How Automated Admissions Are Enrolling More Women to Become Software Engineers

Posted By Terri Williams on May 9, 2016 at 2:25 pm
How Automated Admissions Are Enrolling More Women to Become Software Engineers

Given the STEM gender gap and the many factors stopping women from entering and staying in STEM, it seems almost unbelievable that an automated admissions system is resulting in 40% female student enrollment at one software engineering program.

With a 3% acceptance rate, Holberton School of Software Engineering in San Francisco is one of the most selective schools in the country. The acceptance rates at Stanford, Harvard, and Yale are 5.1%, 6%, and 6.3%, respectively, as a point of comparison. And yet, Holberton is open “to anyone who is between the ages of 16 and 128, whether or not they are high school graduates.”

The process to apply to Holberton School is almost completely automated, and the school does not give admissions preference based on programming experience, nationality, ethnicity, social class, or gender. This particular facet of the admissions process is what’s causing waves in the tech industry, as the school is enrolling high shares of female software engineers in an industry long dominated by men, and without giving specific preference to anyone.

GoodCall did a Q & A with Joseph Eckert of the Holberton School to get more insight into how automated open admissions work and why this system is proving effective at enrolling more women into software engineering programs. The exchange has been lightly edited for clarity.

Automated admissions remove unconscious, positive bias

GoodCall: What led to the decision to create this type of admissions process?

Joseph Eckert: We found automated admissions remove unconscious bias, even positive bias. Unconsciously, everyone tends to select people like themselves. This is not something that is easy to control because you do not think about it. However, it is a serious issue, especially in Silicon Valley, where only 12% of software engineers are women

GoodCall: What are your views on affirmative action and positive discrimination?

Joseph Eckert: We do not believe that having specific quotas for women or minorities will help solve the problem. We do not favor women or minorities. Other schools or bootcamps do, but we think that this is not at all helping in the long term. For instance, lots of bootcamps out there have reduced prices for women. Some colleges have quotas to make sure they have more women and some of them actually are selecting all women that submit an admission file, no matter what.

We don’t think that is the way to go and it has the danger to make the problem even worse: if you select women only because they are women, you are telling them they are valued for what they are, not who they are, that they did not “earn” their place, but instead they “fit the suit.” You are also sending the message to males that those women did not work as hard as they did to get there.

So, you basically put women in the position where they’re being viewed as people who weren’t selected based on their work. This is bad because solving this problem is both about telling women that computer science is also for them, AND about telling men the same, that women can perform at least as good as men. And they do not need help for this.

By choosing to do positive discrimination based on gender, you also have a higher risk of selecting women who might not be meant to be software engineers – just because you want more diversity. It might seem OK in the short term, but this is really bad in the long term because some of those women won’t succeed, which may send a harmful message to the industry that women are not as good as men.

Once we get past the selection process, there are many other things we can do to improve the ratio of women to men in tech. But the selection process should select the best, and never select anyone based on gender or race. Everyone at Holberton is there because they earned it.

How does Holberton’s software-driven admissions process work?

Joseph Eckert: Our selection process is based only on talent and motivation, and not on the basis of educational degree, or programming experience.

We created the selection process to be the beginning of the curriculum. Candidates start learning through it and it gives them a feel of what the school looks like: project-based, peer-learning and learning how to learn are at the heart of it. We also focus a lot on the user experience at Holberton School. And, we did the same for the selection process. It’s not only learning and working on tests, challenges and projects, it is actually fun.

The selection process consists of four different levels:

  • Level 0: The candidate has to fill out a short form.
  • Level 1: This level consists of small online challenges and tests that candidates can do at their own pace. Examples of those challenges include reading a technical documentation and answering questions about it, looking for information about Betty Holberton on Google, or decrypting text using Google. At the end of Level 1, candidates are asked to write an essay on why they want to become a software engineers, and why they specifically want to attend Holberton School to reach to this goal. In the last step of Level 1, candidates are asked to create a short video to introduce themselves.

Every step of Level 1 is automated. Our software checks all of the answers, and candidates need to succeed at each step before starting the next challenge.

GoodCall: What does Level 2 entail?

Joseph Eckert: Level 2 is a step-by-step challenge during which candidates create their first website, with a specific deadline: They have 2 weeks, no more, to complete the challenge.

During Level 2, candidates are building their first website. And not only are they using HTML, CSS and JavaScript, but they also install and run their web server on their own Linux machine.

Candidates learn and do the following in Level 2:

  • Access a distant server using SSH
  • Learn the very basics of the Linux command line
  • Install a software on Linux
  • Use the Emacs text editor
  • Install a web server on Linux
  • Read a configuration file
  • Build a website using HTML, CSS and JavaScript
  • And most importantly: look for information and help each other

Candidates start to interact and help each other. They need to help each other and ask for help to succeed. This part of Level 2 is very important to us because Holberton School’s curriculum is based on peer-learning: everyone helps everyone, there is no competition. So it is very important for candidates to understand this, and for us to select the right profiles.

Level 2 takes anywhere from 10 to 60 hours of work, depending on the candidate’s programming and Linux background. But anyone can do it. Most of our selected students for the first class did not have any programming or Linux experience before starting the admissions process.

Then, our software computes a score based on every step of Level 1 and Level 2. And, we will accept candidates to Level 3 based on this score.

GoodCall: What does Level 3 entail?

Joseph Eckert: Level 3 is an onsite or Skype interview. This level is not automated. Instead, this is a check to make sure that the candidate understood what the school is and how intense it is, and we also want to ensure that the candidate has done the admissions process herself/himself.

If everything goes well during Level 3, we officially accept the candidate at Holberton School.

GoodCall: How do you think your process helps you select the best students?

Joseph Eckert: This process selects the best applicants for our school. We are very different from other schools. We are the first 100% project-based school in the United States. At Holberton, there are no formal teachers, no lectures. We teach how to learn instead of teaching tools. Students need to find information online and learn the theory by themselves, to then apply it to a project they need to build for a specific timeline.

This makes our school very unique, but also very hard at the beginning: you need to re-learn everything you know about education. It’s like starting your education again from a blank page.

What are other ways to improve the female-to-male ratio in tech?

Joseph Eckert: Women in tech, and diversity in tech – in general – is a cultural issue. As a consequence, it is going to take time to fix. We are living in a society where everyone wants everything right now. But changing the culture is a long process – there are no shortcuts.

When I say the selection process should not have quotas or positive discrimination, there are other important things that schools (and companies) can do to solve the problem. These include the following:

  • Reaching out to more women at the beginning of the funnel. Most of girls /women do not even think about computer science being an option. Nobody told them they could do this, and they could succeed.
  • Making sure to have an environment where women feel good. Studies prove that having a school or a computer science lab full of video games and star-trek posters does not help. At Holberton School, we make sure that our school’s interior design is gender-neutral. We also actively fight stereotypes.
  • Having women as role models also helps. We have female mentors and the name of our school is in honor of Betty Holberton, who was one of the first software engineers in the world.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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