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What coding courses DON’T teach – and why it really matters

Professional coding bootcamps have one crucial advantage over free courses – it’s the one that nobody is talking about.
Woman working at home office hand on keyboard close up
Woman working at home office hand on keyboard close up
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

In my mind there is a little tally counter that keeps track of how many days I’ve gone without coming across the same question:

Why should I pay to study coding, if I can learn it by myself for free?

And if you know anything about the educational side of programming, you won’t be surprised to learn my counter rarely makes it to 20.

Now, I work in a coding school, and I want to be absolutely clear from the outset – that is a good, legitimate question which I would expect any smart student to ask herself. After all, the world of programming – and of tech in general – has been developing much, much faster than that of education, to the point that a university textbook published within the last couple of years may already include some outdated applications. And the internet is flush with free videos, blogs and tutorials with titles like ‘Build a Professional Website in 24 Hours’ or ‘Become a Front-End Developer in 4 Weeks’. So why shouldn’t you – or anyone – explore these options?

…And this is the point where almost every conversation starts going in the same direction: yes, you should explore free tutorials, though depending on your profile and your style of learning, you should also consider other options that let you work in a team, build a network, get access to content, and so on so forth.

Bizarrely, as long-winded as some of these discussions can get, they never seem to zero in on what may be the single greatest advantage professional bootcamps have over some 99% of the free material out there. You’d almost think it was some kind of secret.

As someone who knows this business from the inside, I want to take a moment to let you in on that secret.

Finding Your Own Path

Here’s what nobody is telling you: the greatest strength of professional bootcamps lies not in what they teach, but in what they don’t teach.

Does that sound counter-intuitive? It should absolutely sound counter-intuitive. That’s probably the reason you haven’t heard it before.

If you want me to be more precise, I’ll be precise: professional bootcamps do not teach you to be a coding monkey.

The thing about free online courses, by comparison, is that they are all formatted as something you read, watch, or listen to. This means that there is very little they can do beyond giving you a set of step-by-step instructions and asking you to follow them. Creative instructors can tinker a little with the order of these steps or include all sorts of addenda on questions of method, but essentially that’s it.

This is not to say that these courses are worthless – far from it! There are so many good and useful things that can be learned by following instructions. But it’s like studying the “how” without bothering to learn the “why”. You will have gaps in your knowledge, and worse – you might train yourself to believe that those gaps are supposed to be there. You might normalize ignorance, which is the opposite of learning.

A professional bootcamp designed by people who know what they’re doing will keep students from straying that way by providing something that free online courses by their very nature can’t offer – critical feedback.

Educational feedback is something that does not have a syllabus, does not have a module, does not have a textbook. An instructor can’t ‘plan’ the feedback she will provide, because it has to be tailored to what each individual student has submitted. (This is also why these bootcamps are usually so heavy on complex, first-hand, creative assignments).

In at least one sense of the word, it is accurate to say that giving feedback is not ‘teaching’. Rather, it is preventing others from teaching themselves the wrong things.

This, I feel, is the most valuable and simultaneously the most underrated quality of professional courses over free tutorials. There is much to be said about what they offer in terms of content, networking, and career prospects, but whenever I am asked why to take a paid course, what I always come back to is this, critical feedback. Find the learning path that works best for you. But whatever you do, make sure you always follow your own path, and not just somebody else’s step-by-step. Don’t be a coding monkey when you can be so much more.

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