Coding Bootcamps: A Fork in the Road for Tech Diversity

For years tech companies have lamented “The Pipeline Problem”: the shortage of female and other diverse candidates in the hiring pool.

The opportunity to change that dynamic may come from a surprising source: Coding Bootcamps.

Computer Science and other STEM majors consistently fail to attract female students. The reasons are complex, but 3 important factors are:

  1. The stereotypical profile of a Computer Science major does not meld easily with the average woman’s self-image. Young women recoil from Computer Science for the same reasons that men recoil from nursing. We simply cannot reconcile our self-image with the image we attach to that career.
  2. Computer Science programs involve intense competition between students. This feels very uncomfortable to women, who are taught to cooperate rather than to compete.
  3. Men get greater exposure to and encouragement in technology and math throughout childhood, meaning that female students arrive at CS101 already at a disadvantage. The teachers assume a certain level of knowledge from their students, and when a student does not have that base of knowledge on day one, she assumes she must be “less talented” or otherwise unsuited to the profession.

Examining the issue more closely, however, we see that girls are given less opportunities to explore computers. Subtle messages from parents, teachers, friends, and popular culture steer girls away from computer games, tech camp, and the joy of disassembling household electronics.

We may never know how much of the difference can be attributed to societal attitudes versus natural preferences, but ask any 3-year-old, and they can tell you what gender a construction worker or a nurse “should be”. The ideas about Software Developers evolve a bit later, but only because toddlers are not yet familiar with that career. Try asking a 10-year-old to draw a Software Developer. If you find one who draws a woman, $100 says her Mom’s a developer.


So, how do Coding Bootcamps factor into all of this?

Coding Bootcamps are in their infancy. There’s still time to mould them into the missing link for tech diversity. Mistakes were made at the inception of college-level Computer Science programs. Those mistakes can and should be remedied, but it will be an uphill battle. Coding Bootcamps have the opportunity to “do it right” from the beginning.

Another advantage for Coding Bootcamps it that their students are generally a few years older than college students. Those few extra years of maturity can make a world of difference. An 18-year-old college freshman still has a relatively unstable self-image and still feels the pressure to conform. A few years later, she will generally shed her desire to conform, accepting both the popular and unpopular facets of her personality.

Coding bootcamps come in at just the right time–late enough to give the student a chance to experience the work world, but early enough to leave years for a fruitful career.

By the time women gain the maturity level and motivation to buck the ideals of popular culture and fight the uphill battle to claim their place in the tech industry, they have often assumed enough family and work responsibilities that the traditional CS degree–with all its forays into interesting but impractical subjects–is so time-consuming as to be impractical.

Coding bootcamps, with their narrow focus on practical skills, give students the chance to learn the critical fundamentals in a short sprint, and then fill in the gaps on their own time.


How can Coding Bootcamps take an active role in changing the dynamic?

  1. Explicitly state all prerequisite knowledge, along with how to obtain it. Never assume knowledge, no matter how basic you believe it to be.
  2. Give added support to diverse students. Recognize that they may have unique challenges, such as the need to balance outside responsibilities and school, gaps in foundational knowledge, impostor syndrome, or feelings of social isolation.
  3. Implement Social Rules: Stepping outside of your socially-ordained role is taxing on the ego. Micro-aggressions, whether intentional or unintentional, can have devastating impacts on diverse students. Hacker School has a very impressive student manual with social rules that I would love to see implemented in every Coding Bootcamp.
  4. Partner with companies that are looking to improve diversity. Large companies can pay for bootcamp training for employees who are looking to switch from a non-technical career into a developer role, or simply hold their jobs while they retrain.
  5. Give up on the ideal of the Natural Super Genius Developer. Natural talent? It’s a myth. Talent does have a genetic component, but genes are expressed differently based on environment. Deliberate practice is the key to mastery of any subject, and propagating the myth that some people are born with the ability to write beautiful code only discourages budding talent.

We are at a fork in the road, and now we must choose: Will we continue with the status quo, checking the box for “minimum diversity level attained” or will we recognize this unique opportunity, and address the systemic issues that sustain our homogenous technical culture?

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