Every year, thousands of professionals in various lines of work look to the programming world as a promising new employment option. Just in the past few months, I have spoken to attorneys, accountants, salespeople, and even a former professional athlete trying to land their first paying gigs in the industry. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this.
A brief history lesson and cautionary tale
During the initial dot com boom of the late 90’s, millions scrambled to enter the technology industry. Naturally, some entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the movement developed accelerated training programs and boot camps designed to quickly convert blue collar workers into earning members of the IT industry. These classes and certifications were not cheap, but they usually cited high placement rates (and in some cases guarantees) and salary data for graduates.
Early on, the training programs typically had barriers to entry. Entrance exams and interviews left the least qualified applicants on the outside looking in. Time commitments made juggling a full-time job and a training program challenging for many, while cost made these programs inaccessible for others.
As you might expect, training programs with lowered admission standards and reduced prices arrived on the scene. Financial aid was made available, lecture times were adjusted to accommodate almost any schedule, and marketers flooded TV/radio/newspapers with anecdotes of auto mechanics and dental hygienists now earning double in the IT field. When qualified instructors were not available, classes were led by recent graduates who did not find employment.
Much of this training was geared towards obtaining a certification known as the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer), which was primarily a qualification towards Windows admin roles or desktop support. Even today, Microsoft has marketing material live on their site touting the value of these certifications.
The early graduates of the first programs probably did have high employment rates. However, the rise of the MCSE factories created a new class of applicant dubbed the Paper MCSE, defined as someone with no experience that was just able to pass the test. The MCSE certification quickly became associated with a type of get rich quick mentality, and having the letters next to your name was less indicative of knowledge and more likely someone trying to game the system.
If this story doesn’t sound at least a bit familiar, it should. Back then the message was ‘learn computers’, but now everyone from the President to Shakira (not to mention Ashton Kutcher and NFL legend Warren Sapp?) is telling us we now need to learn how to code. Today’s career changer isn’t trying to simply fill what are generally considered less glamorous jobs like help desk, but rather they want to be like those (pardon the silliness) rock stars and ninjas that they read about who are higher up the food chain.
Programming boot camps and the availability of MOOC’s has again taken learning of in-demand skills to the masses, and (regardless of your opinion on their value) the emergence of these programs impacts the hiring landscape for everyone. For now, most of these programs have some admissions criteria and may be affiliated as feeders to recruiting or consulting firms. Unlike their predecessors, the programs often boast that graduates will network with industry veterans and leave with real-world contacts to leverage in their job search.
Although it’s far too early to see how these graduates will do over time, history and basic economics indicate that new programs of reduced quality will emerge.
The difference between then and now
The major difference between the MCSE gold rush and the recent development-focused trend is that today’s career changer is often expected (and hopefully able) to demonstrate proof of their credentials. Graduates of boot camps are often very quick to point out that the classes were rigorous, had low program acceptance levels, required hours beyond typical full-time jobs, and that they built professional-grade applications before graduation. In almost every case where I’ve encountered a boot camp grad, these topics were brought up immediately by the job seeker. If the reputations of these programs become overwhelmingly positive (I’d now say they are no worse than lukewarm now), grads should become much less defensive as to the value of their education.
Being accepted into a help desk job today without experience or a relevant degree is one thing, but how willing will the programming community be to view these graduates as one of their own? This is more daunting when you consider that the community is considered to be protective of their craft’s reputation, and are sometimes known for being less-than-welcoming to their own. Will employers value the more hands-on approach of a three month boot camp over traditional lecture-based four year CS degree programs?
Keys to success
Whether you graduated from a boot camp or a four year program, I think the expectations for most new hires are similar. Employers probably won’t be expecting boot camp grads to be committing code any sooner or later than a BS in CS, and it is expected that there is inherent risk for any hire (particularly any hire without experience). There is some leap of faith for managers trying to evaluate someone for their first industry position.
For boot camp grads specifically,
You’re not being hired because of your boot camp app. Although your code portfolio may help you some, in a few years you’ll realize your app looks like it was coded by someone who learned Ruby in three months. Don’t overstate the importance or relevance of whatever app you built – it’s incredibly impressive to you because you don’t know better (yet). You are being hired almost exclusively on your perceived potential, not weeks of work.
You’re being groomed to work at startups and smaller firms. At this point HR representatives at most large firms will be less open-minded to you than to CS grads. Don’t take that personally because it’s really not about you, and big shops probably aren’t who you are trying to attract anyway. Your instructors likely came from startups, are teaching development as is done in typical startup environments, and the technologies taught are of a common startup stack. Your job search time is best spent focusing first on the firms that have a relationship with your program, and then other startups.
Your non-programming intangibles are just as relevant as the boot camp. Employers know that you can’t become highly productive in programming with a few hundred hours of learning. Conveying the smart and gets things done attribute is still the most important factor. You are still considered a risky hire, and if you are perceived as potentially damaging to the team dynamic you will be passed over for someone less risky.
Use caution if comparing boot camps to CS degrees. The two are vastly different, both with advantages and disadvantages. The quality and quantity of time for each are difficult to compare, and those that invested four years are more likely to be swayed by your knowledge than by diminishing the value of their degree.
To both CS and boot camp grads,
You’re not an expert. In my experience, the word expert gets bandied about more often among the inexperienced with something to prove than it does by industry vets with project history. Expertise takes time. Once you’ve been in the business a few years, you will meet people who know twice as much as you do yet still consider themselves novices. Whether in interviews or on résumés, choose your words very carefully to prevent the appearance of overconfidence (and to prevent what seems an open invitation for technical grilling).
You’ll do best if you show respect to the industry veterans. The people you are interviewing with have likely paid their dues during times when learning and information wasn’t as readily available. It’s probably difficult to envision being a programmer in 2001, where those in the field had far fewer tools or resources. They probably think you’ve had it easier in a lot of ways (and harder in others), so temper confidence with some humility.
Job Tips For Geeks: The Job Search DRM-free ebook reduced to $6.99 for the holidays. A great gift for the tech pro in your life, or for the annoying co-worker that you wish would find a new job.
As someone who writes about tech hiring and who has also encouraged many to participate in open source and establish a GitHub presence, a recent article caught my eye. Why GitHub is Not Your CV ¹ by James Coglan was partly inspired by another article, The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community by Ashe Dryden. Both articles are well-written and if you evaluate programmers for hire please read them.
Dryden’s tl;dr for me was meritocracy in OSS, an explanation regarding the lack of diversity, and ways to hire that are ‘less biased‘ than relying on OSS contribution or public code availability. Coglan references her piece and adds his own thoughts around similar topics, but his readers might disregard the value a GitHub presence provides. Neither article tried to discourage a presence, but the Coglan piece dismissed the value quite a bit.
Anyone involved with hiring entry-level technology professionals (or reads posts on Reddit’s cscareerquestions forum) is aware that students are being prepared by schools for how to do work in the industry, but are often ill-prepared on how to find work in the industry. There is a major difference between the two, and many grads are being edged out on jobs by equally or even less-qualified peers who were just a bit more proactive about their career. If you think finding a job is only about internships and GPAs, please keep reading.
Some students feel that if they aren’t working 10 hours a day building the next Twitter from their dorm room, or if they didn’t intern at Google or Amazon, that they will struggle to find work. This is hardly the case, and I assure you that if you do a few things during your college years (that require a minimal time investment and no money), you will be several steps ahead when it is time to apply for your first job.