College students who want high-paying, interesting jobs should choose a major in one of the STEM fields — science, tech, engineering and math. So says the conventional wisdom.
But that advice is somewhat misleading. STEM jobs are concentrated in one area: over the next six years, nearly 60 percent will be in computer science. Those jobs are increasing at three times the overall rate of job creation.
Computing doesn’t mean just Facebook and Google. “All companies are now becoming tech companies,” said Tom Ogletree, director of social impact at General Assembly, an organization that runs courses in computer science in 20 cities around the globe.
Those good jobs, however, go primarily to men. “Women make up the majority of college grads and nearly the majority of family breadwinners,” said Reshma Saujani, the founder and chief executive of Girls Who Code. “But less than 25 percent of the computing workforce is women.” And the gender gap in tech is getting worse.
As for minority women, Latinas hold 1 percent of all computing jobs and black women hold 3 percent.
“Computer science is one industry where people can march back up to the middle class,” said Ms. Saujani. But women and minorities aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity. The resulting shortage of workers hurts companies, and the economy.
“It takes months to hire a software engineer in New York City,” said Ilia Papas, founder and chief technology officer of Blue Apron, a meal-kit delivery service. And it’s costly. “You either have to have an in-house recruitment firm, which is expensive,” he said, “or pay a recruiting firm 20 to 30 percent of the first year’s salary.”
Here’s one approach to diversifying the field: Last week at Google in New York, a few hundred people — mostly young, mostly non-white — gathered to watch 33 students in a web-development boot camp titled Access Codeunveil their first projects.
The students showed off web apps for saving money, booking art studio time and allowing people alarmed by the news they’re reading to make quick donations to relevant charities, among other things.
Tasilym Twinamaani and her four teammates presented an app called Chatterbox.
“How many of you watch ‘Game of Thrones’?” she asked the audience. “If you’re like me, you probably had a lot to say about the recent season. And all those fans with passionate expressions of disbelief might want to share that with other people. So we offer free, specific space for fans of television to engage with other fans in real time.”
Ms. Twinamaani, 29, attended Kean University in New Jersey, majoring in film and literature, but left one semester short of graduation when her money ran out. When her younger sister had a stroke in 2016, she quit her restaurant and post office jobs to take care of her sister’s son — in addition to her own son, who is now 5. When her sister recovered, Ms. Twinamaani went back to work, first at a drugstore and then on the night shift packing boxes at Blue Apron’s fulfillment center in Linden, N.J.
“When I was a kid I was always messing around with HTML and CSS for my Myspace page,” she said. “Making websites has been in the back of my mind.” She decided to look for a coding boot camp — an intensive course to learn the skills of web or smartphone app development.
But boot camps cost $10,000 or $20,000, depending on length. Ms. Twinamaani already owed student loan debt in the high five figures, and decided not to take on more.
At the same time, Mr. Papas at Blue Apron was also looking for boot camps. He said that the company employed a thousand workers, the majority black or Latino, in the Linden center. “Lots of them are very smart, motivated and driven, but they didn’t have the opportunity to pursue careers in different fields,” Mr. Papas said. Training those with talent to be software engineers could bring needed ability and diversity to the company’s largely white and Asian staff of 132 software developers in Manhattan.
“It was difficult to find a boot camp taking people who didn’t have a college education, or coming from underserved backgrounds, and giving them tools,” Mr. Papas said.
Then he found Access Code, a 10-month boot camp run by an organization called C4Q (formerly Coalition for Queens), which was designed to do exactly that. It offers a day or a nights-and-weekends program.
“Nearly 70 percent of Americans don’t graduate from college,” said Jukay Hsu, C4Q’s founder and chief executive. “What are the meaningful pathways to advance their careers and create the companies of the future?”
By June, the five-year-old program will have 483 graduates, all previously low-income. Half are female, half lack a college degree. Sixty percent are black or Latino, and 40 percent are immigrants.
Instead of demanding traditional credentials, the program evaluates applicants as they solve logic puzzles and spend two days learning basic coding. One in 10 is accepted. C4Q says that upon entering, those students are earning an average of $18,000 a year, but when they graduate and find work in software engineering —which almost all do — they make an average of $85,000.
To finance this program, C4Q has experimented with different models. Originally, it charged students a price subsidized by philanthropy. Then it was free. But Mr. Hsu felt that the need for job training was spread among far too many people for donors to cover it all. Today, students pay nothing until they graduate and get a high-paying tech job. Then they pay C4Q 12 percent of their salary for three years.
C4Q has also set up a “job-outcomes bond” to finance the up-front costs. Two investors put up $750,000. They’ll be repaid if enough students are paying tuition — in other words, if Access Code succeeds.
And C4Q is experimenting with a program it calls Level Up, in which companies pay a fee for C4Q to train a blue-collar worker as a software engineer. There are only two students so far. One is Gloria Washington, a 32-year-old English literature graduate who works nights as a cleaner for Managed by Q, an office services company, which sponsors her.
The other is Ms. Twinamaani. She switched to a day job in Blue Apron’s kitchens and commutes to Access Code in Queens at night and on the weekend — a three-hour, $20 round trip.
Alongside tech skills, Access Code teaches students how to work in a corporate culture. They visit tech companies and meet engineers. And they grapple with the ways they might sabotage themselves.
“The work was really challenging, but getting over myself was the hardest part: Do I deserve to be here?” said Charlyn Buchanan, an Access Code graduate who is a software engineer at BuzzFeed. “We learned to identify imposter syndrome and address it: ‘I am worthy of this opportunity.’”
In the kitchens, Ms. Twinamaani’s salary was just over $20,000. As a Blue Apron software engineer, she’ll make at least $85,000 and potentially closer to six figures, Mr. Papas said. The first thing she intends to do is move her sister and their children out of their basement apartment in Elizabeth. “It’s my dream to live in a place where my son can go outside and play on the lawn,” she said.
Access Code is one of several new efforts to diversify the software field. Another organization, the Last Mile, is trying to cut recidivism by teaching coding to inmates at San Quentin prison and helping them find jobs.
One of several boot camp companies that are adding programs to attract a more diverse population is Mr. Ogletree’s General Assembly. Overall, he said, about 40 percent of its students are female, and only 8 percent black and 8 percent Latino. To increase these percentages, it works with Per Scholas, an organization in the Bronx that gives young people free training for jobs in tech support and cybersecurity. Per Scholas now feeds some of its students into General Assembly’s three-month web development course, which they can take free.
General Assembly is also a partner of Opportunity@Work, which runs a national network of communities called TechHire. Its goal is to train low-income students, help them show employers their skills, and build local coalitions.
Boot camps are for adults who want to change jobs. But part of the struggle is getting a wider group to see a tech career as an option from the beginning. Several people I interviewed told me, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
The giant in that field is Girls Who Code; about 90,000 girls, from every state, have joined its afterschool clubs or taken summer courses, where they develop websites and apps to attack a problem they care about.
Girls make up 20 percent of high school computer science classes, and there is likely to be only one black girl, if any. “At every stage of the pipeline it’s leaky for women and people of color,” said Ms. Saujani of Girls Who Code.
Her organization is big enough and successful enough that it is changing the numbers. “We’re on track to reach gender parity by 2027,” said Ms. Saujani. “We’re filling the pipeline with talent. Now my major problem is: Are you going to hire them?”
The “bro” culture in many companies perpetuates itself. Ms. Saujani said the head of engineering at a major financial services firm told her he often starts his interviews with a question about baseball. “How many women are getting their Ph.D at M.I.T. or Stanford and can’t get through the door at top-tier technology companies?” Ms. Saujani said.
Mentors can help. Paola Mata, an Access Code graduate who works at BuzzFeed, helped found a New York City group for Latinas in tech, with a few hundred members. They held hack nights and workshops on new skills, job searches and résumé-writing.
More diversity among developers should mean more diversity in products. Affluent bros create apps for affluent bros: Bring me beer and burritos! Clean my apartment! Walk my dog!
“It’s only natural that we create things that reflect on some part of us,” said Ms. Buchanan. Her app at Access Code mapped reports of sexual harassment. “We want more people working on these problems,” she said. “And for me, those problems don’t include having pizza delivered to my house.”