Bridging Tech’s Diversity Gap
Learners Guild reboots technology education with a new model.
Devon Westley, right, an alumnus of and coach at Learners Guild, offers tips to students Marquis Parks and Stephani McGrath.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
Devon Westley described growing up in East Oakland as disruptive and traumatic. From ages 7 to 14, he lived in and out of foster care. He dropped out of high school. He had a kid at 19. For years, he worked dead-end jobs in warehouses and retail. Eventually he talked his way into working for a small technology startup and got some experience. But after a year, the company struggled financially, and he was faced with finding a new tech job.
He went on 12 interviews. “I was 0 for 12,” said Westley, who then had a wife and 6-year-old to support. In summer 2016, he saw an ad on Facebook that read, “Get paid to learn how to code.” That was Westley’s introduction to Learners Guild, a new Oakland education alternative for aspiring software developers.
Software engineers are in high demand. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million software job openings in the United States and only 400,000 computer science students graduating from four-year colleges. The lack of skilled workers plus the rapidly evolving nature of software technology has led to the proliferation of coding “boot camps,” where students (who often already have an undergraduate degree) spend $12,000 (or more) in tuition quickly learning code to land a job in the tech industry. Typical boot camps are intense, lasting all day five days a week for three months. Bishay is very familiar with this model: He created one of the first immersive coding schools, DEV Bootcamp, in January 2012 with a cohort of 20 in San Francisco. By the time he sold the company to education giant Kaplan Inc. 2½ years later, DEV Bootcamp had expanded to Chicago and New York.
“With DEV Bootcamp, I got a crash course on how for-profit education works in this country,” said Bishay. He bristled about the amount of debt Americans incur for higher education. “It’s a predatory industry. The formula is so broken.”
Bishay saw an opportunity—with the huge shortage of qualified technology talent, he could give adult education and retraining a reboot.
Learners Guild differs from technology boot camps in a few important ways. Bishay prefers his students to be called learners, which he feels reflects the active participation and self-direction that the tech world requires. “We’re teaching them how to learn, how to problem solve. Our learners have to embrace that mindset.”
“If you want to take on all the financial risk and go it alone, you go to a college or a boot camp. If you want to be part of a community that loves its craft and those who practice it, if you want to be lifted by others and to lift others with you, you join a guild. It’s an old idea.”
The most novel aspect is how it’s funded. It works on an income-sharing model. Bishay positions the structure as an investment in the student, not a loan. Learners pay nothing up front, which made attending possible for Westley and other learners.
Once employed in the technology field making a minimum of $50,000 a year, learners agree to pay back 12.5 percent of their gross salary to the Guild for three years. There’s no interest, and the 12.5 percent is a flat rate..
Learners can also receive a stipend of up to $1,500 a month while in the program plus money for a laptop, and over 80 percent of the learners do. This pushes up the income share they must repay to as high as 21.5 percent. The full sticker price for the 10-month training is $29,750. (Learners get a rebate upon completing the course, so the actual payback is $25,500.) With an average annual salary of $68,000 over three years, the learner and guild will break even on the program fees. Learners who make less will repay less than the $25,500 tuition; learners who make more will pay more, and at that point, Learners Guild, a for-profit company, starts to make money.
The first thing Westley, who is black and Puerto Rican, noticed at Learners Guild was, “People looked like me.” Diversity is another differentiator. Learners Guild’s mission is to recruit and train women and ethnic and racial minorities who are significantly underrepresented in the technology world. Most learners are nonwhite and include African, African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, East Asian, and mixed-race students. There is a fairly equal split between men and women and a few transgender leaners, too. They range in age from 24 to 60 and have a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. The average annual income of learners coming in is $28,000; most have some college education but no degree.
The Learners Guild program runs more than three times as long as traditional boot camps, 40 weeks versus 12. “We want to make sure our learners are career ready, not just job ready,” said Bishay. “In addition to a deeper set of technical skills, we focus on things like how to work in teams, how to give and receive feedback in a professional setting, a broader set of skills for people who may not have as much technical or workplace experience.”
Learners Guild occupies a breezy 7,000-square-foot space just below street level in Old Oakland. The open-floor plan is filled with natural light, dozens of workstations, comfy couches, and white boards covered with figures and diagrams sketched with black Sharpie. From 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday, more than 90 learners work solo or in pairs or small groups. The hum makes it feel like a hive of bees.
Bishay’s approach to technology education has attracted attention and capital. In March, Learn Capital, Obvious Ventures, Acumen, and Kapor Capital invested $10 million. Mitch Kapor of the Oakland investment fund Kapor Capital recently described the startup as “a grand experiment,” one that he is hopeful will help close the gap for underrepresented minorities in Silicon Valley.
The model intrigues Barrie Hathaway, the executive director of the Stride Center, an Oakland nonprofit that has trained low-income adults for careers in technology for 18 years. He’s not sure it’s a panacea to the diversity challenges. “There is huge job growth in software engineering, and boot camps are satisfying the training needs for entry-level developers. But in our experience, not having a college degree continues to be a barrier to working in technology. And the firms in Silicon Valley don’t know how to integrate women and minorities into their workforce yet.”
The proliferation of technology boot camps has raised some questions about a potential saturation. In July, Kaplan announced that DEV Bootcamp (Bishay’s first coding school) will close by year’s end.
Bishay is cautiously optimistic because the school has room for up to 120 students and enough demand to double, but he plans to see how the income-sharing agreements pay off before expanding. The first group of 14 learners to complete the program started interviewing in the summer. At press time, a few had found jobs at MoveOn, Facebook, Wine.com, and Kofile, making salaries between $70,000 and $115,000. Westley landed a job at an Oakland startup, Accel.AI.
“It felt like a community from the start,” said Westley. “We were a tribe, doing this together, getting to the top of this mountain one by one. It wasn’t just about learning code, it was about being someone who knows how to figure things out.”
The Impetus Explained
An all-for-one attitude prevailed.
Shereef Bishay, a former Oaklander who lives in Marin County, is an interesting mix of right- and left-brain thinking and of intensity and levity. The 40-year-old Egyptian American has a head full of curly black hair, penetrating pale-blue eyes, and he likes to laugh. He dual-majored in theater and computer science at American University in Cairo. From there he built and sold a web-based recruitment company to Microsoft and worked for the technology giant as a lead developer for three years. After that, he left computers and software behind and spent four years traveling to high schools across the country leading workshops for Challenge Day, an interactive anti-bullying program for teens.
By 2012, he was back in the technology world working on startups. He met with a friend who was frustrated in a dead-end job. Bishay knew the technology industry needed well-trained software developers, so the two struck a deal. Bishay would teach his friend to code, refer him to a hiring manager, and get the placement fee for himself. He put a post on Hacker News, a social media website, for an eight-week coding crash course and was inundated with takers. He picked 20 and on day one, he looked at the group and thought, “OK, we’ve got eight weeks to get everyone here a job, including myself.”
Bishay described it as a very special two months. “We were all in it together. Everyone had quit a job or gone into debt to support this thing. They were highly motivated. They worked 14 and 15 hours a day and supported each other.”
On the last day, Bishay brought in tech firm hiring managers who conducted speed-date interviews. Of the 17 students looking for a job as a software engineer, 16 were hired on the spot. The 17th got hired a few days later.
“That’s how DEV Bootcamp got started,” said Bishay. “It was an accidental company.”
About 1½ years into running DEV Bootcamp, the idea for Learners Guild became clear to Bishay. His relationship with the students at DEV Bootcamp had changed. The learning culture had changed. “People were showing up for the brand and the promise of jobs. We sell it and you buy it.” It had become a financial transaction.
The original cohort felt much more like a partnership. He missed that. Plus he saw an opportunity to address what wasn’t working in higher education and a way to reach out to individuals who didn’t have access to the good technology jobs. Those motivations led to the vision that became Learners Guild.