July 11, 2024

Coding bootcamps won’t make you a developer: Here’s what will

Coding bootcamps won’t make you a developer: Here’s what will

The headlines are hard to resist. Salaries for programmers are said to be soaring. Annual paychecks for AI experts are topping $1 million. Why dream of winning the lottery when coding bootcamps are springing up with promises to teach everyone what they need to get a ticket on the gravy train?

The good news is that schools and camps often deliver enough knowledge to turn some people into great programmers. The bad news is that the lessons alone are far from enough. Programming isn’t a least-resistance path to a more secure, better-paying, work-life balanced job. It’s a difficult occupation that not everyone is suited for. If it were easy, everyone could do it—and then it wouldn’t be as valuable.

The first steps are often seductively easy. You set one variable—call it salary—to 50000. Then you type “salary=salary*10”. Bingo. You’re coding. It’s an exciting rush, and that experience might lead you to believe that you can become a professional developer with just a few more months of learning.  

The basic information is out there, and you don’t even need to pay very much to get it. There are plenty of good courses on Coursera and Udemy. Some high-end schools such as MIT even provide their lectures for free.

But before you jump into a bootcamp that will steal your evenings and separate you from your hard-earned money, there are several caveats you need to consider. That’s the focus for the initial sections of this article.

And if you’re still interested, the second part is filled with advice for how to make the best of it. There’s also a lot of noise around the question “How do I become a coder?” Instead of another list of things to do, you’ll learn what not to do, which is equally important.

Much of the value comes from very specific knowledge

Basic programming skills are easy to find. Many kids learn quite a bit in high school taking advanced placement computer science courses. But that’s not what businesses need. Many of the real-world jobs involve fixing, updating, and improving some pile of code written in a particular, somewhat obscure language. Perhaps it’s an old version of Python or one of the languages that used to be popular, such as COBOL. 

They’re not paying for programming talent per se. They’re paying for someone with specific knowledge. Someone who, for instance, knows what not to do with ECMAScript 6.blah to avoid crashing old browsers that 5{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add} of customers still use. 

No bootcamp teaches these details. This is why many ads for programmers ask for years of experience with specific buzzwords. The bootcamp might do a great job teaching you how to code in a few months, but you’ll still need to spend years learning the idiosyncrasies of particular languages. 

Bootcamps and online classes may take only months to complete, but wisdom can take a lifetime to nurture. It’s easy to learn about variables, loops, and other abstractions. Building up the instincts to deploy them correctly and effectively takes many years of experience.

Coding is often very frustrating  

Sure, programmers’ offices are warm, comfortable, and often filled with fun toys, but that’s just to cover up unpleasant drudgery and the relentless grind. Programmers often describe their day in metaphors such as “beating my head against the wall” or “wandering in the dark without a flashlight.” The work involves negotiating a mental maze without a map. 

In the old days, programmers would joke that it’s not as if the machines can talk and tell us what they need. Today, although plenty of software libraries are available that help computers to vocalize words and even translate them into hundreds of languages, that doesn’t mean they’re going to say anything that helps you debug them.

In many cases, the computers are confused, often spouting distracting nonsense. After all, if they were running smoothly, no one would pay a programmer to fix them.

Bootcamp placement numbers can be misleading

TechBeacon has previously conducted a review of coding bootcamps, gathering details about 24 programs. The findings showed that 17 of 24 programs claimed that 90{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add} or more of their students got full-time programming jobs or freelancing positions within six to 12 months of graduation. But those numbers can be misleading.

Most of the job placement claims are largely unaudited. HackReactor, Turing School, and Lighthouse Labs are among the few that report student outcomes.

Course Report, a site that hosts reviews and resources for coding bootcamps, has conducted student surveys (with over 1,000 respondents from many reputable, in-person bootcamps) for the past three years for its annual Alumni Outcomes & Demographics Study.

The 2014 report claimed that no more than 75{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add} of coding bootcamp graduates gained employment as developers after graduation. In 2015, that number dropped to 66{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add}. For 2016, it jumped back up, to 73{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add}. By the 2018 report, the latest year for which the report was completed, the number had hit 78{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add}.

Not all bootcamp attendees are starting from scratch. Some aren’t there to get a developer job, and some students are already professional developers who are just trying to acquire new skills. While the study doesn’t say who went from “zero to developer,” the surveys do cast doubt on many programs’ 90{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add} job placement claims.

Quality complaints are common

It’s not hard to find a litany of bad bootcamp experiences online. You can find plenty of positive reviews as well, on sites such as Course Report.

Graduates cite several reasons for the happy reports. For one, they may not want to devalue something on which they spent so much time and money, or they don’t want to get into a confrontation with the bootcamp provider by posting a negative review.

Many of the negative reviews that do get posted are criticisms of individual instructors. Basel Farag, an iOS developer with experience as a bootcamp mentor, acknowledges that finding good teachers is hard. “You don’t get paid much, so you have to really love doing it,” he said. Although several schools have highly qualified, well-paid teachers, many bootcamps fill teaching assistant and mentor positions with less experienced developers, he said.

The practice of bootcamps hiring their own graduates as mentors immediately after graduation is widespread, Farag said. Not only does that help to fill a shortage of teaching assistants, but it’s also an easy way for bootcamps to improve job placement stats. 

Another concern is that, when working with inexperienced teachers who don’t have a lot of time to spare, there is always a danger that your bootcamp experience could resemble this anonymous reviewer’s story:

“A few of our teachers hadn’t even been in tech longer than two years. Their teaching skills lacked and they got increasingly frustrated when students didn’t understand the material.”

Because of their lower pay, mentors need to work at a second job or take on additional students if they’re paid on a per-student basis, as they were in the bootcamp I attended. //Cut this? Mitch attended a bootcamp, but the byline now is Peter. I don’t know that he would be able to say the same thing as this.//Jamie This can cause some of the mentors to make themselves less available to students, or to provide low-quality feedback, as some online reviews claim.

Be realistic about the length of training time you’ll need

Bootcamp students who come into programs as beginners are not prepared for a development job when they graduate.

It’s possible that you might qualify for a junior developer or internship position after graduating from one of the more rigorous bootcamps, Farag said, “but it’s going to be very hard to stand out from the increasing number of bootcamp graduates and thousands of computer science graduates. You can’t truly become a developer in three to six months.”

The problem comes when companies interview graduates and find that their programming skills aren’t fundamentally sound. Even though developer interviews have problems of their own, Farag said that a technical interviewer will eventually find out if you can’t implement some of the most basic algorithms.

Many coding bootcamps don’t spend much time on algorithms. And many courses focus on learning tools rather than on programming. Ken Mazaika, co-founder and CTO of the Firehose Project, an online coding bootcamp, also sees this trend:

“The good coding bootcamps out there will cover CS topics around algorithms and data structures, but nine out of 10 coding bootcamps won’t cover these topics at all because these topics can be difficult to teach.”

Mazaika’s view of the industry is particularly jaded, as the title of his post makes clear: “The Dirty Little Secrets about the Worst Coding Bootcamps Out There: 9 out of 10 Programs Are Outright Scams.”

Many of the top coding bootcamps teach frameworks, such as Ruby on Rails, that favor convention over configuration. That is, students learn the usage conventions for a specific tool, but not the fundamentals of how web development actually works across tools and technologies.

These frameworks give students just enough knowledge to start building simple web apps. After getting a handful of projects under their belts, many graduates believe they are ready to enter the job market. Unfortunately, they still lack a solid foundation.

Bootcamp grads have flooded the market

It’s surprisingly hard to stand out in today’s junior developer job market because, according to the Coding Bootcamp Market Sizing Report, low-skilled developers continue to flood into the job market. According to the 2019 report, the number of bootcamp graduates went from over 15,400 to more than 23,000 year over year.

With so many new coding bootcamps, and so many bootcamp grads hitting the job market over the past couple of years, “finding a job as a junior software engineer in the Bay Area is not as easy as it once was,” said Marcel Degas, a senior software engineer at Autodesk and a General Assembly bootcamp graduate.

A few years ago, bootcamps took off when entrepreneurs saw a shortage of developers as an opportunity. They thought they could close the gap by creating coding businesses that could train anybody in basic development skills. But professional developers, even junior ones, need experience in many different aspects of programming to be effective software engineering professionals.

While it’s unclear whether coding bootcamps significantly helped alleviate the developer shortage in the job market, hiring managers aren’t as impressed by bootcamps as they once were, said Ted Whang, a developer at Pike13 and a 2014 coding bootcamp graduate.

“‘You dropped everything in your life and dedicated three months straight to learning how to code? That’s amazing!’ You won’t hear those kind words of praise anymore, except maybe from your mother,” he said. Some developers even worry that a stigma is attached to bootcamp graduates, marking them as sloppy coders.

Not everyone needs to learn to code

Soon after the learn-to-code movement arrived in 2012, the don’t-learn-to-code movement followed. The backlash, from bloggers such as Jeff Atwood and “Uncle Bob” Martin, might have seemed mean-spirited, but some complaints about the programming profession raised legitimate concerns.

John Kurkowski, a user experience (UX) engineer at CrowdStrike, said programming isn’t an inviting field because even the most mature technologies have been roughly cobbled together over the years, and developers often spend much of their time hacking together libraries that were never meant to be used together. Maybe in 10 years, he said, developers will have tools and platforms that work more elegantly and are easier to work with.

Mike Hadlow, a freelance C# developer with more than 20 years of software development experience, points out that development is harder than people think. It’s one of the few highly skilled occupations that require no professional certification (although some believe it should), and it might just be the only highly skilled job where other workers in the industry give copious amounts of their free time and energy to help train people off the street. (And still, there’s a huge mentoring gap.)

That free entry is both good and bad, because, as Martin, author of the Clean Code Handbook, points out, the industry usually doesn’t benefit from hordes of novices, but instead needs carefully trained individuals. He compares good developer training to flight school, adding that not many bootcamps are that intense or require as many hours of training.

Despite these voices of caution, some foresee a blue-collar coding revolution on the horizon, while others, predictably, scoff at this idea, much like the learn-to-code critics.

There are many valid arguments on both sides, but Atwood, the co-founder of StackOverflow, perhaps sums it up best:

“While I love that programming is an egalitarian field where degrees and certifications are irrelevant in the face of experience, you still gotta put in your 10,000 hours like the rest of us.”

Ask yourself: Are you cut out for coding?

You’ve felt that first sip of power that programming gives you. You finish your first program, then all of the syntax starts to make sense after you build a few more and perhaps complete a course on Codecademy or Coursera. At that moment, you think, “I could do this for a living.”

But at this stage of the game, you still have no idea what you’re doing. You haven’t stayed up until 2 am three nights in a row trying to fix a bug or solve a problem. You haven’t had to spend a whole day sorting out version-control issues and getting stuck going down multiple rabbit holes. You haven’t had your app stop working, even though you’re sure that you didn’t change anything.

You need an extreme level of commitment and patience to work all the way up to an entry-level developer position, and exponentially more for the rest of your career. “It was—and is—that persistence that allows me to stay in this field,” said Farag.

Going in, bootcamp students may not realize that computer science is a low-success educational field. And there’s plenty of evidence showing that even college-level computer science programs don’t have stellar graduation rates. Between 30{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add} and 60{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add} of first-year students in university computer science departments fail their first programming course. So why would anyone expect bootcamps to be significantly more successful?

What’s more, developers who get computer science degrees say that they are largely self-taught, according to the 2016 Stack Overflow Developer Survey. Even computer science departments can’t keep up with the rate of change in the industry. Developers can never stop learning.

Need any more discouragement? A 2021 survey of over 83,000 developers on Stack Overflow revealed that more than half of respondents wrote their first line of code between the ages of 11 and 17. 

It’s still possible to become a programmer in your early 20s, of course; it’s just a lot harder when most of your time is spent working to support yourself.

From these stats, you can see that bad practices aren’t the only reason coding bootcamps are failing to take many people from zero to developer in just a few months. Programming is fundamentally hard, and people who are considering these bootcamps should be honest with themselves as to their level of commitment to programming. Software engineering is not an easy way to get rich quick.

If you really want to find out if software development is the right career path for you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I willing to work hard for just the three months it takes to complete a bootcamp, or for the rest of my life?
  • Am I able to get unstuck on problems without the help of a mentor? Am I motivated enough to never give up on those problems?
  • Am I willing to give up a lot of my leisure time in the early years of self-teaching?
  • Am I willing to keep learning and coding even outside of normal work hours once I have a coding job?
  • Do I want to adopt programming as one of my main hobbies? 

(See some additional questions here.)

If you can say yes to all of the above, then you should be able to surmount the obstacles to becoming a developer with or without the help of a bootcamp. You also won’t fall flat, as many students do after attending a bootcamp, because the class was the only thing pushing you to keep working.

DIY bootcamp: 7 things you should do, and 2 things you shouldn’t

Plenty of people have nothing but good things to say about their bootcamp experiences, and some landed jobs a few months after completion. But with a little extra time and more awareness of the resources at their disposal, those people probably could have succeeded without investing thousands of dollars in a bootcamp.

Documentation for all of the open-source tools, languages, and frameworks that bootcamps teach are available online. There are countless free online tutorials on just about any development technology that bootcamps will teach you. 

All you need to do is pick a technology and run a Google search. The learning path may not be as streamlined as a bootcamp, but you’ll learn more about the real life of a coder by wading into the swamp of documentation. 

Find something to code

It’s understandable to want a better-paying job, but money isn’t the best motivator when you’ve been staring at a screen for 12 hours and you still have no clue why the code won’t work. Finding a goal helps. It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to code at first, when you’re in the initial exploratory phase of discovering if you enjoy the basics. You need some time to learn what’s possible and to generate ideas for exciting projects.

Obviously, you’ll want to try creating things that grow your knowledge even if those projects don’t produce an end product that sparks joy. But treat those assignments as steppingstones toward building more intriguing projects so that you maintain your motivation in those instances as well.

Build something that would improve your life, something that you wish existed, or something related to your current job or areas of interest. Want to build a game? Figure out how to do that. Enjoy music? Try to build a Spotify feature you always wanted. Do you like to follow certain topics online? Build a web scraper. Wish you could automate some tedious tasks of your job? Watch “Automate the Boring Stuff with Python.”

It doesn’t matter what it is; just code things that you want so badly that you’ll keep grinding through bugs and maybe even learn to love the countless hours of research. Doing otherwise is a reversal of priorities. As a student of programming, you should take some advice from someone who wasn’t an amazing programmer but was an amazing experience designer: “Start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology.”

For your personal coding projects, the customer is you. Figure out what you want to create, and then research which languages and tools would be good options for making that thing.

Be open to many languages

If you’ve spent a lot of time reading articles with titles along the lines of “What Programming Language Should I Learn?” you’re already doing this wrong. Most of the languages are pretty similar and the differences are often stylistic.

So choose a good language that’s both powerful and not too complicated. Python is a common early choice, because the syntax is not too arcane. That’s made it popular with scientists and others who often need to write a short program to clean up data or automate some chore. 

The best way to learn how computer languages work, though, is to learn a second or third. You don’t need to learn them all well, but being able to compare and contrast their structure and syntax will teach you more about how languages work.  

Build a lot of simple things, not one hard thing

In the same spirit of not overthinking the language or tools you use, you also shouldn’t overthink the projects you decide to build.

One of my favorite stories about building skills comes from the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. To summarize: There are two groups in a ceramics class. The members of one group have to create a piece every day and submit their best work at the end of the term. The members of the other group are allowed to work on a single piece for the entire length of the term to produce a masterpiece.

When the term was finished, the best work consistently came from the group that had completed pieces every day. When learning programming, the same principle is true. You learn better and faster when you code and finish small projects frequently.

It’s still good to work on passion projects that are specifically relevant to you, as mentioned earlier, but it’s not good to spend more than a few hours deciding your next project or researching the perfect next step.

It’s fine to work on something weird or fun for temporary amusement, as long as it’s something that works. Jennifer Dewalt, the founder of Zube, showed that there are 180 different things you can code in a single day. With each new project, she added to her portfolio and gained new skills.

You don’t have to be completely random with your project choices, either. It’s good to try a wide variety of projects so that you expand your ability to handle many different programming scenarios. Just don’t overthink it. Stop researching and theorizing and start writing software.

Push yourself, but not too much

Many people recommend writing code every day. For most of us. that means sitting down at the keyboard after dinner and starting on another lesson. If you don’t do this and let too many days go by, you start to forget. The only way to build up the instincts and the mental muscle memory is to put in the hours. 

If you’re able to keep up this pace over several weeks, then you’ll begin to understand whether coding is a job that you’ll be able to stand for more than 40 hours a week. 

You could argue that coding every day might even be detrimental to your ability to code. The brain needs time to rest and process difficult problems in the background while you sleep, relax, and work on other things. Taking a day off is good for that problem-solving process. 

But if you lose motivation and can’t get back to the lessons, then perhaps it’s a sign that coding isn’t the right path for you. Taking breaks from coding will help you step back and see if you want to return to coding in a few days, putting that motivation to test.

Find a buddy and meet in person, if possible

This can be one of the hardest things on this list to do, but it’s also the most important. Coding in isolation or with only an online mentor is going to take you just so far. You need someone you can meet with on occasion for three main reasons:

  1. It will keep you motivated.

  2. You can practice collaboration and idea-sharing and see a different perspective.

  3. You will learn from each other.

Having a friend or a mentor who encourages you to keep up with their pace is the best motivation for a self-taught coder. Without that social connection, it’s very easy to let your progress fall by the wayside, because no one will notice.

By the way, when I say “in person,” I don’t mean it literally. In the wake of the pandemic, there are many tools for collaboratively working, such as JSFiddle. If you couple them with a video call, it may be just as effective as meeting in person. 

Experience in coding projects with others is another key steppingstone for your path toward becoming a professional. In most jobs, you’ll be working with others, so this experience will help you learn how to navigate those interactions and learn from them.

Working in isolation makes it difficult to solve hard problems when there’s no one to help introduce you to new ideas. Other humans are sometimes more helpful than Google.

Keep trying several strategies to find a partner in coding:

  • Try to encourage some friends or co-workers to join you, or look for other people who are likely to be interested in coding together.
  • Go to several different programming-related meetups in your area. Some groups might not be as welcoming or open to mentoring, so you’ll have to keep attending to try to find people who won’t resist mentoring or pair programming or who don’t just want to keep to themselves. I found several groups in which all the members just got on their computers and barely spoke to one another. Try to find better options than that.
  • If you need help and still can’t find anyone to work with locally, try checking out sites such as CodeNewbie and the Learn Programming subreddit. They can help you find online partners and resources, but meanwhile, don’t stop looking for a local partner.

One of the big advantages of the schools and bootcamps is they make it easier to find fellow neophytes. While it may be some time before these classes start to meet in person because of the pandemic, there’s no doubt that local classes that meet in person are one of the better ways to build relationships. Try to make long-term friends and coding partners out of your classmates. This is possible with an online bootcamp, but it takes a lot more effort and discipline.

After the bootcamp, you should get some classmates to commit to videoconference meetings and pair programming sessions every week to work on projects until you all find jobs. You can even help one another with your job searches.

Focus on a few good resources

There are many free online resources to help you become a programmer without needing to pay for a bootcamp, but that also means there’s a lot of noise to sift through. It’s not hard to find hundreds of articles that are simply lists of learn-to-code sites.

But your goal is not to spend weeks reading; you need to spend most of your time in your code editor, writing code, while using resources mainly for reference.

Go back to the first piece of advice above: Find something to code. The resources you choose should match the thing you’ve decided to build, not the other way around. Your main resource should always be Google and the documentation for the language, framework, or library you’re currently working with.

If you still want some helpful starter resources or courses to follow along with before you figure out which projects you want to build, these are probably the best resources you could start with:

  • Codecademy: If you’ve hardly written any code before, this is the place to go and see if you enjoy how it feels to solve coding puzzles. It’s not going to teach you how to assemble custom applications, but it’s good for learning the syntax of different languages and computer science concepts.
  • Khan Academy: It has lessons for basic programming and also some that focus on creating games or animated movies. 
  • FreeCodeCamp: This site and its instructional videos are widely regarded as the best free content for teaching yourself to code web applications, frequently topping learn-to-code site lists. It also has forums where beginners can help each other on their journey.
  • Free online university courses: FreeCodeCamp has another killer feature: Every month, it updates this convenient list of links to hundreds of massive open online courses (MOOCs) on programming. These are great when you need to learn programming and computer science fundamentals through some purpose-built projects. For learning computer science concepts, introductory courses at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford have also been well received.
  • Teaching Yourself to Code to Become an Employable Programmer—What to Learn, Where to Learn, and More“: Although this is essentially a “how to learn to code” type of article, it’s probably the most comprehensive, well-articulated one you can find. True, the author is trying to promote his own bootcamp, but if you want a good look at the progression of a typical self-taught programmer and you need an additional resource list to read in your free time (after you’ve done some coding first), then it’s a good one-stop shop for this topic.

Just those five resources are already more than enough to bog you down in plenty of reading, so make sure you’re doing as much coding as you are reading when exploring these.

Learn how to avoid traps

One of the biggest challenges for programmers throughout their careers—but especially for beginners—is getting unstuck. Pushing yourself to find the correct path is the only way to learn, but sometimes you hit a barrier. 

Your first step anytime you’re stuck should be to look at the docs for the language, framework, or library you’re working in. Then search for your problem or error message. If the problem is conceptual, then try to articulate that in an online search.

If you’ve been stuck on the problem after 30 minutes of troubleshooting and research, try posting a question on StackOverflow or in a forum such as r/learnprogramming, CodeNewbie, or freeCodeCamp. If you can afford it, check out Codementor if you need serious one-on-one help getting unstuck or for some learning advice.

Most of your education should be driven by trying to get various lines of code to run and work properly in your project, not by reading through some list of top resources or tutorials. Get good at googling.

Don’t try to read everyone’s code

Many coding advice resources tell you to try reading great code to learn how to write great code. This is true to an extent, but it’s simply a bad idea for beginners learning Ruby on Rails to try reading the Ruby on Rails source code in their spare time. It’s going to make absolutely no sense and be a waste of your time. It would be as daunting for you as it would be for Little League baseball players to compare themselves to a professional in the Major Leagues.

A better option is to take simple templates for certain frameworks that you’re already familiar with and then try to modify those to learn how they work. At one time, I was building a blog with the Jekyll static site generator. I found out that there were blog templates, and I used one of those rather than building a blog from scratch. It helped me understand a lot more about how the system worked and how the template worked.

This is how a lot of programmers start. They don’t know the internals of various services and applications, but the API (application programming interface) is built so well by the service’s developers that it’s much easier for a junior programmer to work with those by modifying data fields. A lot of junior programmers are going to start their careers by working with and learning existing codebases while hunting for bugs.

So reading others’ code is a necessary skill, but it’s important that you don’t jump into code that’s way over your head. If you can understand 60{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add} to 70{18fa003f91e59da06650ea58ab756635467abbb80a253ef708fe12b10efb8add} of the code you’re looking at and how various files communicate and work together, then it might be worth exploring.

Don’t waste time preparing for puzzle-based coding job interviews

I’ve written extensively about the problems with whiteboard- and puzzle-based interviews for developers. As a beginner, all you need to know is that a lot of companies (including Google) have bad interviewing practices, and you shouldn’t spend much of your time teaching yourself how to pass these impractical exams.

When you’ve finally reached the stage where you have enough projects (and hopefully some freelance work) to put on your resume, you should at least do some research into how developer interviews are conducted. But don’t go out and buy any resource solely focused on helping you pass a programming interview test.

There are plenty of companies that don’t do gotcha-style interviews, and those are the ones you should gravitate toward. If a company can’t spare a technical person to run your interview or asks brain-teaser questions that are unrelated to what you’ll be doing in your daily work, then you probably don’t want to work for that company anyway.

Explore low-code options

Lately, so-called low-code and no-code tools have cropped up. Some even use names such as “robotic process automation,” even though there are no anthropometric droids in sight. 

This is generally a good trend, because these tools are useful at solving some problems. They can make it simple to, say, create a dashboard with real-time graphs that look good and impress the boss. 

The names, though, are not entirely accurate. Most of the tools replace syntactic wrangling of text files with a series of forms to fill out and buttons to push. You’ll often need to think like a programmer about data structures and work flows even though you’ll just be clicking with a mouse. 

These can be good places to begin learning what computers can do. They can offer the chance to take steps that can be easier to understand than text-based languages. And sometimes mastering a low-code tool is all you need to do to solve your needs or your company’s.

You don’t have to be a developer to find a rewarding career in tech

If you take the advice I’ve given in the previous sections and you still can’t find a way to break into professional coding, it may be time to take a step back and see whether there are alternative paths to a rewarding career in tech that utilize your specific strengths.

If you’re not interested enough in programming to code 20 hours a week in your free time, maybe there are other things you enjoy more that map onto one of the many roles found in tech companies.

StackOverflow’s Atwood made a great list of these software development company occupations in his blog post, “So You Don’t Want to Be a Programmer After All.” I’ve updated this list based on my own experience and the changes in job titles since his 2013 article. Keep in mind that some of these roles, such as QA/testing, might involve some programming—but programming isn’t all you’ll be doing.

  • Product/program/project manager

  • QA professional/tester

  • Build/release engineer

  • System administrator/DevOps engineer/site reliability engineer

  • Tech salesperson

  • Tech marketer

  • Technical writer

  • Tech journalist (actual developer news, not just smartphone and video game news)

  • Business analyst/programming analyst

  • Technical support professional/technical account manager

  • Community development professional

Try searching for some of these titles and see what’s involved. Building some experience in a field that you can explore in your current job is one of the best approaches you can take toward career progression.

Just remember that coding isn’t your only path to a good career. But also remember that a little bit of coding ability can boost your earning potential past other candidates in your chosen field, and that ability can also be a foot in the door of the coding tools industry.

Note: This story is a revised and updated version of a TechBeacon article originally written by Mitch Pronschinske. He graduated from an online bootcamp in 2013 and used his experience as a foundation for the first draft of this piece. It turned out that coding wasn’t the right path for him and he turned his discovery into some of the lessons included here. 

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