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No Three-Month Course Can Teach You How to Code

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Organizations such as Codecademy, the Flatiron School, and General Assembly regularly get lauded for churning out legions of seemingly qualified engineers. The latest came in a recent Wall Street Journal article headlined, “Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code.” Student X took Course Y and in a mere three months became an amazing developer now working for SuperStartup earning a salary far above the national average. How can you not love that story?

While these coding crash courses advertise a simple and easy path, the transition is actually a lot more complicated. Like the anecdotes in the Journal article, I too am a self-taught software engineer. And the reality is there’s no three-month course (intensive or otherwise) that can magically turn someone into a top engineer. The first 10,000 hours alone merely catch you up to your key competition for developer positions, the recent computer science grads.

Indeed, the journey usually goes a little more like this: You make the decision to become a web developer, likely because you’re not passionate about your current line of work, or think being a software engineer is cool. Next, you apply to a bunch of intensive, three-month web development classes, all of which promise to turn you into a marketable developer. In one of these course you will learn some of the basics of web development, from using the Ruby on Rails web framework to adding some extra functionality to a webview with JavaScript. At the end of three months, you’ll have gone from knowing nothing to building a website, which is real accomplishment.

Then, however, it’s time to complete your transition. You’re no longer in a “sandbox” with a planned curriculum and teacher on hand. Top companies expect you to know what a recent comp-sci graduate would know, which could include SQL vs. NoSQL databases, the time complexity of some algorithm, or how to implement binary search. As for the job placement advertised as part of these classes, those opportunities are few and far between.

While there are some excellent companies willing to hire driven and intelligent self-taught engineers, they lie in the minority. Many companies pass over candidates without a formal degree in computer science before reading on; the stigma of low experience is a hard one to break in any industry but especially in those involving technical abilities.

Before this turns into purely a precautionary tale, there are certainly words of encouragement to be shared. The amazing thing about software engineering is that these days it really is a meritocracy if you can prove you’re worth paying attention to.

Notwithstanding the tech industry’s well-documented age and gender discrimination trends in hiring, or perhaps even in spite of these, there is still a chance for anyone to be hired in these roles especially with growing pressure to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies combined with the dearth of qualified engineers.

Additionally, there is greater focus on company culture, especially within the startup scene preferred by so many fresh-faced developers. Based on your company’s culture and needs, the benefits of hiring a self-taught developer could be worth your while. Making the shift requires determination, drive and initiative—all valuable transferable skills. They also have something else over straight-up engineers: knowing what it’s like to not know the jargon, bridging the gap between an organization’s technical and non-technical employees.

But going from cold-emailing Android and iOS developers about mobile-advertising solutions to working on third party data integrations took far longer than the length of a single course. Eighteen months ago, I never could have imagined feeling this confidently legitimate in my new profession, let alone having my second full-time job as a developer be at my current employer. I owe a lot to the people, past and present, who not only took a chance on my willingness to learn, but also took the time to humor me and help me grow.

So if the curiosity is there, it’s worth it to start learning in your spare time. And if the curiosity stays and turns into passion, dive into the details, ask yourself (and anyone who will listen) the hard questions. Most importantly, be prepared to work really, really hard.

Follow Chris on Twitter @triplec1988We welcome your comments atideas@qz.com.

(Image via scyther5/Shutterstock.com)

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