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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

July 19, 2014 at 8:00 PM

School or movement? Seattle program gets serious about training women to code

Students from Ada's first cohort study up. (Photo: Ada Developers Academy)

Students from Ada’s first cohort study up. (Photo: Ada Developers Academy)

It’s a scene you see everywhere in Seattle: a room full of programmers, laptops out, writing code.

Except for one thing.

All 15 of the developers I visited Thursday on the 13th floor of the Rainier Tower were women.

Now I’m finally starting to hope that won’t always be a big deal.

The women make up the inaugural class of Ada Developers Academy, a less than year-old Seattle training program designed to address a growing problem that until recently was just an observation:

Too few women work with code.

The women call themselves “Adies,” and they’ve been busy. After six months of full-time classroom instruction, each is serving a six-month full-time internship at one of several Seattle tech companies that have paid the nonprofit program $25,000 each — some with a grant-enabled discount — to support its mission of tuition-free training of female coders.

Ada’s is a school that’s also a movement, and one of the strongest signs of how well that movement is taking hold — especially in Seattle.

Even the most influential tech companies are showing they’re finally ready to see the gender gap as something to fix.

“We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity,” Google stated when it released its first-ever workforce breakdown in response to mounting pressure this spring. Just 17 percent of its tech jobs are held by women. At Facebook, the figure is 15 percent. At Silicon Valley startups, one study estimates, it’s 12 percent.
(Microsoft has not released a count of tech employees by gender, though 24 percent of its workforce is female.)

For years the lack of female developers was dismissed as a matter of interest. Fewer women like football, and fewer women like to code.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 3.09.32 PM

The rise of a more ubiquitous tech industry has made us get honest about what else is going on, and what an industry without women is missing.

If there’s one study I hear cited most about why companies should get on board with this, it’s the 2010 management study finding that teams that include women have higher collective intelligence.

But it also makes good market sense. Women in Western countries use the Internet 17 percent more than men.
Shouldn’t everyone have what it takes to build this booming digital world?

“It just seems bizarre that the products designed for all people — the designers and developers of those projects have been from one group,” said Anne Kimsey, a 25-year-old Adie interning at Expedia.

I don’t have room in this column to list all the challenges women face when they enter what’s been a male-dominated industry.

But they’re rarely about technology.

“I’ll go to a meetup that’s all men, walk up to a conversation and it’ll all stop,” said Adie Davida Marion, interning at automation software company Chef.

Seventeen women graduated in good standing from an all-women boot camp run last summer by another new force in the coding world — Seattle digital trade school Code Fellows.

All but one are working, but one almost left the industry when an interviewer at a local tech company asked about her coding interest with a phrase so sexually lewd that Code Fellows CEO Kristin Smith could barely get the words out to tell me about it. When she did, my mouth dropped open.

The year-old school alerted the company’s HR department, and persuaded the woman to stay in the field.

But cracking open the coding world is going to be more push than pull for a while.

Ada Developers Academy is named after Ada Lovelace, considered by many to be the first programmer.

Ada Developers Academy is named after Ada Lovelace, considered by many to be the first programmer.

Good things are happening. When Code.org, the Seattle-based nonprofit, ran its “Hour of Code” campaign last winter, more than half of the 15 million students who participated were girls.

But Code Fellows had to cancel a second women-only coding boot camp this summer when not enough suitable applicants came through. There was less media attention around its launch this year, and many potential enrollees felt more prepared for the program’s fundamentals courses than its boot camp.

Smith wants to learn from that, and try again.

Here on the 13th floor of the Rainier Tower, as the Adies compared notes from their week’s work, Ada directors interviewed some of the 200 applicants vying for one of 24 spots in the school’s second cohort.

“We [women] offer a different approach. I think that’s needed,” said Christina Thompson, who moved from Miami to be part of Ada’s first class.

“This is a way of creating I’d never considered.”

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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