Coding Bootcamps and Emotional Labor

Bootcamps are a micro example of how the tech industry is built on the emotional labor of the same groups who are marginalized within it.

by Tilde Ann Thurium on March 14th, 2016

In 2013, I graduated from Hackbright Academy. I did a coding bootcamp because it felt like my only viable option to be taken seriously as a junior engineer. I had a BA in Gender Studies, and had spent the past five years working in Human Resources. None of the Computer Science Bachelor’s programs nearby would accept second Bachelor’s students, and all the Master’s programs required a CS undergrad.

Attending an intensive coding program can be an alienating experience: you’re the customer, and also the product. When I share my story, people only seem to hear “I Learned To Code In Just 10 Weeks: A Tidy Silicon Valley Narrative of Disruption and Innovation.” The year I put in before that taking classes at community college just doesn’t register, no matter how many times I mention it. There’s implicit and explicit social pressure to sell your experience, the dream, to inflate the brand on your resume that you paid so much for. People who are publicly critical of their Hackbright experiences have been shunned by the staff and large chunks of the alumni network.

Bootcamp programs require emotional labor as well as technical labor – during the program, and long after your graduate. Hackbright was never upfront about their emotional labor asks from volunteers, students, and alumni. To start, each Hackbright cohort is divided into groups of 3-5 students. Small groups were expected to schedule time to meet once a week to once a day, listen to each other, be encouraging, and come up with ways to bond as a team. Three students were designated as “apprentices” for the duration of the program. They, along with the instructors, were tasked with helping students when they got stuck.

On the volunteer front, Hackbright scheduled several (presumably unpaid) guest speakers per week for the duration of our 10-week class. The majority of these presentations were non-technical talks about women’s personal journeys into software engineering. Seeing role models is important; at the same time, it didn’t feel like a great use of their time or mine to hear so many personal stories, when I was there to learn to code.

Even after graduating, the demand for unpaid emotional labor is high: Hackbright alumni are asked to give back to the community by mentoring current students, for a totally unpaid time commitment of about 10 hours per week. Graduates lead whiteboarding sessions with current students, organize events, and informally recruit new students. We are also expected to mentor and support recent graduates through the exhaustive process of fighting over the small amount of jobs available for very junior engineers who haven’t gone through a traditional CS program.

Why do grads agree to work for free? Hackbright representatives email us, saying things like, “Giving back and mentoring is the foundation our community is built on — because of mentorship relationships like this, our industry thrives.” It feels selfish to look at someone who is in the position I was once in, and put my own needs first. At the same time, it’s telling to consider all the beneficiaries of my labor.

Every time I help another alum get a job, or a student, Hackbright gets dollars and a boost to their branding. It’s problematic to send newly minted developers, who are themselves members of at least one marginalized group, into the industry with the notion that uncompensated organizing and mentoring work is expected of them. Ironically, Hackbright encourages graduates to aggressively negotiate for salaries from potential employers, but guards their own dollars much more closely.

Hidden tolls of emotional labor

Sign that reads "Toll Collection" on a highway.

Photo CC-BY NCDOTcommunications, filtered.

People underestimate the emotional side of technical work. The process of writing code generates lots of feelings for me. Frequently, I wrestle with my own anxiety about having started coding in my late twenties. Getting stuck on a problem bubbles up worries that I’m not cut out for my chosen career. In addition to debugging techniques, I had to teach myself how to calm down enough to get un-stuck. Although impostor syndrome impacts many engineers, it hits those of us who started late particularly hard.

Sometimes I feel like I have to be the organizational poster child for people from non traditional backgrounds: another axis to be marginalized and feel isolated on. People who want to learn to code reach out to me frequently. They want to meet up for coffee, career advice, and encouragement. My story gives them hope that they, too, can join the tech industry as a software engineer. Other grads have the same issue: the more visible you are, the worse it gets.

Changing careers is a big decision. It’s understandable to seek advice from someone else who’s been there. I’m tired of having this conversation for multiple reasons, though. First, it’s irresponsible to wholeheartedly advise anyone who isn’t a white cis het male to become a professional software engineer. I’m not sorry I’ve changed careers, but it’s been challenging to say the least. Working in tech is a dichotomous tradeoff at the best of times. I have a high-paying job, with a large degree of autonomy. My work is intellectually stimulating. I have never before been so coddled in the workplace. But I am frequently the only femme, the only queer in the room. Odds are that I will be sexually harassed sometime in my career. Sexism is endemic, and I have to deal with a number of clueless men who refuse to do the internal work necessary to acknowledge that their behavior is part of the problem. This isolation and abuse is compounded for women of color, trans women, women with mental illnesses and/or disabilities, and other women who also face intersectional oppressions. We cannot just add underrepresented people to tech and stir: the industry needs to change as well.


Picture frames against a wall.

Photo CC-BY Till Westermayer, filtered.

This isn’t about “fuck you, I got mine.” I have given my love, labor, and most importantly my money to other women, as I will continue to do. But emotional labor doesn’t scale. My time and emotional energy are finite qualities, and I’m barely keeping my head above water as is. In order to keep my skills relevant, I must spend time outside of work filling in my knowledge gaps, as well as learning new technologies. I have also taken on some diversity work at my day job, since I want to improve conditions in the industry. Performing corporate feminism takes a toll on my emotional health.

It’s exhausting to keep telling my story; and frankly, nothing about my path qualifies me to advise others. I, along with a hefty dose of my white privilege, won the bootcamp lottery: thus, I have a job. A lot of folks aren’t so lucky. Hiring in the tech industry is somewhat of an arbitrary game. As much as tech companies try to pretend like their processes are unbiased, technical interviewing is horribly broken. Coding schools aren’t very upfront about their placement rates, or how long it might take to get your first engineering job post-graduation. I have seen multiple Hackbright alumni put in month after month of job searching, grow despondent, and eventually give up.

Unfortunately, bootcamps are merely another form of for-profit education that replicate the existing biases of the tech industry. That for-profit education is a sketchy industry, and that we need to forge alternative paths into the tech industry for folks with non-traditional backgrounds, is a foregone conclusion. When the tech bubble bursts, or rather messily implodes, there will be even less jobs for junior developers, which doesn’t bode well for the bootcamp economy.

Coding schools should be more upfront about the downsides of their program, such as how long it takes to find a job afterwards. They should avoid relying heavily on volunteer labor and alumni goodwill. Additionally, schools should acknowledge that part of their business runs off emotional labor, and take steps to mitigate the negative impacts on students. For example, Dev Bootcamp has a counselor on staff, and teaches “Engineering Empathy” as part of their curriculum. Paying speakers to come to the classroom would raise the bar for talks. Additionally, alumni should be compensated for their mentoring and recruiting work, since it benefits Hackbright as a business.

Ultimately, I am not obligated to provide unpaid emotional support for everyone who is thinking of learning to code. I propose a radical notion, wherein bootcamp graduates stop providing free support for other folks who want to get into tech. Unless those folks are oppressed along an axis where you are privileged: if you are part of any marginalized group I am not part of, and you want my advice or support, paying it forward is the least I can do. Structuring this work as ally work helps marginalized people set boundaries around emotional labor, and makes this problem scalable. Allies can, and should, be picking up the slack here. White cis het men, especially, are better positioned to give career advice and mentorship, since in most cases they’re the real gatekeepers for the tech industry.

I refuse to be the poster child for non traditional backgrounds in the tech industry, and I refuse to let the tech industry continue to feast on my story. Bootcamps are a micro example of how the tech industry is built on the emotional labor of the same groups who are marginalized within it. It’s past time we started demanding recognition, and pay.