Tackling Tech’s Diversity Problem

Coding bootcamps are one way to address the industry’s poor record

By Ellen Lee

Two years ago, in one of the worst downpours that season, Kim Merino was lifting a treadmill out of a UPS truck and delivering it to a customer.

It wasn’t what she wanted to do.

What Merino wanted to do was land a job in the tech industry. Merino, who is Latina, had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the hope of joining its tech scene. Though she had taught computer science at a Los Angeles high school for eight years, she didn’t have a computer science degree, and she couldn’t find the kind of job she wanted. So she took the plunge—and enrolled in an intense 12-week coding bootcamp, Telegraph Academy in Berkeley, California, which was established in 2015 with a mission to increase the number of underrepresented people of color in the technology industry.

One of the school’s first graduates, Merino is now a software engineer at Accenture, a consulting firm. Her job challenges her daily—and she loves it. “I would not be where I am today without Telegraph Academy,” she says.

Computing jobs represent one of the fastest-growing sectors in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and one that is known to pay especially well, too. But the tech industry has a diversity problem. Only about 30 percent of employees at tech companies such as Google and Facebook are women. About 5 percent are African American or Hispanic. Women of color are the smallest cohort, and face twice the barriers.

Coding bootcamps have emerged as one way for women and people of color to get in the door. Schools like Telegraph Academy, Hackbright Academy, and Ada Developers Academy have a two-fold mission: to train software engineers and to add more women and people of color to the tech workforce. Other coding bootcamps, such as General Assembly and Dev Bootcamp, offer scholarships to encourage those from underrepresented communities to apply.

It’s in the tech industry’s best interest to employ more than just young, white men: a 2016 study sponsored by Intel found that the industry could generate an additional $470 billion to $570 billion in value by having staff and leadership that fully represents race and gender. To that end, more than 30 tech companies, including Airbnb, Pinterest, and 
GoDaddy, pledged in June to take a series of steps to diversify their workforce. They have their work cut out for them, from removing bias to providing a supportive work environment for women and minorities. That’s where coding bootcamps come in. They have become a helpful tool in the companies’ recruiting and hiring strategy. Tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Uber have sponsored scholarships, hosted interns, provided mentors, and recruited graduates. “Tech companies are trying to figure out a way to welcome more people of color,” says Albrey Brown, cofounder of Telegraph Academy. “We’re at the intersection of that.”

The numbers so far are small: most bootcamps only graduate a few dozen students at a time. But their results have been impressive. All of Telegraph Academy’s 2015 graduates, for example, were hired for tech jobs and increased their salary, some even doubling what they had made before, says Brown. More than 350 students have graduated from Hackbright Academy, a coding bootcamp for women in San Francisco, with 90 percent of participants landing a position in the tech industry at an average starting salary of $89,000. Collectively, “I think we can make a difference,” says Angie Chang, vice president at Hackbright Academy.

There are caveats. Though they certainly cost less than a computer science degree at a four-year college, the bootcamps are not cheap. On average, tuition costs more than $11,000 per student for 12 weeks, according to Course Report, which monitors the growing bootcamp market. And although bootcamps offer an accelerated path into the tech industry, no job is guaranteed at the end of the program.

Admission is also not guaranteed. Prospective students must apply and, in most cases, show that they already have some prior knowledge of programming and that they’re willing to dedicate effort to completing the course. But coding bootcamps remove some of the obstacles that have kept more people from joining the tech ranks: it’s not so much about pedigree or who you know as it is about being able to do the work.

And there is a lot of work. “When they told us this was going to be the hardest thing we had ever done, I thought they were kidding,” says Merino. But for 12 weeks, six days a week, more than eight hours a day, Merino and her colleagues learned a suite of programming skills and completed a thesis project. Then the instructors helped the students update their résumés and coached them on their technical interviews.

Schools like Telegraph Academy and Hackbright Academy create a safe space for underrepresented students to learn. Shanea King-Roberson took part in Hackbright Academy’s introduction to programming class, a three-month, part-time course. A program manager at Google, and for two years the only black woman on her team, King-Roberson wanted a better command of programming language. Hackbright Academy offered a nurturing and supportive community. “We need more women in the tech industry. Period. We need more diversity in the tech industry. Period,” says King-Roberson, who until Hackbright Academy had taught herself to code through online tutorials. “If you have a safe entry point, you may make the decision to start. Otherwise, you may not feel comfortable doing it.”

Mind-sets are changing. “The barriers—the stigma of being a bootcamper or a person of color or a woman—are slowly crumbling down,” Brown says. “If you’re interested in technology, it’s the time to look around. The demand is there. The industry is there. There’s support now. 
A year ago, you couldn’t say that. Two years ago, you definitely couldn’t say that.”

After graduating from Telegraph Academy, Merino was offered the job at Accenture. Now she hopes to pay it forward, passing along applications from the most recent cohort of Telegraph Academy students. “That’s the biggest reward,” she says. “I’m helping to bring in the next generation of female engineers. I’m helping to diversify the tech industry. There is no excuse now not to hire more people of color in your company.” DW

Ellen Lee is a business and technology journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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