UX bootcamp is not what you think it is
An exploration of the realities of bootcamp that you won’t hear from admissions
An exploration of the wild advantages and disadvantages of bootcamp that you won’t hear from admissions.
I really enjoyed my UX bootcamp experience. I was a star student. I risked a lot to attend and I received an amazing return: I landed a mid-level UX Design role that I love, with a salary and a stability that changed my quality of life. I’m grateful and I’m proud.
Now that I am over six months into my position, I have a more nuanced perspective of what bootcamp is and what it isn’t. I share these insights for those considering attending; may this information enlighten you to the whole nuanced picture and nudge you toward what is truly right for you.
What I thought bootcamp was going to be:
I thought bootcamp was a 10-week immersive experience after which I would come out fully prepared to get any junior to mid-level job I wanted within a few shorts months of completion. I thought once I got through the hard part of learning, I would know the right methods and software to feel confident in my skills. I thought the bootcamp was the hard part and the rest would be easy.
I thought I would get bespoke, in-depth coaching sessions that explored the best ways to put forth my personal brand. I thought I would be a shoo-in for available roles with the bootcamp’s corporate hiring partners. I thought the reputation of my chosen bootcamp preceded it, and that almost all companies would love to score an illustrious bootcamp grad.
What bootcamp actually is:
Below is a list of what bootcamp actually is, based on what I have learned working in the industry as a UX designer for over 6 months. I include why the reality of bootcamp is both wildly advantageous and wildly disadvantageous.
Bootcamp gives you a framework of the *perfect* UX process.
Advantage: You will see what the ideal UX process looks like from start to finish; this theoretical process shows students the goals of each phase of the process and which tools to use during those phases. I had no idea what UX even was, so this framework was great knowledge on which to build. I personally need a structure for learning, and bootcamp met that need.
It’s like a pre-med student learning anatomy and studying from one of those bland textbook illustrations of an “average” person. The illustration is accurate for learning and you have to start there, but real human bodies are hairy, scarred, and rather varied in shape.
Disadvantage: In a perfect process, there are no limitations. In the real and imperfect world, there are many limitations, some of which are frustrating and stressful. For example, team leads might have competing visions (or worse, no vision) or there is no end-user available to interview and the timeline is nearly impossible.
Since graduating from bootcamp, I have worked on three small freelance projects and two large, complex enterprise projects. Never-have-I-ever seen the ideal process carried through; process is expensive, so things get cut. Our team process is often mishmashed, scrappy, out of order and specific to the needs of the project.
Advice: The perfect UX process is great for learning, but don’t get stuck there. Hiring managers — who are considering how you might fit into the complexity of their organization — may be estranged by your undying love of the perfected process.
After bootcamp, seek out real-world projects with complexity and accept the mess; it will make you a better designer. The real skill is knowing which methods to apply in which circumstance, based on the needs and goals of the project.
Bootcamp shows you the skills you need to be a successful designer.
Advantage: I assume if you are into UX, you are a deeply curious person. Lucky for you, bootcamp is the perfect buffet of endless intellectual exploration and skill-building that can be had within the UX profession.
Bootcamp not only showed me what to learn, but often showed me where to learn. My instructors and my classmates always had a myriad of amazing resources waiting for me to explore about any modality within the UX discipline.
Disadvantage: Knowing about a skill is not same as knowing a skill. Bootcamp learning shows you everything you need to learn, but you don’t have time in that moment to master the skills.
There is no way to account for an entire profession and its requisite skillset in ten weeks. There is simply not enough time to delve deeply into the nuances of research planning, qualitative interviewing, synthesis, wireframing, user flows, and design, in addition to becoming proficient in Figma and InVision.
Much of your most valuable learning will be done after bootcamp hours. The lesson plans alone are shallow, if you do not learn beyond the syllabus.
Advice: To get a position in the competitive UX market, you must add (and demonstrate how you add) value to the company. Value is partially about your attitude and partially about the skills you bring to the table.
Mastering skills takes time beyond bootcamp. Longer programs may be better for someone who does not have any previous professional experience or who thrives in a slower, more in-depth pace of learning.
Bootcamp is a high-level overview of the design industry at large.
Advantage: This industry overview is valuable because you can be strategic about your career interests and goals. You learn about different UX roles and can orient toward specialization earlier in your career. While most entry-level designs are generalist in nature, you can focus on building skills for specific roles that you might want in the future.
For example, I am fascinated with business and often lose patience with technical details. I knew after bootcamp I needed to leverage my existing research skills to get a job that was more on the client-discovery and strategy side of the UX process and less on the technical delivery and UI side of the process. I am currently learning about structuring proposals and translating research into flows and wireframes for complex enterprise softwares.
Disadvantage: I don’t see any major disadvantages to this particular approach, though the industry does change rapidly. A huge part of being a designer is the willingness to learn and change with the times.
Advice: Don’t focus on specialization before more foundational understandings.
Do take note of what methods interest and energize you. Throughout your learning process, reflect on and write down your strengths and areas needing improvement.
Bootcamp teaches you how to build a design application.
Advantage: This is a major advantage of bootcamps. I received a lot of training on how to build an application specifically for the design industry. This info was some of the most valuable because previously, I did not have any success applying through traditional channels.
At bootcamp, I learned:
- how to create a case study and what information to put in each case study.
- how to build a portfolio with said case studies.
- where to network and how to maximize networking.
- how to maximize my LinkedIn to be found for roles I wanted.
- tips and tricks for writing a resume that would get around the applicant tracking systems and into the hands of the hiring manager.
Disadvantage: This point is also a major disadvantage, because your application can come off as formulaic. When you graduate from bootcamp, everyone in your cohort and previous cohorts has really similar looking portfolios and case studies.
My hiring manager, who likes to give juniors a chance, complained that many bootcamp grads answer questions similarly, as though they all practiced the same scripts. She told me I got noticed and eventually hired because I radically broke from that script.
Advice: In bootcamp, students learn broad rules and guidelines to create portfolios, cover letters and resumes. These broad rules are helpful, but you must also know when to diverge from them.
How do you differentiate yourself? Take on projects outside of class, even if they are small and for free. Get feedback from other designers about your portfolio. Look at portfolios from people who didn’t go through a bootcamp. Leverage your previous skills and let your personality shine through. Learn and practice new ways of talking about your professional skillset. Experiment, break rules, and iterate based on your findings.
Bootcamp is big risk that can pay off exponentially.
Advantage: Bootcamp gave me what I needed to make a career switch. Period. I bet a lot on bootcamp, and that was beneficial, because I took it seriously and I maximized every opportunity it presented.
Here is what I bet on bootcamp: I borrowed $16K to go. $13K for tuition and $3K for living expenses. I gave up all the freelance jobs and opportunities I had going that I had spent a couple years building up. I gave up a feeling of security. This was a lot for me. The size of this risk absolutely made me a better student, a better job seeker, and ultimately, a better designer.
[Note: In the spirit of transparency, I currently make a loan repayment of $350/month now, which is fairly easy with my current salary, even with my other expenses.]
Disadvantage: $13K is a big risk and repayment comes around quickly. It took me five months after bootcamp to get a job and I was very dedicated to the application process. I was stressed toward the end of that stretch; I had not prepared enough financially for the 9 months of unemployment. I thought I would have a job by then. None of my classmates worked during the bootcamp; there is simply not enough time.
You can learn everything you learn in bootcamp online, but that would have taken me years longer. If you are like my buddy Luke who can dedicate 9 months to teaching yourself on YouTube, and stay disciplined enough to do it, more power to you! I am jealous, because I could not do that. The shortened timeline and heightened structure was paramount to my successful career transition.
Advice: Outcomes are not guaranteed; no one’s timeline is the same. You might need to freelance or take an internship or do free work for a non-profit to continue building your skills after bootcamp. Continue to network and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Iterate on your application regularly.
Bootcamp is the easy part (gulp).
Advantage: The bootcamp structure is intense but it got me into a great rhythm and mindset for a demanding job. Plan your meals on the weekends, and be sure to sleep. Schedule in relaxation. It’s not such a big deal that you should compromise your health or well-being.
Bootcamp is also really fun. I have sweet memories from the experience. I met my best friend Rachel there and we still hang out all the time (go Quaranteam!). I have a network of people I know in the field, including my instructors.
Disadvantage: The job search is the hard part. I am an optimistic and high energy person and I was not prepared for how tough it can be financially, mentally and emotionally. I had some support from my bootcamp career counselor, but it was not very specific. Her attention had, rightfully, shifted to the incoming cohort. I fell back on my mental health habits and routines.
I sought out support and feedback from other bootcamp grads. I reached out to people on LinkedIn. I had goals for my application process: 5 apps per day, daily iteration on my application, two networking events per week, 1 informational interview per week (which meant about three to five cold LinkedIn messages per week). Rachel and I checked in daily for accountability and support. We still do, even though we both are employed now.
Bootcamp gets mixed reviews.
Advantage: There are bootcamp grads, like me, who receive job offers and thrive in their positions. There are a few companies who love to hire from them.
Disadvantage: There are bootcamp grads who get job offers and get canned because they can’t deliver. They didn’t actually pick up the skills, or their teachers didn’t have real industry experience. No one is impressed by any particular bootcamp brand name. They are impressed with your performance. Or not.
The role that bootcamps play today is not what it used to be. Where there was once one bootcamp with 12 grads in any given tech hub, now there are 12 bootcamps with 200 grads every few months. The market is more competitive, especially for juniors.
The bootcamp model needs to iterate on itself to keep up; I definitely have a list of feedback and upgrades for the bootcamp I went to, but I would still speak highly of it.
Half of my experience was what the bootcamp brought to the table, the other half was what I brought to the table.
Advice: Before you attend, vet your bootcamp! Talk to alumni.
After you go, be aware: hiring managers may have experiences with previous grads that informs their perspective about bootcamps at large. Your bootcamp experience should not be the shiniest thing on your application: your skills, your value-add, and you culture-add should be.
You will see people on LinkedIn who insist designers should have (at least) a four-year degree to be a “legitimate” designer; ignore these people. They are upholding a classist higher education structure that does not account for people who are switching from another profession, or who are entrepreneurial, tenacious, and bright. They ignore people with circumstances that keep them from returning to school for four freaking years. For example, I know a guy who was in a punk band, and worked as a barista a few years ago; now he’s a designer at IBM making well into six figures because of bootcamp. He’s brilliant and always has been, degree or not.
It is what it is.
This list is not exhaustive as there is an endless amount to say about this experience, but I hoped to shed light on what bootcamp is really all about: it’s one possible step on a larger journey of growth. Like any investment, take stock of your true goals, and do your research to see if bootcamp aligns with them.
You are already on the right path.
Follow me on Medium @entzenberger for more tips if you are fresh to UX.