I'm a part-time TA and instructor at Lighthouse Labs, a web development boot camp in Vancouver run by an amazing group of guys. Becoming involved with them was one of the best decisions I could have made, both personally and professionally. Yet the irony of me working there gets to me all the time. A few months prior to signing up, I was avidly against the idea of ever signing up for a boot camp.
Just 15 months ago, I was just like my students, wanting to become a web developer, but had 0% of the skills required and zero idea what those skills even were. Instead of dropping down the money and signing up for a boot camp, I instead bought books, found articles, and came up with random personal projects. I did this for a year on a more than full-time basis. It worked out in the end, I can make any site I want. Why did I refuse to sign myself up, yet now recommend this program so much that I just convinced one of my best friends to sign up? Read on and find out.
Why I Said No
I won't lie, I'm a very money concious (read: cheap) person with a complicated relationship with money. Logically I know shouldn't, but I feel I need to justify every purchase, so dropping the 7-12 grand on a boot camp is not at all a decision I would ever take lightly. I felt I could save the money doing it myself, and dreaded the thought of it being a total waste of time - like my university education. Teaching useless theory and boring the hell out of me.
That highlights another major reason I said no. Due to the nature of classes, they are generally geared to the average learner, or worse, the slowest. I don't fall into these categories in the context of a web development course. Boot camps are generally designed to cater to the absolute beginner, but at that point, I had minor exposure to programming in university, so I knew and understood the basic concepts. I also studied engineering, a degree I can most accurately describe as 5 years of critical thinking, problem solving, and self-loathing. I was afraid that I'd feel like I was being spoon fed instead of challenged and stimulated, and would be burning money for nothing.
I'm also fiercely independent and have lost all faith in traditional education. I took French classes for seven years, and couldn't speak a word, and then taught it to myself in one year while living in Vancouver. In school, you spend every day learning things that you'll never need to know or use in real life, which is good because you're so unmotivated to learn that you forget it shortly after. Where was my class on filing taxes? Starting a business? Meeting new people and getting them to like you? School is built to prepare you for more school, at every level. Elementary for middle, middle for high, high for bachelors, bachelors for masters, masters for PhD, PhD for professorship.
What a Boot Camp Actually Looks Like
The day starts officially at 9am, starting with a 1.5 to 2 hour interactive lecture on the topic of the day, ranging from HTML to database design. Class sizes range from 6-20 people -- no 350 person lectures here. After the lecture you spend the next several hours working on a project/assignment. You struggle to put the new concepts into practice. You pound your head against the desk, and then you call over a TA like me to help make the pain go away. When you've had enough grinding for the time being, you're hit with another lecture that builds on the day's material. Then you're back to coding into the night. Some students leave around 6-7, and others stay until midnight or later. On weekends, there's no class, but there's homework to expose yourself to the new concepts coming at you the following week. Rinse and repeat for 8 weeks, and throw in a couple tests to monitor your progress.
As you can imagine, it's intense. Some students are at Lighthouse every single day, and quite often are here for more than 12 hours a day. That's their choice, but the expectation is at least 60 hours per week. Lighthouse also works very closely with their hiring partners to get them great candidates. As a result, they're serious about getting the students into shape, because their performance is critical to the boot camp's reputation in the tech community. There's 2-3 tests each cohort, designed to give the students feedback on their progress, to push them, and maybe even weed them out. It's almost guaranteed for at least one student each cohort to drop out or re-take the boot camp. It's hard, and moves quick.
As a TA, I'm there to answer questions that come up during coding sessions, and to help reinforce and re-explain the concepts. I also feel a huge part of the job is to assure them that this material is difficult and not intuitive, and I had similar struggles not too long ago. The other huge part of the job is getting to know each student and interjecting my personality and humour into their day. The toughest part of the program is the mental and emotional toll of working so many hours and the constant feeling of inadequacy. If I can make their day just a little easier and enjoyable, they'll feel and learn better. Maybe it undermines the professional relationship that might be recommended, but I hate professional farces. I want us to know the real individual, and to enjoy ourselves together. From my perspective, every 8 weeks I'm introduced to 10-20 new diverse and interesting people that can become a big part of my life and help me become a better person.
Why I Strongly Recommend Them Now
The program is intense, yet short. A lot of ground is covered in 8 weeks, and you will leave with enough to be dangerous. Most importantly, however, at the end they know what they don't know. Web development is such a deep chasm with so many tunnels to explore, that it's impossible to know which ones you need to tumble down, and which to avoid unless you have a guide. I relied on another self-taught friend to guide me, which was hugely valuable, but his knowledge had its own gaps. A boot camp gives you that environment of professional coders to tell you what's important and what's not, even now I learn about new things from other TAs and the main instructor.
Compared to 2 months of progress for me as a self-learner, the students here easily put me to shame. Which is obvious, they have a professional teaching them the concepts, telling them what's important for them to learn, and have help available to help break through mental barriers. They're given a rigid structure and guidelines to follow with a defined end date, making it much easier to stay motivated to get the learning done. When you do it yourself, it is damn hard to stay focused and motivated for more than a few hours per day. Things come up, and people are aware of your 'free time' and will try to fill it. Not that social lives aren't important, but you're trying to re-shape your life and career, you need to make temporary sacrifices.
You won't completely sacrifice your social life, however, as the program creates a great sense of comradery with the 5-19 other people you're walking with through hell. You're all in it together, with the same problems and woes. You'll struggle ferociously, yet ultimately prevail and all be brought closer together. Self-learning is an island. At most you have a Wilson to get you through it.
And at the very end, you get thrown into an actual development position where you'll be coding many hours a day, working on real problems, with a pro there to guide and push you. Without the boot camp you likely wouldn't have the contacts to get that position, or the ability to convince someone that you're skilled enough to do it. As a student, you're exposed to a network of great people in the industry. The networking events with hiring partners, and meeting and interacting with the developer TAs and founders could lead to amazing things.
It might be expensive, 7k-12k is a lot of money, but you're saving a lot of time compressing it all in 8 intense week. Then you add on getting a paid internship at the end of it (not buckets of money), with the possibility of staying on full-time (greater than average salary), and shortly after being able to work in Silicon Valley (easily six figure salary). It's worth it. 7k-12k is nothing in comparison. How much is your time worth? Soon, quite a lot.
If you're worried about being bored, you're worrying for nothing. It's intense and will always push you. If you're more experienced in programming, that will help, but will not make it boring. The nature of web development and programming is that there is always so much more to learn, and so much more that can be layered on top of any project to make it more complex and challenging. One of the previous students had a computer science degree, which meant he just got further into each project and had higher quality portfolio pieces to show employers and clients. You won't ever be bored, seriously.
Is It Right For You?
Short answer: probably. Coding is becoming such a huge part of the Western economy. There is no shortage of things that need coding, and a definite shortage of people to do it. We need more people innovating in this world. I want a hover car and to live past 100, and the rate we're going that probably won't happen. Besides, wouldn't you like to make six figures, be mentally stimulated, not have to request vacation time anymore, and/or start your own business? Seems no brainer to me. Drop the money. The contacts, comradery, time-saving, and structure is worth it over doing it yourself, and don't even remotely consider a computer science degree.