Polite heads-up: this is a WALL. OF. TEXT. Please set aside a few minutes if you're really interested and don't try to skim while driving. I won't be offended if you bookmark for later.

On Friday, March 27th, I stood up in front of ~100 people and demonstrated my final project: Safemeet, an Ember-backed Google maps overlay for tracking and rating safe meetup locations (think Craigslist, online dating, classified ads, etc). I was terrified - not just of the reception I'd have there but of everything to come afterwards. That was my last day as a full-time Iron Yarder - where would I go next? I worked hard to make myself look forward, and to minimize the reflection & sappy thoughts I'm so prone to.

It's been 2 months, almost to the day, since we had our alumni dinner and said our goodbyes. I've spent a lot of that time being contemplative, reliving the experience and wondering what things I might do diferently knowing the world as I do now. The Iron Yard was a great experience for me, but it's not for everybody. With that in mind, I'd like to discuss the pros and cons I see in the program from my own perspective - now, not as a busy student or hungry graduate, but as a happily employed software developer. As always, I hope my reflections can help someone else with whatever difficult decisions they're going through. I'll preface this with my usual invitation - if you're reading along and you have a question, PLEASE REACH OUT! I'm happy to chat and no emails, tweets or calls will go unanswered.

Anyway, ONWARD, to the PAST...

On the good

There are a lot of virtues to extoll regarding my coding bootcamp experience. The greatest compliment I can give the people I interacted with at the Iron Yard is that they all wanted to help. Everyone expressed a strong desire to assist in any way they possibly could. I never crossed paths with someone who seemed disinterested in the craft of coding - even non-technical people like the CFO would brag about the Ruby tutorial they completed the night before. It truly is an immersive environment, both in terms of subject and in terms of support. I found the constant encouragement to be a boon as I progressed - having someone lean over your shoulder to check out your work can be hugely motivating when you're struggling to stay engaged.

The Iron Yard also worked hard to provide a workspace dedicated to learning. Our cohort was the first to enjoy TIY's first custom-built space downtown. The classroom was spacious and offices were kept separate from student-aimed areas so noise wouldn't be a factor for either instructors or learners. Food & drink was plentiful and any concerns brought up by students were addressed with lightning speed. Again, a demonstration of caring: TIY became home, and everyone helped make it that way.

The primary resources TIY offers to its students are people. There are no major partnerships that got us free swag (well, a few stickers), student-grade software subscriptions or bonus gear. There are no secret interview cheat-sheets they offer. The people are the real resource, which is the biggest selling point. We had entrepreneurs and freelancers and startup engineers at our beck and call, 24/7, to answer questions or review code. I like personal interaction, so for me this was a huge selling point going in. While I sometimes felt thatI was competing for time, I never felt that my problems were ignored or questions blown-off, even if they were completely unrelated to our current subject material or even outside the scope of the program itself (as they often were).

One really neat unadvertised perk to being an Iron Yard student was the exposure to a growing company. Having a bit of experience coming in, I got to contribute to some internal projects and deal with staff in a different way than many students. That experience was huge for me, both in terms of actually dealing with a production workflow and with the confidence boost I recieved from getting other developers critiquing my git diffs. I'd encourage anyone either currently in or entering a bootcamp program to reach out and offer yourself as a code monkey for internal projects. It's a great experience and I'd imagine every 'camp out there has a few dangling projects they'd accept free help on. After all, coders gonna code.

A final good note before things go sour: I was pleased with and impressed by the attention I got from our campus director when it came to additional challenges. He really went out of his way to offer some really neat, unique opportunities to me as they came by. This wasn't a privilege reserved to me - Roy was great at connecting people with challenges to suit their levels. I don't know if all the CDs have his innate knack for this sort of thing, but I'd encourage interested students to connect early and often with their local directors to build those bridges.

On the bad

The biggest negative I found with The Iron Yard was the pacing. This being a negative was in many ways my own fault - I came into a 0-60 program already going 30, and was disappointed when the program didn't magically accelerate to 80 just for me. I found my own ways to work around this - in particular, digging deeper into topics, spending time on personal projects, and helping teach other students to solidify my own knowledge - but I have to say that I wouldn't recommend the Iron Yard in Greenville to someone with similar experience to my own unless they were looking for the same confidence bolster I was.

I specify Greenville here because of another negative: The Iron Yard is inconsistent. That's not to say the program I went through inconsistent in itself, but between campuses, programs vary wildly. This is in large part due to the "customized" style TIY encourages. Each instructor is given mostly free reign in determining how their class will progress. Curriculums are built around the pace most comfortable for the students in the current cohort. This means some classes will fly high while others will drag down. My cohort was composed mostly of people with very little experience, so we spent a lot of extra time on review and reinforcment of core concepts. This meant less time for some of the topics I was most excited about, like freelancing, real-world challenges and best practices. Other cohorts differ in many ways: they may cover topics at an accelerated rate, or they may cover entirely different frameworks. Our cohort spent a large portion of our time on Ember, a Javascript framework that's popular but still ganing traction. Many other campuses instead cover Angular, a "competing" framework that's generally more popular right now (please note that this debate goes WAAY deeper, I'm just offering anecdotal experience between the frameworks). Ember follows a lot of popular Ruby/Rails paradigms, but it's not as in-demand as Angular is across most active job postings I've seen. That means Greenville Front-End grads planning on using their specific framework experience have a bit of a gamble - if Ember continues to gain steam, we're in great shape. If it falls off, we'll be learning some stuff other grads already covered. That's not necessarily a good feeling in a competitive job market.

As a final note, I was disappointed with a lot of the "IOU"s we were handed throughout our course.
A lot of "extracurriculars" and deeper topics were brought up but ultimately pushed to the side. Feedback was a BIG thing that feel by the wayside - I know I harped on that a lot in my daily/weekly postings but I can't express enough how important individual feedback is in a course like this, nor how limited it was for us. I can't speak to whether or not this was a reflection of our cohort's extra time spent reviewing certain fundamentals or just the way things go at TIY, as I only have my experience to go on. Rather than trying to pin down specific quotes, I'll offer examples of what we covered as compared to details direct from The Iron Yard's current Front End Engineering program description:

  • "Guest speakers..." - one alumni (now locally employed), one local civic code organization promoter, one tech lead from a large company in Charleston. 2 "interview" lectures from potential instructor hires. A handful of lectures from current TIY staff/partners.
  • "Class field trips..." - No field trips.
  • "Git & GitHub" - git usage was covered extensively. We kept all our code in repos on Github. We collaborated on team projects this way, and some feedback was handled via issues/comments.
  • "HTML & CSS" - Covered basic markup & styling. One guest lecture on Canvas. SASS exclusively - no Jade or Stylus. (On this note - I know some Rails courses DO cover HAML)
  • "Responsive Sites" - Covered sufficently. Projects mostly tested for responsiveness.
  • "Design fundamentals" - NOT a web design class. This was covered implicitly by practice and criticism. We didn't have any dedicated time spent on UX, font choice or accessibility.
  • "Freelance fundamentals" - One short lecture & a link to a Github repo with some tips & prefab contract templates. Possibly support given post-course to those interested?
  • "JavaScript" - covered in depth.
  • "jQuery" - DOM manipulation only. Non-DOM methods were covered implicitly through Backbone/Underscore methods, but we never actually dug into anything outside jQuery's selector abilities.
  • "Underscore/Lodash" - covered in-depth. Primarily used for iterator methods & Backbone support.
  • "Client-side Frameworks" - Backbone & Ember for us, each ~1/4 of our class time.
  • "Javascript Testing" - One guest lecture on Ember's testing tools. Jasmine? Mocha? "every JS assignment" & "continuous integration"? Not even a little bit.
  • "Languages that compile..." - Nope.
  • "Templating" - Underscore templating was part of the ramp-up to Backbone. This one was covered pretty well.
  • "Node.js" - Nope again. Mentioned in passing but never really covered, sadly. Related: no Heroku coverage. Case-by-case basis for final projects, I think, but I'm not sure about that - Github Pages was sufficient for most of us.
  • "Backends" - Parse exclusively. Previous cohort covered both Parse & Firebase. Jake was testing a couple newer services for future classes, so Parse may go the way of the dodo soon.
  • "Front End Tools" - No asset pipeline or app templating programs. Bower covered. Again, previous cohort covered Yeoman & Gulp, so they may come back around for others.
  • "Getting Hired" - no mock interviews though they were frequently discussed. Resumes & portfolios critiqued frequently - big thumbs-up on how those were handled by all.

A pro is that The Iron Yard is pretty transparent with their source material. If you have concerns about how a class might go, ask the instructor for a link to their Github and look through the TIY repos they've contriubuted to. You should be able to find the previous class's curriculum in whole or in part and you can follow along and see how the pacing/coverge feels. I did this myself, and it was the tiered assignments that our instructor provided that really sealed the deal for me opting into to Front End class.

On issues not specific to TIY

I think the above pros & cons are issues the Iron Yard themselves could address. There are a handful of other issues I found during my time at TIY that were not their problem, but common problems with students. My biggest observation is that a lot of students, not just in Greenville but even at other campuses, expected more spoon-feeding than they got. TIY does a good job of explaining that the program will be intense, but we definitely had students who didn't expect the intensity and never really committed to the process. The biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone considering a bootcamp like The Iron Yard is "Learn how to learn it yourself". Just because you paid these folks 5 figures doesn't mean they're going to plug a wire into the back of your head and *poof* you know Javascript. Learning takes work, time and dedication - and every minute you spend whining about the diffculty level is a minute you could have spent searching out an alternative technique.

On Employability

The big question for most people, of course, is employability: "Will this program get me a job?".

First: that's the wrong question. No program in the world will "get you a job". They just won't. They may connect you with the right people, help you tweak your resume, and even coach you on your interviews, but they won't get you a job. That's entirely up to you and how well you can sell yourself.

That said, I get the spirit of the question, and I take it to mean a much longer query: "Will this program prepare me for a job as a junior level developer and make me competitive in the current market?". It's a two part question, so I'll respond to both parts:

    1. "Will this program prepare me for a job a junior developer?": Yes. Unequivocably, yes. The Iron Yard will provide the resources and guidance to be a competent junior application developer from day 1 at your new job of choice. It will not be spoon-fed, and you will have to work to earn that competency, but if you leave the program unprepared it is entirely your own fault.
    1. "Will this program make me competitive in the current market?": Maybe. I find this one a little more sticky. The reality is that demand is high for software devs, but that demand isn't uniformly distributed. Greenville's a good demonstration of this: there are tech jobs in the area, but they're mostly enterprise-focused and looking for people with experience in Java, .NET, or hybrid engineers with IT/networking experience. The most in-demand programming-specific skillset I found while job hunting was Ruby on Rails. There just aren't a lot of RoR devs in the region. Sadly, this means the Front End, Javascript-focused grads of The Iron Yard Greenville's best prospects are elsewhere. Some students signed up with a strong willingness to relocate, but many signed up expecting to have jobs waiting for them when they graduated, and they've been disappointed by a somewhat dismal outlook in the immediate area. This question goes back to the preparedness issue: it's just as important to research where you are, where you want to be, and what you need to get there. The Iron Yard can't magically make jobs appear. They will offer some help finding freelance work and are great resources if you're looking at a specific path and need guidance, but they're not genies and can't grant wishes. To be competitive, you need to work hard, demonstrate strong results and be willing to take maybe less than you want to get to where you want to be. If you're flexible, you'll find the sky's the limit. If you're not, you'll be disappointed at every turn.

The Verdict

Well over a year ago, I decided I wanted to become a professional software developer. I buckled down and started treating my longtime hobby more like a job and less like a time killer. I studied theory, practiced frameworks, dabbled in online communities and worked hard to find the right path. After a long period of personal growth and change, I accepted a fulltime job as a Web Application Developer specializing in Ruby on Rails. It was roughly one week after graduating from the Iron Yard.

My results are not typical. Most of my cohort is still searching for employment. Some have turned to freelance for the first time, and some have fallen back on the same freelancing they did prior to the program. Everyone is interviewing and trying, to my knowledge, but finding a job is hard work even in the best of times. Honesty is important here: many of the people still searching will be forced to lower their expectations to find a job. It's a bummer, but it's the truth. Entry level means entry level, no matter the field.

Overall, I'm pleased with my choice to attend The Iron Yard. I was at a transitional point in life and TIY helped me over the hump as I changed careers. The biggest benefit I got from the program was exposure and confidence - both things I needed to move forward, and both things I would have had a hard time getting from other sources. That's a very personal situation though, and won't be the same for everyone.

After my experience, I'd recommend the Iron Yard to anyone with little to no programming experience who's dedicated to a big transition. The results you'll see from a code camp at any level are ultimately up to you. All the school can do is provide the resources and guidance to help you along the way. However, if you're the type of person who benefits from personal interaction & classroom environments, those resources may be exactly what you need. It certainly worked out well for me.

Moving On & Follow-Ups

I am and will always be an Iron Yard graduate. This comes with its own set of responsibilities: I'll always expect extra crticism during interviews, I fully expect to be snickered at by traditional Comp Sci grads, and I'll always be an ambassador of the program from which I graduated. I take that last one seriously - code school graduates are both the product and the promoter, and I feel really strongly about using my experience to be a resource to others. If you've read this or any other of my blog posts regarding the Iron Yard and have ANY questions regarding TIY, Greenville, bootcamps or programming in general, I'd love to talk. You can reach me via email at hello@atmartin.io or on Twitter at @ADotMartin. I haven't ignored anyone yet and I don't intend to, so message away - I'm happy to chat in whatever medium works best for you.