A leading-edge research firm focused on digital transformation.
Subscriber Account active since
In 2013, Nisha Batra, then 28, fell in love with code and decided to teach herself how to do it. She went on to quit her banking job and soon after started looking for full-time engineering roles.
It wasn’t easy: She received over 20 job rejections that year, she told Insider.
A few months later, she came across Flatiron School, a New York-based coding boot camp. After completing its intense five-month program in 2014, Batra had four job offers within two weeks. “That’s when my career as an engineer really began,” she said.
Batra’s story is one of many that showcases the potential of boot camps — and generally, alternative tech education — to widen access to tech careers.
Coding boot camps started in late 2011 and early 2012, attractive in their promise of a lucrative career and no requirement of hefty upfront tuition or previous expertise in computer science. They soon gained a positive reputation as harbingers of diversity in a mostly white, mostly male industry. The model lowered the barriers to entry into an otherwise exclusive club of coders.
The data supported this hope: In 2014, the first year that Big Tech released diversity reports, women made up less than a quarter of the global tech workforce at Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. That same year, nearly two in five boot-camp graduates were women, a promising number considering only 18% of undergraduate computer-science degrees the following year went to women. Many boot camps like Hackbright Academy and AllStarCode launched to serve gender and racial minorities in tech, while more established names like General Assembly and Thinkful also offer scholarships to underrepresented communities.
Despite all that, the American tech industry has experienced minimal demographic change over the past decade: Only 26% of computing-related jobs today are held by women, according to a study by Built In, and only 7% and 8% of the tech workforce identify as Black and Hispanic respectively.
So why is the promise of diversity through boot camps not being realized? Graduates told Insider the abundance of poor-quality programs led many employers to question the value boot-camp students bring to the table. Meanwhile, the programs that do provide substantial training often exclude a variety of candidates and provide little help in job placement post-graduation.
Batra, now a senior software engineer at Facebook, said that as boot camps became more common, recruiters and hiring managers began to view them with suspicion, blocking graduates right out of the gate.
“When I worked at a startup where I had already proven my skills, I was called an anomaly when it came to boot-camp graduates. Another woman, a junior boot-camp graduate, was constantly undermined and referred to as a ‘noob,’ even though she did her job well for her level,” she said.
Felix Feng, a Hack Reactor graduate who now runs a crypto asset-management company, shared a similar observation in a 2016 blog post: “At Hack Reactor, we’re trained to mask our inexperience. In our personal narratives, we purposely omit our boot-camp education. Why? Otherwise, companies automatically categorize us into junior-developer roles or tag us as ‘not enough experience.'” (Hack Reactor’s Executive Vice President of Consumer Education Tyler Lambe told Insider it doesn’t encourage students to conceal their education with the boot camp. But they do counsel students to lead with the skills, experience, and passion for software during their job-hunting process.)
But the low quality of boot camps isn’t just a perception issue. Insider previously reported some students said boot camps like Holberton School and Lambda School lure students with dubious marketing, only to offer ill-defined curricula, overwhelmed instructors, and no tutoring support.
Others, like income-sharing-agreement boot camps, or ISAs, which let students defer tuition until they secure a job, can become tools to trap unsuspecting learners into multiyear payment cycles where they might end up paying far more than they owe after they graduate. The problem has become so prevalent that the use of ISAs to sell inferior training programs is now being recognized as a regulatory concern.
Michael Ellison, founder and CEO of education nonprofit CodePath, said that due to their current business model, boot camps can’t focus on diversity at scale in their intake.
“Underrepresented minorities tend to come from lower-income backgrounds, are less prepared for software-engineering roles, and lack the social capital. On the other hand, boot camps are increasingly operating on a model that consists of profiting from the future earnings of their graduates, so it’s in their self-interest to cater to those from privileged backgrounds who can secure jobs more easily,” he said.
The data supports this: By last year, more than half of boot-camp graduates were male and nearly 70% were white — a grim replication of the demographic homogeneity of the industry.
Ellison added that it’s not just about who gets into boot camps but also who thrives. “Most boot camps require prework before a course starts and believe in offering less guidance during courses to make the experience ‘more real world,'” he said. “In actuality, these practices filter out students who are not likely to be able to teach themselves in a one-size-fits-all, fast-paced environment.”
William Wittenbrock, a software engineer who dropped out of a boot camp earlier this year to teach himself, agrees. In a blog post on his decision, he said that while boot camps hold you accountable for the work, they don’t let you learn at your own pace. Additionally, the varying levels of experience and comfort with the curriculum can create a student hierarchy. “Those at the top will quickly grasp the material and finish the day’s lesson early. Most will be in the middle, keeping up with the curriculum but not exceeding it. And a few students will lag behind until they drop out,” he wrote.
His classmate, Colin Cook, a queer-identifying boot-camp graduate who now works as a product owner, added that their boot camp seemed more inclusive because it offered five weeks of free classes so students could try it out. He estimated they started at a diverse group of about 60 students — including women of color and LGBTQ+ students of color — but by the time the trial period ended, what remained was a relatively homogenous group of about 20 who could keep up with the intense schedule.
“Some people left as they couldn’t secure financing; others left because they couldn’t balance the pace with family-care duties, and others were struggling with the material,” he said. “Boot camps are great for many reasons, but they only offer a ‘one-size-fits-some’ model: If that’s not for you for any reason, you’re out of luck.”
He added that because this five-week period was effectively an admissions process, the school didn’t make an effort to get to know any of its students. “There was no HR for the boot camp: No one knew my background, or if I had any specific needs or concerns,” he said. He said this affected his learning experience: A queer former marketing professional who was already unsure whether tech would be a safe space for him, Cook was often working alongside experienced technologists who were taking the course to widen their skill set. He had to keep pace without any additional support. “There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it or that I wasn’t smart enough to make it. It was really hard,” he said.
Kyle Elliott, a career coach for Silicon Valley talent, said that the tech world’s reliance on employee referrals was a blocker for one of his clients, a woman of color who had no network in the industry. He said that her boot camp prepared her well technically but offered no job support beyond feedback on her résumé.
“Conversely, her classmates with robust networks were able to get their résumés noticed because their friends and former classmates introduced them to hiring managers,” Elliott told Insider.
Similarly, Cook realized early on that he wasn’t going to get much help from his boot camp to secure a job beyond some soft interview practice and résumé reviews.
“After we graduated, career services would call and ask how we were getting on with our search and often leave us vague tips on applying for a certain number of jobs. It was a nice gesture, but it wasn’t helpful,” he said.
So what does he wish his boot camp had done more of? “Show us people like us who made it and what mistakes they made along the way,” Cook said. His school had a speaker series in which people from the industry shared their experiences on landing a job in tech and their path since. These talks were encouraging, but Cook said he felt as if he was getting the same story over and over again: There was no diversity in the lineup.
“Keep in mind that the first time I saw someone queer in tech was when Tim Cook came out. When you don’t see yourself reflected in the community, it can be hard to know what the path forward is. I had no one like me who had made it, whose experience — successes and mistakes — I could learn from,” he said.
Not having adequate support from his boot camp pushed Cook to turn to networking: He began to attend as many local tech events as possible to make connections but didn’t see any queer role models and continued to struggle to feel as if he belonged in the industry — until he discovered Out in Tech, a nonprofit organization for LGBTQ+ members of the tech industry.
“After attending an event put on by the local Portland chapter, I finally found the community I was looking for: I was surrounded by dozens of local LGBTQ+ tech professionals and students,” he said. “Some had been in the industry for many years and some, just like me, were just starting to break into it. I was heartened and inspired by this experience. I immediately felt safe and at home.”
Cook is now a community organizer for Out in Tech and hopes that by being more visible in the local tech scene, he can be a role model for someone who’s looking for confirmation that tech will welcome them, too.
An increasing number of companies have been dropping degree requirements in their hiring processes. Additionally, companies like Google are launching their own educational offerings amid the realization that college is out of reach for many Americans.
While, for now, many employers still require degrees that exclude applicants with unconventional experience, this general shift to recognize qualifications outside of a four-year degree could help make boot camp certifications more acceptable over time, opening up avenues for new tech talent to enter the industry.
Of the boot-camp experience itself, especially for marginalized talent, Daniel Pianko, cofounder of Achieve Partners, a private-equity firm focused on education and workforce issues, thinks ISAs have the greatest potential to boost diversity in the education ecosystem — but only if they’re done right.
“Research shows that ISAs can mitigate the effects of loan aversion, which leads some students — particularly those from historically underrepresented groups — to underinvest in or even forgo education,” he said. “Of course, this is only possible with appropriate consumer protections in place to ensure that terms are communicated clearly and students are never unfairly burdened with repayment.”
Ellison of CodePath has been working with the software companies Workday and Course Hero to offer pre-internship opportunities to a cohort of undergraduate CodePath students, giving them real-world experience and mentorship from engineers at those companies. “By the time recruiters are interviewing candidates, most Black and brown students have already been knocked out of the pipeline,” Ellison said. “The most important thing companies can do is invest in — and rebuild the pipeline of — young, underrepresented talent.”
Batra said her team of 10, four of whom are boot-camp grads with six members of color, is proof of what thoughtful, inclusive management can do over time.
Her manager found that even when boot-camp graduates lacked deep technical expertise, they were bringing valuable skills and knowledge from other industries, which led to better usability in their product design. This is why, over time, they began intentionally hiring more boot-camp graduates.
“I’m lucky that my team lead is someone who is always thinking about inclusion in all processes, from who we hire to how we make decisions on the team,” she said.
“We are building tools for the global future, so having a group of ‘product engineers’ from all walks of life rather than ‘software engineers’ from one background has been key. We are a stronger team today than ever before.”
Did you attend a boot camp and have a story to share? Email [email protected]
A leading-edge research firm focused on digital transformation.