My fair lady coder: From novice to programmer in 10 weeks at Hackbright

On Mission Street in San Francisco, behind the shady characters hanging out by the 16th St. BART station, 12 women are graduating today. Each of them paid at least $6,000, some quit previous jobs, and all moved to the Bay Area to do one thing: learn to code, surrounded by other women, in hopes of landing a job in tech.

It’s an audacious proposal: Hackbright Academy in San Francisco will accept women with absolutely no programming experience and promise to teach them enough in 10 weeks to get them ready for jobs in tech and make them “awesome programmers.” The women are finishing the 10-week program Friday, and while none have officially accepted job offers yet, the majority of them were out of the office interviewing when I visited on Thursday and many said they’re optimistic about their chances. Co-founder David Philips said he thinks it’s likely that most of them will land entry-level jobs.

The verdict is out on whether Phillips and co-founder Christian Fernandez will succeed in their mission. But the fact that these 12 women — and the other 30 or so who applied and were rejected — were willing to move to San Francisco and pay to learn to code certainly says something about the perceived desirability and stability of those jobs. And perhaps even more significantly, Phillips’s program demonstrates a head-on approach to tackling an old problem — a lack of women in engineering jobs.

Valley boys

The lack of women in prominent tech roles is a well-documented issue, with plenty of demand for developers in Silicon Valley and not enough women to fill them:

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women made up only 14 percent of computer science graduates at major research universities in 2010. Yet there’s a huge need for programmers and IT professionals, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating that those occupations will grow by 22 percent between 2010 and 2020, and a war going on among Silicon Valley startups for the best talent.

“We want to do our part to equalize this imbalance, and we felt that a program exclusively for women was a good place to start,” the founders write on their website FAQ. This is the first Hackbright class of women to graduate, and the program is currently in the process of selecting the next group. Phillips said. They’re also looking for more coaches to participate, and a larger office space down the line, as they had more than 80 women apply for the upcoming class, which can still only accept about 12.

The concept of a short, intensive programming bootcamp isn’t necessarily new. There’sCode Academy in Chicago, Dev Bootcamp and App Academy in San Francisco, and Hacker School and the Flatiron School in New York City. But while many of those schools have made important steps to improve the number of women in their ranks, including discounting tuition for women and minorities, Hackbright is the only of those to accept just women.

A programmer Barbie doll adorns a desk in the Hackbright office.

Most of the women in the first Hackbright class came in with very little programming experience, and they said they’ve been surprised at their own progress and what they’ve been able to master in the 10 weeks. All of the women will be presenting working apps on Friday that they’ve built on their own.

“It’s crazy seeing people go from not knowing any coding at all to building these apps,” Phillips said.

Code isn’t enough

But many of the women, who ranged in ages from early 20s to mid-30s, said Phillips has told them to be more confident in their own skills and to be willing to brag a little in job interviews, something they said they think guys are more inclined to do.

“With guys, maybe they only have five of the ten qualifications listed, and they’re like, ‘Yeah! I will apply,’ and girls who have nine of them are like,’Oh, I don’t have the tenth thing,'” said 24 year-old Whitaker Cohen.

The women pointed out that most of the job listings are looking for “super ninja programmers,” and breaking into that job market when you’re not yet a said ninja can be tough.

“From the outside of the tech industry it’s like, there are jobs falling from trees and people are just begging to you to take them,” said 23 year-old Zoe Kay. “And that’s just not always true. You still have to go through the interview process and send out resumes, and it’s not easy.”

And it can even tougher for women in the industry of the brogrammer:

“If we’re quiet in an interview, they say she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But if a guy is quiet, they think he’s an awkwawrd nerd,” Cohen said.

But Phillips, who co-founded the popular location-based app Banjo, said everyone’s constantly learning in the programming world and these women are just as equipped as anyone else.

“Especially in such a competitive industry, everyone feels like they’re not as good as the person next to them, and it’s a very knowledge-based industry, so everyone feels like you’re either an expert or working toward that,” he said. “You never know if you’re ready.”

And Cohen and her fellow graduates are optimistic.

“Companies come in and they’re like, ‘We need more women engineers, you guys are such an rare commodity in this world.’ So I mean, we’ll see if that’s true.”