The founders of coding school Hackbright Academy explain why they went with an all-female format and how it’s working out for graduates.
By Jessica Stillman (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
Startup fever may be raging like never before, but the number of women graduating from computer science programs is actually falling. Christian Fernandez, co-founder of Hackbright Academy, has his suspicions as to what’s to blame from this paradox.
“It’s purely anecdotal but there are a lot of women who have told me that they cannot deal with the sort of chest thumping that goes on in an undergraduate computer science program,” he says. “That’s where our program steps in.”
That program, Hackbright, is currently teaching its second all-female class the basics needed to get a gig as a software engineer over a ten-week period. With the female-only format, Fernandez and his co-founder David J. Phillips are aiming to serve a largely untapped pool of women who missed the boat on traditional routes into tech careers – due to a disinclination towards chest thumping or for any other reason.
“Maybe you were driven away from tech at an educational level either because no one inspired you to try it or you went into a program and found it wasn’t for you for whatever reason but you’re willing to try it again,” says Fernandez.
You might not guess it based on the gender imbalance in similar short training programs, but there are plenty of women who meet that description. Interest in Hackbright was muted at first, Phillips explains, “but we started getting more involved in the community and volunteering at events. Groups like Women Who Code were really supportive of us, getting the word out there to their communities, and so the first class that we did had about 40 applicants, and we accepted 12. Then with our current cohort of students, we had over 80 applicants and we accepted 16, so we definitely have enough demand to fill our classes.”
Driving, Not Navigating
It’s early days yet for the program but it appears the all-female format is not only inspiring more women to seriously consider tech careers, but is also providing educational advantages once they start learning. Fernandez, who has taught at co-ed programs in the past, says he’s noticed a difference in how women progress when they’re surrounded by other women.
“The first class I taught was mixed. There were three women and it was weird because the women were systematically two or three days behind on the material, and what I noticed was when we had them at pairing stations, they basically would shut down. We use the term driving and navigating when we talk about pair programming, and essentially the women would let the man in the pair drive if they were paired with men. When they were paired together though it was a very different environment. They would talk openly to each other and there was real discussion and so there was definitely something different there,” he says.
Phillips, for his part, puts the more positive educational environment down to confidence. “I think with any minority in a class, especially when you’re learning something as intense as programming, confidence is really important. We want everyone to be super confident and not be shy. Having an all women class takes down those barriers of feeling like the minority,” he says.
After the Training Wheels
Whether its confidence, the mentorship opportunities and training in interviewing skills provided by Hackbright, the all-female format, or simply some extraordinary applicants, the graduates of the first class have managed to launch promising tech careers.
“So far, of our last graduating class, over 80% of the people who were looking for jobs already have jobs as software engineers. One person went to be a product manager. So the graduates are doing really well,” says Phillips.
Fernandez is a bit more blunt. “Is it gauche to talk about salaries?” he asks, “because one woman got an offer after our program and it was kind of an obscene salary. I’m really proud of them.”
Women 2.0 readers: Do you think the option of learning in an all-female format would help more women learn to code? Let us know in the comments.
About the writer: Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.