Once you’ve made the decision to learn how to code, is a coding bootcamp your only option? Some of the most successful startups were founded by self-taught programmers including Instagram and Tumblr. So why should you spend tens of thousands on a coding bootcamp when you can teach yourself? We’ve sourced tips from bootcampers, self-taught programmers and bootcamp founders to find out. Here are 6 things to consider when deciding whether you should teach yourself how to code or attend a bootcamp.

Your coding experience matters.

It depends on your background, and any coding experience you already have. If you have a lot of experience [already] (either from a Computer Science degree, previous jobs, etc), but you just don't know the specific languages you may be able to pick it up yourself. -Ken Mazaika, Mentor @ theFirehoseProject, via Quora

Research has demonstrated that once you’ve learned one foreign language, it’s easier to learn another. Some experienced programmers would say the same is true of computer programming. For example, most computer science majors learn C++ and Java at some point during their degree program. They’re familiar with the basics of talking to a computer and the fundamentals of programming in general. Someone who has never seen source code will obviously have a large learning curve, first learning the complexities of computer programming and then the intricacies of a specific language.

If you have prior experience with computer science and programming, teaching yourself may not be so difficult, but if you’ve never heard of a “closing tag” you're better off starting with bootcamp.

A Set Curriculum is a Must

The more you learn, the more you realize what you DO NOT KNOW. If you start out knowing nothing, it is almost impossible to create your own curriculum or know where to start. -Shazam Feldbro, The New York Code & Design Academy alum, via Quora

How do you teach yourself what you don’t already know? Most aspiring programmers start off with a goal of what they want to do, rather than a language they want to learn. You might want to build a web-based social network or an iOS app, which use completely different programming languages. Furthermore, with the advances in new technologies and frameworks, online guides and tutorials are easily outdated.

Eric Wise, Founder of Software Craftsmanship Guild writes,

At SCG we created all of our materials based on our extensive industry experience and we keep the materials up to date (I've actually thrown out materials before I have gotten to use them because a framework updated).  There are some things we teach that you can't even find good books on because the pace of change in some stacks is moving too fast for print material.

* Note, not all schools do this, some just use publicly available materials.  You should ask this in the interview.  It is a lot of work creating and updating materials, so much so that we've had some higher education entities sign license agreements to use our materials.

If you don’t have a solid guide and don’t know where to start, figuring out what you need to teach yourself to accomplish your goal can be difficult. Look for a bootcamp that creates their own (up-to-date) curriculum.

Know Your Own Learning Style

Are you motivated and self-disciplined?  Are you able to hold yourself accountable? Take an honest self-assessment before you decide that self-teaching is for you. Fabian Toth of Learning Fuze gives an honest account of his attempt (and failure) to teach himself piano, and the success he experienced when taking lessons with an experienced professional. While not impossible, an extraordinary amount of self-discipline is required to teach yourself a new skill.

In fact, a UCLA study found that most people have a faulty understanding of how they learn that impairs their ability to teach themselves. Dev Bootcamp and CodeUnion founder Jesse Farmer shares via Quora that as a self-taught programmer he could relate to this experience, “It wasn't until I had been learning on my own for several years that I was able to look back and see how hopelessly confused I was for months and months on end.”

Consider your past attempts at self-teaching. Were you able to stay motivated and meet your goal? If so, give self-teaching a try before you sign up for a bootcamp.

How much time (and money) can you afford?

It basically takes six to 12 months of doing it full-time. Looking back, if I had made time to do it when I was fully employed elsewhere, I think it would have been futile. -Chris Sunsong, a self-taught programmer, via Mashable

From a simple standpoint, it seems much more feasible to teach  yourself to code before spending thousands of dollars on a coding bootcamp, whether you work or are unemployed. But, if you could double or triple your current salary, is it worth it? Consider the following scenario from an App Academy alum on Quora:


Bootcamp route: Assume 3 months + 1 month of job search. $15k out of pocket and 4 months of unemployment. At the beginning of month 5, you start making ~$5000 per month post tax, give or take a bit.

Self study route: assume 6 months of self-study, 1 month of job search, even without additional recruitment help from the bootcamp. Assume you get the same salary coming out.

Given the above, both routes cost the same. You'd take 3 additional months to get paid a developer's salary through the self-study route. That's about $15k in lost wages while learning to program, roughly the cost of a programming bootcamp.

If the idea of paying 10-15K upfront seems impossible, consider App Academy, Telegraph Academy and other coding bootcamps offering scholarships and deferred payment options.

Check out this handy Bootcamp ROI calculator to find out your return on investment for coding bootcamp. Depending on your situation, you may actually save money by attending bootcamp rather than teaching yourself.

Student & Alumni Networks are a Plus

For the knowledge part, I would say that you could find all the information by yourselves in this Internet era. However there are still some tips and skills that you might not learn until you learn from instructors and classmates. There’s so much value in the connections and opportunities that couldn’t have been learned by myself. -Jason Liu, NYC Data Science Academy, via Course Report

For many bootcamp attendees, the single most important factor in attending a bootcamp is the support, energy and lessons learned from your fellow bootcampers and instructors. Most coding bootcamps employ a practice of pair programming and group work, which has also become popular in the workplace. Unless you're planning on being a one person startup, coding with peers is an invaluable and essential skill for the workforce. Because most bootcamps have a job placement rate of 90% or higher, you’ll also benefit from the job preparation and contacts.

Having other people nearby will help you during the hard times. Sometimes you feel exhausted. Your peers will inspire you to press forward. Sometimes you can't get your code to run. You peers will help you hunt bugs. Sometimes you just feel stupid and not cut out to be a programmer. Your peers will feel the same way, and together you will cheer each other on. Having others supporting you makes a huge difference. When you're in that room, surrounded by all those determined people, the energy is amazing. -Joe Averbukh, App Academy Alum, via Quora

If you don’t already have a network of fellow programmers and a job waiting for you, the benefits of bootcamp are priceless.

Set goals before you start.

In my opinion, if you have plenty of time but limited funds, then you should see how far you can get on your own. If you’re looking to make a meaningful change in a reasonable period of time, then I would advise you to attend a structured program with mentorship that also provides help with job preparation.  - Colleen Mizony, Curriculum Developer @ Bloc, via Quora

What is your goal after attending a coding bootcamp - a new job, a new hobby or bringing your startup idea to life? While some bootcamps have a preference for teaching aspiring full-time software engineers others would like to teach everyone how to code. During the bootcamp interview, the team is assessing whether you are committed to staying throughout the program. If programming is a hobby or you think you’re not ready, consider self-teaching at least until you have a definite idea of what you would like to do.

Perhaps the greatest value-add of a bootcamp is the hiring network- this includes alumni. If your goal is to become a technical co-founder or build your own MVP, then learning on your own could be an economical path. For students who want to make the career transition quickly, a bootcamp’s hiring team and alumni network will be valuable.  

If you aren’t sure about a future career in software development or want to explore programming before committing, consider self-teaching or a part-time bootcamp, which is less expensive. If you’re set on a coding bootcamp, take the deep dive with a bootcamp that will help you make the entire career transition.


Whether you decide to attend a coding bootcamp or you want to teach yourself, you are going to start out self-teaching anyway. Quite a few bootcamps require some familiarity with code and a successful technical interview that requires programming knowledge to succeed. Here are a few resources to get your started:

  • Codecademy - focused curriculum and project-based exercises in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, Ruby and more, all for free!
  • Codebuddies.org - meet friends, get help and get started with pair programming
  • Coding Dojo’s algorithm platform - test your self-teaching efforts or prepare for the technical coding bootcamp interview with this platform dedicated to algorithm training (uses JavaScript only)
  • Epicodus curriculum online - Want to see just how far you can get on your own? Portland-based bootcamp, Epicodus, put their entire curriculum online for free.

About The Author

Alex williams image

Alex is an educator turned programmer in training. Find out what she's up to at alexandriawilliams.com.

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