The learn-to-code movement, tied to issues around diversity in tech, has received an explosion of attention over the past year.
I’ve been leading CodeNow, one of the organizations in the learn-to-code space, for almost four years now and I’ve been lucky enough to watch the industry expand and evolve during that time.
Four years ago, when I first decided to start CodeNow, there were no learn-to-code schools or online resources. Now, the space has exploded, with everyone from celebrities to politicians speaking about the importance of coding and hundreds of organizations and companies making an impact in the space. Students themselves deserve the most credit so far, as they’ve jumped in and created a demand for learning these skills. This will have a huge effect in the years to come, filling industry need, creating jobs, and empowering communities.
Of course, the goal of nonprofit learn-to-code organizations should be to put ourselves out of business. Once the opportunity to be exposed to coding is baked into our educational systems and culture, then our job is done. Although this current boost in awareness is a massive step in the right direction, we still have a long ways to go: among software developers in 2013, only 5 percent were Hispanic and less than 4 percent were African American, while women earn just 18 percent of undergrad CS degrees. Learn-to-code organizations are stepping in because our current education model is not making progress fast enough. Of the 30,000 students who took the advanced placement computer science exam in 2013, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were African American – not much better.
It is projected there will be more than 1.7 million developer- and programmer-specific job opportunities available in 2022, with an average salary of more than $83,000. The amount of demand for these skills in less than ten years are staggering — we must prepare today’s youth now in order for them to seize the opportunities of the future. This does not just benefit the students; as the world becomes increasingly dependent on technology, the next generation of creators will be structuring our world. We invest in today’s youth to invest in their lives as well as our own.
It’s worthwhile then, to look at how the current learn-to-code movement is structured — and how different organizations are tackling different parts of the problem. Not all learn-to-code organizations have similar targets, ways, and means. In reality, there are vastly different strategies being implemented, and in order to make a massive impact in the STEM fields and diversity in tech, we’re going to need all of them to work together. This is an issue that is going to take many actors, many years, and includes attacking the problem with creative solutions from all sides.
What I would like to do is provide an overview of where the space stands today and what can be done in 2015 and beyond to continue the progress we have seen this past year. There are still many, many gaps that remain to be bridged, especially for helping under-represented students break into these technical fields.
The first major umbrella consists of those organizations that are targeting awareness. Nonprofit entities like Code.org and initiatives like Google’s Made With Code are making strong headway in this field. They have done a great job of pushing this issue into the mainstream and have started to penetrate the mainstream social consciousness.
While success for awareness organizations is measured through publicity, social media, and the level of engagement with major projects like the Hour of Code from Code.org and Computer Science Education Week, it’s equally important to offer follow-up resources that allow students to continue their journey. One of the biggest dangers currently is giving prospective students a false start, where they show interest but cannot figure out how to move forward beyond the initial few hours of exposure. There are some great online resources – but many underrepresented students may not have a computer at home or may feel lost with all of the options, without any guidance. In addition, many students from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to attend schools without computer science classes. Awareness organizations should start working more closely with groups that offer a deeper level of in person, offline code education to cement interest and keep students moving through the education funnel.
Beyond awareness, there are organizations targeting “exposure”, which include the likes of CodeNow, Black Girls Code, CoderDojo, Technovation, Rails Girls, and many others. The main goal of these entities is to allow students to get a taste of coding as a discipline and be able to decide whether or not it is something they are interested in pursuing more formally. These organizations tend to offer between 5-30 hours of instruction — enough to complete a few projects. They also push students to consider computer-related studies in college.
Successful exposure is measured by the number and diversity of students that attend such programs, as well as the percentage who go on to study computer-related fields. We’ve made it a point at CodeNow to foster resources, create meet-ups, and help students develop their skills beyond the program — bridging the gap between these exposure courses, and more formal education opportunities in middle schools and high schools, is where continued progress is needed across the board.
A subset of the exposure group are those immersive programs that can also bridge the gap between the first 5-30 hours of coding, and full-blown curriculum. These programs include SMASH, Girls Who Code, TEALS, ScriptED, UrbanTXT and others. Until public education curriculum for coding is built out further, immersive programs such as these, paired with math classes, can successfully prepare and support underrepresented students as they seek to do more and potentially pursue computer-related higher education. In fact many of them are on the forefront of curriculum, providing lessons and teachers within schools. These immersive programs should also be interfacing increasingly with both the exposure programs on one end, and colleges, universities, and vocational programs on the other.
Vocational learn-to-code companies have gotten the most buzz because they’re generally for-profit and therefore have the capacity to build and get their offerings to market faster. Thousands of people have signed up with Turing, Flatiron, General Assembly, Fullstack Academy, Dev Bootcamp, Hack Reactor, Starter League, Hackbright Academy, Hacker School, and other great schools. With more resources at their fingertips, the vocational group is at the forefront of offering computer related education outside of higher education. They also span a wider number of subjects, with the ability to dive deeper into specializations like UI design, front end coding, app creation, data science and others.
The final bucket, and category with the widest reach are the many online learning companies, universities and organizations that have popped up in the last four years, such as Codecademy, Khan Academy, CodeSchool, Treehouse, and MOOCs from universities through Coursera, Udacity, and others. These are the companies and offerings that most people have heard about by now and have made an immense impact in getting people interested in computer-related skills, and realizing how much potential is at their fingertips.
Of course, the biggest challenge in this space is providing support for students who must generally be extremely self-disciplined — reports show that for some of the larger MOOCs student course completion rates under 5 percent. Many companies and courses are actively finding new ways to boost this number.
When looking at this all together, there is an immense opportunity in the coming couple of years. There must be greater coordination between organizational buckets, with the goal of creating a complete educational resource pipeline for students, so they can move up the ladder and continue to learn as their interest increases. This is no small task and necessitates a national, organized effort. A national association of coding organizations should come together to share best practices, decide which metrics should be tracked, and increase dialogue amongst providers. We should set new goals, akin to 100kin10 and Reskill USA, and pledge to fill those 1.7 million programming jobs by 2022. And we must convince the general public to join in and challenge our government to take a massive policy shift, and push for the Department of Education to make coding mandatory in every classroom – not just privileged ones. Tech companies can also do more, by going beyond donating money and becoming actively involved. Just a few weeks ago, Bloomberg LP became the first company to recruit its best engineers and teach its own CodeNow coding workshops, in its offices, to high school students in New York City.
We have come so far in just four years — when I started CodeNow I could have never imagined the President, celebrities, athletes, and business leader all expressing the importance of learning to code. It is truly amazing. There is clearly a lot left to do, but with 2014 and some great momentum behind us, and some really big ideas ahead of us, I’m confident that we will come together to affect positive change in our underrepresented communities and national education policy. Together we can narrow these gaps, and impact the U.S.’s ability to innovate for decades to come.
Ryan Seashore is CEO and founder of CodeNow.