Coding bootcamps don’t always have the best reputations. Why? Some training companies make promises they simply can’t keep using a cookie cutter approach to training. Organizations that send their employees to bootcamps may come in with impossibly high expectations about what skills their employees will acquire, only to be disappointed later when they’re unable to show and tell on the job.
Dave Wade-Stein, Senior Instructor, for DevelopIntelligence, said that off-the-shelf offerings are unlikely to generate the performance an organization expects in exchange for the hefty price tags that often accompany bootcamp learning experiences. Unless, perhaps, the purpose is to train a more experienced technical team on a new technology they’re unfamiliar with. “An off-the-shelf bootcamp can serve that purpose because you’re casting a wide net, trying to help people learn something new they don’t know much about, therefore almost anything is helpful,” he explained. “It doesn’t work when the bootcamp is designed around particular aspects of technology that don’t align with the needs of the team who are attending it.”
Cookie Cutters Are Only Good in Kitchens
Jonah Bailey, managing partner for software development and design company Atomic Object, echoed Wade-Stein in his 2017 article “Coding Bootcamps Have a Fundamental Problem.” Bootcamps, he said, teach a narrow group of development tools and practices that technical talent could use to build something — if everything goes right. But how often does everything go right? “Problems present themselves at different, unexpected points in the technology stack used in a complex software project,” he wrote. “A developer needs experience to solve those complex, emergent problems.”
To make a dicey situation even worse, Wade-Stein said that organizations may choose bootcamps solely based on buzzwords, without considering whether the content has the potential to serve their needs, or whether the course will be a beneficial experience for their employees. The most effective way to meet an organization’s goals is to use a customized training approach. “The CLOs or learning liaisons who are organizing the training, the more familiar they are with the needs of the company and their employees, the more likely they are to turn it into an opportunity for customization.”
Wade-Stein said the most effective bootcamps don’t simply cover the desired technologies or programming languages. Instead they are specifically organized around the client’s needs, they’re highly interactive, and they must include a significant amount of hands-on work to reflect the kinds of work the students will be doing in the real world.
In addition, Wade-Stein advocates for what he calls “stepping stone” bootcamps. As each new topic is introduced, students should be given an exercise that lets them try it out. “A bootcamp has to mirror real life, actually working on projects,” Wade-Stein explained. “It has to be the same kind of process: Here’s something new, let’s try it out. Here’s the next idea, let’s try it out. Now let’s combine these ideas to make create something bigger. At the end of the bootcamp the students should feel like they’re building something of value and understand how all the pieces fit together. A well-designed bootcamp will build out the learning in a stepping stone fashion so that at each stage there’s additional material they can draw from and build upon.”
The industry seems to be catching up to that idea. According to an August 2018 Course Report, the number of corporate training partners working with 24 reporting bootcamps to teach programming this year grew from 440 in 2017 (producing 7,858 graduates) to 634 in 2018 (producing 16,593 graduates). The report states that “coding bootcamps iterate quickly and know how to teach the newest programming languages, making them a perfect match for companies looking to upskill their employees.”
Clients and Training Companies Should Collaborate to Build a Better Bootcamp
Ideally, organizational learning leaders should interact with the technical trainers who will teach the bootcamp, and contribute their input to create a solid course outline. That will also help determine the appropriate length for the bootcamp, which can range from days to weeks to months or even an entire fiscal year. The appropriate training time is all about what’s being taught, and there are a lot of variables: participants’ skill level and current knowledge base, what they need to know, how quickly they need to put that information or those skills into production on the job, and whether or not training is customized to do a particular technology justice.
“There are times when off the shelf would do just fine, but to be truly successful most bootcamps need to be customized,” Wade-Stein said. “Sometimes learning leaders don’t actually know what is needed. A conversation or two with instructors and subject matter excerpts can really tease out the details so the bootcamp can be built to custom specifications. It’s incumbent upon the client and the training company to communicate in order to ensure they’re hitting the target.”
There are many bootcamps out there, especially now that online training is gaining popularity. When learning leaders evaluating the options, they’ll find that the better ones deliver highly customized learning and work directly with subject matter experts at the client organizations. In addition, better bootcamps will assess students as needed throughout the learning experience, build custom content and labs, and deliver programs that look and feel as though they were developed by in-house engineering and learning and development teams. If that’s not what the bootcamp is offering, let the buyer beware.