Not long ago, Davida Marion was managing an ice cream shop, Ellen Wondra-Lindley was answering phone calls on a customer service hotline, and Elizabeth Uselton was tallying employee payroll for a catering company.
Today, however, all three women are being paid handsomely to write code for fast-growing Seattle startups. This remarkable turnaround was made possible by a local organization that’s turning first-time female programmers into kickass software developers — and perhaps more importantly, giving them an opportunity to begin new careers in a technology industry lacking a sufficient female presence.
“I make good money doing this thing I had no idea how to do a year-and-a-half ago,” said Wondra-Lindley, who works at a development studio called NIRD. “And I really love it.”
Ada Developers Academy is a non-profit, tuition-free training school for women that graduated its first cohort of 15 students this past October — all of whom were offered full-time developer jobs with an average salary of $75,000 before the class ended.
The year-long program, which includes six months of intense classroom instruction followed by six months at an internship, is nearly halfway through with its second group of soon-to-be programmers. This time around, there are 24 students enrolled that were selected from an applicant pool of more than 200.
It’s safe to say that Ada is off to a successful start.
“Two of our students from the last cohort got competitive offers from Amazon,” said Ada co-founder Elise Worthy. “That was like, ‘OK, we did it.’ If they can be hired at Amazon, we’re good.”
But Worthy and her colleagues know that this is only the beginning of a mission to help both bridge the gaping gender gap in the tech industry — only one-fifth of the technical workforce at big companies like Apple and Google are female — and help increase a software development talent pool that is lacking both in Washington and across the nation.
COMPANIES HUNGRY TO DIVERSIFY WORKFORCE
Soon after that conversation, she linked up with Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance, who helped lay the groundwork and land a grant from the Washington Department of Commerce to fund the non-profit.Worthy helped launch Ada back in 2013 after she met with family friend Scott Case, the COO at Seattle startup EnergySavvy. Case was struggling to find women engineers and asked Worthy if she’d heard of these so-called “coding bootcamps.” In fact, Worthy had recently gone through a similar bootcamp in Washington D.C. before taking a programming job at Living Social, and immediately liked the idea of an all-women program.
Worthy, Malarkey, and Case — Ada’s co-founders — wanted to make Ada accessible to anyone and charge zero tuition. To do so, they teamed up with corporate sponsors like Expedia and Zillow that help shape the program’s curriculum, provide mentorship, and offer internships to the students that provide a bridge between the classroom and the real world.
Hiring managers from these companies say they’ve partnered with Ada for two primary reasons: To land talented employees, and to diversify their workforce.
“We are looking to increase our involvement and support for the gender imbalance within the tech space specifically,” said Aisha Matthews, a Senior Programs Recruiter with Expedia.
Expedia, which sends three mentors to volunteer with Ada students every week, hired one grad from the first cohort and is planning to bring on three interns from the second group. Matthews wishes there were more students available in the program, ready to work for Expedia.
“If they continue to grow and expand, we’ll be right there with them,” she said.
Amazon, which followed fellow tech giants and posted its own diversity numbers late last year — 75 percent of its managers are male — is welcoming its first class of Ada interns this year.
“Ada’s work is helping strengthen the number of women in tech, and we’re thrilled to work with Ada and with organizations like Girls Who Code, Code.org and others to help grow this talent pool,” said Ellenore Angelidis, Amazon’s Director of Diversity.
Cary Mark, VP of Technology at Seattle-based Apex Learning, said that the Ada graduate his company hired last year has fit in perfectly with his team. Despite the fact that his new hire has a marketing background and moved all the way to Seattle from the East Coast, it’s been a good match thus far.
“She’s smart, and we like smart people,” Mark said. “We can teach them just about anything.”
When Ada students first arrive at their small classroom on the 13th floor of the Rainier Tower in downtown Seattle, they all share a common trait: No programming experience. This is by design, as Ada wants to teach from the ground up.
As Apex’s Mark noted, there’s also another quality they seem to all have.
“They are just really, really smart,” Worthy said of the students. “That’s the bottom line. There aren’t any dummies in this class.”
Ada’s screening process is quite difficult, as applicants must complete logic puzzles, make a 5-minute video, take a technical comprehension test, go through several rounds of interviews, and show how to solve a random LSAT problem.
The point of this process — which is necessary when you have more than 200 applicants, but only 24 spots — is to keep the quality of students high.
“Women at Ada are looking for a challenge,” Wondra-Lindley said. “You don’t get people here that want to coast. If you want to coast, this probably isn’t the program for you.”
That drive to succeed, despite the challenge of learning a huge amount of computer science in a short time, is something all the students seem to share. Rachel Moshier Adler, a student in the second cohort, said that Ada is the “hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“But that’s what attracted me to Ada,” she added. “I gravitate toward rigorous and challenging experiences.”
Like the other students, Adler’s background has little to do with programming. The Palo Alto, Calif., native studied international political economy and Asian studies while in college. She never thought about learning computer science until finding out about the Ada program.
“Ironically, the first time I heard about Ada was the first time it was communicated to me that, as a female, I could enter this career path and have the skills to succeed in this job — even though I grew up in the Bay Area, where software engineers were becoming Gods,” Adler explained.
For others, going back to school to get a programming or engineering degree was basically impossible with rising tuition costs. That was the case for Marion, who studied English in college and was working at a local ice cream shop when she learned of Ada.
“Coding was something I was always interested in — I taught myself BASIC in the fourth grade — but I never did anything with it,” she said. “It was something I wanted to get back to, but I always felt like I was too old and didn’t have enough money or time to go back to school.”
But the fact that Ada was tuition-free and offered a monthly stipend caught Marion’s attention. She signed up, and one year later, the Ada graduate has a software development job at Seattle-based IT automation startup Chef.
“It was a really intense year, but really amazing,” Marion said. “I feel really great about all the decisions I made and where I’m at now. It’s sort of mind-boggling how much my life is different.”
BUILDING A NETWORK OF FEMALE CODERS
On an overcast Friday earlier this month, Wondra-Lindley stood in front of the Ada class. The scene was a perfect example of the network that Ada Developer’s Academy is building.
Even though she already graduated from Ada’s program, Wondra-Lindley came back to her “alma mater” for two weeks in January to teach the second cohort a programming language called AngularJS.
Wondra-Lindley, who studied German and international affairs in college, also comes back to Ada once a week to volunteer as a teaching assistant. It’s something several of her fellow graduates also do on a regular basis, often pairing up with individual students as personal mentors.
“It does feel like giving back, which is great,” she said. “I would not be in the place that I am, and I wouldn’t be the person that I am, without Ada.”
This network of female coders is something that several Ada students and organizers brought up during interviews. Particularly for women coders, having a support system is important and almost necessary to equalize the gender imbalance in the tech industry.
Wondra-Lindley explained that the lack of women in tech is not only a pipeline problem, but also a retention problem. Many female coders, she said, often feel alone in the workplace. Wondra-Lindley experienced this first hand at her internship, where she was the only female developer at the company.
A Harvard Business School study on women in the science, engineering and technology workforce found that 56 percent of women left the tech industry. Many of those women went on to seek employment elsewhere, citing extreme work environments, hostile macho cultures and a lack of compensation as the primary reasons for their departure.
“Part of what is so difficult with retention is not knowing other women and being alone,” she said. “To have women you can talk to, and to know you have that network — Ada is a big part of that. The program is obviously helping with the pipeline, and bringing more women into the tech industry. But to have this network really helps keep women in it.”
In just over a year of existence, Ada’s network is already growing quickly, with demand from both applicants — many of whom are moving to Seattle to attend Ada — and sponsoring companies increasing by the day. However, everyone in that network admitted that there were at least a few bumps in the program’s inaugural year. “We are a startup,” Worthy notes.
Marion, who graduated with the first cohort, said it was key to have fellow women coders around to provide support when times got tough. The students were able to share experiences with one another, spending every morning in lecture and the rest of each day working on projects, then keeping in touch as they landed internships for the second half of the program.
“My cohort had a few problems at our internships and we all will have problems as we go forward — that’s just kind of the way things will go until we hit a more critical mass,” said Marion. “The bigger and better Ada gets, the stronger that network will be.”
CLOSING THE GAP
It’s pretty clear by now that increasing diversity and encouraging more women to study computer science is beneficial to the tech companies, and the industry as a whole. The Kauffman Foundation found that women-led tech companies achieve 35 percent higher returns on investment, and bring in 12 percent higher revenue when venture-backed in comparison to male-led companies. Illuminate Ventures also notes that “organizations that are the most inclusive of women in top management achieve 35 percent higher ROE and 34 percent better total return to shareholders versus their peers.”
But Uselton, who graduated from Ada in October, has an issue with people who say more women should learn to code because “they’re better at working on teams and are soft and nurturing.”
“No — we’re amazing at code,” Uselton said. “We can also be other things, too, but if you are only drawing from 50 percent of the population to get the best programmers, you’re missing out on half of the best programmers.”
Ada is doing its part to encourage more females to study programming — 19.7 percent of developers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and particularly the ones that previously didn’t even think about working in the tech industry.
Calla Patel, currently studying with the second cohort, said she was encouraged to join Ada after speaking with other female coders already working at tech giants. She hopes to inspire other women to do the same.
“The only reason I thought I could do this was after seeing my own female role models,” Patel said. “Having more role models will be outstanding for other women.”
Worthy said the plan is to continue growing the academy, adding more students and sponsoring companies with each graduating cohort. She knows that Ada is just one part of achieving gender parity in technology, and says that women should be encouraged to work in the tech industry across the entire pipeline — from elementary school to board rooms.
But while Ada “isn’t a silver bullet,” Worthy is hopeful that the program is a step in the right direction to close the gender gap in tech.
“I hope that in 10, 15 years, these women will be running Google,” Worthy said, pointing to the students from inside her office. “That will certainly help pave the way for more women, and they’ll be magnets for even more women to come in.”