Universities not teaching front-end development is a diversity problem
Why care about front-end?
I have been fortunate. I started coding when I was in first grade. A 20 chair computer lab in my Almaden private school equipped us with desktop access, personal floppy disks, and exposure to PC Logo: a software that lets coders move a turtle around the screen to draw shapes.
I loved it. No, not because the algorithmic thinking ignited in me a sudden unwavering passion for computer science. It was the interface: a cute turtle icon, color picker, and the agency to draw whatever I wanted with a few commands.
I refer to that first experience to explain the power of front-end development. Across the software industry, I’ve noticed one persisting innovation model: when we build things, we like when people use them. And the fact is that without front-end development, technologies aren’t widely usable. Without front-end development, technologies hold potential rather than utility.
As of 2015, Internet users comprised more than 40% of the world’s population. More than 2.6 billion people worldwide use smartphones. With growing demand for mobile and web technologies, there is a growing demand for mobile and web developers — front-end developers.
Schools and universities fail to meet this demand for their students.
The knowledge gap in our educational system
For high schoolers, the closest brush to front-end development comes in the AP Computer Science course’s GridWorld case study. GridWorld provides a graphical user interface (GUI) to guide bugs around a grid. But plainly, the front-end knowledge that GridWorld imparts has negligible real-world application. Not to mention, it’s no longer a required part of the curriculum.
For most of us, computer science education begins in college. At this crucial inflection point, universities across the map fail to offer courses to make packageable software products like mobile apps or websites back-ended by cloud databases.
So here’s the bottom line. After paying for their estimated $9,000-a-year public college education or $30,000-a-year private college education, university students looking to make an app or website are still left with a knowledge gap to fill.
Will someone teach me what I don’t know?
The going rate for iOS boot camps in software hub San Francisco roughly exceeds $10,000. Across the country, these iOS crash-courses range from $4,000 to $15,000. Android development boot camps tend to range from $2,000 to $5,000. Costs for web development boot camps span $2,000 to $15,000. Basically, filling the front-end knowledge gap with a supplementary structured course does not come cheap.
So students must turn to self-study.
Self-study propagates diversity issues in tech
Self-study shows passion. It suggests genuine interest. It demonstrates that extra bit of initiative. So if a student is highly motivated, do they not have every opportunity to go out and grab at all the front-end knowledge on the World Wide Web? In short, no.
Self-study depends on a dangerous and ultimately false assumption: equality of opportunity. Females, low income students, and students of color face a different set of obstacles to capitalizing on self-study opportunities.
Young boys and girls experience widespread social conditioning. They receive different toys, internalize different media images, and engage in different activities. Often, young girls aren’t receiving Legos for their 6th birthdays or robot toys for their 10th. The media tends to align young girls with images in romantic comedies rather than science fiction movies. According to the concept “stereotype threat”, girls underperform in STEM when conscious of negative stereotypes. Thinking they have little aptitude, young girls are more likely to shy away from computer science. It logically follows that girls are less likely to forge out into the tech world and self-study front-end development.
Students from low-income families and particularly students of color are similarly disserviced by expectations of mandatory self-study. It is not difficult to believe that exposure to tech takes resources. Wealthy families are better positioned to offer children access to these resources from an early age. The ramifications continue even after these students earn acceptances to top colleges. Students in scholarship, financial aid, and work study programs often work part-time during the school year. They find less leisure time to self-study mobile or web development.
Discounting women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups in tech as unmotivated to self-study is misguided. Silicon Valley’s hacker culture has cultivated an expectation of always going the extra mile to learn, play, and figure things out. But this extra mile isn’t accessible to all.
By not including crucial courses in their curriculums, universities stack the odds against groups already underrepresented in tech. Universities fail to do their part to close this gap and equalize opportunity for students.
Underrepresented groups in tech often experience “impostor syndrome”, feeling undeserving of their successes. Saddled with this self-concept, they are less willing to chase tech experiences they feel unprepared for. Men apply for a job when they meet 60% of qualifications whereas women apply when they meet 100% of qualifications. Popularized by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, this statistic reveals a vicious cycle for underrepresented groups in tech. Lack of inclusion leads to mindsets that further inhibit underrepresented groups from being included in tech.
No wonder hackathons lack diversity
If you’re familiar with tech culture (or have watched HBO’s Silicon Valley), chances are you know what a hackathon is. Participants have 24 hours to create something, be it an app, website, game, tool, product, prototype — pretty much anything.
Hackathons are great for learning. And they are especially great for gaining front-end experience. Students looking to get exposed to front-end development can learn to make packageable products (like apps or websites), getting a valuable end-to-end software experience.
But diverse students are not at hackathons.
I had been coding for fourteen years before attending my first hackathon. What took me so long?
First, I had few female friends who coded. Underrepresented students often experience this. By definition, they’re underrepresented in these spaces, so it’s difficult to find others. I was uneasy about wandering alone into a room of mostly males and joining a random team. I thought I’d be found out for knowing nothing — the very definition of impostor syndrome.
Second, I had no front-end knowledge, and despite my years of coding experience, felt that I would ultimately have nothing to contribute. In other words, I didn’t meet 100% of the qualifications so I thought I’d better not enter the hackathon.
I felt crippled. I had never made a customer-facing product. I didn’t know the first thing about developing websites, coding iOS or Android apps, interacting with popular APIs, or working with cloud databases.
Fixing the problem
It took me fourteen years to show up.
When I did show up to my first hackathon, nothing about me had changed. No magical remedy to impostor syndrome. No incredible trajectory to 100% qualification.
The real difference was how supported I felt in the space. I teamed up with three girls and one guy, all of whom had more experience than I did. From them, I learned bits and pieces of front-end development for the first time. Bits and pieces. Please realize that students underrepresented in tech aren’t asking for all the answers. We are not asking for special treatment.
Diverse students in tech are bright, motivated, and eager. In order for these diverse students to have the same ability to exploit opportunities, however, universities must equip them with front-end familiarity.
Inclusion of front-end in the curriculum will not only break the vicious cycle for women, low income students, and students of color, but also give all students the chance to learn front-end from its foundations.
Leaving front-end development up to self-study creates exclusivity of knowledge and worsens the tech industry’s diversity problem. Expanding opportunity to all qualified students means breaking the vicious cycle that ensnares females, low-income students, and students of color who are looking to join the tech industry. Universities must assume responsibility for the impact they have on diversity of tech talent. By offering front-end courses, universities can make their inevitable impact on tech diversity positive.