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Diversity in coding bootcamps

Coding bootcamp operators must actively engage with issues of access, diversity and inclusion if they want to stop reproducing the same gendered, racialised and class-based outcomes the tech sector keeps promising to address

It is no secret the technology sector has a poor track record when it comes to access, diversity and inclusion along lines of race, ethnicity, gender and class.

A February 2019 study by Kaspersky Lab found that 34% of female IT professionals in Europe were uncomfortable about the gender imbalance in the industry, with 29% of men in the sector saying the same.

IT services firm Ivanti conducted similar research in December 2019, which found 31% of women think the tech industry has a glass ceiling holding them back, up from 24% in 2018.

A separate study from November 2018 by Inclusive Boards found a “worrying” lack of diversity in the British tech sector’s senior leadership too. Specifically, it found just 8.5% of senior leaders in technology are from a minority background, while women make up just 12.6% of board members in the sector.

On top of this, it found more than a third (35%) of board members and over a quarter (26%) of senior execs at top tech firms attended Oxford or Cambridge, compared to just 1% of the total population.

While some posit coding bootcamps as a means of overcoming these issues – mainly due to their relative affordability when compared with traditional computer science degrees, which opens them up to a wider section of the population – the courses can end up reproducing the same problems if operators do not actively engage with them.

Although bootcamps can have many different ways of doing things – for example, they could be completely online or only teach particular coding languages – they are essentially technical training courses that teach people the programming or coding skills that employers are looking for.

To ensure bootcamps actually contribute to diversifying the talent pipeline, however, they must tailor their courses to people’s material needs, taking into account the fact that many people simply cannot pay for retraining that requires them to take months or weeks off work at a time.

Barriers to entry

With the skills gap increasing and lockdowns being used by many to develop their skills, more people are looking for alternative routes into the industry outside the traditional computer science degree path.

Adele Barlow, head of content and communications at London-based coding camp Makers Academy, said computer science degrees are typically accompanied by much higher barriers to entry.

She added that some bootcamps, including Makers, run free apprenticeships to help with the issue of high barriers, with the only entry requirement being the completion of some coding exercises that test the prospective students’ competency.

“We do not care where you went to school… all we care about is whether you can do the coding exercises. We’ve had lawyers and bankers who get sick of the city, we’ve had painters and flooring contractors who want to earn more, we had musicians who just want a better salary,” she said, adding that building for diversity beyond the “surface levels” takes time.

Makers itself has recently called for a change in the narrative around women in tech, launching the Women in Software Powerlist and the Changemakers list to highlight the people making a positive change to diversity and inclusion in the UK’s tech sector.

However, the majority of bootcamp graduates will have to pay for the courses, which can cost thousands depending on which ones they choose to ustilise.

According to Rik Lomas, a New York-based startup advisor who founded and runs online coding  bootcamp SuperHi, many bootcamps can only afford to pay half their fees when offering scholarships, meaning the high-cost barriers to entry remain for prospective coders from poorer backgrounds

“When we talk about the more expensive bootcamps [charging] in the thousands, that just causes a lot of the same problems. In reality, if it’s a three-month programme you need some kind of privilege to be able to even take three months off work in the first place,” said Lomas.

“You’re not getting paid for it either, so the reality is you’re losing money, losing time, and you’re paying for the privilege of doing that,” he said, adding this dynamic leads to “the same type of people” getting involved.

“I’m not saying it’s just a ‘white tech guy’ approach, there are more people coming in from different angles now, but the bootcamps kind of keep that system in place. I do see some of the prices of these things and think it’s eye-watering how much it is.”

For prospective bootcamp students, Lomas recommends finding a job “with as few distractions as possible” so students can start teaching themselves using free online tools in their spare time while still getting paid by their day job.

Tailor courses for diversity

Rachid Hourizi, director at the Institute of Coding, a consortium of universities, businesses and industry experts set up in 2018 by the UK government to close the digital skills gap by creating degree-level courses, said courses should be tailored to fit people’s existing working hours.

“For people in economic hardship, you need to be able to learn this skill and then apply it immediately, then learn another skill and apply that immediately rather than remove yourself from the workplace,” he said.

“At the moment, the rising tide is lifting all boats – we are all seeing great success in terms of enrolling and engaging people because the role of digital is becoming clearer. But then the next step is that we all need to work on that inclusion piece to make sure this really is for everybody, really is lifelong, and that it really is achievable in a modular manner.”

“It is up to the bootcamps to design courses that actively engage with these issues, he added. “It’s not the people who aren’t coming to blame, it is the people providing the education and training who are to blame – the change must be in us, and we know because we’ve done [these changes] that it’s perfectly possible to run courses with a fifty-fifty gender balance, for example,” he said.

“The point is we have an education system and an industry that does not have a great diversity record, and therefore if you don’t think carefully about that stuff, of course you get the same people come in, the same bias reflected, and the same confirmation of the problems that exist.”

Read more about upskilling

  • People in Northern Ireland whose jobs have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic will get access to online courses as the government pumps £1.7m into a range of online skills interventions.
  • All Party Parliamentary Group on Digital Skills launches call to action to find out if lessons learnt in lockdown could help build digital skills policy in the future
  •  In this contributed post Claudia Harris, the new chair of software bootcamp Makers, discusses the challenges and solutions to the UK’s tech skills gap – could encouraging more women into the tech industry be the answer?

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