So, you want to learn to code. Now what? A few years ago, your only option for pursuing a career in software engineering or web development would have been to enroll in an undergrad or graduate school computer science program. But these days, you have another option for a formalized education: bootcamps. Coding and development bootcamps are becoming increasingly common for people looking to gain new skills to make a career shift or move up in their current jobs.
But which is the better path?
Unfortunately, there’s not an easy answer—each option is good for different people in different situations. To bring some clarity to which is right for you, start by thinking through these eight questions.
1. Do I Have a Specific Career or Project Goal?
Bootcamps are similar to trade schools in that they arm you with a very specific set of skills and prepare you for a particular job or career. They put “an emphasis on practicals over theoreticals,” according to Rak Chugh, an instructor at Byte Academy, a bootcamp that specializes in financial technology (fintech). At bootcamp, students learn basic skills and then build project portfolios that they can then share with interviewers. While university programs differ, a large portion of their curricula will focus on how to think like a computer scientist rather than working on specific technologies.
Here’s how a software engineer at San Francisco’s Threadflip described the difference on this Hacker News thread: “If I had to sum it up, I’d say that college gives you intermediate skills in computer science, and basic skills in the practice of software development…bootcamp, on the other hand, gives you basic skills in computer science, and intermediate skills in the practice of software development.”
If you have a specific coding language you want to pick up, a particular role you have your eye on, or a project or startup idea you want to get off the ground, a bootcamp could give you just the targeted expertise you need to do so. If you have a more general interest in computer science as a discipline or aren’t positive what path you want to take in the field, a university program may be a better option.
2. How Much Time Can I Devote to School Right Now?
Full-time bootcamps squeeze many hours of instruction into each week of the program—meaning you likely won’t be able to keep your job—while part-time bootcamps and university programs allow you to complete the coursework over a longer duration, typically six months for a part-time bootcamp and a few years for a university program. That being said, you’ll graduate from a full-time bootcamp program within a few months, while a university program is a commitment of least a couple years.
Think about your current schedule and timing limitations. Are you able to put things on hold for a few months to devote yourself to full-time classes? Do you have an urgent need to gain new skills so you can get a new job ASAP? If so, bootcamp is your answer.
However, if you’re happy in your current job and want to build your credentials so you can be eligible for advancement in the future, or if you can only devote a finite number of hours per week to school, then look into a continuing ed program, a part-time bootcamp program, or an undergrad or grad program that you can do at night or on weekends.
3. How Relevant is My Previous Schooling or Work?
Depending on what kind of program you’re looking at, there will be different requirements for enrolling. Boston University, for example, states on its website its Master of Science in Computer Science is intended for “computer professionals and for people who intend to move into the computer field from other areas of study. Prerequisite courses or evidence of proficiency in these areas must accompany the application to the program.” Some programs, like the Master of Computer Science at University of Chicago, are becoming more open to applicants without computer science backgrounds, but still require you to take additional prerequisite courses at the start of your education.
On the other hand, bootcamps like Byte Academy may take test scores, transcripts, and prior experience into account when assessing applicants, but the most important thing for a potential student to have is an interest in technology and coding and the drive to keep up with the intensive program.
4. What’s My Budget Look Like?
Though it’s by no means cheap, one of the big draws of bootcamp is the price tag. According to coding bootcamp directory Course Report, the average bootcamp tuition is $10,000. By comparison, the average four-year computer science bachelor’s program is $148,500, and the average two-year associate’s program is about $76,000, according to CollegeCalc. And that master’s from the University of Chicago? That’ll run you $5,259 per course, with a minimum of nine courses to complete the program—plus the necessary prerequisites.
In terms of payment options, loans and scholarships are always options for traditional education, and it is fairly easy to get financing from third-party financing companies for bootcamp tuitions given the relatively small size of loans. Also, many bootcamps, such as Byte Academy, will setup payment schemes where the tuition is paid back only once graduates get a new job.
It’s also important to consider the starting salaries of potential jobs you’re going to pursue once you have your new credentials, related to the debt you might have, to consider whether the investment you put in school will be worth it in the long run. Many bootcamps are prepping you to start with programming jobs in high-demand areas like development, whereas having a degree will allow you a broader set of jobs in the field. Look into alumni stats for the programs you’re considering.
5. Do I Work Well Under Pressure?
Bootcamps offer intensive, short-term programs that involve about 80 to 90 hours of schooling per week. (Hey, they don’t call it bootcamp for nothing!) As SkilledUp reporter Victoria Meng wrote, “Imagine combining all those sleepless nights in college where you would cram before the exam or work for 14 hours straight to finish your coding project. That’s what a bootcamp is—intense learning with no wasted time.”
Think back to how you approached your workload when you were in college or high school. Were you the type to pull all-nighters studying for tests and completing projects? If you thrive under intensity, bootcamp could be perfect for you. If you were more of a planner, studying things over time and completing projects bit by bit, you could find a full-time bootcamp environment overwhelming and may want to consider part-time programs available at bootcamps or traditional universities.
6. What’s My Learning Style?
Do you do well in a traditional classroom lecture-style setting? Or do you retain more through experiential learning? The practical nature of a bootcamp means they use very hands-on, self-driven methods—for example, students work on current technology projects such as app or web development.
This also means you’ll need to be much more of a self-starter than if you’re participating in a traditional program. For example, students at Byte Academy are expected to work through some pre-bootcamp online coursework in computer science basics before even showing up for day one. While instructors are always around to help during the duration of the program, instruction is done through hands on “code-alongs” and team projects rather than a lecture followed by homework. If you like learning by figuring it out as you go along, this would be an ideal environment.
7. What Kind of Network Do I Want?
The types of mentors available to you to and the network you will build is likely to be different depending on which route you go. Coding bootcamps “are run by elite, professional developers,” says Meng, whereas university professors are typically PhDs who or may not have worked outside academia.
When you’re looking into bootcamp, continuing ed, or traditional university options, research the backgrounds of the professors. Call up the admissions office to ask about the backgrounds of the professors and the alumni network that’s available. What you’ll be able to take away from the program depends not only on the curriculum, but also on the people you will be able to learn from and the connections you’ll be able to build.
8. Do I Have Realistic Expectations of What I’ll Get From a Program?
An intensive bootcamp is meant to help you develop the immediate skills you’ll need to secure an entry-level coding job—once you secure one, you’ll still have a lot to learn. So you’ll want to supplement the knowledge base you get from bootcamp with other courses or self-directed learning as you advance in your new career. And you’ll want to develop a relationship with an experienced mentor to guide you along the way.
Still, the same could be said of graduates of more traditional programs; even veteran techies with university degrees agree that working in software engineering requires lifetime learning to keep up with new technologies and trends.
So, no—you won’t emerge from either type of program as the next Steve Jobs. But you will have basic training and a quality portfolio under your belt, and from there, you’ll be able to start building the new career you’ve been dreaming of.