Mary Dickson Diaz

Code, Life, Learning

a modest (code school) proposal

I posted awhile back that after two classes, I took a break from working as a Teaching Assistant with Code Fellows. Part of this was logistical: it’s hard to dedicate yourself to a job search while also working long hours to support students and instructors. The job opportunities I’d been hoping for didn’t materialize, so I decided to double down on my efforts.

The second part of leaving was emotional — It’s intense work. Two months seemed like a manageable amount of time to sustain that level of full-time effort. By the end, I was exhausted. I’d had a terrific first class working with my former instructor, and was excited to bring that experience with me to a second class with a new instructor and TA team. The last week of that class was particularly stressful when I clashed with just about everyone on their decision to throw out all the assignments done up to that point and heavily weigh “instructor gut feeling” and a hastily conceived and executed pen-and-paper “quiz” as grounds for student advancement, or not. In doing so, I watched in real-time as all the studies about gender bias in the classroom played out, and experienced the frustration of fighting back against it, all the while being treated to a lecture about how none of this was sexist, at all, the opposite in fact!

So I left that team. And since then, I’ve found myself distancing myself from Code Fellows and gravitating more to communities where inclusion and diversity are lived values. I’m also hitting month five of job searching, witnessing how other code schools have programs in place that help with the gap from code school -> industry, and feeling that Code Fellows is still for the most part sending us off with a pat on the back and a “go get ’em, tiger.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Code Fellows has a uniquely diverse and passionate student base and huge potential to be something great. As a friend and alumnus, I have some ideas. I will probably get labeled a “hater” for this, but it comes from a place of optimism.

Part 1: The Low Hanging Fruit

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(These are ideas Code Fellows can implement right away, to improve its classroom and organizational culture, with minimal cost and effort)

  1. Add transparency and consistency to Teaching Assistant (TA) selection. As far as I can tell, this is random as hell. Some classes have the same TAs for months, and others it depends on when you contact Jeff. I was brought in because an instructor requested me, whereas a week before I had applied and been told there were no openings.
    • Require that TAs take a break after two months to keep them fresh and let new blood in.
    • Take steps to diversify your TA base and bring in more women and people of color. There should be zero excuse for an instructional team of seven white men.
    • If any instructors or TAs think an instructional team of seven white men is not problematic, fire them.
  2. Whose voices are being heard and amplified? I checked in on the class with the all-male instructional team, and, out of curiosity and a hunch, tallied the Slack comments for that class, by gender. It was something ridiculous like 400 comments by men to 6 comments by women. Blatant. Anyone looking for it would see it immediately.
    • Are your women and students of color participating in the social community? If not, why not? (Ask them!)
    • Worse: are they actively being harmed by participating in the social community? That is bad and you need to do something about it. Do not tolerate the dude who @channels everyone with a job opportunity for a “full stack guy.” Do not tolerate his subsequent non-apology. This stuff is basic and should be called out as unacceptable by the men of Code Fellows, not the women.
  3. Encourage and celebrate community online and off. I went to an event where multiple Code Fellows students were presenting their projects *to the mayor*, and I only learned about it at the event. It was a big deal, and there weren’t any CF staff in attendance. There were however, about 8 women there from CF, which upped the gender diversity at the event in a meaningful way.
    • If Code Fellows is contributing in a positive way to the greater tech community’s diversity, that is something to celebrate, not cover up.
    • Tell us when good stuff is happening so we can support each other! The night before, I went to an event where an Ada student was speaking for the first time. She had classmates and instructors in the audience rooting for her and cheering her on. I want that community!

Part 2: Initiatives that require resources and sustained effort (but will be worth it, I promise):

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  1.  Focus on hiring pipelines and partnerships for Code Fellows graduates. Code Fellows brags about how well-connected it is to local tech companies (I’ve heard this, at meet-ups), but there are no formal avenues for students to work on a project with a partner organization, which would help students build “industry experience” and lead to junior hires.
    • Create internship and Capstone project opportunities. Students need a way to apply their new skills to an industry project and get something that reads “industry experience” on their resumes. This also gives tech companies a low commitment way to test out a student and see if there’s a fit.
    • A spreadsheet does not replace a career counselor. If key staff members leave, be open and clear about how that gap in service will be covered. Introduce new staff members and instructors! This ties into a comment a bit further down, about general alumni communication…
  2. Make the diversity scholarship an actual program instead of a 1-time cash infusion. I was the recipient of a diversity scholarship, which means I got a credit towards tuition in my account, and then it was never mentioned again. And, as soon as I told the career counselor that I wasn’t interested in the money-back guarantee program, CF stopped tracking my job search. This is a huge missed opportunity.
    • Provide opportunity for scholarship recipients to meet the donors of the scholarship program. This will be great for everyone! Your donors will feel good and give more, and your students will make great connections with each other and with potential employers and mentors who donate to the scholarship.
    • Ask this group (and other students, too) how CF is doing culture-wise, and listen to them.
    • Track student persistence and identify trends in demographics — I witnessed attrition patterns that worry me. If Code Fellows is serious about training more underrepresented developers and bringing them into the industry, paying attention to and sharing results is a key metric. How are women and students of color doing in your classes? Are they persisting? Getting jobs? How about those who started with no coding experience vs those who took classes to enhance existing skills?
  3. Explicitly teach students how to build and contribute to a positive team culture. If Code Fellows students were all Woke already, this would be less of a pain point. But they’re not. And I’m not buying the “there’s not enough time to cover soft topics” argument because other code schools do it:
    • Ada Academy teaches “topics like micro-aggressions, uncovering our implicit biases, and privilege.”
    • Dev Bootcamp teaches “engineering empathy,” where “Each week we ask students to dive deeply into issues and tools that help them work more effectively socially, individually, and especially in teams.”
    • Every student in Code Fellows learns what a “pug bomb” is, but there aren’t enough people contributing to a healthy Slack culture where students are encouraged to join channels other than their class channel, network with each other, share events and resources, build culture and take risks.
    • There aren’t enough staff and instructors modeling desired behavior. And no one’s sharing the big picture updates and vision, either. Many of us learned that Code Fellows was moving from a request the day of, asking if we were available to help. This leads to feelings of disconnect, isolation, and the perception that there’s a clique of insiders (and we’re not a part of it).

These ideas have all been brewing over the course of a few months. They have, in one shape or form, all been shared with Code Fellows leadership, and none to my knowledge are being shared here for the first time. It’s cathartic to write it out and gives me hope because all together, this seems actionable! I hope that Code Fellows will decide it’s in their business interests to address some of these issues. I really do think there’s potential here to be a force for positive social change and not just another mediocre code school in a bubble.

6 Comments

  1. Hey Mary, I just finished my 401 experience, noticed some of the same kinds of things but from the student perspective, and would like to talk to you over coffee sometime about where CF is going. Too many “enormous changes to class operations in the middle of the term” for my taste. I am concerned about CF. Are you free anytime soon? You can Slack me @energene or email, whichever you prefer.

  2. Hey Mary, thanks for the comments. Happy to grab a coffee or lunch to make sure we understand them all!

    Some of the observations are new to me from a feedback perspective, but that’s not unusual as an organization grows (nor is it an excuse).

    For example, anytime we have changes it can be a challenge, for example a staff transition. We just added a new Student Success Manager for the Seattle campus, it’s a new role that is more recruiter/recruiter oriented. It’s relatively easy to get an organization to agree to look at Junior Developers at an executive level, but if we don’t have people making connections with actual recruiters that’s where the pipeline breaks. As a new role, it meant we had a gap in our coverage there.

    I’ve put some open office hours on the calendar so I can get feedback on a more regular face to face basis as well – it speeds the process and keeps me closer to our students. Feel free to shoot me a note at Dave(at)CodeFellows(dot)com

    • Hi Dave, thanks for your note. Brook has been very receptive and responsive to my feedback in the past — he is the reason I completed my training with Code Fellows and switched to the Ruby track to study with him. However, he’s one employee (albeit a founder and a leader) and can’t be expected to shoulder all the inclusiveness work alone. Rather than coffee with me — since my feedback is pretty clear here, and there’s no benefit to me spending more time on the matter — I’d encourage Code Fellows to think about working with (paying) someone like Ashe Dryden who is an expert in building strong & diverse communities. http://www.ashedryden.com/

  3. Hi Mary,

    I graduated from the Code Fellows JS DA last December. I’m a cis white male who thus benefits in many ways from privilege. I just want to say thank you for writing this. I try to be an ally in making spaces that I participate in more inclusive. I was surprised, for instance, that when I went through code fellows, there was no diversity and inclusion statement or goal (or if there was, it was never mentioned or advertised).

    Code Fellows does a lot of good things and I feel I ultimately got a solid foundation in JavaScript development, but they sure do have a long way to go in building an environment that truly values diversity. Thank you for doing what you could.

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