In a nondescript classroom in downtown Seattle, young women hunch over laptops, staring at lines of code.
These women, most of them in their 20s and 30s, are enrolled at Ada Developers Academy. This competitive program offers women free tuition and a stipend – all in the name of getting more women into the tech industry.
"It's been so intense," says Kat Patke, a student at Ada Developers Academy. The year-long program combines seven months of coding classes and workshops taught by tech pros with a five-month internship.
"The speed that we cover the material is really intense, and just being able to wrap your mind around it in the first place, as well as being able to then take that into the workplace is just intense,” she says. “It's the one adjective I can think of.”
"I really felt like that ship had sailed," she says. "I saw it as, ‘This is an interesting thing that I like doing in my free time, and learning more about, but not something that I could ever really, like, turn into a career.’"
But Cynthia Tee, executive director of Ada Academy, says Ada looks for women from a variety of backgrounds.
"Ada recognizes that a lot of our students did not actually take that technical path in college,” Tee says. “We have women who have worked in retail, women who have worked as baristas, flight attendants, bakers, biologists."
Before taking Ada’s top job, Tee worked at Microsoft for two decades as a software program manager and mentor to many engineers. She has seen first-hand what it’s like to be a woman in tech.
About 85 percent of programming jobs are held by men. University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska says that imbalance is troubling for the industry.
“It’s a problem because computer scientists design things, you know, software systems. And design is inherently a creative process,” Lazowska says. “Each of us brings our own baggage to that creative process. And so if there are people who aren’t represented, then you come up with a worse solution.”
Lazowska and his peers recently accepted an award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology for recruiting and retaining women in the University of Washington’s computer science department.
“Just from a sort of crass, quality point of view, you get a better result if you have a more diverse workforce contributing to it,” he says.
Tee says a diverse team makes a better software product, and tech companies – from start-ups to giants – should cast a wider recruiting net.
"My advice to tech companies is to pick out college campuses that are well beyond your usual set,” Tee says. “Start betting on people who have also been trained by nontraditional means to program."
But getting women into tech jobs is just a first step. Keeping them there is also tough. Tee believes that mentors are key to holding on to women.
“I was fortunate enough to find good sponsors, some of them women and some of them men, at Microsoft who were very good at about giving me the right opportunities or leading me to the right opportunities,” Tee says. “I think that made a huge difference for me.”
In the meantime, Kat Patke is interning as a software engineer at Nordstrom, working on a dashboard for system health of the company's website. Now she’s optimistic about where her new skills might lead her.
"There are so many directions you can take it," she says. "At this point, I’m interested in ending up somewhere where I can keep learning at a fast clip, because there is so much more to learn."