In this episode, we’re talking about women’s success at coding bootcamps. Every year, Course Report does a survey of real coding bootcamp graduates to find out who is attending coding bootcamps and how successful they are. We dug into specific demographics this year, and found some pretty illuminating data about gender in coding bootcamps. We invited two awesome ladies from Fullstack Academy and The Grace Hopper Program to discuss how bootcamps are doing on this front, how the number of women in bootcamps has changed over time, if all-women bootcamps are good or bad for the problem, and how women can use bootcamps to make a transition into tech.
- Elisabeth Seite is a bootcamp alum. She graduated from Fullstack Academy last October, and is now working as a Fullstack Fellow, teaching and mentoring new students.
- Karen MacPherson is an instructor at Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper Program (an all-women’s bootcamp).
Although it’s arguably improving, women have historically been left out of STEM and CS in traditional education; only 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees were awarded to women in 2016. Karen, how did you get into tech as a career? Was your path traditional?
Karen: If by “traditional” you mean a CS degree, then no, my path was not very traditional, but I do come from a STEM background, which can be helpful, but not necessary. I am a Fullstack Academy grad, but my degree itself is in biology. I realized that I enjoyed tech and programming in college. Even though I didn't plan for it to be my career, I was able to get a couple of classes under my belt. But my goal and plan was to do scientific research.
After college, I did some research studying stem cells, which was super cool, but instead of going to grad school, I decided to go to a coding bootcamp. Like I'm sure we'll talk about later, a bootcamp does provide a lot of advantages over going back to get a four-year degree in a different field like computer science.
I went through the Fullstack Academy program about two and a half years ago and stayed on as a teaching fellow. It's through that role that I realized how much I loved teaching and helping people get into tech. So I stayed on at Fullstack Academy and the Grace Hopper Program, our all women's program, and never left. So it's not completely traditional because I don't have a computer science degree.
While a computer science degree is helpful in a theoretical way, programming is a trait that you learn and improve upon, and go back to fill in conceptual gaps as you go. That makes it a great second career for people wanting to change the course of their life, and I just love helping people with that. It's really important to me.
Karen, why is it important to not only educate new developers, but more specifically to educate women developers?
Karen: I was given a second chance to figure out what I wanted to do in life, and like I said, it does really bring me a lot of joy to be able to do that for other people. That goes for all my students, not just the women. But something I've realized from being in tech, is that the tech space is really lacking women. If products are being built only by men but their users are people of many different walks of life, then it hurts those products and it hurts the companies when the people creating the products aren't representative of those using it.
By helping more women get into the field, I'm not only helping those women who were just like me, but I also feel like I'm helping the field itself. It's really important that we help change this gender disparity so that the field itself can give us better products and produce better workforces and morale going forward.
We talk a lot about a moral imperative to achieve gender parity in tech, but there’s also an imperative to improve this field that we all love so much.
Karen: I like being able to specifically give my women students a role model. I can say "I did it. It was hard, I felt imposter syndrome. But I know you can do it too because I've been there." That puts me in a nice position to help women specifically getting into the field.
Eli, what were you doing before you went to Fullstack Academy?
Eli: Like Karen, I did not have a traditional background. I studied philosophy in college, which doesn’t have much to do with STEM. But I spent a lot of time taking logic classes, doing admin seminars in logic, and being a TA for logic classes. That turned out to really help me in programming. But when I was fresh out of college with my philosophy degree, I really did not anticipate working with science or computers.
My first job was fundraising for a nonprofit in Cambodia. I was always really driven by the idea of helping people, and so nonprofits seemed like a great place to start. Then I shifted into HR recruiting, where I worked for three years in New York City. While doing recruiting, I felt like I could be doing more. It was a lot of meetings, emails, scheduling, and very administrative work, and I felt like I wasn’t using my full potential the way that I did in college.
I was very lucky to work with the tech teams at those companies and did tech recruiting for them. Hanging out with the engineers, I was fascinated by the types of problems they were solving. They encouraged me to try out coding because they could tell that I was not really satisfied with my HR role.
About a year ago, I went on udacity.com and tried a free Intro to Java class. I picked it randomly, and fell in love so hard. I looked around for options and I found coding bootcamps. I visited a few, fell in love with Fullstack Academy and their philosophy of supporting each other and working together towards this creative goal of changing careers and entering tech.
Thinking more about your role as a mentor or as an instructor, what are some of the barriers to entry that you hear from women in your classes that you teach or mentor? Are there hurdles that you hear specifically from women in your classes?
Karen: I have taught both the Fullstack class, which is our co-ed program, and the Grace Hopper Program, which is the all-women’s program. Something I very much believe is that women don't need a separate bootcamp to be successful. However, there are invisible barriers that work to keep women out of tech, which we're trying to abolish in both programs.
A woman may try out computer science in college, maybe she grew up tinkering around with computers a little bit and knows that she enjoys it, but left, not because she didn't enjoy it or because she wasn’t good at it, but because she didn't feel that she fit into the culture.
If you’re one of the only women in the entire CS department, it's easy to not feel welcome in that male-dominated environment because there's a feeling that if they didn't grow up playing with robots or playing with video games, that tech isn't for them.
There’s an idea that tech is for people who sit in a basement, hack at things and play video games. That's not necessarily the case, of course, but that's still the idea that a lot of us are raised with. You see sitcoms with a nerdy guy who's good at hacking and plays video games, and then a girl who doesn't know any of that stuff. There are gendered activities that make coding a masculine activity as opposed to a feminine activity. That's definitely a large barrier because you just don't really feel like you fit in with that culture, and that even if you enjoyed coding, you wouldn't enjoy being with those people, even if they are nice and supportive.
On the other side of the coin, I grew up playing a lot of video games and men often say, "Oh, you play video games? You're a unicorn and you're not like other women." That’s almost worse because you're then separated from other women.
In bootcamps, you're able to lower these barriers a bit, especially in an all-women’s program, because you don't have to worry about that fear of the culture fit. We can try as much as we can to create our own culture and train people to control unconscious stereotypes and biases they might have, which can be helpful. It's easier to have that acute imposter syndrome when you are part of a minority, if that society has told you I shouldn't be here.
Do women ask more questions in Grace Hopper than they do at Fullstack? I would predict that women would ask more questions when they’re learning with other women.
Karen: It’s a little hard to measure because I think a lot of times the women who choose to go to Fullstack might be those who are more comfortable asking those questions in that co-ed space. So it's not completely the same population in that sense.
But I do think that learning with other women allows the women at Grace Hopper to not have to worry about proving that they are a good programmer despite being a woman. They don't have to do that extra proof, therefore, they probably do feel more comfortable admitting "Hey, I don't understand this one thing," and asking that question. At least that's the hope.
Eli, when you were making the transition from recruiting, what was your perception of the gender split in tech? Did that hold you back at all?
Eli: HR and recruiting was a female-dominated field, and I was looking for something different. I just wanted to be challenged in a completely new way. But it’s interesting that you ask, because all the engineers I worked with at my company were male engineers. I wonder if that also shaped my decision to come to Fullstack (instead of Grace Hopper) because I was used to being surrounded by male engineers. That's a really good point.
When I was in HR, I hired a couple of female engineers but mostly male engineers because they were the ones who had the experience; they had been in the field for several years. And I feel like for the people who are now in bootcamps, it will take them a few years to essentially ramp up to be able to enter in the roles that we were hiring for.
I agree. Bootcamps have been around for four or five years and they've always been pretty good about including women, but then everybody graduates into basically a junior engineer or a junior developer. Now we're five years in and we're starting to see those women who graduated five years ago in positions of power, or in hiring positions, or actually leading teams. I think this year and beyond we're going to start seeing those original female bootcamp grads really start to be a dominant force in tech. So I'm excited about it.
Eli, a lot of students whom I talk to make their final decision about a bootcamp when they visit the campus to feel if it's a good fit. Did you visit Fullstack and did you see women in the classrooms or women teaching?
Eli: Yeah. I visited both Fullstack and Grace Hopper. What mostly attracted me to Fullstack was the collaborative environment. Some of the bootcamps are very competitive and you can see that it's a little more, I don't want to say cutthroat but that's the only word that comes to mind in terms of the students’ atmosphere and how the students relate to each other.
Fullstack is all about being one group of students helping each other, with the fellows, with the instructors, having support from the Career Success team, and from the students’ specialists to make sure it's a friendly and supportive environment. And that's something that attracted me.
Maybe even if it wasn't super clear at the time, subliminally, it's got to be cool to go to a bootcamp and see Karen at the front of the classroom, right?
Eli: Definitely, yeah. Karen, the fact that I still remember our conversation says something about the impact it had on me. I thought, "Oh, yes, this could be me too and I could fit in here. This person is super friendly and approachable and I want to be like that as well. A kick-ass engineer but still a good person who's not just hanging in the basement or playing video games all day.” Even though I play video games too on the side, I knew I didn’t have to be part of the stereotype.
Traditional education is getting better in terms of including women; but there are still about twice as many women in bootcamps as there are graduating from CS degrees. While 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees are awarded to women, we actually find that the enrollment of women in coding bootcamps has increased since the first coding bootcamps launched in 2011. In the Course Report survey, we found that 40% of bootcampers who graduated in 2017 were women, so we’re getting there. Over time, that representation has only grown (women accounted for 33% of bootcamp graduates before 2015). Why do y’all think that bootcamps are better at this than traditional education - why are there more women in bootcamps?
Karen: I think bootcamps are better able to control their culture than a four-year degree. In college, you're taking CS classes two to three times a week as opposed to this immersive experience where we specifically hire people to help shape the culture. Of course, we can't control that completely. We can't control what our students do or say, but we can at least create an example of how inclusive we want the culture to be. I think that's harder for colleges to control (though I do want them to try!) and that leads into that gender disparity.
That's such a good point. In talking with bootcamp founders over the last few years, it seems like since they all come from tech, a lot of them really recognize this inherent problem in tech, and they have a personal mission from the top down with many of the founders and that creates that expectation. Plus there are so many structural things you can do in bootcamp for women who may be a sole provider, a single mother, or in a low-income job to make it easier for that person to attend.
Eli: I remember in college, my philosophy professor told me that if I wanted to go any further with my Logic classes, that I had to take computer science. I remember thinking, "Oh, no that's not for me." I don't remember why I would ever think that. My brother is a software engineer, I had friends who were taking all sorts of STEM classes.
But like Karen said, as women, we’re not necessarily raised with engineering toys or the Legos and things like that. And I remember thinking, "Oh, no computer science is not for me. I'll stick to philosophy." But during the coding bootcamp, because it's such a short program and you can see the results – I can go on the Fullstack Academy website and see these women who became software engineers. Just like me, they were working in a different field and now they are developers at really good companies or at startups.
In university or college, you can't really see that impact, and you don't necessarily have the maturity to understand, "Oh, if I take this class, then my career path would be like this versus this other major." When I started my career, I wasn't really thinking about the long term, but now that I'm a little older and I've had a chance to work, I realized, "Wait, why can't I be a software engineer? I enjoyed logic, why can't I do it?"
Bootcamps are places in the education sphere where people who have had a chance to work and gain a better understanding of what they want out of their career to transition when they’re ready to be a software engineer." For me, that’s why bootcamps are pretty powerful - they enable women to be the software engineers that they perhaps wanted to be all along without realizing it. They help women fulfill their full potential.
Eli, your point about having role models and seeing those success stories is so huge. It probably contributes to the reasons that girls drop out of STEM subjects in their teens and it only continues on into college and beyond that. And Karen and Eli are both now role models for the future generations. So it just starts the cycle. I love it.
Karen, could you describe deferred tuition for our listeners who don't know about it?
Karen: We talked about invisible barriers earlier, but there are also physical barriers like tuition, and we want to lower those as much as possible for women who apply to our programs. Deferred tuition is one of those ways that we try to lower the practical barriers as opposed to those invisible psychological barriers.
Deferred tuition means you don't pay tuition upfront. Instead, you might pay a deposit just to hold your place, but then you don't pay the bootcamp back your full tuition until you get a job. It's similar to a loan, except you don't have to pay it back until and unless you get the full-time job you were seeking. We're essentially putting money where our mouth is.
Why do you think that deferred tuition is important, specifically for an all-women’s program?
Karen: I mean, deferred tuition could help many more people than just women, but a lot of times women are more likely to have dependents and might not be able to take that large financial risk in order to restart their career.
It's a safety net that women and other minorities in this field might not have as much as maybe the traditional white or Asian male that we see in computer science programs. Now, that being said, I think deferred tuition can be helpful in increasing diversity in many areas and not just gender, but it is a good start.
When we look at gender parity in bootcamps, one thing we found in our survey is that at online bootcamps, 49.5% of online graduates are women, so at online bootcamps, women are almost equally represented. Karen, Fullstack Academy runs a remote course – are there more women in that class than the in-person class?
Karen: I actually taught the last remote cohort. I don't know exactly what the gender breakdown is; I do think there are more men than women but it is much more equal than our in-person course. The last cohort that I taught was about 40% women.
If in-person immersive bootcamp removes a lot of barriers that CS degree can't remove, an online program removes even more, right? I think that's an interesting place to keep an eye on.
Karen: Yeah, definitely. Our remote program is still immersive. It's just not on-campus. It's the exact same program, you just don't have to worry about moving to another city and leaving your support group or your dependents - you don’t have to leave that environment in order to get your education.
Let’s talk about employers. Karen, you spoke earlier about getting more women building products to help improve a company's bottom line. McKinsey reports that companies that are in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform against industry standards. It is clear that it benefits companies to hire more women, but companies can't hire women engineers that don't exist, right? There is clearly a pipeline problem.
So Karen and Eli, do you get employers approaching you especially because they want to diversify their teams? What do employers say?
Karen: There are companies that come to us specifically to interview our Grace Hopper graduates because they are looking for this diversity. They have realized, as you quoted in that study, that diversity is going to improve their products and improve their workplace.
Generally, larger companies with diversity initiatives will approach us wanting to come to our demo and hiring days. But also we get a few smaller startups that may not have that diversity initiative yet but they’ve seen data and stories of discrimination coming from companies like Uber and decided early on that they don't want to grow like those companies did. Our programs and bootcamps in general are a great place to find good talent early on to try to build diverse teams from the ground up so that engineering teams don't end up with no diversity. That just makes women and other minorities less likely to want to join their teams.
Eli: Something else that I really like that Fullstack and Grace Hopper is doing is that the hiring day is the same for Fullstack and Grace Hopper. So even if a company is not looking specifically to hire in a diverse way, they'll still have to meet with 50% women essentially.
We can't talk about the employer side without talking about compensation because it's not just about representation and getting women in the door, it's also about compensating them fairly. I read a study from Comparably that shows that women who are new to the tech workforce, between 18-25 years old, make 29% less than men in the same age group working in the same jobs.
When we look at coding bootcamp graduates, they don't really escape that disparity. They're just as likely to be employed, but women still see a lower average salary than male bootcamp graduates. How do you think a bootcamp graduate can choose a company that will be a good fit for you as a woman and will compensate you fairly?
Karen: When you're choosing a company, ask the right questions during that interview process and remember that you're also interviewing the company. Some of the tells that I would look for:
- Is the senior staff team diverse in some way?
- Are there women in power at this company? Whether it's in engineering or not, that can be a very big tell and can do a lot for the culture of the company.
- Even if that's not the case, there are companies that may not be diverse right now but are trying to be. In that case, ask about the cultivation of the engineering team so far. Ask them about their strategies and how they would like to see the team grow in the next six months. Is diversity a part of that? Is culture important to them?
- Also, go back to your bootcamp’s alumni network and ask them about their workplaces. "Where do you work? Do you like it? What are the things that you wish you had asked when you were interviewing?”
We highly encourage our seniors and alumni to schedule coffee chats with both alumni and non-alumni engineers at companies and ask about their experience at this company.
Eli, you're about to start the job search, right? Where are you in that process and how do you feel about it?
Eli: As a Fullstack Fellow, we start our job search three weeks before graduating from the fellowship. Last week, I started reaching out to alums, getting coffee chats with them. I'm trying to get ready for hiring day next week. I'm getting my first phone screens, which is very exciting. I've been sending out my resume to companies that are interesting to me, or where I've met alums from who have been Fullstack Fellows themselves. So I'm excited, nervous, a little anxious.
I'm pretty nervous about getting a job, but what's inspiring is to see all the people that I first graduated with in October – everyone has a job. They all made it through. So when I get impostor syndrome, I think "No, they made it and so can I. I just have to go through the process and in a few months I'll be where they are." That's reassuring, so I try to think about that as much as I can.
To go back to the point about negotiating salary, that's something I'm thinking a lot about. I've been reaching out to my own Fellows, people who graduated from the Fellowship about three months ago now, to see how they managed the job search and the negotiation. I've been very lucky because my fellows have been very transparent with me on how all of that went and it gives me a sense of what to expect now that I'm going to the process myself. We're really lucky to have a really great Career Success team. Negotiation is one of the workshops that we go through before graduation to make sure we know what we're worth.
Karen: Women are less likely to negotiate salary and when they do, they’re less assertive about what they know that they're worth. Our career services team is always trying to make sure that our women, in particular, know that when they get an offer, the job isn't to profusely thank the company for that offer, but to take your time, see if that is a fair compensation package and always negotiate to see if you can get more. Because to be honest, that's what a man would do and should do – everyone should negotiate on their own behalf.
I was talking with our career services yesterday and was happy to hear that the salaries that our women and men are paid are actually comparable. And I think that's because of the very close mentorship. That's something you don't get from college.
Eli: And all the women on the Career Success team are experienced, and strong women who'll be there to tell us that we're worth more if we get an offer that they don't think is the right level. So I feel very lucky to have them watching my back as I go through this process.
I read a Wall Street Journal article that said if you want a higher salary just use your initials instead of your name – pathetic! Short of that, there are so many other things that we can do to close that salary gap. And it sounds like having someone in your corner really helps.
Karen: Unfortunately, biases and stereotypes are going to work against women and other minorities going back to even the name on your resume. Thankfully there are ways that we can be firm and fight against those biases by saying: “I know that I am worth this amount and I know that I can get this amount somewhere else if need be."
Do you think that it's a bootcamps responsibility to help women break into tech and do you think that we could be doing more? Are there things that you'd like to see Fullstack or Grace Hopper be able to do in the future?
Karen: I do think there is a bit of responsibility on bootcamps to try to achieve as much gender equality as possible to help close that gender gap, but I don't think they can fix everything. Bootcamps are a Band-Aid for the gender imbalance. They allow a lot more women to get over those initial barriers of a CS degree and it's easier to make that career change. But I think to really move forward, we need to fix the socialization happening in the younger generation with media, games and toys. I do think that's starting to happen which is awesome.
Something I'd like to see bootcamps do a better job of – I'm very proud of our Grace Hopper program because we are now graduating almost 50% men and women as a school – but something I have noticed, is because of the deferred tuition, it tends to lower the number of women in the co-ed, Fullstack Academy environment. That's something that I'd love for bootcamps to approach – making co-ed spaces as inclusive for women as possible as well.
Eli: I wonder what the co-ed program would look like if deferred tuition was offered for all women across both programs? To give you some context, my graduating class, when I finished a program in October, we were 32 students and we were only three women and 29 guys. It has gotten better in the more recent cohorts who are currently doing the program where it's more like 20% women rather than 10%, but I wonder how that would affect the ratios.
It's almost a disadvantage for the men who were with me. Some students in my cohort were not able to work with any women. And I wonder how that may affect them once they enter the workforce. They were all wonderful people. I absolutely adored everyone in my cohort, but I would be curious to hear their perspective and whether they would have enjoyed working with more women if it had been like a 50-50 ratio, closer to what the entire cohort was when you added Grace Hopper to Fullstack.
Karen: Yeah, for sure. I think the all-women cohort is great for many women. It allows them the confidence to get in the door. But like Elie said, I think it's also good for the men in our program to be surrounded by and working with women.
Eli and Karen, thank you so much. I really appreciate you joining to talk about what bootcamps are doing right, what can be improved, and you both had such a cool perspective – Eli as a student and Karen as an instructor.
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