July 1, 2022

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“Learn to code” and the complicated promise of the tech boot camp

8 min read
“Learn to code” and the complicated promise of the tech boot camp

On its face, the idea of a tech boot camp sounds pretty nice. You take a few months to learn coding or web development or user experience design or whatever, and voila, welcome to your “future-proof” career. Some boot camps only make you pay once you land that shiny new six-figure tech job, which, they say, you definitely will. They’ve got all sorts of facts and figures about placement rates and success stories of graduates who landed at Google or Apple or Facebook. Maybe don’t look too hard at the fine print, though.

Boot camps are intensive, immersive, programs meant to get students the skills they need to land a job in a tech field like software design or data analytics in a short period of time. If much of that promise sounds a bit too good to be true, that’s in part because it is. “Learn to code” is not as easy as it’s made out to be, nor is it a guaranteed path to a lucrative career. Boot camps work for some people, but not everyone, and the caliber of different schools can be a real your-mileage-may-vary situation. Some students wind up with thousands of dollars of debt they struggle to pay off, or they get stuck in income-sharing agreements that cut into their paychecks for months and years — paychecks from jobs that are a far cry from the ones they were promised.

“The biggest problem with boot camps is that there are just numerous amounts of them, they’re all over, and there is no real quality control, so you don’t know what you’re getting into,” said Erin Mindell Cannon, the director of training and people development at Paradigm Strategy Inc., who spent more than a decade at Google. “It’s really hard for anybody to make a judgment call.”

I had always assumed tech boot camps were providing bang for their buck — as a journalist, I am familiar with the “learn to code” Twitter replies that land whenever layoffs hit. But the reality is much more complicated. Boot camps sell a 21st-century version of the American dream — one where you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and into a Silicon Valley techy lifestyle in a short period of time.

It’s easy to see why the prospect is attractive. Despite the tech sector’s recent woes, it’s still an enticing arena. Traditional paths to tech jobs through higher education aren’t perfect, especially with student debt mounting. It’s also easy to see why a career in tech is harder to get than boot camps would make you think. Programming is difficult and takes time to learn; the best you can do in a few month’s course is cram. These largely for-profit schools often target marginalized people who really can’t afford to fail, and then they fail them.

“Not everyone wants to be a programmer, not everyone can be a programmer,” said Zed Shaw, a software developer and author of multiple books on coding. But “there’s money in selling the dream,” he said. And so the boot camps do.

That thriving tech career is harder to get than advertised

You do not have to look hard for examples of boot camps behaving badly. In 2017, New York’s attorney general reached a settlement with one school over operating without necessary licenses and making misleading employment and salary claims. Last year, former students of another coding academy sued, alleging they were funneled into predatory income share agreements (ISAs). Just this month, Washington’s attorney general sued a tech sales program, alleging that students were “duped” into paying thousands of dollars for a supposed “guarantee you land a $60k+ job offer (from a tech company YOU choose).” The CEO of that boot camp, Prehired, has filed hundreds of lawsuits against former students demanding they repay defaulted student loans taken out for those guaranteed jobs they did not get.

Issues with coding boot camp Lambda School, which has since rebranded as BloomTech, have been well documented. (One person I spoke to for this story jokingly called it “Scambda.”) It has been accused of inflating its outcome metrics and sticking students with crummy ISAs. One former student, Krystyna Ewing, attended Lambda’s UX design program in 2019. Ewing, a veteran who describes themselves as a “jack of all trades,” hoped they’d get more remote opportunities from the program but dropped out midway through after finding the content lacking (the school suspended the program in 2020). They subsequently did another boot camp that did land them a job — but they were still on the hook for Lambda’s ISA. “I still have to pay them if I find a job,” they said, even though Lambda didn’t help them get it.

If you do sign up for a boot camp, try to do some research ahead of time. Schools can inflate employment numbers by hiring a bunch of their graduates as teaching assistants, or qualify a lot of questionable jobs as “tech,” among other tactics. It’s a good idea to try to talk to alumni, look online for reviews and ratings, and see whether boot camps partner with companies you’d want to work at (and find out what those partnerships entail).

There are about 100 coding boot camps in the US, graduating about 25,000 each year and costing on average about $14,000, according to Course Report, which helps match students with programs. There’s a lot of variety in the space, and not all boot camps are created equal, nor are they all shady in their tactics. Most boot camps aren’t accredited.

They can work for some people. I spoke with one graduate who did a self-paced boot camp so that she could advance within the progressive organization she works for. I talked to another graduate who successfully transitioned from tech consulting to software engineering. Both did have some advantages: Her job helped pay for her boot camp; he minored in computer science.

Chloe Condon, a senior developer relations engineer and former actress who went through a Hackbright boot camp in 2016 and now is a mentor, had someone in her life to help her navigate the industry. She says that getting a job post-boot camp is a grueling process. That’s why she emphasizes it “really is on the individual” to pick a program and achieve success.

But just how hard it can be to get a job after graduation is something schools are not always open about. Carolyn, whose last name has been withheld to protect her privacy, searched for a job for a year and a half after attending a 17-week boot camp aimed at women and non-binary people. Her tuition was eventually forgiven save the $3,000 she paid up front, but she took a big financial hit being out of work for a year. “Given the length of the program, how short it was, it was impossible to even scratch the surface of everything companies were expecting for the roles they’re trying to fill,” she said. It’s worth noting that some boot camps wind up closing because the business model can be tough to figure out.

The boot camp ploy works because a lot of other things don’t

The appeal of a tech boot camp is entirely understandable. Higher education in America is costly and messy. According to the College Board, a degree from a four-year institution can run from $11,000 to $38,000 per year. The job market is hard to navigate. Workers are getting some power and decent-ish raises right now, but then there’s inflation. If a recession comes, none of this is going to last. Boot camps position themselves as a way to hack a rigged system. It’s a romantic idea.

Ben Kaufman, director of research and investigations at the Student Borrower Protection Center, says boot camps are more broadly reflective of the country’s refusal to recognize education as a public good. Instead, it’s viewed as something people should pay — often quite a lot — to access. And when you couple that with a landscape of many dead-end jobs, well, there you go.

“We are unwilling to grapple with the difficult questions of how you educate and pay for the education of a workforce, and in the absence of that, regardless of whether people actually should learn to code, you have had people who have been ready and willing and very well-funded to fill in the void and to sell people the dream of being a big person in Silicon Valley,” Kaufman said. “We’ve put that on a pedestal for so long.”

It’s a tricky situation: Tech companies can be elitist, and they’re not great at bringing in people from diverse backgrounds. There aren’t clear answers for how to improve the situation — multiple people I talked to for this story suggested people without computer science degrees should maybe try to learn programming on their own, which is, you know, also hard (albeit not super expensive), or see what’s available at a local community college.

Boot camps “overpromise and underdeliver,” said Ben Sandofsky, an app developer and co-founder of the photography app Halide. He says that tech needs more diversity and people from different backgrounds, it’s just that the boot camp bootstraps approach may not be the best path. Career transitions can be hard and rare. “It tends to be a way of fooling people into things that are outside their means,” Sandofsky said.

The people who need to be most careful about deciding whether or not to participate in a boot camp are people who are already underprivileged — who are the people they often target. “If you can’t afford to lose that money, then it’s not worth the risk,” Mindell Cannon said.

What do you do when the path to one of the most attractive fields in the economy is long, winding, and filled with land mines? Of course people are going to seek out shortcuts, however imperfect they may be.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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