I’ve found myself being asked the relative value of attending the Starter League ever since I graduated from the program, back when it was called Code Academy, and I’ve never been able to recommend it wholeheartedly. It came up again recently, so I’ve decided to scale up my answer in the form of a blog post. But the short story is that I cannot recommend attending the Starter League if you’re a beginner who wants to be a developer. Starter League is not for you. And even if you have other reasons for wanting to apply, think hard about it. There are significant caveats.
Let me qualify this by saying that it’s a great experience. It’s a good time, and you meet some awesome people – they do a great job of selecting enthusiastic, motivated people. TSL provides a really fun, perhaps once in a lifetime experience where you set aside everything else in life in order to focus on learning web development with Ruby on Rails.
Let me also say that these are views I’ve developed via my own experiences as a student and as a mentor, the course itself may have changed, your mileage may vary. Disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer, this should be taken as an anecdote and not a longitudinal study.
With that out of the way, even shortly after graduating, I was not able to recommend attending without qualifications. I hesitated, and it’s not until today that I’ve put voice to this hesitation. What it comes down to is value. We’re talking about money.
Even at the $6,000 I paid, the return on investment from attending the web development course for the average beginner is dubious at best. And now, at $8,000, I simply cannot recommend it unless some significant changes to the curriculum happen or have already happened.
There are really two kinds of dreams that are being sold here: The first dream is going from zero experience to being a developer in 11 weeks. The second is becoming a tech savvy entrepreneur. I have less to say about the second, except that you should know what kind of investment you’re making and have the wherewithal to accept an $8,000 debit from your account. Unfortunately, many fail to account for it. I have much more to say about those who wish to be developers.
My class was split about 50/50 between those who wanted to be developers and those who wanted to be entrepreneurs. By the end of the course, having lost out on 11 weeks of potential productivity and being out an additional $6,000, it was split more along the lines of 75/25, developers to entrepreneurs, if not more heavily skewed toward developers. And what happened afterward? We did not have stunning successes in employment. We found ourselves struggling in interviews. Enthusiasm and motivation only go so far.
But aren’t I a web developer working in the industry now? Didn’t the program succeed?
Unfortunately, the story is not that simple. I have been technical all my life, having learned HTML from a book in 6th grade and attended electrical engineering courses in college that introduced me to computing concepts at a (painfully) low level. Many of my classmates were not that lucky. How many of us went on to even junior software engineering positions immediately after graduating? From my graduating class of around 80 students, I can probably count them on a single hand. And the few who did, like myself, had prior experience. Most were left with an expensive debt and no real option to pursue a career in development.
Hence, I cannot recommend attending The Starter League’s web development course.
Why? There are a few problems, starting with the definition of “intensive learning.” While 11 weeks may be enough to go from beginner to junior developer, the likelihood that it can be done in a mere 10 hours a week of classroom style lectures is slim to none. Meanwhile, the emphasis on Rails skims over many fundamental computer science and even plain Ruby concepts in favor of getting an app up and running. And if you’re left behind because you’re a beginner, well, that sucks. You might say that it depends on the student to put in the time and effort, and while that is true to an extent, and it is inspiring to see students put in over 40 hours of their own time into learning, I wonder what the point of paying all that tuition money is if you’re just going to learn on your own, anyway.
And, at $8,000, a student could pay a personal tutor over $70/hr for the same amount of instruction time (110 hours), which I have no doubt would result in a much greater understanding of the material, improved skillset and marketability, and therefore higher financial return on investment. Not to mention that the scheduling almost requires a student to quit their job, handing students a double whammy of being out almost ten grand, but potentially also being out 11 weeks of pay. Meanwhile, for those who do manage hold down a job during the course, or even just commute, the concepts tend not to stick. A forty hour work week tends to squash the learning done in a mostly hands-off lecture.
True, there is the value of the network of Starter League students, who, by now, are all over the world. Simply sharing this experience is an instantly binding thing, and it’s quite exciting just to know entrepreneurs. But the value of networking is both highly dependent on the individual and extremely difficult to quantify, and therefore not something I can base a recommendation on.
Any number of things could change my mind – if it was a full-time program, I feel like it would make it more valuable to both developers and entrepreneurs by valuing time taken off from more profitable pursuits. If it actually succeeded in teaching foundational Computer Science or Ruby concepts and it was structured toward helping students land development jobs.
But as it is, I cannot recommend attending Starter League. It’s almost a shame that they select such awesome students, because it’s hard to watch them get handed such a bad deal.
Edit – In response to “what alternatives are there?”
There’s been multiple mentions of alternatives, and yes, there are both free and paid alternatives that, in my opinion, have better bang for the buck.
Udacity’s Intro to CS and Web Development courses lay a great foundation for getting to the point where you can teach yourself. If you prefer instruction, there’s App Academy, which is an intensive (read: 40 hours a week) beginner’s Ruby on Rails program in San Francisco that is free to attendees. They only make money through recruitment fees, which, if you want to be a developer, aligns their interests with yours. Meanwhile, DevBootcamp, while expensive at $12,000 for the course, has a 95%+ placement rate for its grads right out of the program. Again, interests in alignment.
Finally, if I were to do it all over again, I’d probably just apply to work at ThoughtWorks. They hire straight out of college from just about any major as long as you can complete the code challenges, and they train you to be, from my experiences working with them, world class developers. Their training program, ThoughtWorks University, is 6 weeks of full-time instruction in Bangalore, India, learning development and the dev process (Agile). That’s 240 hours of instruction. And they pay you. And it’s a job.
Edit #2 – Starter League has evolved into Starter School and seems to be doing a much better job of setting expectations, though notably this new program would have been (far, far) beyond my means when I attended Code Academy – it is now a 9 month, $36,000 program. Please do independent research before making decisions of this caliber.