Interview: Ada Developers Academy

Model View Culture talks with Elise Worthy, co-founder of Seattle's new software development school for women.

by Elise Worthy on January 13th, 2014

Students working at Ada Developers Academy.

What is Ada Developers Academy? What are its goals and why did you start it?

Ada Developers Academy (Ada) is a year-long software development school in Seattle, aimed exclusively at women. We’re currently two months into our first cohort and have 16 students learning to program. The students are in the classroom every weekday from 9am – 5pm and have 10-15 hours per week of homework. They’re learning the Ruby on Rails tech stack (Ruby, Rails, JavaScript, HTML/CSS) and agile methodologies (pair programming, test-driven development, user story creation). We provide hands-on learning with a heavy emphasis on project-based teamwork.

Ada is addressing the gender imbalance in the software industry: women hold roughly 15% of software jobs and make up 1.5% of open-source contributors. Locally, we want to create a hiring pipeline of highly-skilled technical women for Seattle’s unfilled software jobs (Washington has 20,000 open positions in science, technology, engineering, and math, with the highest demand in and around Seattle). By extension, our hope is that increasing the number of qualified women will ameliorate the gender wage gap. Seattle has the worst gap of any metropolitan area in the nation – women earn 73 cents to each dollar earned by their male counterparts.

Instead of charging money, the program is actually free to students and offers a stipend. Why is that so important?

Women are underserved by traditional paths to technology careers. We aim to reduce the economic barriers to a career in software development by making education and career preparation as accessible as possible. Because many of our students are switching careers and already carrying student loan debt, it would be untenable to expect them to assume an even greater financial burden while taking a year off from earning a full-time salary to pursue a whole new career.

Many of our students have said that Ada was the only option for them to get into a development career. Before Ada, a technical job was out of reach for these women because of the time and cost of existing educational programs – which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. We operate as a program of the Technology Alliance, a Washington nonprofit, and that opens doors to non-tuition funding options, particularly sponsorships, government funding, grants, and donations.

What else makes Ada Developers Academy different from other hacker schools?

The duration of Ada far exceeds most hacker schools, which are typically 8-12 weeks in length. Ada provides six months of intensive classroom instruction, plus six months of internship. We created a longer program because our target students demonstrate technical aptitude, but don’t have prior programming experience. We took this approach because of the pipeline problem: a majority of women interested in programming are novices who have had limited access to technology education in high school and college. A shorter bootcamp wouldn’t have sufficiently prepared the students for successful careers as developers. The internship is also integral to the experience; students can vet potential jobs in a low-pressure setting, with the ongoing support of their peers and a network of Ada staff and volunteers.

What is the current class of students like and what has the first few months been like so far?

Students working at Ada Developers Academy.

Our first cohort of students is absolutely amazing; they’ve continued to impress us with their quick understanding of difficult topics, tenacity, and collaboration. We selected this group of 16 out of over 100 applicants after a rigorous online application and interview process, facilitated by volunteer hiring managers and team leads. 25% of our students relocated from out of state, from as far away as Florida. The majority of students hold bachelor’s degrees in everything from theater to linguistics. Half of our students are women of color.

Can you tell us a bit about the curriculum and the teaching philosophy at Ada Developers Academy?

We were intentional about the culture of the classroom. We wanted to avoid the hackathon/work-till-you-drop mentality, which isn’t conducive to sustainable learning and life balance. Instead of traditional grades, students are given continuous feedback through quizzes and meetings with the instructors. We have tried to keep collaboration high and competition low by simulating real project teams.

Another emphasis has been on practical instruction: with only six months of class, we can’t teach students everything they need to learn. We can, however, teach them how to learn. By giving them projects that simulate real applications under real deadlines, we have seen the students become increasingly adept at information gathering and creative problem-solving.

How can hackerschools help students get jobs, and what kind of support will Ada be providing as students transition to the job market following the program?

Regardless of industry, the transition from school to career can be challenging, frustrating, and frightening, particularly when going into uncharted territory without help. Securing company commitments to provide internships and mentors was a high priority from the program’s inception. We wanted to make sure we were not only teaching the students to program, but also giving them great career opportunities at companies that are willing to invest in junior developer talent. Starting in the third month, students will be matched with mentors to ease the transition into the internship. We also want to make sure the students maintain strong ties with Ada for ongoing support – we’re planning to have members of the first cohort help teach the second cohort as part of their internships.

Students working at Ada Developers Academy.

You led a very successful crowdfunding effort through Indiegogo. How did that go, what did you learn and what advice do you have for other programs focused on diversity in tech that are trying to raise community funding?

It’s important to have a story and be able to recite it in your sleep. We spent most of the summer building a business plan, which was a requirement for state funding. It helped solidify our understanding of the problem, our audiences, and our approach. Because of this legwork, we had a solid message to donors and a strong, refined story to tell. We would definitely go through that exercise again.

My advice for others is that if you launch a campaign, be proactive, but be patient. Our campaign was served well by a written social media plan in which we had target audiences and a timeline laid out. Even though we had a lot of confidence in the campaign’s success, we weren’t fully funded until the last few days. The campaign was slow and steady. We raised about a third of our funding in the first two weeks with a lull before another big surge at the end. Our funders were very diverse: from women in tech, to our friends and family, to allies on the internet who heard about us from a friend.

You also have a lot of support and backing from other non-profits and corporations, what has it been like working within that structure?

Working on Ada has shown us that allies come in all shapes and forms. In the end, getting Ada off the ground took great leaps of faith from many people and organizations. It can be challenging to tackle tough problems with collaborators whose backgrounds and agendas may be very disparate. However, we found that even if a collaborator is not completely aligned with our goals, if their contribution benefited the students, everybody benefited.

How can the community get involved in this project and other similar projects?

We’re working to ensure Ada is a sustainable program, which primarily means securing enough support to run in perpetuity. If your company might have interest in sponsoring an intern, please visit our company FAQ.

Ada, like most nonprofit organizations, is always looking for more resources (time, money, and supplies). Whether it’s Ada or any one of the many incredible organizations doing things for women in technology, consider making an ongoing donation of time or money (Shanley made an excellent list, found here).

In your mind, what does the future of Ada Developers Academy look like in a best-case scenario?

We’re planning to make Ada an ongoing, self-sustaining program supported by the Seattle-area companies that want to invest in growing and training new software developer talent. With any luck, Ada will scale internationally with other organizations using the model to meet different regions’ needs. Right now, we’re gearing up for a second cohort which will start in spring 2014, so we’re already on our way.