The allure of tech wealth had been knocking. I heard it as a college student in the early 2010s, saw it in the large and small companies tabling and handing out free swag to the swell of students gawking on their way to class, and felt it as I badged into the Twitter building within a year of graduating, in awe of the buffet style cafeteria and working on a laptop all day looking at social media.
Oh yeah… except the social media I was looking at included copious amounts of NSFW content ranging from violence, harassment, sexual exploitation, impersonation, and all kind of fetishes. Funny at times, traumatizing the rest of the time.
Although I was at tech’s threshold I was not privy to tech’s wealth. I was making $30-35k a year and falling into the very low income to low income range. Even so… I was content. Life has since taught me that we can be happy with good enough, but we should not settle for less than the outer limits of our ever growing potential.
Years later, my income then falling at $52k a year I decided to switched careers… or some might say, decided to start my first career in software engineering. I followed the coding bootcamp route first. Why?
Anddd that’s it. That was the main advantage. Whereas a Computer Science (CS) degree can take anywhere between 1-5 years to yield a job (accounting for those who get jobs partway and drop out and those who don’t get jobs straight out of school). When I made my choice, I was in the midst of a life event that necessitated speed to transform that $52k into a 6-figure income. I’ll share what I know now after I went through the process:
Not all coding camps are created equal
Over the past few years I have met a lot of people who have chosen the coding bootcamp path. Some who have done a CS degree and then done a bootcamp. And it pains me to say that many people will not learn what they need to attain a job in tech. Some bootcamps cut corners, some prey on the vulnerable with pretty promises, some don’t offer career services, and many treat their students to a one-size-fits-all approach.
You can learn all the same content for free
Depending on your level of motivation, ability to self-direct, and resourcefulness, you CAN learn web development on your own (full-stack being the main programming path taught in coding bootcamps). My recommendation to those seeking either path is to find mentors.
Bootcamp and self-taught engineers are a lot more common than you might think
This. This is the single most important concept that everyone needs to absorb. Being self taught or not having a CS degree is incredibly common. Some of my coworkers studied math, physics, or economics. If you like it, do it. If someone says you cannot because you do not have a CS degree… that sounds like their limiting belief, it does not have to be yours, too.
In an insecure process, demand certainties
When I was looking at coding bootcamps, I was drawn to those that offered top notch instruction like Rithm or those who offered a positive culture like Dev Bootcamp (now defunct). Unfortunately, I was also drawn to programs that could lend me a financial hand in getting to my dream of financial stability. Programs like Learner’s Guild (also defunct). I was sold on the shiny exterior but I ran away when I read the fine print. I knew that if I attended this model, I would be out a year of time and the predatory terms would leave me making not much more than what I already made. So to my list of requirements from a coding program I added:
1) Job hunt support or money back guarantee
2) Connections to industry or real life projects (like Rithm had advertised in 2016-2017)
3) Full tuition or partial tuition.
Figure out your own situation and your tolerance for risk. I ended up choosing Galvanize (no longer around) because I got a full scholarship paid for by Adobe.
All else being equal, you will learn more about web technologies in a bootcamp than you might during a CS undergraduate program
Most computer science programs focus deeply on the fundamentals: math, algorithms, processes and concepts. Making websites run is not a priority nor is learning the latest cutting edge tools in web tech. If you ever find yourself (as a coding bootcamp grad or self taught web engineer) feeling less than because you don’t have a degree, remember that you probably know more in this regard than a new grad. Unless, of course, that student used their spare time wisely to skill-up.
The learning never stops
Regardless of what a coding bootcamp curriculum entails… it is the bare minimum. Every team on the planet uses different tools, languages, libraries, process. Learning to learn is your main objective from a coding bootcamp. A strong enough foundation that when you’re introduced to something new, you go, “huh, this feels familiar…I can learn this, too.”
Which brings me to my next segment: Starting a Computer Science degree in 2019
I had just begun to experience being a middle class American, making 6-figures starting mid 2018. Why go to school again to attain a degree that would theoretically lead me right back to where I already am?
This has more to do with me and my approach to life than what I believe the role demands. I had heard of the comparison between engineers who had traditional CS degree backgrounds and those who did not. I was convinced that I had missed some key piece of information and somehow it was making me deficient. Plot twist: No, I didn’t. At least not for my path in web technology. What did I learn about CS degrees after already having a full-time job as a software engineer?
95% of people are looking for a job, 5% are looking to fully learn the material
If you think that those with CS degrees > those without, you were probably the 5% I am describing. It is a self-evident truth that most of us who stem from poverty, unstable households, or lack of social capital a la immigrant experience, college is a means to an end. Bless those who got 100% of the lessons into their brains. College is not a marker of intelligence, I might even venture to say it is not even a marker of work ethic. It has become just one more cognitive shortcut and bias to filter the “desirable” candidates from the rest.
It’s only worth it if someone else is paying
For my first degree, most of my tuition was paid with scholarships, grants, and loans. For my CS degree (2019-2022) I used my employer’s educational reimbursement of $10k per year. I did pay out of pocket, here and there, due to poor planning and a desire to finish before becoming an old maid, but mostly it was the taxed and untaxed reimbursements. For my American readership, if you have to pay out of pocket, please get scholarships or go from community college to 4-year degree or use FAFSA.
Protect your mental wellness
This is very important. As someone who is a little burnt out, I do question if the endeavor was worth the cost. I like to think that yes, it was, because I know myself and I know that challenging experiences prime me to tolerate even greater challenges. But I also know that some minds are at higher risk than others to develop depression, anxiety, or other disorders under duress. I am not going to sugar coat it, there were times I acted like a total <insert expletive>, I take responsibility and have made amends with those I care about. That is the price of stress and sometimes stress can be a choice.
If you’re open to working full-time while pursuing a degree as I did, here are some helpful tips:
– Plan ahead so your company’s Educational Reimbursement benefit can cover most, if not all, of the cost. Adobe covers up to $10,000/year but some of my courses would begin in the previous calendar year and end in January. In that case, the next year’s reimbursement could be used. Read the fine print.
– Work with your manager to balance your work responsibilities with your studies. If you know you’re going to work on a large feature in the near future, then take on a lighter course load or easier courses for that term.
– Plan your PTO (Paid Time Off) around your school deliverables. I knew the course schedule ahead of time, so I planned my time off around large projects or final exams.
– Make friends. Along my coursework I met a handful of peers who I trusted and took courses with that required group projects. These individuals understood the value of shared work and resources so we were able to lean on each other during challenging times.
– Start early. The hurdles in an assignment feel a lot smaller when you have another week to work as opposed to being unable to submit and test your code in the school server 20 minutes before the deadline.
– Plan your rest, protect your time to unwind, learn to say no. As important as it is to plan your deliverables, it is equally important to plan your recovery because rest is also part of productivity.
70% of what you learn will not directly apply to your day to day job
Very little of the program I was in had to do with web development: a few classes on design, software engineering, web development and databases. However, I was exposed to new languages like C, C++, Python, Assembly, Dart, and Rust. Languages that had I not been studying these courses I may not have reached any level of proficiency in. Sometimes the journey isn’t clearly defined, sometimes the wins are in how you feel vs what you achieve. And how you feel has to do a heck of a lot with what you achieve.
Was my exposure to these languages applicable to my role? On the surface, I have to say no. But do they now give me a larger scope of potential domain space to work in? Hell yes. On my day to day, I work on the front-end of the Discover Panel and investigating bugs and issues can take me to the realm of server side code or checking the nitty-gritty implementations of desktop applications. I don’t have to code in C or C++, but I can now read it. That’s a powerful ability to attain.
It can help your prospects for promotion
This may not be true for everyone, but it was true for me. Earning a CS degree was another brownie point in the case made for my promotion. I don’t know whether it was a crumb or a whole baking tray of brownie but it certainly didn’t hurt.
While a CS degree is not essential, it is still a signal to those around you. Whether you are just starting your career or are a senior engineer, anything you do to set yourself apart will serve you well. Having the technical degree is another signal to my management to retain, promote, and foster my talents.
Master’s degrees are for those with a chosen path
I don’t know if this TED talk of an essay was helpful for you, but if it was or if you have any clarifying questions, feel free to leave me a comment below or share it with a friend 🙂
By the way, if you got this far and you know a coding bootcamp is inaccessible or you cannot (for whatever reason) pursue a CS degree, check out my favorite resources for career switchers.