Jason Carlson, Chemistry’s VP of Engineering, tells us why he volunteers at the Seattle-based female developer’s academy, Ada, and why a gender-balanced team is essential to building a great culture – and to building better software, too…
Building a healthy, inclusive and collaborative team has always been my top priority as a manager. I’d never stand for the ‘tech-bro’ culture seen in far too many engineering teams. Before joining Chemistry, I was co-founder and CTO of a startup in Seattle, where 4 out of the 12 developers working on our project management app were female. I’m sad to say that’s a shockingly high percentage in the tech world.
One of the challenges we faced was that we were constantly in hiring mode – whether replacing normal attrition or simply expanding the team – but the market for developers in Seattle has not been hot, to say the least. We were competing against a flood of deep-pocketed Silicon Valley companies opening engineering offices in Seattle, not to mention hometown giants like Microsoft and Amazon. We’d frequently find ourselves spending upward of two months screening, interviewing and spending precious cycles on every position. It was completely untenable.
Ada Developers Academy, Seattle
A couple of years ago, our CEO Liz joined the board of a local, non-profit developers’ academy called Ada. Its mission is: To diversify Tech by providing women and people of non-binary gender the skills, experience, and community support to become professional software developers who contribute to changing the world with software.
An incredibly worthy and much-needed goal. Not only does it give under-represented people a chance at a software career, but also helps alleviate some of the shortage in engineering talent. Similar academies can be found online and in most major cities.
Ada itself consists of 6 months’ intensive software development training, followed by a 6-month internship with one of the sponsoring companies. Liz suggested we take on one of the interns. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical. Like most hiring managers, I was looking for a particular set of skills, an engineering degree and a minimum amount of relevant experience. In my mind, there was no way a 6-month boot-camp could prepare someone to be an engineer.
Nonetheless, we took on the intern. When she started, we noticed something immediately – she had a drive, hunger to learn and desire to prove herself far beyond any of the junior developers I’d hired before. It wasn’t simply Tell me what to do – it was How can I help? Why does it work this way? How can I do this better? Her personality was infectious and she quickly cemented herself as a strong, contributing member of the team. Without hesitation, I offered her a full-time position at the end of her internship.
Building a damn better environment.
I think, by now, we’re all familiar with the gender imbalance in technology; it’s been covered widely over the last few years. As has the toxic culture of some of the all-male development orgs. But until you’ve built a well-balanced, healthy team, you cannot truly understand how much better the culture can be. Ideas flow freely and no-one fears being shot-down. Team members feel valued and empowered. You build much better software. It’s also, frankly, a damn better environment; an environment that means you want to come to work each day and be a contributing part of a well-oiled development machine.
Part of the success of Ada and other academies like it can be attributed to the phenomenal job they do in screening applicants. They aren’t looking at college degree or experience. In fact, most of their students have no STEM background at all. Librarians, teachers and artists help fill the ranks of each cohort. What they’re looking for is potential. They want to see applicants with creativity, drive and the ability to think deeply about problems. Someone who has a hunger to learn and can work through difficult obstacles without giving up. All traits that you see in the best engineers on the planet. Coding can be taught, but changing someone’s personality is extremely hard.
I was so impressed with our intern, and Ada’s program and mission, that I decided to volunteer. I run students through mock developer interviews as part of their training and what I see time and again is the same thing: incredibly bright, hungry students poised to break into the tech world – if only someone would give them the chance.
The innate qualities that make for truly great engineers.
Unfortunately, most companies wouldn’t look twice at a teacher who had decided to switch careers and only started coding 6 months ago. This is where most companies are making a huge mistake. By focusing their screening on education and experience, they’re not looking at the innate qualities that make for truly great engineers. Values, motivations and behaviors are hugely important, difficult to change and highly correlated to success on the job. Hiring a brilliant engineer from Stanford, that no one can stand to work with, only leaves you with a cratering mess. Programs like Ada, meanwhile, help with three things:
- They’re working to balance gender in tech (and on your team)
- They give you access to fantastic candidates
- They’ve done the difficult screening process for you
That alone should pique your interest – but also know that you’d be giving a female developer without a technical background an opportunity to prove herself. You’d be helping her, while making your team stronger and ultimately building better software for your customers. It’s a complete win-win. So, the next time you have an open position, contact your local female developer’s academy and give someone a chance.