I lead the hiring process at a quickly growing development agency, so I have reviewed hundreds of resumes and interviewed dozens of candidates from all types of educational backgrounds. Many of those whom we consider come from traditional four-year computer science programs, but an increasing percentage are recent graduates of coding bootcamps. Through my interviewing experiences, I have found that code camp graduates frequently get stumped by particular types of questions. I’ll outline those areas below and discuss how you can succeed on that front. I’ll also outline some of the advantages you have as a code camp grad and how to leverage those in an interview.
The key differences between degree and bootcamp
To understand at a broader level why these trends exist, it is important to understand how the two paths to coding vary. Simply put, bootcamps tend to be more vocational, whereas four year programs tend to be more theoretical. Bootcamps typically focus on popular technologies, frameworks, and languages (such as the increasingly popular MERN stack) that solve particular problems in a specific way. This knowledge is extremely practical, and code camp graduates should be able to immediately apply these skills in a professional setting. Meanwhile, graduates from four year programs typically have a more foundational understanding of core computer science concepts but might not have learned many of the practical skills needed to work as a professional developer.
These are large generalizations, of course. The point is to establish some basis for comparing the two approaches and to explain how many recruiters view the two paths. Graduates of coding bootcamps should be aware of the perceived distinctions and be prepared to address them in the interview process.
Before the interview: Resumes
Building a resume is a tedious, stressful, and iterative process. Many developers’ resumes are unpolished and often confusing to read, which means it is not particularly difficult to make a resume stand out from the pack. As general advice, keep it clean and have clearly marked sections, such as professional, education, and technical skills. As more specific advice, think very carefully about how to present previous non-developer professional experiences. These can either provide a unique flavor to a resume or make it look like you submitted the wrong resume, based entirely on your presentation and what sort of language you used.
A code camp graduate’s resume should present the achievements and skills that would be applicable from previous jobs, even if they are not directly relevant. This might include promotions, awards, interpersonal responsibilities, and metrics that demonstrate hard work and previous successes. Another thing to keep in mind is that almost every company needs software developers. Additionally, developers are often required to learn quite a bit of industry-specific terminology and business logic as part of their job. For this reason, the easiest route for you when transitioning from your previous role might be to start out as a developer in the industry you are already familiar with.
The interview: Picking your battles
After the resume and job targeting processes, it is crucial that you meaningfully prepare for the interview process. Thanks to the internet, it is becoming increasingly easy to prepare for interviews. Sites like Glassdoor often describe what sort of questions are asked in interviews, and the job postings or career pages themselves will indicate how the interview process might be structured. In addition, most companies will be pretty open in initial emails or phone calls to describe their interview process.
In recent years, there have been two primary approaches employed by companies. The first is whiteboard coding exercises and the second is take-home projects. The trick is to realize which you are more likely to succeed with, prioritize companies that use that approach, and then prepare accordingly. Some (perhaps many) companies will employee both, so it is a good idea to review and prepare for both processes.
The interview: White boarding (algorithms & data structures)
Many companies will say things like, “We don’t hire for specific languages or frameworks. We just look for talented developers who are adept at learning new things.” Companies like this are very likely to conduct coding whiteboard interviews. These interviews will typically involve questions concerning various data structures and algorithmic concepts. Because there is a preconceived notion that code camp graduates are often weaker in these areas, you are more likely to be given an array of such questions. For example, you might be asked to navigate a tree, find the mode of an array, or reverse a string.
Although there are entire classes dedicated to data structures and algorithms, it is not really possible for an interview to assess if a candidate has a complete understanding of these concepts. Companies are stuck relying on coding exercises that can expose a gap in understanding, but thankfully are easier to prepare for. There are hundreds of other articles that outline tips for these types of interviews, but here are some quick suggestions that I have found to be extremely useful (particularly for code camp graduates):
- Learn and review the common data structures (arrays, lists, associative arrays, trees, graphs, etc.) and consider each before starting a problem. Bonus Tip: Remember that associative arrays exist, and always consider them as part of your solution.
- Remember that you can often convert the particular problem or existing data structure to some other data structure or generic solution that you know how to solve. Bonus Tip: In an interview, think back to practice problems you solved and see if the same solution could be applied to the new problem. Coding exercises often fall into categories that have fairly similar solutions.
- Don’t be afraid to commit to an approach. Many interviewees will realize that a solution requires recursion or tree traversal, but they decide to take a more iterative approach to the problem. Prepare, be confident, and make the most of knowing the proper approach.
- Describe your approach as you go and try to ask meaningful questions.
- Once your solution is complete, talk through your solution as if you were a debugger traversing it one line at a time. Being able to explain and reflect on a solution is incredibly valuable.
The interview: Technology-specific questions
Some companies are moving away from whiteboarding exercises or might place a larger emphasis on knowledge of a particular framework or technology. In many cases, this is a better fit for code camp graduates. To tell if an interview is likely to focus on a particular technology, refer back to Glassdoor, but also look at the job title and job requirements. A role titled “React Developer” will likely come with interview questions specifically regarding that technology, where as “Software Developer”, “Web Developer”, or “Mobile App Developer” might not.
The main objective here is to find interviews that will focus on the technology you are most familiar with. To see what technologies a company uses, look at the job posting, any of their public blogs or open source projects, or look at LinkedIn profiles of other develops at that company. Once you find a good fit, play to your strengths and technical experiences in the interview process.
Circumventing the interview
A growing trend among companies is to give candidates small take-home projects instead of, or in addition to, doing in-person coding exercises. (As a quick aside, I hope that all companies requiring this effort are properly compensating their candidates for this work.) This approach can emphasize the more practical strengths of a code camp graduate. These types of exercises are often very similar to the types of projects required throughout the code bootcamp process. In many ways it should feel like a second capstone project. If you excelled at these sorts of assignments in your studies, you might want to prioritize jobs that use this approach.
Remember, the first job is the hardest to get
The last thing I want to say is just a general note about the application and interviewing process. It can be a difficult, time consuming, and scary period. Just know that there are a lot of developer openings out there and that you will find the right first step for your career eventually. Remember why you decided to head down this path and enroll in a coding bootcamp in the first place. Take some comfort in knowing that this process is almost always significantly easier after you have your first development position. Best of luck to all those seeking employment as a developer!
Paul Francis is a partner and the lead product manager at The BHW Group, a digital agency based in Austin, Texas. In this role, he assists app owners in making high-level decisions and guides them through the design, development, and deployment processes. He also helps lead the recruiting, hiring, and training processes at BHW.