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Aiming for Inclusivity at Denver's Coding Boot Camps

Marlo Major (right) confers during a Turing School class.

Students present during a web development class on Galvanize's Platte Street campus.

Turing students pose for a group shot.

A job fair at General Assembly.

Programming has long been dominated by white men. Are local coding schools focused on feeding the tech talent pipeline with diversity?
As industries aim to remedy striking gender and racial shortfalls -- with bias mitigation training, minority-focused events and groups and scholarships -- coding schools are striving to attain parity. With lofty inclusivity missions, these non-traditional programs aim to transform the pale, male landscape and tackle workforce issues, such as the tech talent pipeline. But are they moving the needle in any meaningful way?
 
"Overall, the tech community has done a poor job of recruiting, retaining and rewarding diversity in its workforce and leadership," says Jim Deters, CEO of Denver-based Galvanize, with its nine campuses encompassing coworking, venture funding and education. "Unfortunately, those deficiencies aren't limited to a single demographic -- the shortfalls are widespread."
 
Deters cites reports from Google, Apple and Facebook that indicate African Americans make up 7 percent of the tech workforce, while Latinos comprise 8 percent. Women make up 29 percent, despite a 51 percent presence in the total U.S. population.
 
"Diversity and inclusion is one of the only ways we're going to start to solve our tech divide as it relates to number of workers needed in the workforce across the country," says Erik Mitisek, the state of Colorado's chief innovation officer and executive director of Project X-ITE at the University of Denver. "Organizations like Turing, Galvanize and others are making strong efforts and building programming around women and minorities."
 
Coding schools, or boot camps, are primarily for-profit accelerated coding programs that endeavor to transform students into software engineers in 10 weeks to six months. The price tag of tuition ranges from $10,000 to $25,000, plus the opportunity cost of taking oneself out of the working world.
 
Students present during a web development class on Galvanize's Platte Street campus. Home to the aforementioned Galvanize, Skill Distillery, General Assembly and Turing School of Software & Design, "Denver is a surprisingly boot-camp rich city," says Liz Eggleston, co-founder of Course Report, a New York City-based organization that provides third-party reviews of programs and their outcomes. She attributes the multitude of schools to technology-focused companies and industries clustered in the area, meaning demand for developers.
 
Eggleston participated on a panel at Denver Startup Week in mid-September and has monitored the progress of Colorado's accelerated developer training programs. She calls boot camps "a source of diversity."
 
"Attracting a diverse applicant pool [to coding schools] doesn't mean lowering admissions standards," Eggleston says. Instead, she urges program directors to widen their lenses and get involved in their community with meetups and inclusion-focused groups, pointing to organizations such as Girl Develop It and Black Girls Who Code.
 
A level playing field
 
"Education is about tapping into latent potential," says Jeff Casimir, founder of the Turing School of Software & Design, a nonprofit Denver-based 27-week program offering Ruby, Rails and JavaScript. "Questions around diversity aren't about fairness and equity as much as they are about what could the world be like if the rest of it was invited to be a part of tech."
 
Turing's stated mission is "to unlock human potential by training a diverse, inclusive student body to succeed in high-fulfillment technical careers. We believe in a world powered by technology where the people building it represent the people using it."
 
Upon releasing its 2015 outcomes report, audited by Skills Fund, Turing showed that the student population was comprised of 28 percent women; 24 percent men and women of color; and 4 percent military veterans. In its annual conclusions about diversity, Turing published online: "We must attract, enroll and graduate more women, people of color and veterans. This year we'll build up stronger partnerships with old friends like Girl Develop It and Teach for America. We'll begin new ones with organizations like City Year and Denver Community College."
 
Turing student Marlo Major, a 24-year-old African-American male, was studying chemical engineering at Texas Tech University and had started a medical device company while still an undergrad. He decided to learn how to program when he caught the next entrepreneurial bug.
Marlo Major (right) confers during a Turing School class.

Major describes his module comprised of 17 males and eight females had one Indian American, one Asian American, one African American and one Bahamian, and the other 21 students were white. He says life experience, lending itself to diversity of thought and background, varied from an NHL hockey player to a champion debate coach to a petroleum landman. The students' college experience ranged from none whatsoever to degrees from Stanford University.
 
He says his main concern with diversity in computer science is its inability to attract the "low-income person," but especially black Americans. "I grew up knowing many blacks that loved computer science, but as soon as college came around or they had to go into the real world, they had to drop this dream in order to do something more realistic. This is the problem at Turing, but only because it stems from a larger national problem with the black American community."

If more companies were founded and funded by minorities, that might result in a more inclusive tech workforce, Major says. "This is the only industry that I feel genuinely on the same playing field as everyone else."
 
Risk and reward
 
Course Report forecasts boot camps to graduate nearly 18,000 students this year, up nearly 75 percent from last year. Some schools include marketing and statistical material on their websites, touting high job-placement rates and substantial salary hikes for their graduates. A comprehensive story from Course Report last year examined the outcomes of boot camp alumni and discovered that on average, the training boosted their salaries by 38 percent. With that said, the makeup of students still skews largely white and male.
 
"Start putting your marketing dollars where your mouths are," Eggleston says. "Start marketing for untapped markets and potential."
 
Course Report's 2016 outcomes show that demographics have remained comparable year-over-year, while 34 percent of boot campers surveyed were women, and 70 percent were white.
 
"In Denver, it's not for a lack of trying," Eggleston says, citing "cool diversity scholarships and efforts at Turing and Galvanize."
 
Adds Casimir: "It's clear what it means not to do it . . . but how to succeed in doing it is a never-ending struggle."
 
He says the needle has moved toward equal gender representation in coding schools and the tech industry in the last three to four years, and measuring that success rate has been linear and positive, but there is a level of "frustration" in these efforts. "I think Colorado is doing well on intent with diversity. On a scale of one to 10, we're a six on people who are interested and talk about the issues," Casimir says. "But as far as putting things into action, it's more like a three. Unfortunately, as it comes to racial and socioeconomic diversity, these are not strengths of Denver."
 
Eggleston says lending platforms have taken shape, including Skills Fund and Affirm, to assist coding school attendees. She adds that Colorado coding schools are doubling down on their veteran focus, with Skill Distillery blazing the trail and receiving approval from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to accept GI Bill dollars in 2015. Three other local programs have followed in their footsteps, and Galvanize will be offering promotional discounts on its immersive courses as well as information days and workshops on Veteran's Day and throughout November.
 
Deters recently spoke at the Tech Inclusion Conference in San Francisco, aimed at taking "an ecosystem approach to improving diversity and inclusion in the tech industry." This August, Galvanize announced a $45 million funding round to expand its web and data science training programs, and has nine nationwide campuses, including two in Denver, one in Boulder and one in Fort Collins.
 
Eggleston says such scale gives Galvanize "this huge opportunity to change the face of the modern tech workforce."
 
"We aim to make tech education accessible for all," Deters says, "especially those who have been traditionally under-represented." He adds that 25 percent of enrolled students at his program are female, while 9 percent are minorities. Galvanize has committed to underwriting scholarships, including Atlassian scholarships, specifically catering to women, and an Airbnb scholarship, called Data Science Connect, available to underrepresented individuals who are interested in data science. To date, the company has awarded more than $800,000 in scholarships to women, minorities, members of the LGBT community and military veterans.
 
Casimir says it's important for everyone to be attracting a diverse applicant pool. "You do it because it's right and it's moral," he explains, "but if we agree with the research that shows us inclusive teams are more powerful, resilient, creative teams, it'll play out quickly that the effort invested now, the risk you're taking now, will pay off."

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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