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?

Does Being The Only Woman Matter?

I was the only woman in my class.

Did it matter?

I’m sure everyone would like me to say “no”.

After all, nobody threw rocks at me or pulled my pigtails. Nobody treated me any different in any way. In fact, everyone was exceptionally nice. So, why should it matter?

Let me put it this way:

Imagine being a giant, furry grizzly bear, trying to sit through preschool in one of those tiny blue, plastic chairs.

It doesn’t matter if the rest of the class has their heads down, coloring. You know you’re a grizzly bear, and you can’t stop thinking that as soon as you stand up, everyone is going to see that the tiny blue chair is stuck to your giant, furry butt.

Yes, there are days when you slide into that chair perfectly and feel right at home.

There are also days when you spend the entire class squirming into increasingly contorted positions, trying to get comfortable without dragging the chair screeching across the floor. When the bell rings, you should feel relief, but instead you realize that all the other students have finished their finger paintings and you haven’t even heard the assignment. Not to mention, the chair is still stuck to your butt.

That’s not to say that grizzly bears shouldn’t go to preschool. They should. Well…not real grizzly bears. They might eat the children.

I guess what I’m saying is that everyone has their comfort zone, and that comfort zone is largely determined by how well you fit in.

I saw this from a different perspective at the Rails Girls workshop. A thirteen-year-old girl showed up with her parents, eager to learn, but also hoping to find other girls her age. She was the only young person, and when she realized that, she looked like she wanted to squirm out of her skin.

I watched her alternate between discomfort and elation. Elation because she loved what she was doing, and was truly gifted at it. Discomfort because she was different, and just couldn’t shake that from her mind. Nothing was tailored to her needs, since she wasn’t the target audience, and she knew it.

I did my best to make her comfortable….we all did, but all of our efforts combined could not do what one, single teenage girl could have done, just by sitting down beside her.

So, if you happen to own a preschool, how can you help attract more grizzly bears?

Start by buying bigger chairs.

Here are just 2 of the many chairs that don’t fit this Mama Bear:

  • Hackathons: They sound like so much fun, but what mother can devote an entire weekend to something that doesn’t earn money and doesn’t involve the kids? Could we make it a one-day thing instead?
  • Social Structures that Revolve around Call of Duty (or some equally masculine game): If I don’t participate, I miss the opportunity to socialize. If I do, I’m the “charity case”, since I don’t even know how to work the controls. I’m not saying we have to bust out the Barbies, but there has to be something a little more gender-neutral.

And here’s why you should care:

Most of those preschoolers are going to paint the same thing: a stick figure here, a rainbow there…lots of tiny little fingerprints.

But…if you can help that grizzly bear get comfortable, give her some finger paints that fit her paws…who knows what she could paint?

It sure ain’t gonna be a blue chair.

Coloring Just Outside The Lines

We tend to think of progress as happening in giant leaps. We think of hunger strikes, million-man marches, sit-ins and Supreme Court rulings.

Sometimes progress does begin with the Mahatma Ghandi’s and MLK Jr.’s of the world. Most of the time, though, progress happens when people color just outside the lines.

We are all surrounded by invisible lines that tell us who we are supposed to be, and more importantly, who we are NOT supposed to be.

The line that I’m coloring just outside of is this one: Women are not supposed to be programmers.

No one says, “You’re a woman. You can’t be a programmer.” They just assume we wouldn’t want to be, and we assume the same.

The human brain is wired to recognize patterns. It’s what kept our ancestors from frying up the neon yellow frog. (“Hmmm…last time we cooked a neon animal, Uncle Louis died…Maybe we’ll stick to root vegetables tonight.”)

For the most part, pattern-matching serves us well. Our assumptions are generally accurate. The young white male with the glasses and cargo shorts probably is a programmer. The soccer-Mom-type beside him probably is not.

Only, this time…she is.

Stereotypes are a fact of life, and they do have power.

Being a female programmer is not as easy as being a female nurse. The nurse doesn’t ever wonder if she’s right for the job, and neither do her coworkers. There’s never an awkward moment when someone assumes she must be the receptionist, even though she’s holding a stethoscope. She is firmly within the lines.

There are plenty of women who were meant to be nurses, and that’s great…

There are also plenty of women who were meant to become programmers, and became nurses instead because they never thought to color outside the lines. That is not so great.

No one is going to lead a march on Washington to make more women become programmers. No one is going to knock on your door and say, “I know you think you should be a nurse, but honey, you are afraid of needles and you love computers. Get your butt to coding bootcamp!”

There will be more women in programming when we look around, recognize the lines drawn around us, and make a conscious decision to color outside them. If enough of us do it, the lines will move. If we want them to move a little faster, we may need to knock on a few doors and drag some should-be programmers to a laptop.

So ladies, if I show up at your nursing school with a burlap bag and duct tape, don’t fight me. It’s for your own good.

Being the Only Coder Chick…Can be Awesome

I’ve been there before as the only female on a tech sales team. I’m there now as the only female student in my coding bootcamp. It can be lonely—if you let it be. Or….it can be awesome.

This is my reflection on the article The Loneliness of the Female Coder (a great article, if a bit of a downer)

Here’s how to Rock as the Only Chick in the Tech Department:

When someone makes a crude joke, and then it gets awkward when he realizes there was a woman at the table and apologizes:

=> Make a cruder one, and watch him go pink to the tips of his ears. Call him “Pinky”, then tell him you’ll stop calling him “Pinky” when he stops weirding out about making crude jokes in front of you. Make sure you do this in front of all his “boys”.

When someone feels the need to explain to you in small words what a “bug” is:

=> Thank him profusely, and tell him you always thought of roaches when people said “bug”. Then go up to the podium and give your speech about information security (in front of his boys).

When you feel like a fraud–like you have to prove that you’re as good as them because you’re female:

=> Hold on to that feeling, but DON’T QUIT. You will work harder and be more awesome because of it.

When they always hold the door for you because you’re a lady:

=> LOVE IT! Don’t get weird about this. They’re paying homage to your awesome femininity. (Say thank you.)

When your sense of humor is OUT of ORDER because you’re having a really bad day and your boss takes credit for your work:

=> CRY. Loud, wrenching sobs. Draw it out, and wait until he offers you a raise to shut you up.

When it gets so bad that you’re ready to quit:

=> Call me. 

What Coding Bootcamps Are….And Are Not

When I signed up for my coding boot camp, I expected it to be like a very, very intense school.

In some ways, it is. We have a teacher, and there is lecture time, followed by homework.

However, in my opinion, the most important difference between school and coding bootcamps is not the workload.

The difference is this:

Schools teach you what you need to know. Coding bootcamps show you resources you might not have found on your own, and challenge you with problems that are at the far edge of your knowledge–or several steps beyond. Then they help you diagnose the problems with your solution, and point you to more resources to help you fix the problem.

If you are considering joining a coding bootcamp, DO NOT expect to be taught. No one is going to explain in detail what a class is, and when to use it, or show you new methods each day. In the short run, that makes things more difficult and can be horribly frustrating at times. In the long run, it teaches you the skills you will need to be a great programmer, and to keep up with the constantly changing tech world.

The process isn’t ideal. Feeding us too much information would not help us to learn “how to learn”. On the other hand, we need a certain amount of information just to know what to look for. Also, sometimes having to look for everything yourself is just too inefficient. There are only so many hours in a day, and sometimes spending 5 of them trying to find out why a variable is out of scope is not a good use of time.

Day 3: Riding the Rollercoaster

They weren’t kidding when they said this would be hard. 

One minute, I’m flying high, so impressed with all that I’ve learned in just a few short days. The next minute I’m feeling like a complete dunce.

I can’t help comparing myself to other students. “I’m in the lead! Oh, crap! They’re approaching the finish line and I’m stuck at the starting gates! Oh, look! I’m in the lead again!” 

If I could only stop comparing myself to other students, this would be 10 times easier. (Not gonna happen).

I think I need to take more breaks. I’ve noticed that my brain shuts down after a few hours of non-stop staring at the screen. When i work too long without a break, i quickly go from productive to barely understanding my own code to not remembering my own name.

What was my name again?