Are training programs a substitute for college?
Even though research shows that college is still the surest path toward financial stability, tech moguls like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of college to pursue their (very lucrative) dreams loom large in the public imagination. Thanks to their success, it’s no surprise that many young people are playing with the idea of skipping traditional four-year college (and its associated debts) to forge a new route. The numbers help—about 30 million jobs that pay over $55,000 a year don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
For the tech-minded, one college alternative that’s emerged in recent years is the coding “boot camp.” Jason left a prestigious liberal arts college as a sophomore a few years ago and enrolled in an intensive three-month software engineering program called App Academy. Coding boot camps have soared in popularity in recent years, and are now so competitive that there are—no joke—boot camps to prepare for boot camps. Now in his early twenties, Jason began working as a software engineer before many of his former college classmates even graduated—and he’s now starting his own company as a crypto-economics adviser. (Think Bitcoin.)
Jason explained his unorthodox path—and why it might not be for everyone.
Dropping out of college takes guts. What made you decide to do it?
My grades were tumbling and I was having a hard time getting myself to class. It wasn’t until after I dropped out that I started thinking about my options. After a particularly demoralizing gig I found on Craigslist, I started looking around at different industries. Software engineering was the only one where I could see myself being successful. Other fields cared about your degree, but in programming it was more about your technical skills. It felt more meritocratic.
Were you a computer guy?
You know what’s funny? I sucked at computer science in college. It was completely different from software engineering. My problem with college was that it wasn’t about problem-solving. It was about understanding a set of rules laid down by your professor. I didn’t feel like grades were representative of how much value people could provide. I couldn’t stay engaged in that kind of environment.
What were your parents’ reactions when you told them you were dropping out?
I didn’t tell them. My parents had a bit of a meltdown when they found out. However, they eventually came to terms with it. Very recently, actually, they told me that they never would have imagined it, but they were happy with my decisions.
So what was it about boot camp that prepared you more for the “real world”?
It launched me right into the practical stuff. Once you become a programmer you realize that 95% of the jobs are simple tasks that rely more on communication than pure knowledge. At the boot camp, you would pair with someone, sit down at a computer, and take turns working on problem sets from 9 to 5. The idea was for your partner to communicate the solution while you implement it. Then switch. So that way, you practice both describing and understanding a problem. It prepared you to work in realistic setting—which was completely different from a college education.
Did you manage to find a job right after graduating the boot camp? Did you feel ready?
I landed my first job after four months at around $100,000 a year. Instead of charging tuition, App Academy took a cut of my first-year salary. I found that while the boot camp gave me a basic foundation to land interviews, everything from that point on was about how you present yourself and softer skills. These are more important than your raw talent, and that’s something that no education can 100% prepare you for.
Would you recommend what you did to other people?
No. I think that the only path someone should take is one they have conviction for. No one should do this because they saw me do it. They should do it because they made their decision for themselves and not because a parent or counselor or stranger on the internet told them to.
Do you ever feel like you missed out by forgoing the college experience?
Not at all. Even if I had ended up with better outcomes, I wouldn’t be the person that I am. I feel the opposite of having “missed out”; I feel extremely lucky to have gone through what I did. The “traditional college experience” has always felt a bit like a lie to me, since no one has the same experiences and not everyone goes to college for the same reasons.
How do you think you’ve fared compared to your college classmates?
I think I’ve done very well. And it isn’t because I’m smarter or more capable but because I was more efficient in pursuing what I wanted. A lot of young people are caught up in the requirements they think they need to fulfill before they start doing what they want to do. I think I just managed to get a head start.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)