Someone is building a coding language out of emoji

How can tech diversify when it’s shutting off a major pipeline?

This week, cloud computing giant Salesforce hosted its first ever Women’s Leadership Summit at the annual Dreamforce conference, where a who’s who of women in tech discussed what’s holding women back in the industry.

Sitting on a panel with CBS anchor Gayle King, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and actress Jessica Alba, who founded the Honest Company, both shared stories of sending their daughters to coding and computer camps, believing early education could help bridge the gender gap. But now that many jobseekers have picked up coding later in life, including quite a few women, it’s no longer enough to know how to code for some employers—you need to always have known how to code

Recently, the chief executive of email startup Dittach, Daniel Gelernter, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about what he wants and avoids when hiring. He’s not looking for a computer science degree, because those programs are too much theory and not enough Android development. But he also doesn’t want to hire from the coding boot camps that, whatever problems they might have, can hardly be accused of not teaching hands-on skills. “The thing I look for in a developer is a longtime love of coding—people who taught themselves to code in high school and still can’t get enough of it,” Gelemter wrote. “The eager but not innately passionate coders being churned out of 12- and 19-week boot camps in New York tend not to be the best: There are too many people simply looking for a career transition, and not enough who love coding for its own sake.”

At first glance, this makes a lot of sense. Everyone wants to hire an “innately passionate” employee. It’s easy to assume that people who graduate from these increasingly popular crash courses are mostly in it for the money, lulled by the prospect of raking in a six-figure salary after one grueling summer. Maybe that’s true. But “money is important” and “passionate” are not mutually exclusive, and reaching far into the past for evidence of long-standing passion conflates innate interest with privilege. There’s a tricky discussion about whether the “passion” and “culture fit” requirements are just code words for conformity—but setting that aside, there’s still a difference between requiring a “passion” for something now, and being required to have had passion for it starting ten years back.

This idea assumes that if someone really loved coding and were really suited for it, she would have known it was an option from an early age and overcome any obstacle to learn. The idea that “real” passion starts early and is completely divorced from background and other considerations is narrow-minded and an example of insidious bias—including sexism—in tech. It’s a romanticized idea of how the world works, one that is a blow against meritocracy.

Putting this “longtime passion” idea into action as a hiring guideline is part of the reason for the infamous gender disparity in tech. Comparing numbers across companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook shows that about 29 percent of all employees are women. It gets worse when you separate technical employees from those who work in sales and comms and other departments. At Facebook, 16 percent of engineers are women. Twitter? 10 percent.

There are more women at boot camps because they know they’ll be judged mostly on aptitude and not because of their past experience—which may have been limiting.

So where is the gender disparity not as bad? Surprise, surprise—it’s at coding boot camps, in large part because they don’t have the cultural requirements that Gelernter does.

At the Startup Institute, an eight-week course in Boston, women make up 41 percent of grads. Over at the Turing School in Denver, a seven-month program, that number stands at 35 percent. And at Chicago-based Designation Labs, 64 percent of graduates have been women. Diane Hessan, chief executive of Startup Institute, says that one of the reasons they have more women is because they don’t require previous experience and early passion. Instead, they base admission almost purely on interviews and aptitude tests. “We don’t have ‘standard’ prerequisites: special schools, degrees, ages, standardized testing, or even past careers,” she told Fast Company. “Bootcamps offer more of a meritocracy, and that attracts people of all kinds.”

In other words, there are more women at boot camps because they know they’ll be judged mostly on aptitude and not because of their past experience—which may have been limiting.

There’s a certain type of person who “taught themselves to code in high school.” This person is likely ambitious, self-motivated, disciplined, and curious—a dream employee for many a start-up. But this person is usually also someone who has access to computers, to learning resources, and to free time, and who doesn’t question whether or not someone like them can or should code: usually men. 

Now they’ve decided to give coding a try—maybe because they know better, maybe because it seemed interesting and, yes, maybe because they wanted a career transition. That shouldn’t disqualify them.

It may feel like we’re surrounded by “women in STEM” empowerment initiatives and groups like Girl Develop It. Even 11-year-old girls are trying to spread the gospel of code. But the youngest people in the workplace today were starting high school around 2006, before the influx of these initiatives, before #ILookLikeAnEngineer, before the Ellen Pao trial had people talking. They’ve felt stereotype threat all their lives and maybe didn’t realize in high school that working with computers was a possibility, or an appropriate investment of time, or not weird.

Now they’ve decided to give coding a try—maybe because they know better, maybe because it seemed interesting and, yes, maybe because they wanted a career transition. That shouldn’t disqualify them.

In nearly every profession, there are people who came to the job in a more calculated way, but are still excellent at what they do and excited about their work. It is possible to cultivate genuine passion for one’s career, even if you originally started along the path because it seemed like a better alternative to what you have now.

This would all be different if there was hard evidence that everyone graduating from these courses is woefully unprepared. Each company has its own technical requirements and there are legitimate reasons not to hire from camps, which vary in quality. Yet it’s one thing to be skeptical of the education people are receiving, which places the burden on the camps themselves, and another to be skeptical of the kind of person who would choose to go to a camp instead of going back in time and teaching herself starting at age 13.

Coding boot camps are an important training ground for people who otherwise might have been shut out—and should be embraced as a pipeline instead of dismissed as an incubator of frauds.

So far, there isn’t hard data that graduates of these camps are primed only to crash and burn. On forum threads discussing this question, there’s a mixture of outcomes, from very positive (“I absolutely would hire them all again”) to neutral and negative (“some were great, some less so” and “one stepped up, and the other was fired”).

There are talented and less talented people who come out of these coding boot camps, just like there are talented and less talented people who come out of computer-science departments or who are self-taught with varying degrees of success. The boot camps aren’t a panacea either, since most people who graduate from them can afford to pay thousands of dollars for a training course. 

But they are an important training ground for people who otherwise might have been shut out—and should be embraced as a pipeline instead of dismissed as an incubator of frauds.

Angela Chen (@chengela) is a journalist specializing in mental health, asexuality, bioethics, and economics. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pacific Standard, Guernica Magazine, The Rumpus, and other publications.

Photo via hackny/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III

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