirements. Of course, that doesn’t include every variable you may consider during your process but it’s a good start to your journey. For those looking for a 3-6 month code bootcamp option as a get-rich-quick idea, it may be beneficial, if somewhat disheartening, to realize that there is simply no “easy road” on the path to becoming a software developer. That being said, do not despair, below we will dive deeper into the realities you will face with code bootcamps as well as the 4-year college computer science degree and help you see which is right for you.

What Does it Take to Succeed?

According to a group of researchers from SIGCSE (Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education), there are two overarching skill groups that many employers look for when considering new hires; hard skills and soft skills. Employers define hard skills as an applicant’s technical knowledge; effectively, this is the ability to write code and lead software development life cycles, utilize data structures, and have a mastery of a programming language. Hard skills are the foundation that any software developer must possess to succeed, particularly when working alone or with limited assistance.

Soft skills may feel like a hard right-turn as they are entirely removed from the hard skills required for coding. These skills seem more universal on the surface and include teamwork and adaptability, exemplifying leadership principles, managing time and stress, among other things. At a glance, anyone can look at required soft skills and feel entirely confident in their abilities but it’s not so simple as that. These skills are incredibly important but they do not exist in a vacuum when looking at a technical career like that of a software developer. Adapting to complex problems, working with a team, and creatively approaching issues will help with any career. However, it takes someone with these abilities along with the required hard skills to form a successful developer. It is difficult to compensate with one set of skills if the developer is entirely lacking in the other. You will need a solid, and rounded, educational foundation to succeed.

Where do I learn these skills?

Traditional 4-year programs will focus more intently on your hard skills and set you up for success with a strong foundation. University coursework will take you the long way around on your journey and give you a more in-depth study of software development overall. You will have access to a larger scope of coursework with the ability to more fully drill down on your intended professional trajectory. You will gain the necessary experience with soft skills when working on larger projects, collaborating with others, and facing difficult problems crafted by dedicated professors. Normal college coursework will address programming languages, algorithms, system design and theory holistically.

Bootcamps have a strong reputation with employers for developing soft skills specifically. Of course, this feels a little bizarre to confront this reality since the intention is to teach you to code above all. Typically, these programs span the course of three to six months, although some may be as short as eight weeks. While they may have a specific focus for their coursework, it is difficult to approach the width and breadth of a traditional degree. Employers do value soft skills with competent developers and this is where bootcamps shine. They have a reputation for collaboration as a key element in their educational structure, The hard skills offered with these programs are also incredibly reactionary and the curriculum can vary and change rather quickly to meet modern demands.

What skills do I need the most?

A deep understanding of your abilities and lack thereof is dire when looking at your options. It is crucial that you determine your learning style and truthfully answer some difficult questions;

  1. What is my learning style?
  2. Which environment helps me thrive?
  3. What are my weaknesses?
  4. Is there a specific position I want to prepare for?
  5. How much do I know about that position today?
  6. Will I remain dedicated throughout this journey?

Knowing the answers to these questions should help you determine where you are most likely to reach your goals.

How dependable will my mentor be?

College students may have this clear cut advantage over bootcampers as many professors are held to a higher level of accountability within their institution compared to a camp mentor. Although they may be knowledgeable about their specific coursework there are questions about their methods. Bootcamp mentors commonly utilize a one-size-fits-all approach to educating their students. Often referred to as the “I-We-You” method, these instructors will demonstrate an idea, ask the class to work on the same idea together, and then the individual student will be assigned homework on the concept. This method may work for some students but not all. True flexibility in learning styles, individual mentoring, and varied educational approaches lay with college professors.

Investing Your Time Wisely

Of course, time is a large factor to consider. On the surface, the possibility of a program measured in weeks rather than years may be incredibly enticing but that also acts as a double-edged sword. Depending on your current career and knowledge base, it may not be quite as beneficial to jump in and out so quickly. If you are already involved with the field and are hoping to make a small career shift, you may be able to take full advantage of the shortened period of a bootcamp. However, those looking to start a new career entirely may be better served with a more long-form education plan. Universities may take four years to reach your goal but your hands-on experience and width of knowledge will prepare you more thoroughly and excel you far past amateur mistakes of new developers that opted for camp. Universities can also give you a chance to make valuable networking connections through career fairs, advisors, and alumni groups.

As we covered above, it’s incredibly important to be honest with yourself concerning your true aptitude, current knowledge level, learning speed, etc. If there is a doubt that you will be out of depth jumping feet first into a camp course, you may want to reconsider our next point as well; financial investment.

What About the Finances?

It is common knowledge that 4-year college degrees have increased in cost, it is not so common to know the true costs of bootcamps. While your traditional degree may run some thousands of dollars per semester, there are multiple avenues for loans, scholarships, and federal grants to help with funds. Computer science degree programs, as a leading industry, have available scholarships covering upwards of $10,000, and sometimes even more. Bootcamps stand out in the financial comparison as being a fraction of the cost, often ranging between $10,000 and $20,000. The upsetting truth is that while they may be cheaper in dollar amounts, the true cost is not quite as straightforward as it seems.

Will I save money at camp?

In short; possibly. The hard truth though is that the entire cost is immediately and directly bestowed on the student. With exception to the established worker looking for a career boost, most incoming students will not likely have access to the thousands upon thousands required for a code bootcamp, regardless of how much “cheaper” it is compared to traditional education. There is the possibility that new students can save money going that route but it’s much less likely that one will reap the full rewards. The second part of this equation is the real world compensation between graduates of each program.

What will my paycheck look like?

Recent findings (Dec. 2019) from CourseReport show an average starting salary of $66,964 for bootcamp graduates. Compared to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an average salary (2018) for 4-year degree-holding software developers of $105,590, bootcamp may have a smaller investment but it does not stack up to the additional $38,626 earned by college graduates. There will be a matter of paying off debts, whether we consider a personal loan for bootcamp or traditional loans for college. The college student will earn an additional $38,626, annually; a 57% increase in income.

  • $66,694 * 5(years) = $334,820.
  • $105,590 * 5(years) = $527,950.

Over this short period, the 4-year student is looking at an additional $193,130, in income.

Making Your Decision

Hopefully, you now have some valuable insight into the true demands and compromises you will be forced to make for your career as a new software developer. If you are making a simple transition in your career, you may be able to benefit from a code bootcamp, but largely, it seems a traditional education would better serve most new students. Each option may have its pros and cons but whether your goal is to make more money, capitalize on your interests, or thoroughly educate yourself for a new career, it may be in your best interest to find a traditional education program that meets your needs.

About Stefan Bradstreet

Stefan is a Senior Software Developer at Amazon with 8+ years of experience in tech. He is passionate about helping people become better coders and climbing the ranks in their careers, as well as his own, through continued learning of leadership techniques and software best practices.

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