The disparity between men and women in computer-science-related jobs is frankly shocking. In the summer of last year, a number of tech companies issued "diversity reports" detailing their employee ethnic and gender demographics. Unsurprisingly, all the companies were overwhelmingly white and male. Apple, for instance, is slightly above the industry average of 80 percent male employees and 20 percent female employees, with a still-unseemly 70/30 split. (Amazon did even better at 63 percent male to 37 percent female, although those numbers revert to a more familiar 75/25 when looking at the management strata of the company.) Women aren't going to school for computer science, so they're not getting computer-science jobs. And so there are very few women to inspire the next generation of young women to become programmers, and so on. Local nonprofit Ada Developers Academy was founded to change those numbers, one class at a time.
Based out of Rainier Tower downtown, Ada is now in the middle of its second year providing free intensive programming classes to women ranging in age from 24 to 56.The classroom at Ada Developers Academy looks like a cross between a classroom and a startup. A gigantic inflatable tyrannosaurus rex fills one corner of the room and students sit at desks, on yoga balls, or sprawled out on the floor, pounding out code on their laptops. Elise Worthy, the cofounder and CTO of Ada, explains the idea: A small class of 20 or so women attend classes at Ada's from nine to five every weekday (plus homework) for seven months. Then, "we place them in a five-month internship with a local tech company, from Nordstrom to Amazon down to startups," and the students graduate as junior software developers. (The tech companies that provide the internships help fund the program, although Worthy notes with the kind of energy that only a nonprofit's cofounder can muster that anyone can donate to Ada through their website.) It's not the equivalent of a four-year computer science degree, but Worthy says, "We’re creating people who are web developers, not general software developers." The analogy they use at Ada, she says, is "we are training EMTs, not heart surgeons." But that's okay; there's an exponentially higher demand for EMTs than there are for heart surgeons, and everybody's got to start somewhere.
The school offers scholarships for the internship portion of the program that are roughly equivalent to minimum wage, and there's a loan pool available for students who need financial assistance to make room in their lives to take the course. Worthy says the first class of 15 women to graduate is now entirely employed in the tech sector, and their average salary is $75,000 a year. The second class is just now preparing to enter their internship phase, and applications are now being accepted for Ada's third class of students. The application process ends on February 23.
Worthy says it's important to make an educational space for women. She recently earned her motorcycle license, for example, but she says she wouldn't have been able to do it if she didn't prepare by taking an all-woman motorcycle training course. Taking the class with men would have made the experience too "intimidating." To further emphasize the point, she introduces me to Rachel, a current student at Ada who's just about to begin her internship at Chef. It simply never occurred to Rachel that she could have a career in computer science. She says she was never directly told "you could not do this job," but she never saw anyone like her in the programming world. "There’s the whole myth of programmers being total recluses in their mom’s basement," Rachel says, but it's just not true. She's happy to realize that programming also requires "communication and people skills" that she already has.
"There is nothing explicit that says 'you’re not allowed here'" to young women in tech, Worthy explains. But she met with a college counselor to discuss programming as a career years ago and found the counselor—"She was a woman," she says with surprise in her voice—to be entirely unaccommodating. By the time the counselor talked about all the logistical roadblocks in Worthy's way to a computer science degree, "I left crying," she says, and with the feeling that "this isn't for me."
When Rachel first heard about Ada, she explains, it "was the first time anyone has ever messaged to me that I could do this." She says "it only took one of those messages to realize I wanted to do it." Besides earning a career in the tech industry, Rachel hopes "to be a leader in some way. I’m not sure if that means becoming a manager, or a teacher, or something else. I want this community to give back to future developers."
Rachel's advice for any woman who wants to apply for the Developers Academy? Do it. "You don’t have to be tech-adjacent to work in this program." You don't have to rely on a "spouse or a partner or a relative" to get involved in programming. "That isn't your only way in." She also wants applicants to know that the application process is difficult, but that's part of the appeal. "It’s hard, and I think that is intimidating," Rachel says. "But it’s definitely doable, and actually completing the application by myself was an accomplishment."
"Don’t be afraid to apply," Worthy echoes. "We’re not intentionally being elitist. We just only have a certain number of spots. We’re expecting our acceptance rate to be in the single digits" this time around, she says, but even if applicants don't get in this time, she wants them to know that "we’re still here and we have this network for people who want to be involved somehow." Ada offers occasional after-hours open houses so non-students can network and "get tips from students and instructors" on how to develop their skills. "If you don’t get accepted," she says, "it’s not over."