Five Tips for Evaluating Bootcamps

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” —Robert Orben

Investing in your education is a big deal. Not only can tuition cost thousands of dollars, but the decisions you make now could affect your life for years to come. If you’re thinking about attending a coding bootcamp, it’s important to study your options. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to find information. You will also need to evaluate the information, which can be tough when you’re just starting out.

While the vast majority of people we’ve met in the bootcamp industry have great intentions and are truly committed to helping people improve their lives through education, occasionally you will run into claims that deserve some skepticism. We have five pieces of advice for anyone who is thinking about coming to Devmountain or any other bootcamp.

1. If It Seems Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is

Some clichés are widely used because they are widely applicable. You should be wary if a bootcamp is promising or even insinuating outcomes that are remarkably better than similar institutions, or if they are claiming similar outcomes while requiring much less time, effort, or money. We are not saying all unusual claims are false, only that extraordinary claims should receive extraordinary scrutiny.

We know of no set rule about what makes a claim extraordinary, but it might be helpful to compare coding bootcamps to traditional colleges.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, about 70% of those graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer or information sciences had full-time employment within six months of graduation. (About 7% went back to school for additional education.) Those graduates reported an average starting salary of $71,916. [Source: http://www.naceweb.org/uploadedfiles/files/2017/publication/report/first-destinations-for-the-college-class-of-2016.pdf]

Using these figures as a baseline, if you saw a bootcamp touting six-month employment outcomes at 90% or an average starting salary of $92,000, then you’d know those outcomes are about 20% or $20,000 higher than the averages for four-year computer science graduates. That should make you curious and cautious.

It stands to reason if there were an easy and cheap way to begin an enjoyable career and make a lot of money, it wouldn’t be a secret for long.

2. Consider the Sources

A lot of bootcamps are providing a lot of information, but it’s important to recognize that not all sources are created equally. Some sources have a high inherent bias while others may have a low bias but rely on flawed methodology.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” —Unknown

For instance, some employment sites allow people to report their own income, then use that information to make position averages. This doesn’t account for any biases, provide for any way to verify, and there is no chance to enforce honesty or accountability. It’s nothing more than a measure of what anonymous strangers online are reporting.

Contrast this with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has a methodology rigorous enough that you might go into a coma by just reading about it. [Source: https://www.bls.gov/opub/hom/ncs/calculation.htm]

Some statistics were probably never intended to be relied upon by those making major life decisions, and some bootcamps may use biased or sloppy methodologies to come up with biased or sloppy statistics.

3. Consider the Context

Once you’ve validated the source, you’ll want to make sure it’s being used in the proper context. For example, a bootcamp might be using a valid salary estimate like the one coming from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but in a way that makes it seem like any recent graduate could expect to make the average salary.

Not only can salary averages vary a lot by region, but many entry-level candidates will make significantly less than average at the beginning of their careers. As with all areas of the workforce, a candidate with more experience and education can often expect more compensation.

The important thing to remember is that no estimate is the complete truth. Your situation is unique, and, some information, though fairly valid on its own, may not apply to your context.

4. Verify! Verify!

The internet is a great place to gather information but learning about real-world things often requires real-world experiences. This might be something that requires you to leave the house or talk to another human being. (Be brave.)

If the bootcamp you’re thinking of has a physical location nearby, you should go check it out. Through the use of stock images on websites, every classroom can seem clean, professional, and modern when you’re looking online. You might have to visit in person to realize a school is meeting in the basement of someone’s home.

Aside from the facilities, you can also learn a lot by checking out the students and faculty. Find out if there is a time to visit when you can ask questions or observe a class. While you’re there, you might want to ask some current students if they would be willing to talk.

“To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities… Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.” —Bertrand Russell

If you don’t live near a bootcamp, there is still a lot you can do. Try checking with the local Better Business Bureau, the FTC, the local attorney general’s office, or with state regulators of higher education to see if there are any complaints against any of the schools you’re considering.

The existence of a complaint doesn’t mean you can’t get a good education, but it might lead you to dig a little deeper as you look for answers.

Where there is smoke, there is often fire. A shoddy bootcamp shouldn’t be able to run for too long without people making formal complaints.

5. Look For a Good Fit Instead of a Good Fortune

There are things you can control and things you can’t control. You can receive a great education and work really hard but there are no guarantees that you’ll end up with your ideal career and salary. What you do have a lot of control over is yourself and how you want to make a decision about what to do with your life.

Before you make a decision about a bootcamp, you should think about your own learning style. An online program might work for people who are very good at self-directed work, can hold themselves accountable, and don’t need a lot of interaction or guidance.

However, others need help, support, and camaraderie that can be found in an in-person course. Others might need an after-hours program because they cannot quit their jobs, while others would be better going through an immersive program to get to their next stage in life more quickly.

It’s natural for those considering an investment in their education to focus on claims about salaries and hiring percentages, and those are very important things, but don’t get so fixated on those few things that you miss the whole picture. Make sure to also evaluate information about instructors, methodology, what stacks are taught, and anything else that might be important to you.

When you choose a bootcamp, you’re buying more than a skill. You’re also buying a community and experience. It’s hard enough to learn how to code. Finding the community and experience that best fits your needs and interests can only help.

The Wrap Up

Sometimes when people are making a bootcamp decision, they focus too much on what instead of who, why, where, and how. They find out what tuition costs, what is taught, and what others are saying. It’s important not to lose track of who, why, where, and how as well. Who is making a claim, why are they making it, where are they getting their information from, and how is the claim being supported and presented?

When it comes to the future, there are no guarantees, but being inquisitive and skeptical might help you avoid some disappointment later on.

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