Tech & Design Leader & Educator, Rita Lab Founder & Instructor
Are you interested in the world of technology, design, or product but don't know where to start? With so many programs, bootcamps, resources, and ways to learn about tech and design these days, and with so much to learn in todays quickly advancing tech field, it can be overwhelming to figure out the best path for you. In this post, we'll break down the three most common ways to learn about tech and design: college/university programs, bootcamp programs, and self-taught methods.
Before diving into the three most common ways to learn about tech and design below, let’s first outline what you should consider prior to evaluating the specifics of each path.
This is why it’s important to really do your research. Don’t rush to pick the first program that you come across or is recommended to you by someone you know. Just because someone had a great experience with a specific program doesn't mean you will. Why? Because everyone has a different learn style. Everyone learns differently.
You may be someone who needs the support of an instructor and a class. You may be someone who needs more personalized support from a mentor. You may be someone who needs to be explained concepts. You may be someone who needs to spend time reading and sitting with concepts. You may be a visual learning. You may be an auditory learner. There are so many different considerations to make when considering your learning style and, therefore, which program or path you should go with.
Similarly, there are different learning environments to consider when evaluating the specifics of each path. The first is a classroom environment with other students. The second is a self-paced environment where you navigate content modules with the support of a mentor. The third is a combination of the two.
Depending on your learning style, the type of support you need, and other preferences, you should consider these common learning environments. These learning environments mainly naturally apply to college/university programs and bootcamp programs. However, it is possible to create a structure like the three environments we covered for a self-paced learning journey.
Similarly, again, different learning environments and programs offer different levels of support. Some programs are led by instructions/teachers/professors and may include the additional support from an instruction assistant. Other programs include the support of a mentor and may include additional support from a tutor.
Depending on your learning style and preferred learning environment, you should consider these common levels of support offered in different learning experiences / paths. The support systems highlighted in this section mainly naturally apply to college/university programs and bootcamp programs. However, it is possible to create an environment where you have a tutor or a mentor for a self-paced learning journey.
While there’s not much to say here, the setting is an important consideration that should not be missed - especially in today’s post-quarantine / COVID-impacted world. Some learning experiences are either completely in person while others are completely remote. Of course, with in-person experiences, there’s an inevitable geographic limitation to consider. Also, most in-person bootcamp programs tend to offer classroom environments with an instructor. Remote experiences don’t have the geographic limitation so they’re usually open to anyone around the world (where time zone may need to be considered, especially for bootcamp programs that are not self-paced). Remote programs can be remote classroom environments with instructors or self-paced environments with mentors. And, of course, learning on your own means you choose the setting as it can take place anywhere with an internet connection.
Consider the different levels of commitments of different learning experiences. In short, there are two different levels of commitment to consider. Some learning experiences are more immersive and are often times full time. In other words, these experiences are ideal for those who don’t have other full time commitments like a full time job. Other learning experiences are less immersive and are often times part time. In other words, these programs are ideal for those who may have other full time commitments like a full time job. Keep in mind that learning on your own can be either a full time commitment or a part time commitment - you decide what you want it to be.
Also consider the different lengths of different learning experiences. Some college and university programs can come via 2 or 4 year degrees. These days there are also bootcamp-like programs commonly offered at colleges and universities. These bootcamp-like college and university programs AND bootcamp programs themselves can be anywhere from 2 months to 3 months to 4 months to 6 months to 9 months. There may be other lengths in between that aren’t captured here. Some self-paced programs can take even longer than 9 months since, by nature, there meant to be as long as you need them to be. However, it’s important to note that even for longer self-paced programs, there may be a maximum amount of time you’re allowed to take before you have to pay the program for an extension. And finally, when you learn on your own, you decide how long you want to learn for - though it's always best to have a plan, curriculum, and timeline you're following.
While there’s also not much to say here, it’s important to consider the outcomes of the different learning experiences - especially in today’s saturated tech field. In short, some bootcamp programs will have you walk away with either one big portfolio project, a number of smaller portfolio projects, or both one big portfolio project and a couple of smaller portfolio projects. Some bootcamp programs may guide you through the process of putting together the actual portfolio while others may not. And some bootcamp programs may offer career coaching while others may not. When learning on your own, you would decide what you want to walk away with (ideally a few self-initiated projects and a portfolio) and navigate the work of doing so.
Again, not much to say here, but it’s important to note that learning experiences have different opportunities for networking, access to networking, and sizes of networks. Especially those who pursue a remote-learning or self-paced or self-taught path, coming up in tech can feel like an isolated journey. Networking is super-super key when coming up in tech. Like everywhere else, who you know can make all the difference in tech. If you're evaluating a bootcamp program, ask about the different networks the different programs have and how much access you have to those networks. Ask specific community and network questions like - does the program offer: a Slack community where you engage with people on your own? community circles that you’re more intentionally added to? free events open to the public? private events for program attendees only? Get specific! And if you're considering the self-taught path, you would have to navigate the networking part of the come up experience by attending events, joining communities, connecting with people, and related activities.
While we won’t go into too much detail on the different pricing models of different learning experiences, we need to highlight what will end up being the largest deciding factor when it comes down to deciding between one program and another - cost.
When it comes to bootcamp programs in particular, different programs have different pricing models. From [higher 2 or 4 year degree program tuition fees] to [moderate college/university programs costs] to [moderate to more affordable bootcamp fees], consider the different pricing models and make a thoughtful decision based on what works best for you.
Simply put, there’s no reason to end up in debt just to come up in tech. Without a doubt, make a decision based on what’s most financially convenient and doable for you. While no one can generally recommend the self-taught path to everyone, consider that many have came up in tech while being completely self-taught - which we highlight to make the point that there are so many resources out there where you can even learn what you need to learn on your own, so there’s no need to break the bank if you end up deciding that a program is the best path for you. In short, make the decision that’s best for you and consider that there’s no reason to break the bank!
Now let’s outline the three most common ways to learn about tech and design.
Attending a college or university program is a traditional and well-established way to learn about technology, design, or product. A key benefit to college/university programs is that most have a well-structured and set curriculum that covers the essential concepts and theories.
Examples of college and university programs include:
One additional appeal to college / university programs may be the perceived credibility in the eyes of employers. Do note that many jobs in tech don’t require a degree from a college or university. While having a degree will never be a con or something that pushes an employer away from hiring you, it’s generally not a requirement. At the end of the day, what will give you the most credibility will be your portfolio. Someone who has a weaker portfolio but has a degree won’t get the job over the person with the stronger portfolio but has no degree. Especially if the employer does not require a degree, the stronger portfolio will always win (of course, amongst a multitude of other factors!).
Bootcamp programs are designed to provide intensive, hands-on training in a specific technology, design, or product discipline. These programs typically last from three to nine months and are offered on a full-time or part-time basis. Bootcamp programs also have focused-curriculums. In other words, bootcamp programs have a narrow focus and cover specific skills and technologies.
To be very direct, no, a bootcamp program won’t generally make you “look bad” or a hiring manager won’t judge you negatively simply because you attended a bootcamp program. Similar to what was highlighted in the previous section, at the end of the day, what will give you the most credibility will be your portfolio.
What should be highlighted instead is that bootcamps are NOT the end-all be-all. In many ways, bootcamp programs are just the beginning. Their expedited and lots-in-a-little-time nature inherently means they’re teaching you the basics, the foundation, the essentials. As you evaluate which path is best for you, don’t think of bootcamps as the place where you will learn everything you’ll need to know and suddenly be job-ready after a couple of months. You’re not necessarily job-ready when you finish your bootcamp program, you’re closer to being job-ready when you’ve practiced your skills over time.
Learning about technology, design, or product on your own can be a flexible and cost-effective way to gain skills and knowledge. Some of the methods for self-taught learning include:
Regardless of how you learn on your own, it’s important to note that this path doesn't mean you’re learning alone. As you teach yourself what you need to know, don’t keep to yourself throughout your entire learning journey. In many ways, it’s extra on you to put in the work to connect and network with people in the field. Join a community, attend events, meet with experienced professionals, and immerse yourself in the space.
Also, no, being a self-taught professional won’t make you “look bad”. As we’ve said multiple times in this post, at the end of the day, what will give you the most credibility will be your portfolio. And as we near the end of this post, it’s important to note that when get to the point where you’re looking for work, it’ll end up being less about how you learned about tech or design and more about how well you learned what you studied.
In conclusion, there is no one "right" way to learn about technology, design, or product. The best way for you will depend on your goals, preferences, and resources. Whether you choose a college/university program, bootcamp program, or self-taught methods, the most important thing is to keep learning and growing your skills.
And if you need individualized help figuring out the best path for you, feel free to reach out to me to discuss your options. As a Design Leader, Design Manager, Tech & Design Educator, and Tech & Design Mentor, I’m super passionate about supporting the next wave of technologists, designers, and product experts - so don’t hesitate to reach out! Follow me on Instagram @michaelmakesco.
Also, consider joining our Rita Lab community on Discord. You’ll find other tech and design beginners in our community that can support you throughout your journey. We’re all in this together!