Networking

More women developers? Hell yes, says Holberton School

A new school from a Docker prodigy aims to train a new generation of coders. Matt Asay explains.

Old tech
Image: Wikimedia Commons

There has never been a better time to be a software engineer, given the frantic competition to hire talent as software eats the world.

By 2020, the US Bureau of Labor estimates that there will be 1.4 million new developer job openings and only 400,000 computer science grads to fill them. As such, various efforts have sprouted up to fill the developer gap, e.g., the White House's TechHire initiative; the 30+ coding "boot camps" that have sprouted in tech hotspots San Francisco, Seattle, and New York alone; and rising interest among university grads (a third of Stanford University graduates last year earned degrees in engineering).

And then there's the Holberton School.

I sat down with Barbier to better understand what makes Holberton different.

Julien Barbier
Image: Sylvain Kalache via Flickr
Founded by Julien Barbier, a young executive from tech unicorn Docker, the Holberton School thinks it has a unique answer to the talent shortage in tech. Backed by a group of industry veterans from Apple, Docker (founder Solomon Hykes), Yahoo! (Jerry Yang), and LinkedIn, Barbier's Holberton School expects to train software engineers at scale, while also attracting a much more diverse student body than traditional programs.

What's in a name?

The first thing that is different about Holberton is the name. Most won't know the significance of the name, but Frances Elizabeth "Betty" Holberton was a programming pioneer and had an incredible career as a software engineer.

Among Holberton's diverse accomplishments, she was one of the six programmers of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), which was the very first programmable computer. She also worked on the prototype of all modern programming languages, and participated in the development of the COBOL and FORTAN programming languages with another extraordinary software engineer, Grace Hopper.

Despite these accomplishments, Holberton was a victim of discrimination. On her first day of classes at the University of Pennsylvania, her math professor asked her if she wouldn't be better at home raising children. Part of the reason for the name, hence, is to remind students of their potential to rise above stereotypes and discrimination based thereon.

But it's not just a clever name.

According to Barbier, one of the industry's main challenges is the shortage of female software engineers in Silicon Valley. To help remedy this, Holberton has "15 brilliant female mentors at Holberton." Barbier is quick to point out, "We feel very proud and lucky to have them on board," but "not because they are women." Rather, it's "because they are amazing as software engineers, CEOs, or industry leaders in their field."

Holberton, then, is making a conscious effort to find exceptional female talent to help mentor a rising generation of diverse developer talent. And while the school aims to create a more diverse developer talent pool, generally, that—in itself—would not be enough for its success.

What makes Holberton different?

Educated in a project-based and peer learning environment in Europe, Barbier has made this approach the foundation for Holberton's pedagogy.

As he tells me:

"At Holberton, you don't have to sit in a classroom for hours listening to theory that you will have to memorize by rote, and that you will forget a few days later. Actually, we do not have formal teachers. Instead, everything is project centered. Students have to solve increasingly difficult programming challenges, with minimal initial directions about how to solve them. And they also work on their own programming applications."

This approach, he insists, "makes learning much more engaging and much more exciting for our students," not to mention naturally showing them how to work together as a team. Traditional schools, he contests, "focus too much on theory when it comes to computer sciences and programming," which students find "boring."

Boot camps, for their part, are pricey (roughly $15,000) and, given their short length, can only teach students a framework or two. And while they may take three months to complete, a recent study found that enrollees tend to have six years of experience and a four-year Bachelors degree. In other words, it takes 10 years to become a junior developer, with a talent set that can quickly become obsolete.

Rather than focusing on learning a particularly hot framework or development tool, the emphasis at Holberton is on how to learn.

And that learning doesn't come with high hurdles. While the School is trying to figure out the right tuition model, it's currently free for all admitted students. Those students don't have to have graduated from college, or even from high school. You don't even have to have experience programming.

It's an interesting and, hopefully, successful approach. With the shortage of skilled developers, generally, and a particular shortage of skilled women developers, Holberton may provide a better way to train up the diverse generation of coders needed for the next 30 years of computing.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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