Something that Justin Reich talked about a lot in Failure to Disrupt is the idea that technology alone can’t disrupt our current educational models. They are too entrenched and too useful to replace with apps or free online classes. It is important to change the mental models and the support systems that are paired with the technology instead of simply handing underperforming students a MOOC. 

Mike Roberts is very aware of this. He is the CEO and founder of Creating Coding Careers, a coding apprenticeship program that does even more than it says on its face. It is an apprenticeship program that focuses on lower income and non-traditional students in San Diego which uses the apprenticeship model so that it can pay the students while they are learning everything they need to be an effective programmer.

Roberts had a storied career trying to get various coding bootcamps and coding training initiatives off the ground. It goes back to working with a coding bootcamp called Origin, which closed its doors in 2018. He started San Diego Code School in early 2019 and it transitioned to Creating Coding Careers and the apprenticeship model in mid 2021.

We recruit, hire, and train individuals all across America who may have otherwise felt a career in tech was unattainable. We’re committed to enhancing lives and enriching local communities. And by successfully placing highly trained, top-quality candidates at premier software companies, we are doing our part to reshape the tech industry to reflect the diversity of our communities.

Paying people while they learn is highly innovative and almost unheard of in the US. One of the consistent issues in terms of equity in education is the amount of time that needs to be dedicated to learning in traditional schools. If a student comes from a very underprivileged background, the economics can’t always be fixed by a full ride alone. Sometimes the family needs money and another full time working adult is key. Of course apprenticeships are a great option here, because they give you the ability to learn on the job while still being paid, and could effectively offer a level playing field to those who need to work.

A breakdown of how the apprenticeship program works from
A breakdown of how the apprenticeship program works from

With something so obviously helpful, the list of applicants is long. So how can anyone decide which students get accepted and which don’t?

“Our selection process … used to be exclusively a behavioral based interview”

Testing would be a tough thing to use in this environment. Universities are grappling with the inequities perpetuated by the SATs and ACTs and introducing something like that into a system that is trying to serve racial, gender, and economic minorities isn’t doing anyone any favors. So instead everything was done via an interview process.

“I’ve tried to steer away [from] an aptitude assessment”

Testing is not uncommon when applying for apprenticeship programs. Roberts talks about how many of the other programs out there simply set a difficult test and a very high bar because they know that if a student passes it, “they will be fine”. Testing a student to make sure that they are already sufficiently knowledgeable to perform well in a job is an interesting way to select for an apprenticeship program because you are basically guaranteeing that almost any “apprentice” who comes in will be successful because there is not much they need to be taught. Roberts says “there are apprenticeship programs that you pretty much have to have a CS degree to get into the apprenticeship program. I think that’s terrible.” In the end it makes it less of an apprenticeship and more of a low paying job given the skills that they might have. So Roberts goes a different way.

“Now, everyone has to go through the pre-apprenticeship program.”

The pre-apprenticeship program that Creating Coding Careers uses is a MOOC. Sort of.

“I don’t want to use the term MOOC because I … think we’re going to be much more personalized and encourage people to follow through”

Creating Coding Careers content from Free Code Camp and other sources including some that are developed in house and hosted on Udemy. A student has 3 months to proceed through the course and earn a certificate and ideally everyone who applies will be accepted. Some students from the pre-apprenticeship program can get a stipend to continue their study. Once the applicants complete the program, they select a “very small number of candidates” to go into the apprenticeship program.

“I don’t feel it’s a great use of our resources to try to invent curriculum that already exists.” It didn’t reinvent the wheel with online coding classes. CCC is far from the only source of these kinds of online certificates. Google, Microsoft, and even Robert Half all offer courses like this. “But it’s the other support mechanisms that people need, they need an accountability partner, they need someone checking in with them, and they need to know that if they do all of these things there is an opportunity. The goal is to widen the number of people we can help and build on top of what Free Code Camp has been doing”.

Accountability partners was an idea that started at Origin, the first coding bootcamp that Roberts joined, but eventually it found its way into the current organization out of their mentorship program. “We pair everyone with three mentors and those mentors can act as accountability partners”. Actual people who will text or call and ask how the class is going. One of the biggest takeaways from school in the time of COVID-19 was that without peers who will notice if they miss a class or are struggling with the work, students fall through the cracks. it is easy to sign on to a zoom session with your camera off and not engage at all. The invisible support structures that CCC provides are hard to replicate in an online classroom, but people actually checking in with students is a pretty good way to do it. This is what Justin Reich was talking about when he wrote about the ways that new technology needed to be paired with traditional teaching philosophy to actually make it work. Technology alone cannot teach, the human touch is vital.

There are apprenticeship programs that you pretty much have to have a CS degree to get into the apprenticeship program. I think that’s terrible.

Mike Roberts

Roberts wants to go further. He is trying to figure out an even better accountability partner than assigned mentors. He wants to share your progress, and even stumbles, with someone you know well who is already invested in your success. “Who would be … most disappointed if you shared with them that you wanted this career and then you didn’t do it.” “We need to have some sort of mechanism that we are giving them regular updates and making sure that they are sharing in the trials and tribulations of that person’s journey.” 

It is hard to know how this would work at scale. It’s still in the early stages at CCC, but Roberts is iterating on it in an agile way. In five years could colleges ask students to set an accountability partner? Maybe not, there are a few too many questions. But tapping into people’s existing social networks could really reinvigorate the tech that underlies edtech and allow for some positively disruptive improvements in education to take place. 

CCC is in a unique position to leverage the visibility that they have on their students learning to make decisions about who to admit to the apprenticeship program. While universities debate what metrics to use for admissions, CCC observes their applicants learning in real time. There is still some benefit to simply going through the pre-apprenticeship program but currently the certificate does not carry a lot of weight in the industry. “Taking our free class to apply” is a difficult sell, and it would be tougher on the candidates if it became one of the default application options. It has benefits over testing and over behavioral interviews for sure, and if the thing that CCC was offering wasn’t so valuable, there might be more of an issue with them doing it.

But a program which focuses so hard on lower income communities and will pay you to learn to code is very valuable in this educational environment. No matter how this program evolves, Mike Roberts is an innovator that is looking at what students really need to succeed. If he continues his dictum to “turn up the good” and keeps working to get more and different types of people jobs in tech he is the real deal, an educator gaining new insights on how to best leverage technology to better teach all people. 

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