Diversity in the classroom strengthens problem-solving skills

I have the great privilege of traveling the country and meeting with The Iron Yard’s students, our teams and employers of all sizes in the 21 cities where we have campuses. The tech industry is vibrant and reflective of each market’s individuality – from Nashville’s creative music city vibe to the manufacturing history in Detroit to the creative ‘weird’ center of Austin. There is, however, a common theme among the conversations I have with employers – both those who are looking to hire graduates for the first time and those who have already employed our graduates. Employers say their best hires are people who have tangible experience and worldviews that can be applied to creative problem solving. In short, they want developers who are dedicated, curious and tenacious.

There’s no one who demonstrates those qualities more than someone who took the brave leap of faith to change their career through an immersive education program like a code bootcamp. These students made the decision to learn a new skill in a challenging, fast-paced environment because they wanted a better career. They chose to seek creativity, tangible problem solving and intellectual challenges at work.

jessica-mitsch-2Smart employers recognize the benefits of code school programs span well beyond the technical skills learned in class. They recognize the advantage of hiring someone who had the courage to dive deeply into a new subject as a career changer and bring their prior professional and life experience and perspective to their team.

When I first started my journey with The Iron Yard a few years ago, I served as a Campus Director for our Durham, NC campus. I will never forget the initial conversations the instructors and I had about our observations of the classroom – at the time, the code school industry was in its infancy and every day was a learning experience both for our students and for our team. The students in these first cohorts were comprised of folks who had experience ranging from the service industry, to entrepreneurs, to people who held graduate degrees and even PhDs.

We had one cohort where the average age was over 40 years old and there was a mix of men, women, races and socioeconomic statuses. During one of the first weeks of class a student asked our back-end instructor: “what is the business value of that line of code?” This was certainly never a question our instructor – a seasoned developer – had ever gotten before and it came from a student who had just made an exit from one of his many business ventures. That question, and the various distinct points of view that followed, challenged us as educators to think in new ways about software solutions to real-world problems. To me, this highlights one of the most amazing benefits of an adult immersive education program, one which may not be obvious at first glance: a diverse classroom.

Mae Beale, a student from the first cohort in Durham, recently said to me, “One of the reasons I decided to go to The Iron Yard was to have a community of fellow learners with whom to work. I thought it’d be great if we could support each other during and after the program.” It’s that kind of attitude that makes graduates like Mae great teammates when they join a developer team as well. Students who are attracted to classroom learning environments understand how to collaborate and work well with others.

There are few education experiences in our lives that allow us to learn alongside people who have such different backgrounds than our own. Our K-12 system groups students according to age and development, and often even by neighborhood. As a result, we become accustomed to learning alongside those who have similar perspectives. That environment can only lead to an insulated (and, frankly, boring!) “groupthink” worldview.

The code school model, however, encourages classrooms full of different perspectives. Our students are often seated next to someone from another generation or someone who has work experience in a different industry and who has an entirely different reason for being there. In a project-based learning environment, being able to approach solutions from different vantage points is exhilarating. Think about the problem solving that can come to fruition when everyone has a truly different vantage point, and the incredible solutions and tools that can be created when all of those vantage points are channeled together. At The Iron Yard, I’ve seen students create things toward the end of class that they would have never even imagined before beginning the code school journey.

We know that one of the secret elements that creates a productive and unique learning environment is a diverse classroom. The experience of learning alongside others and taking collaborative habits into the workplace makes for a stronger tech community. One of our long-standing employer partners in Durham, Spoonflower, discovered this benefit early on and today about half of their engineering team are #IronGrads. Spoonflower’s CEO, Gart Davis believes that people shouldn’t be limited by their own education backgrounds. “There are lots of people in the world who wouldn’t have considered themselves technologists, who are smart, thoughtful and careful but who just didn’t have a role model or didn’t have a worldview where that was one of the possibilities,” he said. By creating an environment where people can see role models from all walks of life, we are building a better tech community.

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