On creating internal corporate programs to teach women to codeFeatured

I’m Joelle Fronzaglio, Software Developer by virtue of good fortune, hard work, and leveraged networking. I have a business degree and the majority of my career has been spent in banking. I thought one of the biggest leaps I’d take in my career was getting out of banking in 2015 to take a role in HR. I had never done anything else, didn’t really believe that I could, and I had the illusion that banking was safe - a clear ladder I could climb if I continued to get up every day, don the blazer, ensure neither tattoos nor shoulders were visible, and paste on the papier mache smile each morning. Four years later, as a technologist, I can retrospectively see the writing on the wall – my happiness is worth the risk, and brick and mortar banking as I knew it is on its way out anyway.A year and a half into my new role at a hip young startup, boredom set in. I used SmartSheet and Docusign beta programs to automate the tasks with which I filled the workday and I asked my boss for more work where there was none. He encouraged me to use my free time to go learn something.Around the same time, our Chief People Officer asked me to lunch, curious about my next area of interest – I had essentially worked myself out of a job. I wasn’t interested in HR, but I also wasn’t ready to leave this human-first company that had taken the fear and loathing out of coming to work each day. She suggested I might like to be a software developer and she knew her husband would be willing to help. Here’s networking and incredible fortune at play: her husband is our Chief Technology Officer, and I had spent an entire year immersing myself in the software department microcosm to learn how HR could best serve Software. I had become a familiar face to nearly everyone in that department.So I dove head first into FreeCodeCamp, EdX, Coursera, Khan Academy, and so many other resources to start learning to code. More good fortune: my company was interested in potentially contracting a bootcamp organization to help level up our existing development staff. If I could prove my interest and aptitude, they’d send me to be the test case for their chosen boot camp organization. I completed the boot camp and joined a software development team, which is where the real learning began.One year into my new role as a developer, I learned about an informal group that had formed in the company around a common interest in learning to code. To me, this was serendipity. I was well aware of how privileged and lucky I was to have the opportunity to work hard and switch careers, and I was ready to pay it forward. I stepped in as the group’s mentor, and began using the EdX CS50 curriculum to teach the basics of logic and C language foundations. I'll call the group "ConnectCS".The first cohort of ConnectCS waxed and waned in membership, but three women stuck it out, forming impromptu group study sessions after work hours and ensuring the others stayed on track. I reached out to a Senior Architect, who had mentored me as I prepared for bootcamp. He also happens to be a professor at the local University in Computer Science. He saw the aptitude and dedication of these women and decided to ask their managers for four hours each week for intense group study. The Architect took over the education of these women, and I decided to redirect my efforts to others who had expressed interest in learning to code. I asked for a volunteer to help me teach the group, and the second cohort of ConnectCS started a month later.I learned a lot from the first round:- Pacing is important. Keeping the group on the same pace and asking the quicker members to teach what they learned to others not only makes my job easier by narrowing focus each week, but also boosts the confidence of the top of the class as they explain difficult concepts to their peers.- More on pacing: I learned that with my specific curriculum, one syllabus week will take our group 3-4 weeks to complete in a sustainable way. These students have full-time jobs as their first priority, and most of them have families to tend to at home, so stretching out a syllabus week makes the commitment less intimidating and more attainable.- It is important for me not to put goals on the students; some want to change their careers, others are just curious about code. I learned to match my time commitment to their energy and investment.- I learned how to give impartial feedback. My ego’s interest was getting all of these students to become developers, but that won’t make each of them happy. As individuals asked for one-on-one advice, I listened to their individual circumstances, framed their attention and energy as bandwidth, and encouraged them to limit it to better invest in whatever they needed to prioritize, even if that meant dropping out of my group.With a better handle on pacing, scheduling, and my own time investment to the group, I started documenting our progress and having conversations with management about making the program a sustainable cycle. Together with Jim and other members of senior management, we came up with a whole progression, I'll call "Connect2Code":1.) “ConnectCS” – C language and logic for about an hour/week, as much as 6 months2.) “Stage 2” – C# language and boot camp preparation 4 hours/week, 3 months3.) 3rd party boot camp 40 hours per week, 3-4 months4.) Integration into software teams within the companyToday, the first cohort of ConnectCS is immersed in their third month of software boot camp and feel better prepared than their peers. The second cohort of ConnectCS is preparing to take an entrance exam into Stage 2, and they all hope to be developers for the company within eight months. In a couple of weeks, a third cohort of ConnectCS begins.I have spent countless hours crafting this casual group into a full-fledged program and I’m excited to say that it’s being formally recognized as an internal recruitment pipeline for software developers and is changing lives along the way. But, this was not without hardship.- Early on, I could see that this group was going to take a lot of my free time, and I asked for my job description to reflect my efforts teaching others, so increases in pay would be considered with this effort in mind. I was swiftly denied and reminded by the same aforementioned CTO that my job is to write code, first and foremost, and this group should not interfere. Meanwhile, the VP of our department asked me to dedicate at least 4 hours of work per week to the group. The mixed signals caused confusion and anxiety until I decided I’d continue to do good work even if it meant after hours. Giving others this opportunity is something I’m very passionate about, so I started to view it as heart work.- When the Architect took over the first cohort’s education, others immediately assumed he was the leader of the entire project, that it was his idea. I had a difficult conversation with him that required a lot of vulnerability to tell him how I felt he was taking credit for my work, and to my surprise he responded by working on getting me recognition.- Getting a seat at the table was hard won. It took more than six months and the turnover of our VP. Meetings about my project had been happening around me, decisions were made about my group without my input, and lots of misinformation was spread because the source wasn’t in the room. Eventually, this worked in my favor when my boss, acting as interim VP, asked me to review the marketing materials for the project and I sent him my notes in red pen: most of it was completely inaccurate. The next thing I knew, a recurring meeting was on my calendar.- I asked for a pay raise several times, justified by the sheer amount of energy I put into making the whole process more professional and effective. I was ignored, denied, and told blatantly by my boss that he couldn’t see why what I was doing was important enough to ask for more money for, even after the project became a formalized internal recruitment pipeline that the company was clearly ready to put cash behind. Since being invited to the meetings about the project, I’ve taken every opportunity to produce materials to educate about the process – mostly because I learned that if I wasn’t writing it, I’d be correcting it later. The same boss who didn’t see the value, now sees the effort I’m putting in and how professional my work product is, and is pursuing a pay raise for me.The biggest lesson I learned is that it’s important for me to work somewhere that values my holistic contributions to the company. I write good, clean code, have a solid grasp on the architecture of our systems, ask questions to drive technical growth on our team, and I do it all while teaching the next group of developers – and that is value-added work. I see this project as an important opportunity to increase diversity in the technical world, a major value for our company. I fortified myself in the understanding that as a Woman in Technology, I am not just asking for a raise and recognition for myself. I am setting a standard in the department that when a woman picks up a passion project that the company values and adopts to increase profit or decrease costs, she should be recognized formally and taken seriously.
I loved reading this, thank you so much for sharing. And congratulations on all your efforts and accomplishment.
Thank you for reading, Bridget, and thank you for the congratulations! One of the women who is currently finishing up bootcamp is going to be joining MY development team, and I couldn't be more thrilled with the outcome. So exciting!
@JoelleF, I also really enjoyed reading this. Inspiring. I'd love to see efforts like this at more companies. As someone who has dabbled in a number of the resources you mentioned and never quite gotten over the hurtle of learning to code online and independently, something like this when I was still working for other companies would have been exactly what I needed.It sounds like you've created a number of artifacts as you've formalized the program. I'm curious to know if you've written a white paper or case study?Thank you for sharing your lessons learned so thoughtfully and candidly.
@beccawilliams I haven't even begun to consider a white paper, and I don't have much of an academic background so that's a little out of my comfort zone as far as knowing how to do that well. I'd love to talk more about it though if you're open to it.
Sure, I'm open to a chat, @JoelleF. I'll message you.
Joelle- I cannot tell how enthusiastic I am about what you are doing and what you have done already. I would love to see this type of program replicated. I think there are many ways that could happen. So many would benefit from what you’ve learned! Bravo and I hope you feel very proud. Carolyn Peer
Thank you Carolyn! I really appreciate the cheers. I'm proud of the program and so much more proud of the three women who have completed it thus far!
**Update**Persistence and determination were key in getting that raise. After a year of asking, last week I was informed that I'd be getting a "Market Adjustment" and they offered me exactly what I was asking for!