Diverse Software Developer Talent—A Gift That Keeps on Giving

Here’s a fresh take on the spirit of giving: Ten Washington technology companies have agreed to “pay it forward” by supporting Seattle’s first not-for-profit coding academy focused on preparing women who show technical aptitude, but have little or no technical experience, to become software developers.

During the Technology Alliance’s early days in the mid-1990s, Washington state’s growing need for technical talent was already a topic of discussion. But the mismatch between the supply and demand for high tech skills back then was nothing like it is today. Currently, our state has more than 20,000 unfilled jobs in technical fields and counting.

After many years of benchmarking the increasing disparity between the workforce needs of Washington’s high tech industries and our capacity to produce that talent in our own state, we decided to try an experiment. We asked ourselves, is there room for a new model that would address the workforce shortage, as well as the gender gap in the software industry, which is 85 percent male? Could we create a pool of skilled women who could efficiently and effectively fill roles as software developers?

Our grand experiment is the Ada Developers Academy (Ada), launched only eight weeks ago. As I observe the amazing progress our first students are making in that short period of time, , the answer to those questions would appear to be a resounding “Yes!”

Ada is an intensive software developer training school for women that combines six months of intensive classroom instruction with a six-month internship at a Puget Sound-area tech business. It’s named in honor of Ada Lovelace who was the first programmer. She worked with Charles Babbage in 1843 on the construction and programming of the Analytical Engine. Although not implemented in her lifetime, her program to calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers was found to be functional and bug-free.

Our first class of 16 talented and highly motivated women—selected from more than 200 applicants—pays no tuition, unlike many similar programs. In fact, most of our students receive a scholarship to help cover expenses while they are enrolled in the full-time program.

Most of the Ada students have bachelor’s degrees in a subject other than computer science, and several have master’s degrees. They all demonstrate aptitude for, and a deep interest in, learning to code. Before Ada, these women could not see a clear pathway to a new career in software development. It is one thing to do a weekend coding workshop; it is another thing entirely to immerse oneself in learning a whole new career. That is what Ada enables.

Our students come to Ada from a variety of backgrounds, for a variety of reasons.

“Despite being surrounded by computer science majors in college, I never even considered pursuing programming,” says Blake Johnson. “Living in Seattle, I became increasingly interested in programming, and as a teacher, I found myself wanting to generate learning apps that didn’t exist.”

Davida Marion, who was exposed to very basic programming while studying for her Master’s in Library and Information Science, was ready to contribute to the Ada Indiegogo campaign, but decided the program would be a good fit for her. “We’re all getting better and better by the minute. The methods and queries I write at the end of the day are so much cleaner and well thought-out than what I’ve written that same morning,” she says.

“I decided to learn to program because I saw it as an opportunity to create,” says Christina Thompson, a former marketing and promotions assistant for the Orange Bowl Committee. “It seemed to be another way of solving problems and making ideas happen that I hadn’t considered or been exposed to before. The biggest skill I think we are learning is how to be continuous learners.”

This exciting opportunity is made possible by a slate of local tech companies that are providing resources and mentors to Ada students: ActiveBuilding/RealPage, Apex Learning, EMC Isilon, EnergySavvy, Expedia, Foundry Interactive, LiquidPlanner, Marchex, Substantial, and Zillow. Ada clearly resonates with many members of the community inside and outside of tech, having attracted over $50,000 from more than 300 individual donors. And, after having supplied the planning grant that enabled us to bridge the gap between inspiration and execution, the Washington State Department of Commerce continues to be an important partner in this effort.

Why are companies, agencies, and individuals investing in our program? Because they believe we need to address the workforce shortage and gender imbalance in software development. They realize that Ada can make an immediate difference, defining an alternative pathway for women to enter a field that is dominated by men. They understand that given the right opportunities and training, more of the great jobs being created in our tech sector can be filled by the talented women of Washington.

They also appreciate Ada’s rigor and industry-driven curriculum. Our students are learning full-stack web development and will spend over 1,000 hours coding before they start their internships. They are learning Ruby, Rails, HTML/CSS, and JavaScript while also acquiring the skills to work on agile development teams using pair programming and test-driven development.

We believe enough in this program that we plan to start a second cohort of students in spring 2014. You can monitor our progress and learn how you can get involved at www.adadevelopersacademy.org.

Ada is demonstrating how, with a little ingenuity and community generosity, we can find innovative approaches to addressing our workforce challenges. The overwhelmingly positive response from the tech community, potential students, and people across the country has made 2013 a joyous year for me. I can’t wait to see this terrific group of women move on to exciting new careers in tech. That will be the gift that keeps on giving.

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