Get with the program: the coders offering training for free
‘Why are we not doing more to have coding colleges and technical, vocational education alongside university education?” This question, raised by Labour’s Yvette Cooper during an interview with the Observer in May, reflects a wide concern about the availability and equality of software training, an area with a reputation for being elusive, exclusive, expensive and overwhelmingly male.
Calls to improve the state of digital education in the UK have become commonplace, with new coding initiatives appearing all the time. The international Hour of Code claims to have given millions of Britons a taste of programming, while the government declared 2014 the official Year of Code. Female programmers can join Girls who Code or Ladies who Code programmes; the BBC recently launched its Make it Digital’ campaign; and even the online grocer Ocado has thrown its hat in the ring with a scheme called Code for Life. But while the national curriculum now includes programming for children as young as five, there is still a dearth of affordable, vocational options in higher education, despite a rocketing number of well-rewarded jobs for software developers. A budding programmer can try to learn their trade online, tackling one of the hundreds of coding tutorials, or they can stump up the hefty tuition fees for one of the many private coding academies that have sprung up in the past decade.
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Or, if they’re very lucky, they might be able to secure a place at a tiny, grassroots school with no funding and hardly any staff, housed in a cramped, concrete room in an east London backstreet. This is Founders & Coders, the first full-time adult programming school in the UK to offer its services completely free of charge.
Dan Sofer founded F&C almost by chance. Having worked for years as a developer on numerous major websites, including the Guardian’s in the late 90s, he found himself at a loose end and began enrolling in Moocs (massive open online courses) to sharpen his coding skills. Finding the solitary learning experience uninspiring, he began arranging casual meet-ups with fellow students, and these quickly snowballed into a series of popular workshops, from matrix algebra to game theory.
F&C’s London rivals – Makers Academy, for instance, or General Assembly – charge up to £9,000 for equivalent courses, and can afford large numbers of staff. Sofer, however, has made a virtue of his school’s slender means. Students must provide their own laptops, and each group of 16 is divided into four, with each person assigned a particular role. “Software development is a team-based activity,” says Sofer, who rejects the stereotype of the hermetic solo programmer. By encouraging discussion and group activity, and minimising the students’ dependence on senior programmers, he believes they are forced to learn more quickly and intuitively. “We don’t have many resources, but it’s a happy coincidence that this is also a great learning environment,” he says. “Having people around you who know everything is not always motivating.”
Web developer Naomi Gaynor. The diversity of F&C’s recruits is challenging the traditionally male demographic. Photograph: Antonio Olmos
There remains the question of how to run a school with no fees and no funding – a question that Sofer addresses with a mixture of optimism and blind faith. Indeed, there is something cultish about the atmosphere at F&C, not least because the school’s future is predicated upon its adherents’ loyalty to the cause. “We demand much more [than a regular coding academy], but we’re offering a lot more,” explains Sofer. “Everybody here feels fortunate and wants to give something back.” This means that once their time on the course is over, students are encouraged to “move upstairs” to join F&C’s co-operative of freelance, trainee developers. In this capacity they mentor new students, which consolidates their own learning. “You kind of go through the course twice, first as a student, and secondly as a mentor,” says Sofer. “You learn by teaching.”
Nevertheless, a skeleton of professional support is provided by a small pool of senior mentors; experienced programmers who offer expertise on a pro bono basis. “As far as I know [F&C] is completely unique,” says Robin Houston, a mentor at the school and founder of the data visualisation firm Kiln. “Most of the other schools are commercial operations; there’s a lot of money to be made charging people to learn to code.”
Houston recognises that the current situation for would-be programmers is flawed. “Most good people I’ve worked with are self-taught, because there’s a paucity of formal channels,” he says. “It’s odd that people who want to program often end up studying computer science, when it’s tangential to what they want to do. I respect and understand computer science, but it’s not programming, and the people teaching it is’t programming experts; they’re computer scientists.”
A lot of students come in with no experience at all. It’s inspiring to see them get the bit between their teeth
This inadequate infrastructure contributes, in Houston’s opinion, to a worryingly monocultural landscape. “Because of the lack of straightforward channels into the industry, it ends up being dominated by people like me who spent their childhoods playing with the ZX Spectrum.” This demographic, he recognises, is largely male, and he is further impressed by the diversity of F&C’s recruits and their swift progress. “A lot of them come in with no previous experience at all. It’s impressive and inspiring to see them get the bit between their teeth.”
Once there is a full crop of graduate coders in the school’s upper room, Sofer hopes F&C can attract outside clients, so he can put his freelancers to work on commercial projects. This business model is still finding its feet, but some former students are already sharing a trickle of paid work.
One such novice developer is Natalia Baltazar, who took the course last autumn. Unable to afford paid training, she read about F&C in an “obscure online publication” and six months later was enrolled. Baltazar compares the learning experience to solving a vast but satisfying puzzle, with numerous tiny pieces to be fitted in place. “It’s daunting, but you end up loving that,” she says, adding that she struggled more with the school’s social ethos. “During the first weeks, I would show off and say ‘Look, I learned this first.’” After a gentle pep-talk from a mentor, Baltazar came to realise “that’s not what this place is about. It’s about making sure that when you rise up you bring everyone else with you.”
Sofer is visibly proud of the environment he sees growing around him. “It’s brutally meritocratic,” he warns, “but the bar is high not in ability but in commitment, enthusiasm, curiosity.” The image of the thrusting tech-wunderkind, hungry for startup-stardom, is dispensed with here. “It’s not ‘come to our school and you’ll be rich’,” he grins. “It’s ‘come to our school and we’ll guarantee pauperism as long as you stay here’.” The student body doesn’t seem to mind. Each group is coding a blogging platform from scratch, which has to be finished by the end of the week. Five years from now, who knows what they’ll be building?
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In some ways, 42 resembles F&C. It has few teachers and is centred on small groups of peers learning together. Unlike F&C’s inauspicious quarters, however, 42 is housed in a 4,000-square metre premises in northern Paris, and enrols nearly 1,000 students a year for its demanding three‑year course. It can afford to do so thanks to founder Xavier Niel, a wealthy media and telecoms magnate. Niel has poured millions of euros into the school since its foundation in 2013 in the hope of bolstering the future of the French software industry.
42 is less a response to expensive coding schools and more an indictment of the French higher education system, which Niel feels has failed to provide sufficient opportunities for budding software developers.
The Recurse Center, New York
he Recurse Center is a full-time “retreat for programmers”, which invites applicants from all over the world for its three-month courses. While absolute beginners are not accepted, co-founder Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock says the centre welcomes “everything from high-school dropouts to computer science PhDs”. Having a variety of experienced and inexperienced students is part of Recurse’s strength, he says, as it facilitates discussion and community learning. The centre encourages further diversity by providing living expenses of up to $7,000 to female, Latino and African‑American students.
It manages to do this by making recruitment agreements with tech companies; if Tumblr, for instance, hires an alumnus, they pay a sum to the Recurse Center. The organisation currently has about 60 such agreements, so the model seems to be holding up. “Demand for good programmers is incredibly strong,” says Bergson-Shilcock, “and getting stronger.”
Ada Developers Academy, Seattle
In 2013 independent research suggested that on average only 12.3% of programmers at US tech companies were women. That year, Elise Worthy co-founded Ada Developers Academy, a free school in Seattle devoted to closing the yawning gender gap. “In the US there’s a large push to increase gender diversity in the tech community,” she says, and Ada has exploited this by inviting tech companies in the Seattle area to sponsor students through the one-year coding programme, with a view to subsequently hiring them. Companies including Microsoft and Amazon have signed up and, according to Worthy, their involvement is more than mere tokenism. “Diverse teams function better,” says Worthy. “It makes good moral sense, but it also makes good business sense.”
The course is aimed at complete newcomers to coding, but applicants needn’t be green young graduates; more than half of the students so far have been amateur developers hoping to change career. This unusually relaxed and inclusive template is in tune with Ada’s unusual ethos: the company makes no profit, Worthy insists the atmosphere is not competitive, and she has no interest in Ada becoming a “giant school”. Nevertheless, she admits it has already had an effect on the Seattle tech industry. “We’ve put 40 women into that mix,” says Worthy, “so we’re changing the demographic.” KB