This article was first published on LinkedIn.
Anything that's built on code is coming into greater and greater demand, creating ever-growing gaps between the demand for and supply of developers. Both Android and Apple app markets are exploding with products and services, and web development isn't slowing down by any means. The very interface of our online experience is changing rapidly. The web's cultures and uses are expanding and shifting dramatically as more and more people do more of their working, socializing, playing, learning, and relaxing on their computers, phones, and tablets.
Traditionally, software developers entered their careers by either teaching themselves in their garages or getting CS degrees. Tech culture was shaped and promoted by vibrant online communities that were dedicated to various languages and technologies, where people engaged with each other to improve their knowledge base or share what they know. These communities, of which there are only more of today, are an essential facet supporting the state of today's changing technology, but now there's a new way into a developer career these days: the coding bootcamp. These are short, intensive programs that teach usually a handful of languages and technologies to help students switch careers into web development. The vast majority are in-person programs, although some, like the Viking Code School, are remote.
Many of these bootcamps are proving to be extremely successful, in part because of the tremendous demand for web developers. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 20% growth in demand by 2022, but take a look at any web development job ad and you'll see for yourself how web developers are being courted.) Alumni even sometimes go on to produce their own bootcamps, create teaching material, or at least blog about it, because the tech community is extremely open with its knowledge, promoting of open source projects, and is rife with the intrinsic human desire to give back.
In a field where the barrier to entry was not insurmountable even if you came without a CS degree, the knowledge needed to enter is becoming easier to acquire, to the joy of current and future service users everywhere. But it's not reaching those who would benefit the most.
A few weeks ago at a GirlDevelopIt class on Github I got into a conversation about the rise of coding bootcamps. I'm due to enter one myself soon, and my enthusiasm for these kinds of programs is hard to contain. My conversation partner heard me out, made a face and said, "That's great for people who have an extra 10 grand sitting around, and 3 months to devote to studying code."
She was completely right—this option isn't available to those who would most benefit from it. Single parents, individuals at or below the poverty level, and many others are barred from these programs by virtue of not having the required resources. They would be able to code if they were taught—there is a belief taking hold on the internet that anyone can code—but they have no such opportunity. Women, minorities, and immigrants, who have traditionally faced greater barriers to entry into this and related fields, face the same issue.
But wait, you say. Isn't it common for self-taught individuals to break into the field? Oh yes, this is true, and there are many more services and books available now than ever before for those seeking to break into coding, a new language, new technologies or methodologies, and more. These services, of which a majority are free or low-cost, have been popping up to support complete newbies in trying out coding for themselves (just take a look at Codecademy or Coursera's technical offerings for yourself). With books like Chris Pine's Learn to Program widely available, which require only that you have access to a computer, it seems as though the route of becoming self-taught is ever more accessible.
But it's just not enough. So many members of these populations lack the kinds of support networks and basic knowledge that has been traditionally implicated in the success of the self-taught: they don't have STEM backgrounds, they don't know people in tech that could act as guides, they don't know where to start. They don't know that it's possible for them to break into software development.
Even when they are exposed to the kinds of introductory materials I've mentioned, they are demonstrably still unable to self-develop into web developers: because they lack mentors and at some point have to delve deeply into it without support, because most of these offerings promote only a small piece of the knowledge base they will be needing, and because they are learning something utterly distinct from what they have ever known and are doing so completely on their own. Complete programs like The Odin Project are starting to try to meet just these kinds of needs in that they try to provide a fullstack knowledge base to their students, but mentors or even other students are still difficult or impossible to access. Mentorship programs are popping up, too, but the bar to entry remains thanks to the high cost. All of this is still not enough, especially for those who have been traditionally barred and who remain only the tiniest percentage of the software development workforce today.
What we need is something different. We need a whole new kind of bootcamp based on a very different structure: the meeting of a zero-to-hero curriculum that can be completed in 8-10 months, a student able to dedicate a minimal number of hours per day, and an experienced mentor ready to guide the student in a personal and supportive way as they work through the curriculum together. And these programs need to be completely free.
In support of this proposal, there are already a great number of fruits ripe for the plucking: online tech communities are full of people wanting to give back and support others coming into the field, tutorials on any language or technology are widely and often freely available, and more.
What we still need is this:
It's simply not enough to throw the materials at people and imagine that they will stick. It's important to create a complete program that ties in all the separate elements that are themselves freely available; that mimics the pace of today's bootcamps but not in a way that forces prospective students to give up their current livelihoods or renegade on their responsibilities; and provide consistent and personal support of the sort that has been proven to result in students' mastery of material. And the barrier to entry must be only as high as access to a computer, or we are not reaching the people who would most benefit.
I hope to one day be working on just such a project, but in the meantime, this idea is too important and too timely to keep to myself. We have the opportunity right now to change thousands of lives for the better by taking advantage of a uniquely accelerating field. Let's start the conversation about bringing more people into building the services and products more and more of us are using. Let's change the inner face of the Internet by applying a few dollars in the right places and a few words in the right ears. Let's create more talent for companies to draw upon and employ at some of the highest entry-level salaries available today. Let's change the lives of those who don't know that these careers are indeed available to them, and let's do it by supporting them in creating beautiful and useful things from which the rest of us benefit.