​Holberton software school's automated admissions cuts bias, brings in more women and minorities

The San Francisco-based Holberton School has found that if you remove bias from the admissions program, more women and minorities get into its software engineering program than do in ordinary colleges.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

We like to talk a good game in technology about not being biased against women and minorties. We lie. For example, by the end of 2016, fewer than 25 percent of IT jobs will be held by women -- exactly the same proportion as in 2015. It doesn't have to be that way.

Holborton School Founders

The Holberton School founders may be young white men, but their school's classes are filling with women and minorities.

The Holberton School

According to recent McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org report on the status of women in tech, tech firms lag behind "old-line" businesses when it comes to advancing women. Women are underrepresented at all levels of technology firms, particularly in key engineering, product and finance roles. Researchers also found that women believe, with reason, that their gender is holding them back at work.

It starts with the schools where even efforts to encourage women to go into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs are ham-fisted. I mean, really, IBM #HackAHairDryer!?

The Holberton School believes that it has proven that if you automate the admissions process, you can reduce human biases and women and minorities will score higher. They were right. In the first two classes of the two-year school for full-stack engineers, Holberton ended up with a student body of almost 40 percent women.

The Holberton School is a new kind of software engineering school. A group of Silicon Valley and Bay area industry veterans from Apple, Docker, LinkedIn, and Yahoo started it to provide a hands-on education program for training software engineers. It's meant to be an an alternative to college, online courses and coding boot-camps. The objective is to train up full-stack software engineers in two years by using a hands-on, project-based, peer-learning alternative to college. The school is open to anyone of regardless of sex, race, or age.

Julien Barbier, co-founder of Holberton School, explained, "By using automated processes, we've selected the most motivated and talented individuals, and those who best fit with our problem-oriented curriculum. The funny thing is, we're also finding that the automated processes have dramatically increased the number of female and minority students. And because all the students know the process is 'blind" with no quotas, everyone at the school feels accepted for who they are, not what they are."

Last week, the school publicly opened admissions for its October class and so far fully 75 percent of those progressing to phase two are women. Holberton's processes also make the school one of the most selective schools in the nation, accepting fewer than 3 percent of applicants. By comparison that makes it twice as hard to get into as Harvard.

To become students at Holberton, candidates go through a four-step selection process, based solely on talent and motivation, and not on the basis of educational degree, or programming experience. The selection process is designed to actually be the beginning of the curriculum so that applicants start learning -- and collaborating -- through it. The process, which does not require technical knowledge or programming experience, consists of four levels:

Level 0 - Fill out a short online form

Level 1 - Small online projects and tests that applicants can complete at their own pace

Level 2 - A step-by-step challenge during which applicants create a website. At this level, the candidates are encouraged to begin collaborating, an important component of learning at the school.

Level 3 - And, only then, an On-site or Skype interview

Barbier explained, "Our selection process is almost 100 percent hands-off, for multiple reasons, one of which is to remove bias. Having software in command of the selection-process is achieving something humans have a hard time achieving: it removes the unconscious bias that we all have. This is a major issue in the tech industry."

He quoted Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg: "One of the most important things we can do to promote diversity in the workplace is to correct for the unconscious bias that all of us have. Studies show that job applicants with 'black sounding names' are less likely to get callbacks than those with 'white sounding names' -- and applicants called Jennifer are likely to be offered a lower salary than applicants called John."

The results? "At the end of the funnel," we selected the 32 most motivated students, and our first class, which started in January, is 40 percent women with 44 precent being people of color." Barbier added, "the most interesting part about women, is that not only were they super-motivated, but they just out-performed men."

I look forward to seeing what Holberton graduates will do in the real world. I expect great things.

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