Coding Is A Privilege

The path to becoming an engineer should be wide open and accessible for everyone. But that’s not the case today.

By Alisha Ramos (Front-End Designer, Vox Media)

This post originally appeared on Medium

I recently met up with a woman who wants to switch careers to become a developer or designer, much like I did. “I looked into those coding bootcamps, but they cost so much money! I can’t do that.” she said. I empathized with her. I had a very similar experience and reaction when I first decided to quit my corporate job and become a developer.

With the rise of coding bootcamps, it’s become a popular notion that being able to code is simply a matter of will, not dollars. “Learn how to code and become a developer, it’s easy! Take an eight-week course!”

But this couldn’t be further from the truth: Becoming a developer is difficult and often out of reach for those without access to money.

Coding Bootcamps are Expensive and Come with Great Financial Risk

Coding bootcamps can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The average tuition at one of these programs, according to research by Course Report, is $11,063. That’s not an insubstantial amount of money. When you consider the cost of living in major cities where such coding bootcamps are located  —  Generally Assembly, for instance, has locations in New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., London, Hong Kong, and more  —  it seems even more out of reach.

Some offer minority or special case scholarships or partner with lenders. But scholarships are often few and far between. And the financing programs? The interest rates from the ones I’ve seen seem fine (5–12 percent), but if you break down a typical $10,000 class into a 3-year plan, that’s around $300–400 in monthly payments. That may seem like an okay amount to you or me, but to many it’s still not an insubstantial amount.

For some people, the loans work out great. They land a job as a developer after the bootcamp, earn a more-than-decent salary, and pay it off. But the value proposition of coding bootcamps — “give us a few weeks of your time, and we’ll help you land a job that can pay $100k+” — belies the stark reality that oftentimes, graduates of coding bootcamps don’t land those well-paying jobs. Job placement statistics have not been revealed by many of the programs. Some highly selective programs such as Hack Reactor do boast job placement at 98%, but the majority have refrained from sharing. InfoWorld reports on the problematic job placement rates at coding bootcamps, citing instances in which low-performing students have been asked to leave to improve numbers, and how some employers are reluctant to hire a junior developer who has taken a 12-week coding course.

“Computer Science Can Help Interrupt the Cycle of Inequality.”

I believe that the path to becoming an engineer should be wide open and accessible for everyone  — particularly young people  — regardless of their background, what their parents do, or how much money they have.

For myself, coding has meant mobility and freedom. I grew up without a lot of money in an immigrant household. We weren’t poor, but we were never well-off. Now, I write code and make a decent amount of money. I’m able to take my parents out on nice dinners and vacations — everything I’ve wanted to do but could never do before I became an engineer. Part of me yearns to give this gift to everyone who feels that they are stuck. Being a developer is a position of privilege, but privilege (or extreme sacrifice) should not be the only path to becoming one.

Jane Margolis and Yasmin Kafai frame the conversation best in their “coding for all” piece in the Washington Post:

“Computer science can help interrupt the cycle of inequality that has determined who has access to this type of high-status knowledge in our schools.”

Things Are Getting Better, But It’s Not Enough

I’m not attacking coding bootcamps. They are filling an important education gap that’s missing. I have friends and coworkers who have graduated from or taught at General Assembly and more. Recently, a few of the leading coding bootcamps even signed on to President Obama’s “TechHire” initiative to help train workers for high-paying tech jobs. General Assembly is offering full-tuition scholarships for low-income students through DC’s Innovation Opportunity Program.

But to rest our laurels on coding bootcamps as a solution to income inequality and mobility would be naive at best. After all, coding bootcamps are for-profit businesses. They lack the incentives to work at these issues in the long run.

We need to recognize the privilege required to attend such bootcamps and we need to seek other, more sustainable ways to provide those who are less privileged with better education, training, mentorship, and exposure to code.


About the guest blogger: Alisha Ramos is a designer, developer and sometimes-writer living in Washington, D.C. She works at Vox Media as a front-end designer. Prior to working in tech, she worked in brand consulting in New York. Alisha graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Sociology and Medieval History. Follow her on Twitter at @alishalisha.