blog article

Bias-Free Admissions and Diversity at Holberton

Sylvain  Kalache

Written By Sylvain Kalache

Last updated on April 3, 2019

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Everyone in tech knows there is a lack of gender and racial diversity in the industry. So what are coding education teams doing to improve diversity? At Holberton (I’m a co-founder), a big part of our mission is about the accessibility of our education, which ultimately leads to increasing the diversity of the tech industry. From a blind (bias-free) and automated admissions process to a tuition-free model, I will cover a number of initiatives Holberton has put in place to reach our goals, and how it’s impacted the diversity of our classrooms.

The Diversity Problem

Not only do we need to invite more people to the table, but we need to make sure there is plenty of room for them at the table. Disney recently released a pixar short accurately depicting what many women experience when they choose a career in a male dominated sector. Many times, it’s the minority that is expected to make changes and adapt to gain validation within the workplace. I think we need to look at the lack of diversity in tech from a different angle. Instead of having an unspoken expectation that everyone needs to adapt to the “brogrammer” culture, what if we intentionally created a work/classroom culture that celebrates differences, and holds space for conversations about those differences?

Holberton’s approach is that the way we do things today may not, in fact, be the best way. But isn’t that exciting? It means there’s room for exploration, growth and improvement. When I hear conversations about ‘diversity’ being tossed around, it usually comes down to gender and the color of someone's skin. What I don’t hear much about are diversity initiatives that force us to make changes to how we communicate and problem solve as a team. Diversity that includes our Hard of Hearing (HOH) and Deaf communities, or our blind and low vision communities. Diversity conversations typically do not include students or qualified engineers on the autism spectrum, or those with limited mobility and other physical challenges. My hunch is that diversity is a bit easier to swallow when ‘I’ don’t have to go out of my way to accommodate it.

What do we know?

For businesses, diversity is a big plus. Mckinsey reported that public companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 33% more likely to have financial returns above the industry average and 21% when it comes to gender diversity. For tech products specifically, diverse teams reduce the risk of having bias AI or algorithm. Time covered the topic by focusing on face-detection software that falsely recognized Asian people as blinking. A diverse engineering team would likely have detected this issue before it was ever released.

Holberton is actively seeking to attract students from many untapped communities to help set a new standard for what diversity looks like in the 21st century.

Equal access to education begins with getting in.

High-quality education has almost always been reserved for the elite; there’s a long-standing notion that education is a privileged commodity. At the same time, we know that education is one of the surest paths for upward socioeconomic mobility. It seems that we’ve been perpetuating a cycle that only benefits the lucky few who were born into a life that granted them access to the private club that is quality education.

When it comes to most reputable postsecondary schools, 17 year-olds need a long resume, filled with AP classes, volunteer hours, extracurriculars, internships, GPAs, and a tear-jerking essay combed through by experienced tutors, just to gain access to America’s most elite schools. Holberton believes that equal access to high-quality education begins with who is admitted, and what criteria they are evaluated with. I have no doubt that the kid with the perfect Ivy League application has worked hard to get where they are today. But hard work wasn't the only thing that got them there. It was years of parents making sacrifices that benefited their child's education. It means they came from a family that valued education (at least to some degree). And even if that value of education was not immediately apparent, it would at least mean that a family lived in an area with good schools, and that the student had the time and space to put their nose to the books and work hard.

What about the single parents out there, that despite wanting the best for their kids, couldn't afford housing in an area with good schools? And all of the kids out there who didn’t participate in swim team because they had after school jobs to help make ends meet? It’s hard to get AP scores for your college admission when your high school didn’t offer AP classes. It’s hard to have notable internships or community service hours for a college application when you are too busy taking care of younger siblings at home.

Holberton’s bias-free admissions process

Holberton does not want to see a long list of impressive things applicants have done in the past. We want to see what you can do today. We've built a proprietary application process that is open to anyone to apply, no prior coding experience needed. The entire application is broken down into three levels:

  1. Level 1 starts with the introduction of some simple Linux commands, and for many applicants, they will use Terminal for the first time.

  2. Level 2 is about grit. We will push you to build on your knowledge of the Linux commands, culminating with building a website from scratch. No drag and drop here, we give applicants access to a server, ask them to configure it, then build the HTML, CSS and Javascript on their own. It’s not a tutorial, we won’t show or tell you what to do. Instead, we give you the resources and documentation to figure it out. If you get stuck, you have access to a forum of other applicants who are also working on the application. This is a collaborative school, so we encourage you to ask for help and help others.

  3. Level 3: We’ll invite you onsite to see the space for yourself. The final stage is about critical thinking as well as experiencing what project-based and peer-based learning is like at Holberton.

Admission to Holberton is based on data points from the three levels of the application. It’s an automated process that does not look at age, race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, etc. By automating the process, we are able to reduce unconscious bias. This has yielded a diverse community on its own.

Tips for success in Holberton’s admissions process:

  • Adopt a growth mindset. Failure is inevitable, but it’s not a permanent state. When you make a mistake, try to figure out what went wrong before you move on to the next task.

  • Read carefully. Most of the issues applicants run into could have been avoided if only they had read the task more carefully, or spent more time reading the documentation.

  • Use each other. Holberton is a collaborative space, we love it when people problem solve together, and that’s absolutely true of our application process as well.

  • Pay attention to how you feel. Our application process is a taste of how we run our program. If you love the application process, in spite of the hard work and setbacks you may have faced, you might just love our program.

  • Identify how you learn best. Holberton is about solving problems together and helping each other. If that’s not the best learning environment for you, Holberton may not be the best fit.

Making education financially accessible

Holberton offers Income Share Agreements (ISAs), where students pay nothing upfront, and only start paying once they land a job. ISAs are an innovative way to fight student debt and help more people get access to a quality education, and peace of mind. If you want to learn more, Course Report did a great deep-dive into our ISA.

We’ve also partnered with a number of organizations to help students with their living expenses. Via a partnership with CloudNow, with a focus on bringing more women into STEM, students received funding from Google, Accenture, Scality, Facebook and Intel. Scholars went on to land jobs at companies like Apple, and Pinterest.

Supporting diversity in the community

Bootcamp campuses should also be local community meeting spaces for tech and tech interest groups. As part of our broader mission, we have opened up our campus to both regular tech meetups and organizations that work hard to include more people into the future of STEM. Many groups benefit from being in a tech-friendly community that puts education and skills development first, and for groups who are working to increase racial, gender, and background representation in STEM, our welcoming and diverse student body provides an exceptional paradigm of the future of tech.

We have also hosted local community and coding interest groups as part of our commitment to our goals, fostering a community of inclusion that expands beyond the walls of our school. As an example, we recently hosted a female youth coding group workshop that took place on our campus. To facilitate the girls’ projects, we provided technical and marketing mentors for both improving their code, and offering assistance to their marketing, communication, and project pitches. And our mentors were not just Holberton staff; several of our current students volunteered to assist and help mentor these young coders, giving invaluable experience to both mentors and mentees. At the end of the day, our entire community of students and staff came together to help support the next generation of young coders.

Our space has been designed with the greatest care by our designer Julien Cyr, to ensure that everybody feels welcome and comfortable to become a software engineer. Applications are open for our next cohort!

Has it Worked? Diversity at Holberton...

Three years since Holberton launched, we currently have a student population of 35% women, and we aim to reach 50% which is the population demographics. Women who graduated from Holberton now work at companies like NVIDIA, Dropbox, and MedSleuth.

Holberton has a diverse board of trustees who are helping us to fulfill our mission of providing high-quality education to the many. Actor Priyanka Chopra and Silicon Valley philanthropist Jocelyn DeGance Graham are focusing their efforts on women. Singer NE-YO who is also part of the board of trustees has already played a key role in increasing the number of African American students, which has more than doubled from 5% to 13%.

Find out more and read Holberton School reviews. Check out the Holberton website.

About The Author

Sylvain  Kalache

Sylvain Kalache

Sylvain is the co-founder of Holberton School, a two-year coding education program in San Francisco. He loves building quality communities, and also co-founded the French Tech Engineer Network.

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