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Coaching Juniors With No CS Degree

Coaching / Training / Mentorship
Juniors

11 May, 2021

Gregory Witek
Gregory Witek

Engineering Manager at Booking.com

Gregory Witek, Engineering Manager at EclecticIQ, shares how he approaches coaching juniors who are boot camp graduates and how that differs from coaching juniors with a CS background.

Problem

Coaching junior developers is immensely rewarding and immensely taxing at the same time. Though junior developers come in different flavors, one of the main distinctions between a great variety of them is their background -- whether they have a CS degree or they got into the industry in another way. That distinction is particularly critical in any coaching interaction.

With CS graduates, I would be safe to assume that they have some understanding of data structures, algorithms, and operating systems. On the other hand, developers who are coming from boot camps are often unfamiliar with most of these things and have limited practical knowledge that could be instilled in them within six or twelve weeks. With that in mind, juniors, with their different educational backgrounds, require different approaches, which something many companies fail to see. On top of that, managers, who in most cases have a CS degree, are frequently unaware of what kind of support juniors from boot camps need.

Actions taken

Closing the gaps in fundamentals

For starters, as a manager, I would acknowledge the versatility of skill sets juniors are bringing to the company. Therefore, I would tailor my coaching strategy to address the different needs and aspirations they carry with them. Rather than assuming that juniors are much and the same group of people with scarce experience in common, I would approach them curious to learn about their versatility. However, I would be cautious with what I could expect since most of what they know they have already displayed at the interview.

When I coach CS graduates, I know that they absorbed a significant volume of knowledge that they still don’t know how to apply in practice. On the other hand, I often don’t know how big are the gaps I need to cover with boot camp graduates, especially in terms of the fundamental CS knowledge. In my opinion, being well versed in fundamentals is critical, and I would point them to a selected number of books and articles that should help them acquire that knowledge. My intention is not to emulate CS courses but to teach them what will help them succeed in their role.

Overcoming an imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is exceedingly common in boot camp graduates. They are struggling to convince themselves that they have a place in the industry. Even after a couple of years, they would still have doubts about their own skills and competencies. No matter how hard I would try to convince them that they are decent software developers and should be proud of their accomplishments, they would keep comparing themselves with their peers with CS degrees and feel that they are not up to the standard. I would constantly reassure them that they are on the right path and that people who studied CS are merely a few years ahead. With their hard work, they will be able to close that gap.

While creating a psychologically safe environment is important for each person on the team, juniors with boot camp experience would particularly benefit from an environment where they can expose their vulnerabilities.

Providing clarity about one’s career path

I coached a few boot camp juniors who would come to do some web development without a clear idea of what would be the next step (and if there was the next). As a CS graduate, I knew what my possibilities were and that I could choose to work on anything ranging from front-end to databases and everything else in between. But boot camp graduates believe that the only possibility for them to pursue is the narrow field of software development they learned about in the boot camp. Even if they choose to pursue one area of expertise, there are multiple paths to get there. As a manager, I would be responsible for coaching them on choosing the right projects and opportunities to work on to be able to arrive at their desired destination.

Lessons learned

  • When it comes to coaching, one size fits all is not the approach that yields results. You need to adjust your approach to make it work for different people. When coaching someone with a CS degree, you should focus on improving their technical skills, while with boot camp graduates, you will need to work more on fundamentals and their sense of belonging to the industry.
  • Some boot camps are advertising themselves by misleading people. They would promise them to become professionals in a highly competitive industry after three months only. Many would end up being surprised -- or even demotivated -- after learning how far from the truth that promise is. But if they are determined and hard-working, they can catch up with some extra support from their managers. At first, boot camp graduates will have a slower career trajectory and would demand more effort than their CS counterparts. Many companies are not ready for that investment but are also not ready to openly admit it. In my experience, boot camp graduates make great developers. They often have experience from other industries or educational institutions and are bringing that to the table. Even though they know less about computer science, they often have experience that is valuable for our industry.

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