One of the challenges that bootcamps face and have really taken head-on is building diverse classrooms. If you’ve looked at demographics research, you know that tech is not diverse – and that means everything from a lack of racial to gender to cognitive diversity. But a lot of bootcamps are doing interesting things in this realm, around scholarships, community outreach, and partnerships with local government to get into untapped communities and train people with a lot of potential but little access to tech. On today’s podcast, we explore how one bootcamp, Flatiron School, approaches diversity in their cohorts.
Kristi, when we talk about “diversity” in bootcamps, what are we actually referring to? Who do you see being underrepresented in tech today?
Kristi: This is a question that’s being asked a lot in the tech industry at large, not just bootcamps. Diversity is ultimately about the fact that people are different from each other and so the real question is: “what makes us different from each other?” Some of this is obvious: skin color, gender, physical disabilities. But there are also things that are less obvious and depend on things that we choose to share, like our political beliefs and sexual orientation, and maybe even more hidden to the naked eye but crucial, are things like where we grew up geographically and culturally, our socioeconomic background or the values that we inherited from our families and our work experiences. Do we care about racial diversity? Do we care about gender diversity? Do we care about cognitive diversity? And the answer is yes. Racial and gender diversity are things that ultimately create cognitive diversity, which is something that creates a better learning environment in a bootcamp and ultimately a better work environment. I think the groups that are underrepresented in tech have many of those characteristics, some of which are obvious and some of which are less obvious. The bootcamp industry is trying to increase representation of all of these types of diversity, within bootcamps and within the tech industry.
You mentioned diversity creating a better work environment and learning environment- could you expand on that? Is this a moral imperative or does diversity matter to a company’s bottom line?
Kristi: You’ve identified two separate things that oftentimes get conflated. First is business and second is social policy. Research shows that in a business environment, if we have more women on boards, in ownership, or leadership of a company, and on teams themselves, then we get better results. Women are one important element of representation within a team, and I think it gets back to cognitive diversity. These visible things help us understand when we have diversity on our team, but cognitive diversity means that people are coming up with different ideas, thoughts, and challenges to the decisions being made within an organization so that you get a better result, build a better product, and go to market in a smarter way. We see the same thing in a learning environment when different types of people come together, we see really magical and special results.
The second - this moral imperative - is a social policy reason. When we look at the future of work, tech holds so much promise for where economic mobility will be found. We have to find a way to create a greater participation across society in all these underrepresented groups, just for the purpose of stability in society.
We know that coding bootcamps are more diverse than the average tech company or even a Computer Science degree program. In the research that Course Report does, we find that 43% of bootcamp grads are women. What do you think makes coding bootcamps naturally more inclusive than universities? Is there something specific?
Kristi: It all begins with the right kind of culture. At Flatiron School, we fundamentally believe in better outcomes through diversity. From the senior-most people at our company and throughout the organization, people believe in it. And we’re motivated by seeing this participation in the industry. Culturally, we’ve made it a priority to attract a diverse student body, and I think that’s where it all begins.
There are a couple of advantages that bootcamps have structurally over a university, that have also attracted more diverse candidates. First, they’re just more accessible in important ways. Accessibility is both about the ability to participate in a program, as much as it is about the ability to afford it. And when you consider lower income populations or rural residents or caregivers, who are disproportionately women, you start to see real access problems for programs that require a four-year, full-time commitment, a $40,000 tuition fee, and not necessarily a clear job outcome. Bootcamps have created a very different model that shortens the time commitment and creates flexibility for caregivers in both online and part-time programs. They’ve reduced the tuition cost and have created clear job outcomes; that gives people greater confidence to enter a bootcamp. These are powerful factors to help anyone, but especially diverse students, to access a program like this in the first place.
Structurally, coding bootcamps are also nimble. They tend to focus on the problem and iterate really quickly. That’s a lot more difficult for a university to do. Most coding bootcamps are 15 weeks long and start every three weeks. At Flatiron School, we conduct surveys every two weeks (or every day for our online students), and that gives us a really rapid feedback cycle (similar to the tech ecosystem). In our environment, we’re constantly improving and changing, and figuring out areas where things are working, as well as areas where things aren’t working. Universities have more trouble implementing change quickly when their model is a 12-month cycle.
That’s interesting – bootcamps starting every three weeks probably makes bootcamps even more accessible. Students aren’t stuck to this rigid annual application deadline, which is really a fixture of the past.
Kristi: One of the things that’s become so evident to me is that the modern student is really complex. Their lives are complicated and much more varied than the higher ed student 20, 30, or 40 years ago. The model has to become so much more flexible to serve them.
Susan, when you were researching coding bootcamps, in addition to curriculum and price etc, what were you looking for in the learning environment? Did you look for a bootcamp where you saw women and people like you represented?
Susan: I don’t think that I specifically did research looking for women, but I think subconsciously, when you see people that you identify with being successful, you can imagine yourself as that successful person. Doing my research, I wasn’t looking for diversity specifically, but I think I found it in the program I joined. I noticed that they were looking specifically for diverse people, so it sort of found me.
Tell us about the Tech Talent Pipeline.
Susan: When I was researching bootcamps, cost was a huge factor because I had just been laid off from a job that I had for five years. I was prepared for it, but I don’t think I realized the cost of a career change. But I really wanted to get out of the administration field, so I was pricing out a lot of bootcamps. The first thing I did was sign up for the Girl Develop It mailing list; they’re a meetup group but they send out an awesome newsletter every week with tons and tons of opportunities. Sure enough, one was a scholarship opportunity through New York City and the Tech Talent Pipeline. They were looking for diverse candidates, which meant so many things to them: income, underrepresented groups, women, veterans. Being a woman and a veteran, I got head-of-the-line privileges. When I got accepted, I felt like I had landed in a pile of gold. They were offering me so much, and at the end of Flatiron School, I would end up with a career. They weren’t just giving me schooling or a scholarship to college, they were giving me a career.
Even though you found that opportunity, I know that getting into a bootcamp is difficult. Could you talk about how you carved that path out for yourself into Flatiron School?
Susan: Before I started, I decided that I was going to try hard. I wasn’t a very good student before, and that’s because I never tried hard enough. My mom always told me, “you don’t try hard enough” and I didn’t actually understand that until right before Flatiron School. I made a promise to myself that I was never going to say “no,” never going to say “I can’t do this.” It was so weird to change what I was saying inside of my head to “You can do this,” because it is challenging and hard. It’s a lot. There are points where you feel like you’re not going to make it, you’re not smart enough, and you can’t do it. At Flatiron School, I wanted to be part of a team and get as much as I could from the instructors. I asked questions, got involved and engaged in a way that I never had been before. This was an opportunity to have a new career, which was also an opportunity to decide how I was going to fit in. The path I ended up carving was a new person who was way more involved and put in 100% effort.
It’s amazing that you found the opportunity to reinvent not only your career, but also your approach to working, in a coding bootcamp. Happy to hear that.
Susan: Absolutely, and I’m a little older than the average student at Flatiron. Being 35 and changing careers into tech, where everyone is 22, was a little intimidating. But I got a lot of energy and inspiration from the students around me. Plus, my class was made up of 15 women and 10 men, so there was a significance in the amount of women in our class. And these women were so driven and inspiring, that it kept my energy levels up and my interest high. We huddled down and solved problems together; such a nice, supportive feeling to be learning with someone 15 years younger with you.
Kristi, how do you see role models being important to the success of women and people of color at Flatiron School?
Kristi: Susan talked about visible and subconscious diversity earlier. I think it’s easier for all of us to believe that we can do something when we see somebody who looks or sounds like us being successful. Whether it’s Susan, the Navy jet mechanic or Susan the administrative professional or whether it’s Susan the woman. But I hear Susan telling her story and get so inspired and so much energy about what I can do and how much I can contribute back and help other people believe they can do this too. For every one person who breaks into tech and shares their story, five more people believe they can do it too.
You mentioned being a veteran – can you tell us about what you did in the Navy. How was that transition into tech?
Susan: When I joined the military, I got into aviation right away and became a jet engine mechanic. I worked on jet engines and fuel systems while I was on active duty for 5.5 years. When I joined the active reserves, there weren’t many aircrafts, so I ended up going into logistics. I served in an Army mission during Operation Enduring Freedom, and drove tractor/trailers and forklifts. The biggest relation to tech and this career change is that in the military, I constantly had to put myself into uncomfortable situations. It’s very intimidating to work on an aircraft that costs millions of dollars and flies people. Today, my code isn’t necessarily killing anyone if I mess it up, but it’s about being out of your comfort zone and having the faith in yourself to go there. Technically speaking, we were given a lot of instruction at Flatiron School, and my brain is mechanical and mathematical from working in the military, so that’s helped me with tech. In the military, there’s no fluff or glitter and sparkles and rainbows. I have a logical brain because of that training as well.
There’s a lot of legislation in progress to get the GI Bill to cover coding bootcamps; and every time I talk to someone who was in the military and went into tech, it’s so clear why.
Susan, do you think it’s important to be a role model yourself?
Susan: Absolutely, and that’s why I took the opportunity to be an instructor at Flatiron School after I graduated. Flatiron had never had a female iOS instructor before and it was the perfect opportunity. I was taught by four men and now all of the women who I teach will see a female iOS instructor. There were female web instructors, which is also inspiring. But for iOS students who got their knowledge from another woman and hear my story. I could tell them “I was in your seat a couple of months ago” and now these students could learn from me. That’s important to students. I’ve spoken to a lot of college-age women with the military and tech; they see that I didn’t know anything about developing and writing programs six months ago, and now I knew enough to teach others. Two years ago, I was an office manager and a bookkeeper; I knew nothing about writing programs. I have a deep desire to make sure people know that even if they’re not in tech now, they could be.
Kristi, what does Flatiron School do, specifically from an operations-level, to create diverse cohorts?
Kristi: It’s very much an intentional process and we do track it. Most obvious is our admissions process, but that’s supported by the people at Flatiron School. The more team members at Flatiron School who are diverse and who care about diversity as an issue, the more likely we are to have the right kinds of initiatives and constant iterative changes that become ingrained in our culture. Susan just spoke about being our first female iOS Instructor; we think a lot about the role models we have on our faculty that students are looking to when they consider Flatiron School. It’s been really hard to build a balanced faculty. We’ve started speaking early with women from our classes who are really strong technically, and have the aptitude and desire to mentor their peers, to try to bring them into our teaching team over time. Our lead instructors are individuals who have had experience teaching, but also real production experience. That’s another area that makes it difficult to find women instructors; recently, we started taking some of our Junior Instructors and moving them onto our Engineering Team for an apprenticeship rotation. They spent time getting production experience on an engineering team with the intention of bringing them back on as Lead Instructors. We’re deeply investing in what our staff looks like and how that feels to students externally. A big part of creating diverse cohorts is having people like Susan realize (subconsciously or not) that this is a place that cares about creating a diverse environment and diverse cohorts.
On the admissions side, we’re actually creating a class. We think about admitting a cohort, not just an individual student. We also look at the potential of a student, which is really important, especially for underrepresented groups in tech. Certain groups of people, tending to be white men, are more likely to have had some experience in coding before they apply to a bootcamp. There’s an easy trap we can fall into in assuming that because someone has more experience, their aptitude is higher. We focus on potential and assess how far an individual can go in our program; not just how far they are today. That may mean we scale up the difficulty of a code challenge for someone with experience, compared to someone with less experience.
How do you approach recruiting to actually get students into that pipeline? Are you putting a certain amount towards your marketing budget?
Kristi: We spend a lot of time on these initiatives. Everything from our programming and the types of events that we host, to content we create and partners we develop. All of this is done to create a voice and role models, through imagery or speakers or a blog post; it’s about helping to increase the awareness and confidence of underrepresented groups in tech. Not only is this a career they can achieve and an education program that they can be successful in, but they’re going to be welcomed here and thrive.
There’s also financial access. We’ve spent a lot of time developing scholarship funds, often with partners in the industry who care about issues very deeply. Whether that’s veterans or LGBT or women-oriented scholarship funds. Oftentimes, Flatiron School will devote resources directly to those funds to increase access to underrepresented groups.
Is there a reputation that you try to promote at Flatiron School to balance rigorous academics with an inclusive environment?
Kristi: This is something we talk about within our branding team and across our entire organization. The brand of a school is manifested through every experience that someone has with us; whether they call in on the phone, do a campus tour, enroll as a student, are an alum, receive career services support. We very intentionally balance rigor with the warmth that is required for inclusion. It’s important to us that our graduates enter the tech industry very prepared and ready to contribute. That’s the core of what we promise our students. That rigor is important and it tends to be associated with very elite schools. When you think of institutions associated with their rigor – the military, Ivy League schools – you don’t think about those institutions as pushing the boundaries on inclusion and access. They’re elite by nature and excluding many people. We want to, and think we can, do both. It’s a healthy tension to balance in all of our decisions.
I do think there’s room for both. In the media, bootcamps get pitched as having super low acceptance rates; I always wonder if that’s good or bad, long-term for bootcamps as an industry.
Kristi: The low acceptance rate is associated with in-person, full-time programs. In-person programs go at a very rigorous pace. You’re on campus from 9am to 6pm every day and working on the weekend. You’re giving up your life for three to four months! For anyone who has anything else going on in their lives (children, another job, learning pace), I think there is an opportunity for greater access if we design programs with more flexibility. We can allow people to go through a rigorous curriculum at their pace, but the bootcamp model that was designed four to five years ago is one that’s very rigid and that’s the reason why admissions rates have been low.
Do you think Flatiron has always been successful at this? Are you meeting your own goals?
Kristi: I think we’ve always been committed to this, but maybe not successful. We’ve changed as the industry has changed; when Flatiron School started in 2012, there weren’t many people who even knew about bootcamps. As our student body has become more diverse, we’ve had to think about how to serve different types of students. We actively encourage diverse students to apply, but there’s also more awareness around bootcamps. We now have students who live in rural areas and take our online course; you shouldn’t be prohibited from accessing these kinds of technical skills because you don’t live near a bootcamp. We’ve helped students who don’t have a college degree, students who are foreign-born New Yorkers, low-income students. And everyone requires a different type of program, a different degree of social services, or job training. If you haven’t been to college or haven’t had a job before, you need more professional training than someone like Susan, who spent 10 years in the Navy. Even if two students learn the same technical skills, they may not both be prepared for their career. Succeeding at diversity means finding ways to serve diverse types of students in a way that will make them successful in their career.
Kristi, do you think that scholarships are effective? Every school now has at least a $500 scholarship for underrepresented minorities – is that helpful for a single mom trying to go to a coding bootcamp?
Kristi: It absolutely makes a difference. We saw a pretty significant shift in our overall percentage of women represented in our online student body when we introduced our Women Take Tech scholarship programs. There is a pay gap (a 20% pay gap between men and women), but there’s also a wealth gap and women have more student debt than men. You can imagine that over time, women are making less money for a variety of systemic reasons. There are so many financial factors that are barriers to women making the same decision as a man. On top of that, there’s a confidence gap! Research shows that women have a lower degree of confidence in the same set of experiences as men. Scholarships make a ton of sense.
And I guess there’s a lot of difference between an intentional scholarship and a $500 discount.
Kristi: When we do a scholarship, we always do it with a partner, because it’s important to wrap that partnership with a number of different services. For example, we partnered with Birchbox last year; Birchbox has a very strong voice that women pay attention to. So when the CEO of Birchbox and their female VP of Engineering come forward saying that they support women in tech, and they sit on a panel and talk about what it’s like to work in this field and mentor women who are part of this scholarship program and help them thrive, that’s impactful. We want to find women students who are committed, like Susan, who know they can be successful – that’s who we want to reward.
Susan, it’s been a couple years since you started this journey. In that time you’ve graduated from Flatiron School, taught at Flatiron School, and you’re now an iOS Engineer at Spotify. Do you think that the perceptions of who can and does work in tech have changed?
Susan: I think over the last two years, there has been more effort and awareness. When I first started, I didn’t realize there was a disparity between women and men in the industry. When I started researching, going to meetups, and talking to people, you just start to notice this. Over the past two years, tons of women’s groups have popped up, and many more companies are realizing that there’s a diversity problem and saying they want to solve it. They realize the benefits; having people from varied backgrounds means you’ll have varied solutions. You want as many different solutions to a problem as possible; if you want to be cutting-edge tech, then you need a very diverse engineering team.
What’s been your experience in the workplace as a woman at Spotify?
Susan: I’m not sure about other companies, but at Spotify, diversity is a huge focus for us. We go through tons of training, iterate on interviewing and hiring practices all the time, to hire the most diverse folks as we can. My team is extremely supportive; my manager is a woman and has been here for 5 years. She basically built the platform that I work on, which is an inspiring example. There are a lot of women and people of color on our leadership team; it’s not just white dudes. That’s not what this company is about, which is comforting. I feel so safe asking questions; sometimes as a female in the workplace, you feel like you’re not able to be vulnerable in the workplace in front of guys, and say “I actually don’t know this.” You need to show way more confidence because you can be worried that you’ll be perpetuating this stereotype of women. I feel like I can ask dumb questions of other women, and they’ll be supportive. Even outside of work, at meetups, I feel like I have a tremendous amount of support from women, and even men – I go to women’s meetups and men are there who want to support women and think this is important. That’s encouraging.
It’s nice to know that in the real world, there are companies who are beyond the “awareness” stage. Bootcamps are graduating 25,000 developers a year, and are a significant talent pipeline. Do you think bootcamps have a responsibility to help fix the diversity problem in tech jobs?
Susan: Bootcamps have this ability to be nimble, course-correct, and pivot really quickly, and that’s really important when it comes to diversity. When we see that there aren’t enough women or people of color or veterans in tech, bootcamps can go out and seek those people and make sure they are injecting people into tech who can help solve the problem and make it worse.
Kristi: Bootcamps can’t fix it alone. This is a problem that a lot of people and organizations have to work together to solve. What bootcamps do have a responsibility for is to establish a culture that their graduates will take with them into the tech industry. These new “tech citizens” have such an opportunity to affect culture over time as they become managers and directors and build out their own teams.
We just launched a new scholarship for Model Tech Citizens. We surveyed our alumni and asked what helps them thrive and what are the barriers to their success. We isolated things like – men being allies and advocates, and showing up at meetups. That’s the kind of Tech Citizen that we want to have in the next five years. Bootcamps have a unique opportunity to draw those kinds of people into our programs and send them out into the tech industry.
I remember talking to a bootcamp grad three years ago; back then, we knew that 40% of bootcamp grads were developers, but I asked her why she thought that pool of women wasn’t making a wave in tech yet. She reminded me that everyone was still working as Junior Developers! Now, bootcamps are starting to mature and bootcamp grads are in positions of power, and can actually impact that change. I also think that universities are being impacted by coding bootcamps – I wonder if CS departments will start to be influenced by the culture of bootcamps?
Kristi: I hope so!
Bootcampers are currently primarily career changers with work experience. As K-12 gets these mandates for CS education and we start to see tech in schools, do you see a world where people graduate from high school already prepared for a coding bootcamp?
Kristi: There are two separate issues here. The first – is a high school student prepared for bootcamp? We think all the time about the future of higher ed, and the model today isn’t ideal for that students. For someone like Susan, who spent 10 years in the military, she’s completely successful going to a coding bootcamp because she’s had all of this real-world experience. Taking someone straight from high school into a program like this is more difficult today. But I think that we’re going to see some real evolutions happening with higher ed over the next 10 years; a more iterative approach to higher ed where a high school student can go to a bootcamp for six months, get real-world experience, and then go back into an educational environment. I think we’ll see a lot of modifications in terms of how higher ed is really broken down into its components and thought of differently from a singular pathway.
The second question – is CS really being taught in K-12 because of these mandates? Unfortunately, it’s not yet being widely integrated into K-12, despite these mandates in many states, NY being one of them. The biggest barrier is teacher training. We just don’t have enough teachers who know enough about computer science to teach it. And then we also have to think about how to teach CS as an integrated curriculum. Students’ days now are so full, that it’s a challenge to fit something else in. I do think we’ll get there; we have a lot of great minds and organizations who are committed to it, and I’m excited to see how it will affect interest in tech as a whole.
Well if you haven’t heard, Flatiron School was recently acquired by WeWork, which is a huge network of coworking spaces around the world. Kristi, what does this mean for growth and how will it help (or maybe even challenge) your diversity mission?
Kristi: We’re very excited about it! Our mission is to enable the pursuit of a better life through education, and that’s a pretty exciting thing to work on every day. WeWork’s mission is to create a world where people make a life, not just a living. Our two organizations are incredibly aligned at our cores. Even though you might initially look at the two companies as a coworking business and a bootcamp business, what we’re setting out to achieve is very much aligned and will enhance each other. We both see a world where the walls that exist today between work and learning will begin to deteriorate and we’ll finally be able to deliver on the process of lifelong learning (which we’ve been talking about for 10 to 15 years but haven’t yet delivered on)! When MOOCs first launched 10 years ago, we made a distinction between an in-person education and online education. I think those distinctions will begin to blur and we’ll create more dynamic learning experiences by taking advantage of the excellence in physical community at WeWork and the knowledge Flatiron has in learning experiences.
We’re excited to grow in the right way. We’ve always been very thoughtful about growing and we’ve done it differently than many other people in this space. We want to make sure we have the right resources to maintain a high bar for student success, and we’re really excited about the partner we have in WeWork, to grow in the right way and help people find the skills and the career that they love.
Susan, you are such an amazing role model, it’s been so nice to meet you; I feel like other women and folks in the military are so lucky to have you as an inspiration. If you could give advice to someone interested in getting into tech or going to a coding bootcamp, what would it be?
Susan: It depends on where you are, right? If you currently have a job, find out if tech is right for you by going online a take a quick HTML/CSS course to build something. Either you’ll feel amazing and inspired by that, or you’ll feel like it wasn’t that great and you don’t like it. It’s really easy to figure out if programming is for you or not. If you do find out that this is for you, then just don’t even stop and don’t ever give up. We used to run physical fitness assessments in the military, and they used to tell us, “Don’t stop running and you’ll pass.” So many people stopped running and failed. If you never stop running, you’ll make it. I think about that now in terms of my career change. I never stopped running; always kept pushing forward even if it seemed like I was falling flat on my face.
Figure out if coding is for you, and once you figure that out, go for it and don’t look back and don’t ever stop.
Thank you so much Susan and Kristi, for joining us and talking about what bootcamps can do to build diverse classrooms- it was cool to think about this both from an alumni’s perspective and from an operational perspective.
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