Scarcity and Hackbright - the Top 5%

There are some major parts of Hackbright that deal with scarcity. Our business model (and we are a business) is based on it, and our company philosophy (and we do have one, one that's very important to us) is based around it as well. First, let's talk business.

There aren't enough developers. Not in Silicon Valley, although you can't sit in a cafe without hearing about code or devops. Not in the rest of the world, either. There are nonprofits that need help, terrible industries that need to be automated away (I'm looking at you, medical billing), and information that needs spreading to the bottom billion, so that they can be informed, and more powerful. This kind of thing sounds great, but in order for any of those jobs to get filled, there first have to be enough developers to go around. And there aren't.

There also aren't enough women in development. There are probably a million and a half ways to solve this issue, we're choosing one path. Increasing the number of female devs directly by training them is a great start to help with the issue, as well as solve the scarcity of developers. This brings us to supply and demand, and scarcity. 

We exist because companies can recruit from us. We provide enough high-quality candidates that companies come back to us time and time again. The reason our candidates are high quality is because we train them, yes, but also because we select them from a pool of smart people. Currently, we accept 5% of candidates that apply to Hackbright. Why? Wouldn't it make sense to take more? We're a for-profit company, the students pay us to attend. We're leaving money on the table by not accepting more - we could double our earnings by accepting 10%, right?

The problem here is complex. It's about keeping our quality high - as a company, and for our students. We try to do the right thing for quality first, profit second. Scaling out doesn't make sense if the experience gets worse, or if fewer of our students end up with jobs. The reason quality suffers is because of scarcity.

First, we're doing very emotional labor. Emotional labor is traditionally undervalued, and it's also regarded among the professional world as a limitless resource. If you're a caring person, you should be able to expand that caring to an infinite set of people, right? This is a fallacy - one person can't be the emotional pillar needed from a teacher to as many people as they're asked. Even given that there simply isn't time in the day to do that, we're ignoring the fact that helping someone through something difficult, like say, rewiring your brain to think like a computer scientist in 10 weeks, takes something out of you. It's rewarding, sure. It gives something to you that you can't buy or get otherwise. But it does drain. 

So the emotional labor is scarce - people who can both program, debug well, explain things well, and do the emotional labor are scarce, but the biggest scarcity is people willing to do that labor. This labor is traditionally reserved for significant others, friends, your children, your family. When doing this work, students often replace your friends and family, become as significant to you as your children. You have to be willing to do that to at least a limited extent, and most people aren't, or at least not for long. 

The next scarcity is space - simply having enough desks and pairing stations in a city like San Francisco is both expensive and hard to find. Keeping everyone together as a cohesive class unit is also tough. 30 is probably the maximum number of people that could function as a class, especially because being a part of the class is such an integral part of Hackbright in general. We can't just upsize the class, we'd have to create an entirely new instance of the class - with lead instructors, assistant instructors, a new group of mentors, et cetera. 

The last scarcity is absorption. The bay area needs more developers, but has a limited capacity to absorb new junior developers. Everyone who comes out of any intensive is essentially a "prepared beginner", who, through their own curiosity and drive, as well as a bit of help from a senior developer, can add functionality to software projects, run tests, debug, and make modifications. They're not yet capable of designing a project that scales, or spinning off an entire feature branch without much help. They do consume resources when they join a company, although the company gets a net gain. After about 3 months, all of our students are major contributors in whatever teams they join, but it does take that 3 months. We release 26-30 new candidates quarterly, and they've got to go somewhere - there are a finite number of jobs even for perfect candidates with the exact right stuff.

Why does Hackbright only accept women into the program?

Another blog post transcribed (thanks @rebecca_standig) from the same conversation about @Hackbright Academy. It also covers some hostility I get from people about our policies.

EDIT: changed "where all but about 80% of women" to "20%" - that was a mix-up on phrasing. 20% of women who start in comp sci degrees finish them.

Note: Hey Hacker News readers! I'll be publishing something on pedagogy in a bit. Stay tuned. 

So, why do you admit only women to Hackbright?

I've gotten this question really often via email, as well as at coffee shops and any time that I walk around the Mission or SOMA in my Hackbright Academy t-shirt. Often, people ask me why we only admit women. They say things like, "It's discriminatory. Aren't you trying to fight discrimination?" Or they say, "You can't just admit women. That's illegal." Or they threaten to sue me. People think that they're very clever.

The reason we only admit women is because as it stands, we put more women into software engineering in one semester than Stanford and Berkeley do every year. Women start a computer science degree at maybe 1/3 the rate as men. Then there's this freshmen drop-off, where all but about 20% of women end up changing their major, usually to something involving design or business. Sometimes, they go into electrical or mechanical engineering, but that's actually pretty rare. Usually they leave the field of engineering altogether.

I have a theory about why this is. During a computer science degree, most women don't have a lot of friends to turn to who are also doing a computer science degree. Most computer science education is heavy on theory and light on implementation. So, you learn a lot about computer science, but you don't really learn how to code. That is something that you have to do on your own. Since [these women] don't have friends that sort of expect that of them and know that that's what they're supposed to be doing, they don't spend a lot of time in it. If you don't spend time implementing theory, you'll never really understand it. The courses get harder and harder, and they haven't spent a lot of time with their friends talking about these kinds of things. They're surrounded by people who are not like them, and don’t openly talk about struggling to learn [difficult programming concepts]. This reinforces the idea that they don't belong there, and is a common fear. All the time, women tell me that they feel like they don't belong in computer science, or they don't belong in engineering, or they don't belong in a company as a programmer.

The reason for that is there aren't many women, and that begets even less women wanting to get into computer science.

So, what’s the solution?

So what do we do about that? First, we create a community. There are lots of communities for women. I know this because I'm a woman in tech, and I am inundated (especially as a leader of several general organizations for women in tech) with people telling me all about all of the different organizations. The problem is, I meet 4-5 women every week that have never heard of any of these organizations. So outreach is a problem.

The next problem is that it's intimidating even to join these big organizations because they're for people who profess that they are software engineers already. Sometimes, they're about being software engineering majors or computer science majors, and that helps. But they're campus-specific, so if you're in college that's great for you.

Most women who get into computer science that I interface with are doing so after they've already completed a degree in some other area, be it business, marketing, biology, chemistry, sometimes journalism. There are a number of things that drive people away from those fields and into software engineering, or just drive people away from software engineering initially into those fields and then they realize that this wasn't what they wanted.

These are the people that most often make really amazing software engineers, yet have no real path into software engineering. They're not already software engineers, so they don't feel like they can join these organizations, but they're also not going to college for software engineering, because they've already gone to college. It would be ridiculous to expect them to go and get another four year degree or a two year master's degree that they may be ill-equipped for. So these are the people we serve. They're a minority that needs a leg up. Just like having a foundation that helps Asian Americans or Hispanic Americans or Indian Americans get a leg up in an unfamiliar place, a place where you are underrepresented and generally marginalized.

That's why we serve only women.


So, what about the people who think you “have to” admit people?

We don't have to admit people. We're not a school that is accredited by the US Board of Education, nor are we a non-profit. We are a for-profit company, but we're a for-profit company with a mission.

That mission is to bring equality to computer science. Our strategy for doing so is the following: One, only let in people who will contribute to equality in computer science. Right now, the smallest subgroup of people in computer science is women. Other than, potentially, transsexual people. They're a small enough group, though, that if we were only to serve them, I think we'd go out of business. Women make up half the population on the planet, yet only about 6% of computer science engineering jobs.

The second thing that we aim to do is promote the idea that women are competent in the field. They are smart and useful, and just as smart and useful as men, and should be taken seriously. Rather than admit literally everyone who comes in, we admit the top 5% of our applicants. Now, these might have been people who would have gotten into computer science some other way, and that's great. But what it does by producing a candidate of a consistently high quality is further promote the idea that women are just as competitive as men in computer science. By putting out really excellent women into computer science, we reinforce a positive stereotype. Stereotypes are not all bad; positive stereotypes are great. We would love to reinforce a positive stereotype, which will help combat all of the subtle biases that work against women in computer science.

The last thing we do is make sure the insecurities and vulnerabilities that causes women to leave computer science in the first place are patched. We do some drills in the safety of Hackbright on whiteboarding, on salary negotiation. We do some generalized therapy, just by talking out insecurities and fears. We get very involved in their emotional wellbeing, because it matters a lot. The most productive software engineers aren’t afraid all the time, or down on themselves - they feel empowered. So, we do our part to empower our students.