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Major (Growing) Pain: The BootCamp Blues

Updated: Feb 8

By Keisha A. Mitchell




2020 was a transformative year to say the least. In the midst of the silence and stillness of my apartment I felt a sense of capability and a call to change, but what did that mean? It felt like lifestyle, but that was obvious because I saw no clear route back to what the world was rapidly moving away from. Did it mean creatively? Maybe, I had spent twenty years carving out a place in this world as journalist and while I’ve certainly had my share of successes I really felt like the most impactful thing I could do in the present moment was prepare myself for more, take the down time and make myself better -so I landed on career change, and believed that because of my background and interests I could comfortably segue into tech via the lane of programming.

"According to Statista “The global developer population is expected to reach 28.7 million people by 2024, an increase of 3.2 million from the number seen in 2020.” While that’s less than 1% of the population, that’s still millions who make the world as we know it more digitally expansive by the day. The common denominator isn’t that they’re great at math, or that they’re super graphically inclined, or even that they’re geniuses academically-the unifying theme is that they didn’t learn these programs over night and the best among them will admit that they did not learn how to use these tools “fast”.


It just so happened the popular coding academy Zero to Mastery was offering their critically acclaimed course for a free 6month trial. The courses were wonderfully mapped out and the pre recorded lectures were amazing, but unfortunately I found that the isolation of quarantine caused me to feign real time human interaction more than usual and the lack of conversation I was having around the logic of code made it hard to stay focused, so I opted out thinking, “maybe this isn’t for me”. Fast forward to July of 2021 and while much of the country tried to resume some semblance of normalcy, the vestiges of Coronavirus were everywhere , including in the educational sector where institutions had been pumped full of funding from the federal government. This meant that now many brick and mortar institutions and digital bootcamps alike were all following ZTMs’ lead and offering their education platforms for practically free. Never one to make opportunity knock twice, I answered again, this time with the intention of it moving in. This particular program had awesome marketing; “change your life in 12 weeks!” mantras echoed from every cta on their website and their SEO was top tier, and incredibly effective in convincing me that they were well known beyond just my quarantine bubble. Throw in an incredibly energetic and personable Admissions Advisor and I was sold. But as I and my other 28 classmates would soon realize, some things that glitter are actually gold, while others are just gold plated.



The fallacy of microwaved full stacks

In the world of development a “full stack“ refers to any combination of frameworks and programming languages that are possessed by a Developer as a toolkit to help them build websites and applications. The three most popular and fundamental languages are HTML, CSS and Javascript. These foundational tools are mostly responsible for what we experience aesthetically and practically when engaging interactively with web pages and apps, or what's referred to as the “frontend”. While there are myriad iterations of each that have spawned countless progeny and competitors, the general principle is still that if you can learn these three languages and use them in tandem then you can become a Developer. Throw in “backend” autonomy (the part of programming that creates environments for data to be stored and handled by the internet as well as what informs your device cognitively to follow the instructions given by the frontend) with programs like Node, Postgres, etc and you are what the Developer world would consider “fullstack”. Learning these things is by no means an impossible feat. According to Statista “The global developer population is expected to reach 28.7 million people by 2024, an increase of 3.2 million from the number seen in 2020.” While that’s less than 1% of the population, that’s still millions who make the world as we know it more digitally expansive by the day. The common denominator isn’t that they’re great at math, or that they’re super graphically inclined, or even that they’re geniuses academically-the unifying theme is that they didn’t learn these programs over night and the best among them will admit that they did not learn how to use these tools “fast”.



Expectations

This expectation that at the end of 12 weeks a student would possess decent enough mobility to effectively apply for a job, pass technical interview assessments and be able to work competitively is misleading at best. Very quickly the mantra turned from: “change your life in 12 weeks!” to: “you’re receiving the equivalent of a computer science degree in 5.5x the speed”. Frequently we were told in orientation that the program would be “intense” and analogous to “drinking water from a fire hose”. And at first, to an agenue developer such as myself and many of my peers that idea sounded thrilling…in theory. But in application, a person who’s only coding experience came from MySpace templates in 2003, or even more common, no experience at all would potentially have an understandably steep learning curve to be successful if expectations aren’t properly managed from the outset.


Experience gaps

In my course, we began with a hefty roster of 29 students and while we had to complete pre-work to qualify for the course, it was never graded or mentioned again...and so there was no real litmus of capability. Upon deeper analysis, it was revealed that only three of us represented had any real knowledge (2 students had previous work experiences in tech and one student had actually taught software dev for ten years), the other 26 represented a variety of coding hobbyists, people transitioning careers, and people who were looking for alternatives to traditional undergraduate programs. This meant that not only was there a wide gap in life experience (to be expected in any adult learning environment) but there was also a wide gap in aptitude. It goes without saying that newbies need more dedicated time and nurture than persons who’ve previously been self taught or formally educated elsewhere, but it seemed that fact was somewhat lost on Instructors as the class rapidly progressed. Although our first whiteboard assessment (a basic logic quiz containing JavaScript method questions) results came back with an average score of 2 out of 8, the instruction powered on with the class consistently being reassured “it’s ok to not understand”.


Skill, not trade

This theme of not understanding became a constant presence in our virtual classroom. And while anything you learn takes time, dedication and commitment programming (and specifically the act of writing code) isn’t something that you memorize to be successful at. It takes habitual practice and a fixation of its’ principles and practices, because it’s a solution based sport that is responsive only to the circumstances presented to it. You must truly comprehend what you're doing and what problem you’re solving. Though the bootcamp I was apart of marketed and ran itself as a trade school, that was unfortunately a foundational flaw and mismanagement of guidance; unlike with a trade (like welding for instance), there is no guarantee that after a given amount of time that you will be fluent enough in the language of programming to utilize it professionally. Rather, programming is a skill that must be honed and a blade that must be consistently sharpened because what’s required and desired of Developers will always fluctuate and grow, and there is no true concept of “done” when embarking on this path. In a way, there is no prefabricated path to follow for guaranteed professional growth at all. However, what is certain is that picking one language, and growing with that and branching off into different frameworks relevant to an individual and their interests, may be better for a beginner with professional aspirations, as ultimately they’ll need to know what employers will want them to know as well.


“True life: you think you know , but you have no idea”

One of the most unique things about this particular learning environment is that we weren’t being led by or working with anyone who’s actually been employed, or worked in the field. At enrollment, students were told that career services would work with us and begin mentoring us for job placement no later than two weeks pre graduation (this also didn’t happen), and the advisors and recruiting materials reiterated how easy and common job placement was post graduation. That was interesting because it became noticeable rather soon that the majority of the learning staff -both Learning Assistants and Instructors - were almost all, if not exclusively Academy Alum. Many were offered teaching positions not even a year out from graduation and though they were supportive in conversation and often in deed, you could tell that education was not their forté nor was it their interest. As a student in this learning dynamic it had very much the feel of upperclassmen tutors to underclassmen students and what ended up undeniable is that their positions as Teachers in many ways was the academy making good on their word. After all a job in tech is a job in tech right? And the answer is kind of, but not really .


Communication is a major key

Everyone knows that sometimes soft skills suffer in favor of harder skills, and there is a bit of truth to the idea that the creatively or technologically adept aren’t always the best communicators. While this can be worked with in a professional or even personal setting, it’s almost an insurmountable mountain to climb when you’re in the weeds educationally and your Teacher is either unresponsive or just not great at articulating the key concepts necessary to form and solidify understanding. When I would ask my Admissions Advisor about how I could best combat the sometimes standoffish or even aloofness of my Instructors, I was told “they can be really introverted at times” . While that left me with a truth, it also left me with little to work with and ultimately I (like many students) had to seek out my peers or resources like YouTube, Free Code Academy, and other educational content just to understand the modules (which were unfortunately error filled), let alone complete the work.


Self mastery is the end all to be all

The further along we got, the less the Instructors set out to teach, and that would’ve been fine, except when you came across resources that they weren’t familiar with, or methods they didn’t have exposure to then those same resources they eagerly encouraged us to reach for became “unacceptable”. We were told more than once that we were being taught “how to research” or “how to learn” as opposed to how to code- but in the same breath that we were told this, we were also expected to stringently follow their way of doing things. Confusing at least and contradictory at best, the most consistent actuality was that I had to find, and learn through my own sources.


Do your research

So my experience ultimately ended as it began, which in many ways I expect it to stay as I progress through my path as a programmer; whatever I want to achieve, it will be on me to find the how that works best for me and certainly on me to apply the information that I have acquired. Of course there will be opportunities for collaboration and teamwork but regardless, I no longer expect to learn from others as much as I intend to actively learn from doing. While I don’t regret the time spent at the academy (I certainly left with more knowledge and experience than when I arrived) , if I could change anything about my choice to attend it would’ve started with me seeking to know less about what I’d be learning and more about how I’d be learning and who I’d be learning from.


These are my tips for choosing a bootcamp that’s best for you:


Know what questions to ask

Don’t just ask about curriculum or tuition, ask about what class looks like in the first week, first month, etc. Ask about what’s expected of you as a Student as well as of your Teachers and ask about what measures are put in place to hold all parties accountable.


Be honest about your interests and your relationship to and with learning

If you haven’t always had the best relationship with the institution of “school” or the lecture oriented format of most higher education in the U.S., be honest with yourself about that and let that inform your pick of an institution. Ask yourself what your preferred lecture to project ratio is as well what types of outcomes are you looking for and what kind of projects or things do you want to be able to do or achieve alone after you’ve spent your time learning?


Be comfortable being wrong

One thing about coding, two things for sure: you will spend ALOT of time being wrong. Arguably more time than you’ll ever spend being right. That’s the name of the game. So if programming is something you’re serious about pursuing, you’ll have to get comfortable not knowing the answers, and you’ll have to be super excited about spending the time it will take to find them. If you feel like you’ll fare better with support while you learn how to seek solutions, or feel like you work better when able to ask a person rather than a search engine, look for environments that can cater to you especially and cultivate the skills you’ll need to go at it alone eventually.


Never be afraid to put yourself first and do what works for you

There is never a time when making the decisions that are best for you, your finances, and your mental health can be considered a failure, even if it looks like walking away. If you leave a situation (whether it be educational, professional, platonic, or romantic) better than when you came, You should be adamant about considering yourself a winner. We are often conditioned to stay in places that we have outgrown, or that aren’t the best fit for us just to save face or to not ruffle feathers, and that is when trauma and damage occur. There are a million ways to skin a cat, and learning to code is no exception. Whether bootcamp, collaboration, corporate training, or self taught if you take your time, set your intentions and focus, you will no doubt join that 1% of the world that’s at the core of the code we engage with everyday.


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