The ADA Developers Academy: Bridging the gap between the digital and social divides

Taylor McAvoy September 20, 2016 0
ADA Developers Academy recently opened its next application window on August 22. • Courtesy Photo

ADA Developers Academy recently opened its next application window on August 22. • Courtesy Photo

With the increasing demand of new technology and new software comes the increasing demand for people trained in coding and programming; especially for students graduating from universities with technological degrees.

Co-founders Scott Case and Elise Worthy started the ADA Developers Academy (ADA) three years ago with an intent to bridge the gap between underrepresented people in tech and the education they need to enter the workforce.

Worthy attended a computing boot camp in Washington DC and felt the experience was lacking in diversity. She was inspired to start her own computing boot camp for women in Seattle with sponsorship from the Technology Alliance.

The first cohort graduated with 15 students and the second with 22 students, demonstrating that a training style of six months in the classroom and another six months in an internship was a valid model to get more women and underrepresented groups of women in the tech field.

ADA has sponsors and professional relations throughout the tech community in Seattle like Year Up, Unloop, and Floodgate Academy, all of which work to increase diversity in tech.

For the future, ADA is working to prove that their current model of 48 students twice a year is sustainable. ADA is also working with Tech Hire, which is a grant-funding project in Seattle for tech companies and academies. Tech Hire is currently expanding their reach with current partners.

The digital divide

Technology is a constantly expanding field and is becoming more and more of a necessity to navigate a contemporary society, but some people are being left behind in its advancement in what is called the digital divide.

Certain groups of people have less access to devices and the internet in developing countries and in the United States. For example, there are places in the United States and abroad that rely heavily on mobile devices because people do not have access to computers.

“Mobile is different technology paradigm,” ADA teacher Jeremy Flores said. “When we don’t consider those things [the differences between mobile and computer software], we don’t build tools that are accessible to people limited to those devices.”

ADA also teaches students to create software that is appealing and accessible to a broad audience in order to mitigate the digital divide.

Flores reminds his students that they learn and create software in a controlled environment with a nice computer and strong internet connection but that is not often reflexive of the audience they create programs for.

“We have a responsibility to build things that are accessible to as broad a population as we can,” Flores said. “By recognizing that the digital divide exists, only then can we attempt to bridge it.”

The social divide

The divide is not only digital but social. The tech field has long been homogenous, which is what ADA strives to change.

“I think that ADA is doing something huge in terms of bridging a diversity gap in tech right now,” student Yuri Nakashima said. “ADA is deeply invested not just in your ability in learning how to code but in you being a good software developer in a professional setting.”

ADA student Mengyao ‘Maya’ Wang grew up in Beijing and came to the United States to get her master’s degree in law at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Wang worked as a lawyer in New York before moving to Seattle to get married and discovered a passion for tech.

“To improve creativity, you have to have the base of diversity,” Wang said.

Flores echoed the effect that diversity has on quality.

“If we can increase the inclusion, increase the diversity on our teams, our software, our product begins to better reflect the communities that it serves,” Flores said. “People are more apt to support a product that they feel is reflective of their needs and their values.”

ADA’s Executive Director Cynthia Tee was born and raised in the Philippines by ethnically Chinese parents who encouraged her to get into computer science at a young age. Tee developed a passion for programming and traveled to the United States to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for computer science.

Tee said she felt privileged to be accepted into MIT to take classes and conduct research but expressed the challenges of being an international student after graduation.

She said she had limited choices as an international student but was fortunate enough to have English as a first language and to land an internship as a software engineer with Schlumberger.

“I think one of the larger challenges is our Asian culture and the way we get viewed as a model minority,” Tee said, referring to stereotypes of the well-educated and quiet model worker and expectations that come with it.

“When people assume things and those assumptions are incorrect, it creates friction,” Flores said. “It creates friction whether you try to correct those assumptions or not.”

Tee said that she often hears micro-aggressions that Asian Americans are model workers and all the same.

“We’re all very different actually, Tee said. “Even the immigrant population is actually very different. I feel like you need to recognize there’s lot of deep diversity in this population.”

Tee became a program manager lead at Microsoft in April 1994. She worked in a division lead by women but realized that the situation was unique and rare in tech.

“I felt like my few years in that nurturing environment gave me the confidence to succeed and persevere,” she said. “Over time, I worked my way to a position where I felt like I could influence and contribute to nurturing even more women into the field and diverse sets of people into the field.”

Tee said she found ADA when a woman she worked with passed on the executive director opening and she hit it off with the co-founders and board members.

“Right now I’m very focused on finding what the right student support model is especially for the underrepresented because I think it is a hard problem to crack,” she said. “There’s not one solution. We have to attack it from many different angles.”

Tee said that every admission cycle strives for more diversity and more inclusion of underrepresented groups like women of color and those who are non-binary gender. ADA is in its sixth cohort with 48 women.

“I would really like to see the leaders of this industry go out of their way to integrate themselves into a minority rather than having the minority integrate with them,” Tee said. “And if you have that attitude I think what happens is eventually both sides integrate better. … The good news is I think in Seattle there’s so many companies that have that intention, are already down the path of that journey, are very supportive of it. Given the high interest of supporting ADA interns, I think that’s starting to turn around.”

Still, Tee believes that changes could be made on both a technical and professional level like networking, for example.

“It’s not in our DNA to network,” she said. “We’re really great with our families, Asian and Pacific Islander people. But our ability to just go up to people and say, ‘Hey, here’s my professional affiliation,’ I think doesn’t always come naturally to us in this population. I think more groups in Seattle that foster that and help people be more proactive about their professional network is a good thing.”

The economic divide

ADA is a very selective tuition-free program with about 8% acceptance per cohort, according to their website, based on the limited space available and projected success in the program. Still, ADA’s recent expansion has doubled the number of students accepted from previous years.

To help students succeed no matter their economic limitations, ADA makes its curriculum available online for free along with recordings of lectures and a Jump Start program designed to prepare those who are new to programming for an academy like ADA.

Tee expressed her privilege with a well-educated family and financial stability but said that her situation is not reflective of a large portion of the population.

“There are also a set of underprivileged people, very intelligent with the right aptitude that deserve access to these opportunities [programs like ADA] as well,” Tee said.

ADA Student Heather Herrington was working with a career consultant when she developed an interest in code and programming. Herrington said most code and program schools’ high cost ruled them out as an option for her.

“Without ADA, I don’t know that I would have been able to pursue a coding career,” Herrington said.

She learned about ADA from Skillcrush, a free online code resource, and moved to Seattle from Pittsburgh to attend ADA.

“My students are brilliant,” Flores said. “They learn so much and they work so hard. It is a tremendous leap of faith to participate in this program.”

“It is a very positive environment,” Wang said. “People are not competitive over each other, it’s just cooperation … you can feel really safe to grow and have the inner energy, the incentive to grow.”

For more information, visit adadevelopersacademy.org.

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