In early spring of 2020, I had lived my dream: three years as a writer and scholar, composing a collection of essays. Now, at 30 years old, I’d done it; I’d written a book. And I only had 50 years plus or minus 20 left to live. I spent a lot of time trying to envision the life of an adjunct professor, working 60+ hours each week, commuting back and forth to different schools, thoroughly on the grind just to make less than a general manager in a fast food franchise. Sometime around 30 years old, the life of a “starving artist” and academic lost its romance.
I’d fallen in love with code since learning Python to automate some tasks at my office job, and rumor had it there were jobs in tech, good jobs. I had also done a little amateur web design because I enjoyed the work. So, each day that spring, after I finished teaching two classes, after writing emails and letters of critique, after revising my thesis for the n-th time, I logged on to learn.co to complete my software engineering pre-work for Flatiron School.
Now, almost a year later, I know so much more than I ever imagined. I’ve made projects I’m really proud of. I’ve effortlessly blown past the requisite 1000 hours many people consider a benchmark for “expertise,” and while I don’t feel much like an expert, I do feel like a professional. There’s so much left to learn, but that’s ok, I love learning. Plus, all of that work has paid off. Four months out from graduating my bootcamp, I’m about to sign a job offer.
That being said, there are many ways in which, when I began this journey last spring, I was hopelessly naive. I thought I could draw a fairly straight line from where I was, through my bootcamp, right to the big offer. Recruiters had assured me that, while the program’s money-back guarantee only kicked in after six months, it was common to find a job in the first month, with most people finding work by month three. I’d seen jobs reports that backed it up. At the same time, myriad articles had declared that tech companies can’t hire fast enough. The skills are “in demand.” All these promises were undergirded by the popular assertion that tech doesn’t care about degrees, they care about skills.
And it’s true! You’re much much more likely to get a job as a software engineer without a computer science degree than you are to, say, become a doctor without an M.D., or become a forensic expert without a degree in forensics. However, whatever media sources say about “demand,” the truth is the tech job economy is still demanding college grads, it just happens to have a side door.
Look up your favorite companies on LinkedIn. Now, look at where their employees come from. If your experience is like mine, bootcamps don’t show up on the list very often. Lots of companies invest in university recruiting. Lots have “new grad” roles. Lots of those roles are open to bootcamp graduates. However, most of those jobs still want “at least a year of professional development experience.” As someone fresh out of academia, I can tell you exactly what “new grad with a year of experience” is code for: interns. There’s a whole opportunity pipeline set up for wealthy families and those with extraordinary aptitude — people who didn’t have to work a bottom wrung job to pay their bills. It’s naive to think you are competing for the same job as a Stanford graduate. Even above-average is not exceptional.
Now, that side door I mentioned… it does exist. Actually, there’s something like a whole side pipeline — a different funnel for people who aren’t lucky enough to have access to the main university pipeline. However, I would argue it doesn’t have nearly as much to do with skills as recruiters would have you think.
After I had entered my bootcamp, several weeks into the program, we had our first meeting with Career Services. Now, this offer of career services had been a huge selling point for me when I signed up. I had a naive conception of a career services as a department that would, well, serve you a career. Like, on a platter. I thought they would find the job for me. Then, in that first meeting, I heard the word I have most dreaded my entire adult life: networking.
What they went on to describe in many more flattering words, was — let’s be honest — nepotism. They have lots of nice phrases for it: the invisible job economy, leveraging your network, applications don’t get people jobs; people get people jobs. They will frame it as very normal, and unfortunately, it is. If you push, they might call it an ugly truth or a necessary evil. But it all comes down to this: you’re going to need connections. For this reason, the people with large networks do best. Extroverts, social butterflies, self-styled bootstrappers, go-getters, and entrepreneurs. If you feel comfortable selling yourself, you’ll do great.
If you don’t, if the idea of thinking about your value as human capital strikes you as vaguely dystopian, if you struggle with the cognitive dissonance inherent to contacting people both out of “genuine curiosity” and out of the self-serving and time-sensitive interest in “leveraging” a “viable connection,” don’t worry. I’m here to tell you, it can be done. It just won’t feel very good.
Bottom line, no one ushered me in. I reached out to countless people, most of whom ignored me (was this because I didn’t have enough of a value proposition? Maybe). The ones who responded did their best to be helpful. Often, they gave advice that either I’d heard from career services, or conflicted with the advice I’d just received from someone else. A precious handful offered a referral if their company started hiring, but their companies haven’t started hiring.
My career coach has been amazing. She’s a truly exceptional human being. She didn’t serve me a job, but she offered much needed emotional support and kept me on-task in a way I was not always immediately grateful for but which nevertheless served me well.
My advice is this: don’t do it if you’re desperate. If I had saved more money before starting the program, if I weren’t worried about affording groceries, I might have had more time and tolerance for the job search. If you have time and money and connections — 3 of 4 things a university grad has — you can find the kind of job a university grad gets. If you’re on the margins, just know this: the job search is messy and hard and maybe even a little corrupt and inefficient. But, if you’re willing to start at the bottom and work really really hard, it will pay off.
Note: this post turned out a lot more dreary than I intended. These are real fears and frustrations that I guess have been bottled up for a few months. I would prefer to end by saying I did find a job. It’s not my dream job (no offense to my herein unnamed future employer) but it’s a foot in the door, it’s more than I could make as an adjunct professor, and I’m insanely grateful — to my employer, to my bootcamp, to my coach, and to everyone who talked to and supported me along the way. And if you’re someone thinking about starting this journey, or if you already started your job search, please, please, reach out. I will always be happy to pay it forward.