Coding Is A Privilege, Part 2: What Can You Do About It?

This post was originally intended to focus solely on what action you and I can take to reduce barriers to entry in becoming an engineer. But I received some frustrating responses from part one that I think are worth addressing before I get to that.

Free online resources don’t mean much when you don’t have access to Internet at home.

In Part One, I wrote that coding is a privilege, highlighting expensive coding bootcamps as just one example of such privilege. Many readers agreed. Some even felt intimately familiar with the helplessness of getting priced out and shared their stories with me through tweets and emails.

But many disagreed. “There are so many free coding resources online! If you really wanted to learn how to code, you can. It’s just a matter of sitting down and doing the work.”

This is a paraphrase of the many responses I received. All of them came from…well, mostly white men (insert grimacing emoji here). It was disheartening to receive these messages, from this particular group of people, because it was a clear indication of just how out of touch with reality many seem to be.

Just one of the tweets I received.

My response to these people is this: You’re right, there are many free resources available. I know because, as I wrote in Part One, I had to rely on them myself when I taught myself how to code because I couldn’t afford bootcamps. I spent a lot of “rear in chair” time teaching myself how to code.

But…have you considered the many privileges that are required before one can even become successful at utilizing free resources effectively, like I did? Let’s break it down into three levels of privilege. Think of these as levels of a funnel:

  1. Awareness. One must have awareness that engineering is a possible career path. For many young people, this is simply not the case. Their parents don’t know what software engineering is and can’t encourage their children to pursue it. Their schools don’t teach programming. They don’t come into contact with people in their lives who are engineers. There’s a complete lack of awareness.
  2. Attainability. It’s not enough to be aware of the possibilities. You have to believe that your goals are attainable. First, can you see yourself, picture yourself as an engineer? I strongly believe that belief in yourself stems from belief in your role models. Having role models who are the same gender as you, who look like you, who came from a similar background as yours, can go a long way. Second, can you paint a clear picture of how to get there? Do you understand the steps necessary, or is everything a blur? I’d argue that for most, it’s a mystery.
  3. Application. So you can picture yourself as an engineer, and you have some idea of how to get there. Now it’s time to apply your awareness and goals into learning mode. For the privileged, this is the point in which they may sign up for a bootcamp, where the pathway to becoming an engineer are demystified and you’re given some clear curriculum and instruction. For the not-so-privileged, it’s ultimately a balancing act between time, money, resources, support, and determination. If you lack even one of those, you’re left behind.

So you see, throwing free online resources at (for instance) a girl who has grown up in an under-resourced household and school system, who has to take care of siblings after school because both parents are working multiple jobs, who has no idea what software engineering is or how it’s applicable to her life, isn’t helpful at all. So no, it’s not just a matter of “rear in chair” time. It’s not just a matter of sitting down and doing the work.

What can you do to help those who are less privileged gain access and exposure to code?

So what can you do to help? There’s no silver bullet, but here are a few tangible action items for various parties who wish to chip away at some of the problems, with a specific focus on students and education.

If you’re a coding school or bootcamp…

If you’re a coding school or bootcamp, establish scholarships for underprivileged students, in addition to those for women and minorities. With no strings attached (i.e. no “we’ll take X% of your first year’s salary in exchange for free tuition”).

If you’re a tech company…

If you’re a tech company, you can do a few things: paid internships, community outreach, and program sponsorships.

Offer internships that pay real money. During my search for a developer position, I was appalled at the number of well-established companies who offered me unpaid, months-long internships. Not everyone has the resources (i.e. parents) to support a life in New York City or San Francisco without any pay. Pay your interns!

There are many programs your company can work with to reach out to young students who may be interested in coding. A few, for starters: Girls Who Code, CODE2040, Scripted, Black Girls Code, TEALS, CoderDojo, Techbridge Girls. If a program doesn’t exist in your area, why not start one or help start a local branch of one of these? You’d be surprised at the demand and need in some communities.

Another way to “start small” is to invite students from underprivileged areas and under-resourced schools to come visit your office and have a show and tell with your engineers (and designers too!). Exposure is so important. Showing students what a career in engineering looks like may spark some interest or curiosity that may lead to real action or opportunities for mentorship.

If you don’t quite have the critical mass required to volunteer with one of the programs I mentioned above, consider becoming a corporate sponsor.

If you’re an engineer (or designer)….

If you’re an engineer, consider mentoring a student or volunteering to teach a class with one of the programs mentioned. Prod your company leadership about getting involved. Create contacts with local school officials and invite classrooms over to the office. Make real connections with students who show curiosity You can do so many things!

Coding is a privilege and this won’t go away anytime soon. There are many systemic and institutional issues involved at a macro level, particularly within our public education system. Still, we can each help on a micro level by doing just some of the things I’ve outlined. You’d be surprised at how many communities are ripe for this kind of intervention and change, and how many students are out there, waiting for your mentorship and involvement.

Do you have any more suggestions on how to help? Tweet me @alishalisha.

Read part one, Coding Is A Privilege, here.

I’m a Senior Front-End Designer at Vox Media. Follow me on Twitter: @alishalisha.