The Joys and Challenges of Hiring Developer Bootcamp Grads

I was recently asked to speak on a Winning the Talent War: Building a Diverse Community of Junior Developers & Technical Talent panel in Pittsburgh. The idea was to gather HR executives to listen to tech talks and a panel discussion around solving Pittsburgh’s small tech talent pool. Sadly, the event was canceled.

Since I had completed my talk outline already, I figured that I would recycle it into a blog post for you, lucky reader. I’ll even reveal my biography from the event page:

Brittany Martin is the Lead Ruby Developer for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and a Rails Mentor for Bloc.io. She is focused on bringing more women into tech and finding a way to cast her chocolate lab as Alf’s stand-in for the inevitable Netflix reboot.

Sounds like me, right? Away with the talk….

Makeup of a Typical Bootcamp Student

You = refers to the intended audience, HR executives in Pittsburgh

As a Ruby mentor for Bloc, I interact with a lot of potential junior developers. It’s amazes me how diverse their intentions are. If I focus on my students who are looking to make a career change, they share these characteristics:

  1. They have already had successful careers. They are looking for a new challenge that may lead them to a job with more flexibility, compensation and innovation. They have not flunked out of one career and are looking to sneak their way into another.
  2. They are smart. They have tried coding and instantly liked it. They understand that learning to code can be one of the most frustrating challenges that they will ever face.
  3. They are willing to invest in their future. These are employees that are willing to spend all their free time to acquire new skills.

The Pittsburgh tech community hasn’t seriously considered hiring bootcamp graduates even though they constantly struggle with hiring technical talent. Bootcamp graduates (BGs for short) can solve a lot of hiring needs, as long as the challenges they bring are addressed.

Joys of Hiring Bootcamp Graduates

Stale company culture? Hiring BGs can breathe new life into the workplace. They typically set a great example with their passion and high work ethic. Since BGs are encouraged to engage in the Meetup circuit while learning to code, they can often refer a lot of new candidates and get your company involved in your local community.

As noted, BGs have a past life that should be accounted for. They can bring a lot of domain expertise to their new jobs. I love seeing ex-nurses working at a healthcare startup, ex-CPAs working at a financial services company or ex-product managers assisting with project management at their new company. Make sure that when you interview BGs, you get their entire history, not just their coding timeline.

By training a new technical employee, a lot of bad processes can be revealed. BGs will quickly point out poor documentation, bad on-boarding steps and flimsy feedback loops. Remember, these students put their entire livelihood on the line to switch careers. They are heavily invested in making their new job work.

Challenges of Hiring Bootcamp Graduates

Setting up your company to interview and nurture bootcamp graduates is no small feat.

Unfortunately, a lot of bootcamp graduates are not taught basic project management skills and how to collaborate with an engineering team. When they are sole developers coding CRUD apps, they can get away with ad-libbing features. Learning how to properly submit pull requests, spec and estimate features and to balance work and life are skills that will need to be added to on-boarding. Getting BGs in front of real customers and prospects is important. Prior, it’s a smart idea to coach them to not promise features, to not guide the customers into answers and to listen for why they are asking for x feature.

BGs will need to be given plenty of room to fail. This will feel uncomfortable for you and for your organization. Working with your product managers to allocate extra time on earlier projects will pay off. Otherwise, BGs will deviate to doing safe tasks so they won’t grow as developers. In an ideal world, you will be able to hire BGs two or three at a time. Of course, this comes down to budget and bandwidth. It’s important that they can lean on each other and use each other as a health check. Just remember that if you have an 8 person engineering team and you hire 2 BGs, they will instantly make up 20% of your culture. Try to instill good habits early.

Hiring BGs in sets will also reduce the strain on senior mentorship. BGs are used to having mentors available to them so that they can feel good about the technical decisions they make. It’s important that you evaluate your engineering team prior to hiring to be sure your engineers want to mentor. Nothing is worse than see a mentor/mentee relationship fall apart because the mentor doesn’t want to teach or ignores feedback.