Diversity in Tech: Why it Hasn’t Happened And How To Change That

Over the last week a New York Times article about coding bootcamps closing was making its rounds through the internet. It came up in discussion during a team meeting and it popped up again from various friends and family members interested in my opinion on the matter.

With the recent closings of The Iron Yard and Dev Bootcamp, the coding bootcamp industry was facing a “reality check”. Depending on which population was having the conversation, the commentary on the topic ranged from “is this still viable?” to “I told you so”. Industry outsiders who had heard about the rise of the 21st century trade school were curious if this was just a flash in the pan, while seasoned developers who had learned programming in more “traditional” ways (see: computer science degrees and self-taught devs) were quick to remind the world that bootcamps were a waste of money and didn’t provide any real value.

Now, it’s worth noting the context of this article, in that I co-founded a coding school in Austin in 2014 that I’m still running. We started because at the time there was only one other school in town and it was a full-time immersive program with a high tuition for its 3-month program. Our goal was to create a place where students could learn to code — fully to job readiness, not just a crash course — in the evenings without having to quit their jobs, and with a tuition that wasn’t prohibitive.

My cofounder and I had graduated with liberal arts degrees we didn’t use and unfortunately hadn’t had the foresight to see that being successful in the tech-centric future we would need a technical education. We also had jobs we still needed to pay the bills and a relatively normal learning style, where self-study tended to return markedly lower results than when learning with a mentor and a structured path. The whole point from the beginning was accessible coding education; help people get into tech, who, for one reason or another, hadn’t made the decision as a teenager to become technical.

The last three years have been the normal ups and downs of a startup. We’ve seen some incredible results, students coming from humble beginnings and graduating into lucrative and fulfilling careers as developers. We’ve also had the struggles typical of a bootstrapped business trying to stay lean while continuing to pass the value onto our customers.

More than just the normal challenges of running a business, coding schools face a unique challenge, highlighted in the New York Times article above, and exemplified in most commentary about the industry in general. Public sentiment seems to be that there’s a huge gap in tech talent across the country, and specifically that the gap should be filled with diverse hires. Our mayor, Steve Adler, discussed the need for more diversity in tech when Tim Cook came to town to announce the new partnership between Apple and Austin Community College to teach Swift classes, citing the rising housing costs and comparatively lower income growth that has become the norm of a high tech city. More education options are great, but for diversity in tech to be an achievable goal, what we really need right now are more companies willing to hire and mentor junior level developers.

For anyone that’s been in the coding school industry over the last few years, the line is almost a trope: “We’re looking for someone with at least 2–3 years of industry experience”. To elaborate for those who might not be as familiar, this is a common first response from hiring managers or recruiters when talking to coding school grads. Typically, they seek out people who have cut their teeth a bit in the industry and are ready to move into a “great team” that “prioritizes culture” and “functions like a startup”. What this means in reality is that the company is looking for someone with minimal on-boarding cost, both culturally and technically. The goal is to bring someone on and have them contributing to the project in a meaningful way as quickly as possible. As a business owner and team leader, I get it: businesses don’t succeed by hiring people who don’t produce.

The problem, and the reason I started writing this article, is because the tech industry seems to also be in a frenzy to escape its upper-middle class, white-male dominated identity. Diversity initiatives abound, tech startups and established companies alike go out of their way to show that they’re not just a bunch of white dudes who grew up with computers in a great neighborhood. Whether this is a genuine push for heterogeneity of thought or just a line item to appease popular opinion is probably up for debate and varies company to company, but regardless of intention, the communication is there. We want to hire people from diverse backgrounds and lines of thinking, tech companies say, and they back them up with flashy partnerships and new inclusion goals.

Logically, these people got their start earlier, as learning this skill to proficiency on your own when you’re in school or working full time is far more often the rare exception than the rule.

Check any discussion board about learning to code, or worse, about coding bootcamps, and you’ll see an overwhelming majority of seasoned programmers agree that for a candidate to be worth his or her salt, they must have spent years self-studying, preferably before even going to college. The best developers, they say, have the self-drive and motivation to study constantly and keep up with emerging technology, and typically move through a college Computer Science program as a symptom of this drive and motivation. I agree, the best developers do have that kind of drive, discipline and self-incentivizing talent that keeps them constantly growing. The best developers have been teaching themselves for years. But what about everyone else?

Consider what it actually means to be a self-actualizing developer. On the one hand, you have people that are just straight up talented. For one reason or another, the idea of programming clicks for them the same way sports click for athletes or instruments click for musicians. Of course, there is hard work and years of practice necessary to support that talent, but it should be easy enough to understand that when successes come easier, so does the motivation to practice. On the other hand, you have people who maybe weren’t great at the beginning, but have supplemented that relative lack of talent with even more years of hard work. Logically, these people got their start earlier, as learning this skill to proficiency on your own when you’re in school or working full time is far more often the rare exception than the rule. Either way, to have “2–3 years of industry experience” by the time you’re 25 is extremely difficult and rare, that is, unless you got your start when you were younger.

I’m sure the line of thinking here is clear at this point, but just to complete the scenario, consider the type of person who, during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, had access to computers, technical mentorship, and positive educational experiences. In other words, consider what it means to be “self-taught” in 2017. For the most part, it’s exactly the people who are in tech right now: predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly middle/upper-middle class with an education in computers and enough time to learn the material.

Now I think it’s worth mentioning at this point that I’m one of those people — I’m a white male who had a comfortable family upbringing, with access to computers, and graduated from college — and that I am not shaming or condemning the self-learners. I applaud you and appreciate you for helping to create the amazing technological world we live in today; helping create enough wealth and efficiency for us to be able to have conversations like this one. I’m grateful for your service and awed by your foresight (that I certainly didn’t have) to learn a skill that didn’t seem as popular 10 years ago as it does now. Seriously, thank you.

The point I want to get across, though, is that all the diversity-in-tech initiatives in the world won’t make a difference if there isn’t a stronger culture of mentorship in our tech community. Promoting diversity without that culture is essentially saying “give us the ‘whitest’ diverse person you can”; and by white, we’re talking about people who match the qualifications of our current white male team. This certainly goes beyond just racial diversity, too. Gender diversity, age diversity and economic diversity are huge issues in the conversation. Ultimately I think what people are really looking for is diversity of experience, not just diversity of color, age, gender or anything else. It’s the diversity of experience that comes from non-traditional backgrounds which leads to the well-documented business performance increases diverse companies see. What needs to happen for our technical workforce to become more inclusive and diverse is more organizations capable of supporting entry level developers.

All the other pieces to the puzzle are there. For companies to keep growing, more developers need to be hired. There are plenty of people hungry enough and motivated enough to make a career switch. There are companies, coding schools, whose sole mission is to help those people make the transition, giving them the skills they would need to be a positive addition to a technical team. What’s missing is that “2–3 years of industry experience”, which, by all accounts and conversations I’ve had, is comprised not of technical knowledge so much as that “je ne sais quoi” of communication, leadership and grit that people get from time spent in the trenches and “can’t be taught”.

All the diversity-in-tech initiatives in the world won’t make a difference if there isn’t a stronger culture of mentorship in our tech community.

This is the big issue: the idea that what companies are looking for can’t be taught, and seems to only be accessible to people who had the means, circumstances or foresight when they were young to see the career they wanted to be in for the next 20 years. Never mind the moving target that we’re trying to consistently hit as an educational organization of every company having a specific set of technologies, frameworks and cultural standards unique to them that changes every 6 months. That’s comparatively small potatoes.

Now, worth noting is the damage that some coding schools have done to our reputation as an industry. I will be the first to admit that we still have a long way to go as a group when it comes to perfecting the art and science of teaching programming; I mean hell, teaching coding in a trade-school setting is something we’ve only been doing for the better part of the last 5 years. The entirety of coding education in college is only about 60 years old. Compare that to how long we as a species have been teaching math or architecture and it’s clear that we’ll still be working out the kinks for a while.

On top of that, the opportunity for monetary gain always muddies the waters, and clearly has done so given the reputation of some of the for-profit entities and funds that have gotten into the coding school industry. The unfortunate truth is these organizations — the ones with the biggest marketing budgets — tend to be the ones that ruin the reputation for the schools actually looking to make a difference.

I could and happily would launch into a promotion of why our school is one of the outliers trying to make positive change, but for the sake of brevity and mild humility I’ll keep it just to the basics. We teach classes in the evening so students don’t have to quit their jobs. This also gives us the added benefit of being able to hire instructors who work during the day as full time developers, so students learn from people who are actually successful in the field. The program is broken up into three modular levels so students can progress at their own pace and only continue if they really love it. We keep our tuition as low as possible, so low in fact that a lot of financing institutions didn’t want to work with us because they couldn’t make enough money off of our students. We have a small team, every person on it could make more money working somewhere else, but we all love what we do and work our asses off to make a difference. It would have been a lot easier and clearly more lucrative to run an immersive program, especially given that we were one of only two coding schools in Austin when we started, but we knew there were enough people already servicing that population: the people who had the disposable income, time or credit to take a full-time program. We wanted to work with everyone else.

We’re doing good work that we’re proud of and, while we will always have room to improve, we regularly get people hired as developers and almost across the board hear positive reviews from hiring managers. It’s hard work, though, and it doesn’t have to be. Teaching people something like coding is hard enough on its own; even Computer Science majors have trouble adjusting in their first job. Constantly convincing companies to take even a look at hard working graduates — companies who clamor for diversity but won’t take the risk of mentoring someone new — is enough to break an industry. You’re already seeing the consequences of this with the recent closures, and trust me, more will come. The industry is more fragile than its for-profit and VC benefactors would have you believe.

So what’s the call to action? It’s pretty simple: just start a legitimate internship at your company. Consider more contract to hire positions so if they don’t work out at least they’ll have some more experience. Hire a senior developer specifically for mentorship rather than just production. Or simply build relationships with more coding schools to help solve the problem rather than sitting back and waiting for things to change. The funny thing is, this actually solves another big problem development teams face: retention. Consider investing in employee growth and maybe the average tenure won’t be so short. If diversity is something that’s really important to your organization, consider taking a risk on someone from an atypical learning background and be ready to support them when they’re not 100% perfect on day one.

It’s an interesting conversation when I talk to hiring managers about graduates from our program. I’ll ask what the career progression is for the sales team or accounting or just about any other department outside of development and there is usually a clear, linear path from associate, to junior, to senior and so on, complete with team leaders and trainings. When I ask what the progression is for the development team, more often than not I’m met with a blank face. Where this diversity is supposed to come from when we have organizations that are unwilling to support beginners is a mystery to me. Until we welcome and encourage newer developers — regardless of their age, gender, skin color, or learning style — we’ll be left with a sorry excuse for what we could have otherwise had.