Impact Series

Ada Builders Academy’s new CEO seems to be to increase coding bootcamp’s influence on tech variety

Ada Developers Academy graduates at a graduation event Jan. 7, 2019. Of the 47 grads of the tuition-free software developers boot camp, 45 already had full-time jobs lined up upon completion of the program. (Jenny Crooks Photo)

Seattle-based Ada Developers Academy in December named Lauren Sato as the new CEO of the tuition-free, software development boot camp for women and underrepresented sexual, gender and racial minorities.

The 7-year-old program started as a project of the Technology Alliance before becoming a standalone nonprofit organization in 2015. It runs two 48-person cohorts per year and has graduated 380 students.

In recent years, 91 percent of the grads have found full-time jobs in technology within six months of leaving Ada. While women’s numbers in tech roles still lag well behind men — roughly one-quarter of professional computing occupations in the U.S. are held by women, according to federal data — momentum is building, Sato said in an interview with GeekWire.

“We’re on the precipice of some pretty significant change and I’m excited to be a proof point now and to help people see that,” Sato said.

Ada Developers Academy CEO Lauren Sato. (Ada Photo)

One goal is to bring more attention to specific groups within the broad category of women. While women are underrepresented in general in technology, only 2 percent of computer professionals are Hispanic women and 3 percent are African American women. Attracting and supporting students in these groups and from the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) community are part of an increased focus at Ada.

The Ada program provides six months of classroom training followed by a five-month internship at one of its corporate partners.

Before coming to Ada, Sato was most recently vice president of revenue at The Riveter, a female-focused co-working space, and was in leadership at the cosmetic-treatment review site RealSelf. Sato was also the Seattle director of operations and strategy at Year Up, a national organization that provides similar software development training to low-income men and women.

GeekWire caught up with Sato to discuss Ada’s approach, the progress being made in improving diversity in tech, and the challenges ahead. Here’s a transcript of the Q&A, edited for brevity and clarity:

GeekWire: There are numerous groups working to help underrepresented people find jobs in technology. Why Ada Developers Academy?

Lauren Sato: I watched somewhat from afar as Ada quickly became the go-to solution among my peers to support their efforts to diversify their technical workforce. It was really exciting to watch that and see momentum build. I was looking for my next move and it lined up with Ada looking for somebody who was going to take this great momentum and figure out how to grow their program well.

Ada Developers Academy graduate Shamira Marshall, one of 380 students who have received tuition-free coding education from the Seattle-based nonprofit. (Jenny Crooks Photo)

GeekWire: What makes Ada successful?

Lauren Sato: I worked with chief technology officers who absolutely refused to hire developers from boot camps. I think boot camps broadly have kind of gotten a reputation for not producing alums who are really up to the standard that our technical companies are looking for.

So it piqued my attention when there was an interest in bringing in Ada interns and alums. I thought perhaps, at first, it was a charitable lens or really focusing on the diversification side of things. But as it turned out, Ada is producing alums who are able to immediately contribute to the organization they are employed at. The product, if you were, really speaks for itself and has in many ways [debunked] the trends around industry perception of boot camps.

GeekWire: How specifically do you think Ada is able to do that? Is it coursework? Who you recruit?

Lauren Sato: It’s a few things. For one, it’s not just academic coursework. There’s really a holistic, how-to-be-a-great-team-member education that happens within Ada. Folks are coming out of the program not just able to code well. They’re coming in knowing how to be strong team members, knowing how to give and receive feedback well, knowing how to work with peers, and how to code with peers in a space where it’s hard to find folks who have those interpersonal skills on top of the development skills.

The other piece was, instead of focusing on one specific language, we really teach our students to learn how to learn, which is so critical. Our corporate partners alone represent over 20 different programming languages. Whereas most boot camps focus on learning a specific language, we’re really teaching our students to be able to pick up a new language quickly.

GeekWire: Is there anything that you’re going to tackle to change direction at Ada?

Lauren Sato: We’ve shifted our diversity targets to focus more heavily on underrepresented minorities, including the LGBTQIA community. Not only do we have an issue around not enough women in tech, we have a broader issue around the need for intersectional diversity so that our technology that we’re producing reflects the humanity who’s using it.

That’s a shift that we’ve made, and we’ve set targets for ourselves in order to achieve that.

GeekWire: Does that look like a change in how you recruit or is it also retention?

Lauren Sato: We’re very actively building relationships in the communities that we are seeking to pull from. We’re also considering where we’re located as we look to move this year, in order to be as accessible as possible because we know that’s an issue.

Attendees at the Ada Developers Academy graduation, from left to right: Ada graduate and board member Miriam Cortes, Ada co-founder and board member Scott Case, CEO Lauren Sato, outgoing Ada interim executive director Christine Martin, and Ada board member Rachel Klein. Photo taken Jan. 7, 2020. (Jenny Crooks Photo)

In terms of retention, one of the things that we learned the hard way at Year Up is as you start to target different populations, you need to rethink how you’re supporting them. We have a strong ability to help our students navigate work, but the social-financial assistance that they may need, we don’t do as much direct service work. We don’t have a team of social workers on staff. And that’s something that we’ll have to look at and be cognizant of.

We do have a student loan fund from an organization that’s called Craft3. They’re a community-based lending group. We’ve created a loan fund that, interestingly, is predominantly funded by our alumni at this point, so that our current students could have some financial support as they go through this program. It’s a tuition-free program, but students need to fund their living expenses. So that’s been a huge value add and made this program more comfortable for them.

GeekWire: Being at Year Up and the Riveter, programs that support women and underrepresented populations, were there any specific lessons that you are interested in applying here?

Lauren Sato: It’s probably become annoying to the staff how often I refer to Year Up, but we learned a lot of things the hard way! Both programs sit in the middle of the social service/social justice space and corporate engagement, and really meeting a tangible need for the corporations we work with.

And the reality is that companies are becoming more enlightened around social justice issues, around how much training they’ve done for their staff. It’s really fabulous to see so many companies bringing on heads to DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and giving those folks a seat at the table.

But we do sit in a space where we have to teach our students to navigate those two worlds and to be able to speak the [corporate] language, while also moving the needle and having an impact.

Technology companies continue to struggle to increase the number of women and underrepresented groups. (Statista Image)

GeekWire: Can you elaborate a little bit more? Where is the disconnect when employees start at these companies?

Lauren Sato: Super progressive companies are doing things like “ally-ship” training in house. They’re teaching employees to be aware of micro-aggressions and they’re focused on building belonging within their companies. That’s one end of the spectrum. And the other end of the spectrum is where they are just focused on bread-and-butter HR, and they haven’t done much with that internal training.

We work with companies along the entirety of that spectrum. Depending on where our students go, they’re going into a space, maybe, where there’s a “black women in tech” employee resource group, or maybe they’re going into a space where they are literally the only person of color and the company’s just starting to think about diversifying.

GeekWire: What are some of the most meaningful changes you’ve seen in improving diversity?

Lauren Sato: There’s a really phenomenal group in the city called 100% Talent (a regional initiative to shrink the gender wage gap). They have done a lot of research around best practices for increasing equity and gotten quite a few companies in the city to sign on to commit toward working to that.

There’s another group called Hacking HR that’s trying to focus on building belonging and teaching HR people not to just be legal and compliance.

A few things that both of those groups propose and coach companies around are creating employee resource groups (ERGs) — creating cohorts within the company of folks who are from a certain background or have a certain affinity. Companies who are thinking about diversity and belonging are creating those groups and then allowing those groups to inform their practices. And on the other hand, they are really dedicating a leadership voice to diversity, equity and inclusion, having somebody who has decision-making power at the table to influence how the company moves.

Those are two big ones, and there’s a lot of work around compensation equity. The final one is around mentorship and making sure that everybody has equal access and support around growing their career. Historically there have been sponsorship and mentorship models in which folks tend to bring up people that look and feel like themselves.

Ambitious programs intentionally cross-pollinate across functions in a company. That allows people to circulate among assignments on different projects or different teams, so they have exposure to different kinds of leaders. If folks are exposed to more leaders, they have more of an opportunity to find a leader that they are able to connect with and see themselves in.

From left to right: Ada alum Alyssa Hursh, Ada instructor Devin Helmgren, and CEO Lauren Sato at the recent graduation event. (Jenny Crooks Photo)

GeekWire: Is there an aspect to increasing diversity and equity in tech that seems most challenging?

Lauren Sato: The most challenging piece of it is the narrative around it.

I spoke with the folks at Melinda Gates’ private office at Pivotal Ventures a few years ago and they were doing a lot of research around this. They were ramping up their women-in-tech program and asking: Where’s the biggest break in the pipeline? Like, where should we focus our efforts? And they said it’s literally every step along the way from birth to retirement where we’re losing gender diversity from our workforce. That narrative makes it really, really hard to generate a sense of efficacy, and to keep people engaged and trying to solve a problem.

I think really highlighting stories where there are successes — it’s super important to shift that narrative. Until companies feel like there is something that can be done, they will be reticent to engage for the first time or, will tire of the effort of trying to solve the problem.

GeekWire: Where you have seen some breakthrough in a positive direction?

Lauren Sato: Our cohort of folks at Amazon is a really big deal, a really demonstrable subset of their employee base (Ada grads number about 48 employees). But I would say even more so at Indeed (the job search engine) where I think we have 30-to-40 alum. We’re starting to see these cohorts of alumni that really had an impact, where companies are listening to them, they’re asking them what it takes to help them feel like they belong. That’s phenomenal.

The thing in terms of outcome that has been the most mind blowing to me is that we had our graduation on Jan. 7 of 47 students and 45 of them already had accepted job offers and most of them had a competing offer. There’s so much evidence that this thing that we’re doing is working and it’s a really demonstrable value to the industry.

Editor’s Note: Funding for GeekWire’s Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.

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