Inside the Fence: The Boot Camp Experience
The term “boot camp” that’s so often applied to the kind of intense, accelerated IT training I cover in this column is colorful and mildly entertaining, even if it isn’t entirely accurate. I think that’s why this term remains so popular and well-accepted. In reality, the “boot” in boot camp identifies a raw, inexperienced recruit who needs to be whipped into shape and taught to do things the right (usually military) way. A real military boot camp is as much about remaking its attendees’ characters as it is about teaching specific skills, tools, or technologies. The truth is, most people who attend IT boot camps are usually savvy, knowledgeable people with prior work and at least some certification experience, much different from the unschooled recruit who typically shows up for basic military training.
Likewise, although long, hard days and thus, some sleep deprivation, is typical of just about every IT boot-camp experience, it otherwise differs completely from its military counterpart. Food and accommodations tend to be luxurious rather than Spartan. Instructors are trained to be extremely helpful and supportive rather than antagonistic. Also, the price tag for IT boot camp is typically the highest around for all forms of instructor-led training; the military usually pays its attendees while they’re in boot camp. Therefore, IT boot camp is more like elite military training—also known as “total immersion”—where skills and information are imparted quickly and thoroughly, so as to return valuable, skilled professionals to work as soon as possible.
But although the name “boot camp” may neither be completely accurate nor fair, it’s become part of the standard IT training vocabulary. Even vendors who don’t call their accelerated training courses “boot camps” admit the term is here to stay. And as long as attendees keep reporting the same kind of learning experiences and keep earning their promised certifications at extremely high passing rates (most boot camps report passing rates of 85 percent or better), I have a feeling there’ll be lots of “boot camps” for IT training customers to choose from!
The Boot Camp Experience
In 2002, Certification Magazine was gracious enough to let me contact boot-camp providers and send interested IT professionals to attend their programs. This not only let me acquire detailed information from numerous boot camps, it also let me compare other reports and my own experience and opinions against the reality that my intrepid colleagues encountered in the field. For that reason, I urge you not just to read this story, but also to refer to the June 2002 issue, where this more detailed (and still relevant) cover story remains available online.
From my colleagues’ reports and my own experience, I am convinced that the following characteristics and benefits apply to IT boot camps and help explain their enduring appeal and popularity:
- The quality of instruction is uniformly superb. Instructors invariably receive top-notch evaluations and rankings. This characteristic is often cited as the most compelling reason to attend a boot camp by vendors and attendees alike.
- Most attendees report that the learning experience in boot camp is valuable enough that they would be willing to pay for it out of their own pockets. This applies to the materials covered, facilities provided, learning experienced and the instruction.
- Attendees invariably observe that the freedom from distraction and the ability to concentrate completely on the subjects at hand are profound benefits. As intense, cloistered learning experiences where individuals can concentrate on getting certified, boot camps simply can’t be beat.
- Access to instructors during and outside class hours, especially for one-on-one discussions, Q&A and guided mentoring, is another valuable boot-camp characteristic. This is fundamentally different from other instructor-led training, where teachers and students don’t work together except in the classroom.
- Boot camps provide 24×7 access to equipment and hands-on training in computer labs for certification practice and experience. Most attendees believe this kind of access is absolutely essential to passing certification exams (and to developing or improving real-world skills).
- Days at boot camp are long and full: Most start early (between 8 and 9 a.m.) and end late (7 p.m. or later). Almost all boot camps incorporate lectures, labs and exam question review, along with homework and reading for the next day’s work. Boot camp is not for the faint of heart or for those who don’t like to work long hours.
- Prior to taking exams, students generally attend pre-exam review sessions, led by the instructor. This is specifically designed to remind students about important topics, answer last-minute questions and deflect pre-exam jitters. Because boot camps work around integrated exams, other training typically can’t offer this level of support.
- Typical classes end each day with homework and reading assignments and start the next day off reviewing that material. Attendees find this to be a great technique to promote and reinforce learning.
- Attendees usually report that they learn more in classes than is necessary to pass their exams, but that such information is often the most valuable part of what they learn.
- At boot camps, students who fail exams get extra coaching, instructor attention, practice drills and other assistance to prepare them for retakes. (Normally, retakes do not cost extra, either.) Again, because boot camps work around exams and include exam costs, other training can’t offer this kind of support or cost savings.
- Attendees uniformly report that feedback from instructors about exam questions, topics, problem-solving skills and other “inside information” greatly ups their odds of passing exams. I think this also helps explain the high passing rates most boot camps report. (Although not everybody passes on the first try, most pass before they go home.)
- At the end of each camp, attendees reported that they felt well-prepared to pass whatever exams they took. Most said that other methods of preparation don’t even come close.
Why Not Go to Boot Camp?
Given the downright rosy picture I’ve painted about boot camps, and the extremely high passing rates most boot camps claim, why doesn’t everybody go to boot camp? Two major factors help to explain why less than 15 percent to 20 percent of certified professionals attend such training:
- Cost: Even the most expensive ILT courses seldom cost more than $400 to $500 a day. Boot camps typically cost at least that much and may cost up to $800 a day. Even when the economy is booming, these costs can be hard for companies or individuals to carry; when the economy is weak, this goes double. Most-boot camp operators report that enrollment has been down, or growth very sluggish, in 2001 and 2002.
Counterarguments: If you want to try to talk your management into funding boot camp attendance despite its higher cost, here are some counters you can use to explain or justify them. For one thing, boot-camp pricing usually includes meals and accommodations, plus the cost of exams, as well as the cost of classroom training. If you break out these costs, it may help establish parity with other ILT options. Also, high passing rates mean the odds that you’ll come home certified are very high. This can help avoid additional costs (and time) should you fail to qualify on your first try.
- Time: A short boot camp runs five or six days, a typical boot camp runs 10 to 12 days, and long ones run 16 to 17 days. Some employers may be loathe (or unable) to spare would-be attendees for such lengthy periods of time.
Counterarguments: It may take some creativity on your part to counter objections based on “time away from the job,” but y