Coding boot camps are nothing new. The first such boot camp was established in 2011 in Chicago, and the market has since grown to almost 100 programs nationwide, all aiming to train new coders to fill the “gap” that exists between people without coding degrees who need jobs and tech companies that need to fill positions.
While some of these boot camps have been criticized for being inaccessible to many for a variety of reasons, including cost, others — like Yasmin Ali’s Bellevue-based Skillspire — were established to help those who are disenfranchised move out of minimum-wage, labor-intensive jobs.
“I wanted to focus my attention more toward underrepresented communities,” said Ali, who worked in computer science for a decade before taking a break to raise her children. “These are people who come from different countries and call the Seattle area their home, but because of lack of networks and resources, they are not able to make that jump into the tech industry, even though they may have some sort of education or experience in the tech sector in the countries that they come from. We are a bridge for these people.”
Training a diverse cohort is one way certain coding camps like Ali’s hope to make a difference in the still-homogenous world of tech. Even companies like Microsoft, which is making a big push for diversity, report staggeringly low percentages of minorities. According to the company’s fourth annual comprehensive workforce demographic report, Hispanic/Latinx make up 6 percent of the company, while African Americans make up only 4.1 percent.
In an effort to move the needle locally, Ali, who has long been a community activist and educator through the Muslim Association of Puget Sound in Redmond, decided to open Skillspire in April 2016.
Thus far, Skillspire has trained about 60 students and offers three courses: full stack web development, data analytics, and cyber security. Students — about 80 percent of whom are immigrants — put in 10 to 15 hours per week for 12 to 15 weeks.
Unlike many coding boot camp courses, which cost an average of $11,874, Skillspire keeps its tuition prices at $2,000 and $2,500. It does so by renting space on an hourly basis and hiring instructors who believe in the social impact of their work and who are willing to teach at a part-time hourly rate to make classes accessible. The company also works to secure grants for students. Scholarships at this price point are realistic for places like WorkSource to cover, which is the case for previous student Robert Rizo.
Rizo is a veteran who left the Navy at age 30 with 100 percent disability; he wanted to start working in tech but struggled to find a job, even after getting an associate degree in computer science.
“I never got a call back from local tech companies because I didn’t have any experience,” said Rizo, now 32. “And internships required you to still be in school, and I had finished.”
When Rizo looked into coding boot camps, he was discouraged by the price. “Several in the Seattle area were over $10,000,” he said. “I didn’t have those kinds of resources.” He reached out to WorkSource, one of many community organizations that Ali partners with to recruit underrepresented populations.
“Previously, when someone came to (one of these organizations) looking for help in finding a job, (the organization) would send them to (apply at) the Port of Seattle or the airport,” Ali said. “We’re making them aware that tech can be an option for people: Case workers can point their clients to getting software training through Skillspire, and it’s an attainable goal.”
While Ali said she didn’t want to undermine the amount of work and time required to succeed in a course — Rizo said he spent four hours doing homework for every hour of class time — she also emphasized that many immigrants have an incredibly strong work ethic.
“(Many of our students) struggled to get to this country,” she said. “And they were so happy to join the program; they put in so much effort. You can imagine that their work effort and loyalty is extremely high.”
To support a diverse body of students, Ali has focused on hiring instructors who are women and people of color who have graduated from coding boot camps themselves. This, she said, is important because students can look at their instructors and see themselves, giving them the motivation to work hard and the belief that they, too, can succeed.
Aside from helping students learn coding skills, Skillspire also helps them gain important professional development tools: Students are alerted of networking opportunities, assisted as they write résumés and build LinkedIn profiles, and led through mock interviews.
“I applied at TCS America to be a web developer when there were a few weeks left of class,” Rizo said. “Having Skillspire on my résumé got me in the door, and it also gave me the vocabulary and skills to succeed in the interview.” Before the class had ended, Rizo was hired by TCS and has been working full-time since August.
To increase the rate of this kind of seamless transition from boot camp to job, Ali wants to focus on building partnerships with companies that will take on graduates as apprentices or in entry-level jobs. Their biggest obstacle thus far, she said, is the fact that many companies look for people with four to five years of experience. Partnerships could help students navigate around this stumbling block by getting their first entry-level job in the field and working up from there.
Despite this challenge, previous students have been hired at places such as T-Mobile, Microsoft, AT&T, and Accenture.
Ali will continue to advocate for her students, whose position she is able to identify with as a member of the minority community. This authenticity helps set Skillspire apart from other coding boot camps — bigger companies that Ali said might “try to establish something in an unknown community.”
“With my perspective and the perspectives of the instructors coming from minority communities, it has all been very grassroots,” she said. “It has been so gratifying to give people this kind of opportunity — to show them that if they come with hunger and passion and put in their effort and time, they can definitely make it happen.”