Whether you're looking for a career change or to broaden your skillset as a software engineer, online coding bootcamps can be a great way to make that happen. Designed for both beginners and longtime engineers, bootcamps come in a variety of formats and have largely gone online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lately, they've also attracted the partnership of educational institutions like Harvard University and even big tech companies like Amazon.
The goal? To get you coding (and hired) quickly -- without the time commitment of a four-year degree.
Enrolling in a coding bootcamp can equip you with programming skills applicable for jobs like a front end developer, back end developer, QA engineer or a web developer. Sure, you can learn programming languages like Python through free online courses, but paid, hands-on bootcamps include projects, feedback and networking that give you deeper learning and career-ready skills.
With a median pay of $77,000 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, enrolling in a coding bootcamp can sound like a no-brainer alternative to a Bachelor's degree. But coding bootcamps have garnered some criticism since their increase in popularity and it turns out they aren't right for everyone.
What is a coding bootcamp?
Online coding bootcamps are fast, intensive ways to learn technical skills like web development, cybersecurity, UX/UI design and mobile development. People who complete a web development bootcamp, for example, can go on to build websites and apps.
In a nonpandemic environment, coding bootcamps are offered in-person and online. But due to increased remote learning needs as a result of the pandemic, many of these programs are now online-only. And that's what we're focused on here. Well-known online coding bootcamps include Flatiron School, Thinkful, Fullstack Academy and General Assembly.
Bootcamps are offered in a variety of formats: full-time, part-time and self-paced. Full-time programs tend to be shorter, lasting three to five months. Part-time and self-paced programs can take six months or longer, depending on how much time you commit. Depending on the program, tuition can range from a few thousand dollars to $20,000.
Consider this before enrolling
If completing a coding bootcamp sounds like a compelling way to advance your career, increase your salary or change careers entirely, take these considerations into account first.
Take a free (or cheap) course first
Coding bootcamps have made technical careers more accessible than ever. But coding isn't for everyone. The problem-solving-based work can be incredibly challenging, especially for those without a technical background.
Before you spend thousands of dollars on a coding bootcamp, find out if it's a good fit by enrolling in a short, free coding course. Doing so will help you determine if you'll even enjoy coding. And, you'll gain valuable fundamental knowledge for your paid bootcamp. Some graduates even recommend first learning the most common coding languages, like Python, before enrolling, to make the bootcamp less stressful.
Plan to work on projects outside of class
In a coding bootcamp, the work doesn't stop when instruction ends. As new skills are taught, you'll receive homework assignments (or "labs") to apply your knowledge. Students often report getting more assignments than they can finish, so expect to spend plenty of time outside of class solving problems and completing projects.
Carefully read the income sharing agreement
Spending up to $20,000 (and possibly months without a job) is a huge risk. To attract more students, most coding bootcamps offer income sharing agreements, or ISAs, which allow students to defer paying for most (or all) of their tuition until after they land a job. In California these agreements are called retail installment contracts, or RICs.
Unlike a traditional student loan, where the student pays back a loan in predetermined installments with interest after completing their education, ISAs take a cut of a graduate's future salary. Once you complete a bootcamp and earn a minimum salary, the coding bootcamp claims a percentage of your income until the tuition is paid back (and then some). And if you don't land a job within a certain number of years (say, five), the ISA will be forgiven.
As great as they sound, ISAs and RICs have come under great scrutiny. Even litigation.
In June 2019, Sen. Elizabeth Warren penned a letter (PDF link) to the US Department of Education criticizing ISAs, asserting that ISAs can do more harm than good, especially since the minimum salary threshold can leave students pocketing less than a living wage.
For example, bootcamp Coding Temple has a tuition of $12,995, according to Course Report. With an ISA, this tuition can be deferred until a graduate earns a mere $33,000, at which point they'll owe 12% of their monthly salary to Coding Temple for 36 months. The maximum a student will pay back is $21,990 -- about $9,000 more than the original tuition.
Sometimes, the math makes sense. ISAs can be a way for individuals without access to traditional loans or savings to advance their careers, and their lives. But it's hard to know if an ISA was worth it until you land a job.
Bottom line: Consider all post-graduation scenarios before signing an ISA, especially if the minimum salary threshold is low.
Bootcamps aren't accredited
Colleges and universities fall subject to accreditation, or a legal requirement to meet strict quality standards. This means that, no matter where you pursue a higher education degree, you can expect a certain level of quality education. Plus, accreditation gets students access to federally backed financial aid.
Coding bootcamps are privately owned and operated. They're not accredited, even when administered through a traditional university. This means that, while bootcamp institutions have the freedom to quickly evolve their curriculum to stay current, they're also shielded from oversight. Especially when it comes to reporting.
One of the many marketing tools used by coding bootcamps are graduation and job placement rates. Right now, there's no independent, third-party organization accurately reporting on bootcamps' placement rates. Instead, bootcamps self-report, leaving their numbers open to skepticism.
In May 2021, three students filed lawsuits against Lambda School, citing that the bootcamp inflated placement rates to lure students into their program and sign ISAs. At the time, the school marketed an 80% graduation rate, according to TechCrunch. That statistic has since been removed from Lambda's website.
The best way to find out if a school sets its students up for success is through real conversations with past graduates. Do your research, get referrals from friends and proceed with caution before making a decision based on self-reported data.