“A lot of these schools don’t even have instructors, right. A lot them are project-based…it’s just like, ya know, figure it out by yourself.”
Dr. Kate M. Miltner is a TRAIN@Ed Postdoctoral Fellow at the Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh. She received her PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication and
Journalism at the University of Southern California, and she has a MSc in Media and Communications (Merit) from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA in English from Barnard College, Columbia University.
She has had research appointments in the Research department at Twitter and the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England. Her research agenda focuses on the intersection of technology, social location, and structural power and her research has previously been featured in Wired, Slate, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Time, and the BBC.
Kim: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene Podcast. My guest today is Kate Miltner. Kate, could you please introduce yourself to the audience?
Dr. Kate Miltner: OK, so hi, my name is Dr. Kate Miltner, and I just received my PhD from the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. And I am an incoming Train@Ed postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh. And I will be continuing my research on coding schools in the UK.
Kim: Oh, that’s so funny, because my first tech conference I spoke at was at Scotland JS. That was in Edinburgh. I loooove Edinburgh.
Dr. Miltner: Oh, yeah.
Dr. Miltner: They have a huge tech scene there. They are, you know, working to become what they call the data capital of Europe…
Kim: Oh, wow.
Dr. Miltner: …so they’re an exciting place to be right now.
Kim: Mmm, OK. I might have to make a trip. OK. [Laughs] Well, make another trip. So, we start the show as we always do. Why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you causing a scene?
Dr. Miltner: OK, so I think it’s important to cause a scene in order to—I’m not sure how I feel about the word “disrupt”—but to dismantle hegemonic power systems, right? Because if you don’t cause a scene, if you don’t make a big deal about things, if you don’t push back on preexisting power structures, then how is anything supposed to change? I think there are many ways to make a scene. Sometimes it’s quietly making a scene, and sometimes it’s loudly making a scene. And I think that there’s room for both, and I’m more of a quiet make a scene kind of person. I tend to make a scene through my research, and that’s a big part of how I enact my personal politics. And the way that I do that is by trying to challenge commonly held beliefs or ideas that people hold, and that’s what I tried to do with my doctoral research on coding schools.
Kim: [Laughs] So, those who know me know… you came into my timeline because someone had shared something with me—’cause they know I’ve been talkin’ about these freakin’ boot camps—and so, I immediately saw your responses, and I went and looked at your page. And I was like, “Oooh!” Immediately went into your DMs and said, “Hey, would you like to come on the show?” So if you could give us some background of what you’re doing, so then we can have a conversation about that, ’cause I wanna put in it in context. Everyone knows I’ve already done three shows on bootcamps; all three have been anonymous. So—no. Yeah, three or four. Yeah, but the people one has been a person who works at bootcamps and was anonymous, and two have been people who have been victims of the income sharing agreement documents.
So, I want to talk to a researcher about this because you said some things about ethics and stuff, all kinds of stuff that was in that tweet, that I wanted to address here. All right. OK, and before you start, because my issues with bootcamps are not just about the income sharing agreement. If anybody knows me, knows that I’ve been talkin’ about bootcamps since I started, because…
Dr. Miltner: Yes.
Kim: I started with mentoring ’cause I recognized that the bootcamps that I was seeing, the curriculums weren’t effective, they did not consider adult learning strategies, and the instructors were not qualified. And they had very few support systems to help people become job-ready. So I’ve been talkin’ about this for a while.
Dr. Miltner: That sounds about right. [Kim laughs] From what I experience though.
Kim: [Laughs] OK, so now I’m gonna let Doctor Kate Miltner tell you about what she’s been studying.
Dr. Miltner: So, just as a little bit of background for my research program in general, I came to bootcamps through the larger question of how do the belief systems and ideologies of Silicon Valley, and the tech industry more broadly, contribute to the reproduction or production of structural forms of inequality. So, I’ve worked in tech. I worked at Twitter as a research intern, and I worked at Microsoft Research, which was an excellent experience. And I did notice that in my time there, and—well, at least in my time when I was working at Twitter—that these companies weren’t necessarily interested in the critical questions of structural power and how to contend with that. So, I ended up coming to coding schools because I was wondering, “Where did these belief systems start?” And I thought, “Well, you know, if we’re going to be teaching people to code, maybe an interesting way to see where these belief systems are perpetuated would be in a place where they’re trying to teach people to become tech employees.”
So, that’s just a little bit of background in terms of how I ended up approaching or arriving at the topic of coding schools. Because historically my work has been about internet culture; things like emoji and race, and memes and gender, and all of that stuff. So, it’s a little bit of departure from historically what I’ve done. So, my research: I took a three-pronged approach to this topic. So, the first approach was looking at coding schools historically. So, putting them into historical context. And it actually turns out that this is not the first time that these sorts of institutions have run roughshod over hopefuls trying to get into the tech industry.
There was actually a very similar situation in the 1960s with these organizations called EDP schools, Electronic Data Processing schools. At the time, there was a similar focus on computer programming as this sort of gateway to the middle class, this gateway to “a freedom from drudgery,” as they said in The New York Times back in the day. And so these schools basically were like, “Anyone can learn computer programming and you’ll make all this money.” I mean, it’s kind of unreal looking back at the historical material and seeing just how many parallels there are to what’s happening today.
So that was part number one. Part number two was looking at where did this interest—where did these coding schools come from? And so in order to do that, I analyzed 10 years of media material. So, everything from articles in tech blogs and the mainstream press to legislation, and materials from the coding schools themselves to figure out what is the what are the positions about coding schools? Why are people finding this so compelling?
And what I found was there was this sort of fetishization of coding, right? So the idea that if people learn to code, then—and specifically marginalized groups. If women or people of color or, as the industry calls them [low voice] “underrepresented minorities”; if these specific groups of people learn to code, then certain interrelated outcomes will come to fruition. So one, that the problematic gender and racial politics of the tech industry will be improved because, if we get certain bodies into the industry, then that’s necessarily gonna change things. Two, that there will be this—as Obama called it—”pathway to the middle class” for people who don’t necessarily have a college education—or even people who do have a college education. This is sort of tied into the whole “new collar” idea that IBM has been pushing or “midtech,” as it’s sometimes referred to. Which is also connected to the skills gap. I don’t know if you’ve heard people talking about that, but that’s also a big part of it.
So, there are a whole bunch of factors that are coming together to make this discourse about coding compelling for people. And it’s been in the press for a really long time, and there are all these rags to riches stories about a barista, or a waitress, or some other working class individual going to a coding school and then making a six figure salary and changing their life. So this was a very compelling narrative, and it actually was something that I wanted to explore. But on the other side, there was also a lot of press coverage about how terrible these schools were.
So I realized that the only way to understand what was happening on the ground was to go and spend time at one of these schools. So I got permission from a school in a major city in the US, and I spent nine months at that school. And that was the third part of my project, so, tying this all together, that’s what my thesis was. So, looking at the historical part of it, looking at the origins of all of this, “Why coding?” “Why now?” “What’s happening with all of these—the discourse in the press?” And then, what actually happens when you go to one of these coding schools? And how do we understand that theoretically? Sorry for the long-winded response but there are a lot of different elements that went into this project.
Kim: No, no, no, please don’t apologize. I am a historian, so you’re giving me… I love—when we don’t have the background, we assume something happened right now, and we’re only dealing with it. And so, the fact that you brought in something from the 60s, and all of this helps shape the conversations so I can start slappin’ people in the head with the truth that this is not a new thing.
Dr. Miltner: It’s not.
Kim: This is… ’cause I remember—when you said that Electronic Data Processing—oh my god, I remember those commercials when I was growin’ up!
Dr. Miltner: Yeah.
Kim: [Laughs] I’m like, when you said that, [laughs] I was like, “Wait a minute!” So, yes. No, no, no, please. I love when people can bring the historical perspective to it because we are so ignorant, always thinking that the problems we have just happened now. No, they’re always rooted in something else.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, there’s always a longue durée. You know… [inaudible]
Kim: Yes, so please continue.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah. So, I spent nine months at this coding school, and I… [sighs] I’m a critical race and feminist scholar, right? I’m a critical scholar. I come looking at whatever situation, whatever research that I’m doing, from a power dynamic perspective. And because I was thinking in terms of race and gender, I expected to come to this school and see these sort of very obvious racialized and gendered dynamics, and then that would kind of be the reason why maybe things didn’t work out as well as maybe some people anticipated. I was tryin’ to figure out what was going on. And actually—yes, there absolutely were racialized dynamics, and there were some problematic gender dynamics as well—but what I found was that it was a whole combination of different things that came together with what I call a politics of socio-technical belonging.
So, there’s this idea in political theory, this concept called the politics of belonging. And it’s historically been used in the context of migration, and immigrants in a new country. So, what makes someone a “real American” or a “true Canadian” or something like that? Historically, this concept has been—there are three different axes that you would think about. There would be social location; so your age, and your race, and your gender, and your income, and all of that. And then there’s identities and emotional attachments; so, how you think of yourself, how you sort of frame your own identity. And then ethical and political values. And that these three things intersect in different ways, depending on the context, to create a formula for who’s considered on the inside versus the outside.
And it was this framework that really helped me understand what was happening at this coding school because looking at the people who succeeded and the people who were really struggling, it was very clear that there were two different groups of students. There were some students who were really getting a lot out of this school, who were going to go on and succeed, and there were the rest of the students who were either struggling or really having a very difficult time. And it wasn’t super straightforward when I was looking at these groups, and it took me a long time to figure out what was the defining factors between these two.
And what it was in a certain way—first of all, it was having a certain amount of resources; so, being able to support yourself to a certain extent and being able to focus exclusively on the program that was at hand. But a lot of it was, there was a lot of favoritism that was happening, and it was very clear who the favorites were and who everybody else was. And the favorites were the students who… I guess to put it bluntly, “drank the Kool Aid,” right? They were onboard with the ethos of the school, they were onboard with what the school was selling, and for that reason the staff were like, “Yeah, these are the kind of students that we want.” Like, “We’re tryin’ to create the ideal tech employee here at this school, and these are the students who are on board with that, and they’re not giving us any trouble, and they’re doing the work, and they’re all of this.”
And so then they got extra help from the staff, and they ended up—it was an easier time for them within the school. Now, this is not to say that other students didn’t end up getting jobs. Some of them did—through their own hustle—but it was a very different experience for those students within the school. So that’s kind of the round up of what I found.
Kim: Whew. OK.
Dr. Miltner: I know. It’s a lot. Sorry. [Laughs]
Kim: Yeah. No, no, no. Do not apologize, because I—it can come off as arrogant, but I don’t give a damn—because I loooove when I can bring guests on—and people should know that I don’t talk to you before the show. You just have something of interest that I wanna talk about, and I like spontaneous conversations. So these are not rehearsed. So I love it when someone who’s actually… because I call myself a multipotentialite.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah.
Kim: I’m a person who goes deep in certain subjects, but I have a breadth of knowledge on certain subjects. I go far enough to become just [higher voice] right above… you wouldn’t consider an expert, but I can have a conversation about it, and then I move to the next thing.
Dr. Miltner: Right.
Kim: So, I love when I can bring in experts who are taking the time to go much deeper than I am, come in and they confirm—it’s not like I even have a certainty, but there’s a feeling—because being a multipotentialite, I can connect dots over a broad swaths of things.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah.
Kim: I can see that the forest and the trees. So, I love it when a tree person comes in and is like, “Yeah,” and I’m like, “Yes! That’s what I’ve been saying!” Because I could see what you just said play out in why inclusion and diversity in organizations isn’t working. unit in organizations.
Dr. Miltner: Yes! Oh my god, yes! 100%! [Kim laughs] Because here’s the thing. The thing about the coding schools, that’s just… it’s like a case study of what is…
Dr. Miltner: …a bigger problem within the industry. The reason that my research matters, personally, is not just because of the coding schools. I think the coding schools are important, and I think that we need to understand that in the US and Canada alone, it’s tens of thousands of people a year are going into these programs, and they’re a huge source of training. How good that training is, or how successful it is for people, that varies, but these are a major site of social reproduction.
Kim: And particularly now that people are pairing them, or pitting them, or using them as alternatives to college education.
Dr. Miltner: Oh, yeah. Yeah. But that’s tough, though, because I did notice that the students, the people who ended who had degrees already…
Kim: Girl, you betta not say it!
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, they tended to have an easier time.
Kim: Yes, yes, yes! I said that!
Dr. Miltner: It’s true.
Kim: The people I’ve seen to be the most successful at bootcamps have: one, most of them have coded before…
Dr. Miltner: Yep, absolutely.
Kim: …or were engineers, and use that time—they’re shifting careers or something, or they’re re-examining an interest they had, and they’re using the bootcamp to laser focus.
Dr. Miltner: Right.
Kim: Or, this is a individual who has a strong, strong support system outside of that bootcamp, where those individuals are doin’ everything they have to supplement what’s goin’ on in that classroom system.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, absolutely. There’s just a lot of different types of capital that are required in order to succeed in one of these. Both financial capital, tech capital…
Kim: Yes. And I love how you talk about the time, because when you tell somebody they have to quit their full time job to do something for six to nine months, and they have to be there for eight hours a day.
Dr. Miltner: Yep. And not even it’s not even really eight hours a day. For a lot of these people, it’s a lot more.
Kim: No, no, no. I was just sayin’ the minimum, ’cause I’m goin’ back to learning theory.
Dr. Miltner: Yep. Yeah, the minimum.
Kim: Whose brain can work—’cause you and I, before we got started, we were talking about how hard it is for active listening to do a podcast.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah.
Kim: That’s why I don’t do more than three of them in a day. I moved it to a Monday because by the time I’m done with you, that will be my third today, and I’m done. I have nothing else to give. How can you actively listen, learn, process all those things for eight hours straight? Minimum!
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, and a lot of these schools actually don’t even have instructors. A lot of them are project based. A lot of it is just like, “Figure it out by yourself.”
Dr. Miltner: A lot of it is just like, “Figure it out by yourself.”
Kim: This is how they got past the scam. How the hell am I spending this kind of money to teach myself? I can go to my local Starbucks, I could get the curriculum from MIT’s… they have a intro to computer science class.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, Harvard has the…
Kim: I mean Harvard. Sorry, sorry. Yep, Harvard’s. I could do that. I could do freeCodeCamp. I can cobble together a whole curriculum for myself. I could do some free Coursera classes. I could sign up for a $35 a month Lynda.com membership. I could do all of that and not come anywhere near what these schools cost.
Dr. Miltner: Right.
Kim: And then when you add on the income sharing agreement part.
Dr. Miltner: Oh my god.
Kim: When you have done nothing to help me learn—or very little to help me learn—nothing to help support—like you said—people gettin’ it based on their own hustle, if they’re not in that “It” group, or they don’t have that network outside of there who’s sayin’, “OK, go to this camp. And once you go through this, I’m gonna help you interview because I got some places for you.” It takes all of that. Literally, that’s how I got started in tech. I started—I had an interest, came in as an educator, and I was like, “OK, I need to learn the language of technology.” So, I was learning how to code, and I was like, “OK.” Everybody around me kept talking about how simple it was, how easy it was, and I was like, “This shit’s not easy…”
Dr. Miltner: It’s not.
Kim: “…why y’all keep sayin’ that?” And then, for adult learners, if you tell them something is easy over and over again, what they do is internalize it and say, “Well, if it’s easy, then there’s something wrong with me“ instead of “Learning is hard, and learning a language is harder.”
Dr. Miltner: Yeah. No, it’s true, and I think these project-based schools use a form of what, in pedagogical terms would be called discovery learning, right? Now, I’m not an educational theorist, but sort of came out of Seymour Papert, and Mindstorms out of MIT; it’s the one laptop per child. If anybody’s listening and wanna read, it’s a really excellent book about that, Morgan Ames, “The Charisma Machine.” It really goes into the whole idea that if you just give people—especially if you [mockingly] give little children in South Africa, or in Africa, or South America, a computer, and then all of a sudden they will just intuitively figure out how to do this. And they’ll be connected to the world, etc, etc.
So this idea that you just need to learn to do it yourself, that the people who are the best programmers are people who love to solve problems—that’s something that I heard over and over again. “We like students who love to solve problems without any instructions.” And it’s like, “OK, sure.” I imagine that that type of person probably really would enjoy the kind of logic-based learning that you need to do in order to learn to code, but that also works really well for you if you don’t have to teach anyone, [laughs] hire instructors, all of that stuff. So a lot of these schools have what are actually financially expedient structures for them. It allows them to expand rapidly into multiple cities because there is comparatively low overhead, and they cloak it in this ideological language of “project-based”, “based in problem-solving”, and blah, blah, blah. So, you know.
Kim: OK, so lemme stop you there, because I came from public schools, and we did “project-based,” and there was no way in hell we could do project-based without some kind of instructor in the classroom. [Laughs] And this is…
Dr. Miltner: Yeah! No! Of course!
Kim: This is how they just… I’m like, “How do you…” And then they bring a teacher’s assistant or instructor who was in the last cohort who doesn’t know anything.
Dr. Miltner: Oh, my god, yes! Yeah, totally. 100%. And it’s like, these people are only three months ahead of you. You need expertise if you’re gonna be…
Kim: Yes! If you’re gonna do that style, that reminds of Paideia, or even Montessori. It’s that adventure thing. But there’s an adult, an expert, they’re guiding. If not, harm will happen. If not, how can you ensure that people aren’t learning the wrong—I’m not even gonna say the wrong thing, because there’s not a wrong thing in that space—but aren’t learning things that will become barriers for them to unlearn later.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Kim: There has to be guidance, and the people who are guiding have to be experts in the room. And this is one thing that pisses me off, because you’ve devalued education, period, and you’ve devalued the role of the educator. So, back when I was in school, a teacher was a profession.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah.
Kim: Now, a teacher is a job, and everybody and their momma think they can do that job.
Dr. Miltner: Yep. It’s interesting because I was in my PhD program while I was doing this research, and part of the funding package that I got was I was a TA [Teaching Assistant]. But the people that I was TA-ing were undergraduates, so it’s not like I was TA-ing for my peers. I was TA-ing for students who were significantly younger, and also had a significantly…
Kim: Like the Nanny. [laughs]
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, I had many, many years of schooling and expertise on them, so I could teach them how to structure a paper, how to do basic research, how to write a research question. And they also had a full-time professor as the lecturer, and I was just helping them on the side. So, to call these other students teaching assistants is like, “Well, that’s not actually…” [laughs] Yeah, you can say they’re teaching assistants, but not that’s actually how it tends to work.
Kim: But they are. And then, it’s the whole… then, let’s back it up. Who’s writin’ these curriculums? You keep pullin’ these people out of these jobs who are coding as a profession; that does not mean that you can transfer knowledge to other people.
Dr. Miltner: Well, right.
Kim: Who is creating these curriculums? Because I’m looking at these curriculums, and this is not how—OK, lemme get on my soapbox. [Dr. Miltner laughs] Learning does not happen in a six month to nine month program with every three days, every two days, every day, you’re learning something different. That is not how learning happens. You have to be able to get a concept, have some understanding about what that concept is. You have to be able to practice that concept. And then you’re like, “OK, I kinda got it,” but to me, you don’t have it yet because now I’m gonna add this other thing to this concept. OK, so now we added this second thing. OK, so can you tie that first thing to that second thing? Oh, OK, Now you’re doin’ that. So it’s the same thing as learning alphabets. You learn the ABC song, which absolutely means nothin’ to these kids. They’re singin’ a song just like they’re singing, “Hey, I got a poopy.”
Dr. Miltner: Right.
Kim: It means absolutely nothin’. So you get into an environment where people are now telling you this song that you’ve been singin’ has meaning. It represents something. So now you learn your ABCs. You can’t do much communicating with just understanding your ABCs, so now we need to make words. OK, so now we take the ABCs, the alphabet, and we make words. But they don’t mean anything on their own. “Bed.” If you just say “bed,” OK, I can assume you might wanna go to bed, you might wanna make a bed, you might wanna buy a bed. There’s a lot of things there for bed. So I need to now figure out how to make a sentence. All right, so now there’s passive voice. There’s all kinds of things about making… you got adjectives, you got nouns, you got adverbs; all those things. And now, just to make a proper sentence, you also have to have punctuation.
OK, so now we have to pause. We have to stop. We have to inflect. We have to all that stuff, and you still are not effectively able to communicate because you can only do synthesis. So now we need to bring in paragraphs. OK, so now we have a paragraph. You’re getting closer and closer, closer, but it doesn’t say anything, so now you get to where you can write essays. You have to have a introduction, you have a conclusion, and you have to have those three paragraphs. ‘Cause you see it when you give these kids that formula; that’s all they got. They don’t want to give you nothing else. They give you five paragraphs, and that’s good because that’s on the rubric. It’s when you get to—’cause I’m not even gonna say it happens in high school, because those high school students were definitely trying to stick to that five paragraph formula. It only gets to pushing, pushing later in undergrad, and then graduate school, when you start understanding that thought, that communication takes more nuances and more content than five paragraphs.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah. [Sighs] Yeah.
Kim: And yet, we’re trying to slam all of this into a space, making people do projects on top of that, [laughs] all kinds of stuff. Plus, people aren’t thinking, “How am I paying my bills? I gotta get my child to school. My child is sick today.” All these things.
Dr. Miltner: Right. And the thing is is that I completely agree with you. First of all, the people who did really well in the program tended to be people who were younger, who didn’t have familial obligations. I don’t know any of the students who were at the school where I spent time who were favorites who had kids, or who had any kind of other familial obligation. The school would say, “This is a flexible schedule, blah, blah, blah,” but then they would say, “The students that we really want are the ones who are—you only have to be here on mandatory days, but aside from from those required days, you can make your own choice because you’re an adult.” But then they would turn around and say, “But you’re gonna make the most out of this program if you’re here every day.” So what the actual… what they said the actual program requirements were was one thing, but then what they actually truly expected, or what they idealized in terms of participation…
Kim: And what was going to be successful. They knew that that minimum wasn’t gonna be successful. [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: Right.
Kim: They knew that it took hours and hours of extra to do that. Yeah, and so now people have to re-shift their lives. If they can’t, they drop out, and again, it becomes—again, this is the issue. Instead of focusing on the system that created this is the problem, we now internalize it, or individualize it, and say that person wasn’t a good fit for this industry. That person wasn’t a good fit for this thing, and that’s not the truth.
Dr. Miltner: Well, right. The school where I spent time would say, “We know that this program isn’t for everybody, and we recognize that.” So, that’s how they would justify the fact that they had…
Kim: Oh, boy! Doesn’t that sound like “culture fit” to me? Boy, doesn’t it?
Dr. Miltner: Yes! Oh, it is! It’s 100% “culture fit,” right? Right.
Kim: [Laughs] Doesn’t that sound like, “Well, we brought them in, but they just didn’t stay.”
Dr. Miltner: “Attrition is a complicated thing and, you know, we don’t know… [Kim laughs] People leave for a lot of different reasons.”
Kim: Yes, they do. “And they didn’t communicate that to me.” Not the fact that they don’t feel safe in communicating what the issues are for them, because you will use that against them, so they just keep it to themselves, so that gives you the assumption that, “Oh, they just couldn’t hack it.”
Dr. Miltner: Yeah. 100%. Which is… one of the things that I find fascinating about coding schools is that it really is kind of a microcosm. These patterns are repeating themselves in these schools. The problematic patterns that have been decried in the tech industry for so long, they’re repeating themselves in these schools. Now, to be fair, I’ve not gone to any of the schools—the school where I spent time was a coed thing. It wasn’t “women only,” it wasn’t “underrepresented minority only,” so those might be different. Also, this was a for-profit school. There are coding schools out there that you don’t have to pay to get in. It’s funny, after I tweeted all of those things about my research, I got an email from an anonymous person who basically was like, “Are you still doing research? Because I have a story for you, and mine was a nonprofit. They hoodwinked us into paying stuff. They said they called it ‘pay it forward.’ We thought we were…”
Kim: OK. So yeah, that’s been on my podcast. I knew exactly what you were talking about. Yup. Mhm. Yup.
Dr. Miltner: It’s really interesting…
Kim: And they have investors. And I was like, “I don’t understand how a nonprofit can have an investor.” No one has been able to explain that to me yet. [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: Yeah. Well, yeah, it’s really challenging. It’s a complicated thing, because the school that let me spend time—which I’m never gonna say who they are—they opened their doors to me. They knew that I was interested in figuring out what was going on with the school, and I had a pretty critical take, and I gave them feedback at the end, and they were like, “Yeah, we kind of know all of these issues that you’ve been…” Before I had done any of the real analysis, before I left, I was like, “OK, so here are the things I’m hearing from the students that you might want to address,” and they’re like, “Yeah, we’re aware we hear this all the time.” [Kim laughs]
But I think it’s all about this whole idea of “meritocracy” and “colorblind meritocracy,” right? You don’t want to give anybody a leg up. The best people, the cream will rise to the top. All of this garbage that’s been disproven for ages, but for whatever reason, the tech industry is still very deeply infected by.
Kim: It’s so funny that you mention that, because in the next episode of the “How to be an Antiracist” that I’m doin’—chapter eight—there’s a term that Dr. Kendi defines; it’s “attribution effect.” And this is so entrenched in this community, because it’s entrenched in the broader community. White people have been taught that anything they get is from their individual effort, and everybody else, what we do, it’s about somebody handed us something.
Dr. Miltner: Right, exactly.
Kim: And that’s really interesting, and it’s gonna continue to happen. So, when you’re talkin’ about the EDPs—and I wanna let you know, I already added that book “The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death and Legacy of a One Laptop Per Child Infrastructure”; I added that to the—I have a #CauseAScene wishlist, ’cause I’m not gonna pay to educate these people. They need to buy these books and send them to me.
Dr. Miltner: Right.
Kim: So, that’s been added to the list. But, when you mentioned the EDP, if they woulda had a income sharing agreement back then, they woulda used it. And this is the new iteration of this thing. It is “in lieu of getting a student loan you can do this thing.” And I have a shitload of student loans!
Dr. Miltner: Me too.
Kim: Oh my god. My student loans are ridiculous. But you know what? As bad as that system is, I would not want a income sharing agreement.
Dr. Miltner: Well, no, because their private loans, right?
Kim: And it’s private loans from the people who run the schools! I’m like, “How is that not conflict of interest? What is goin’ on here?”
Dr. Miltner: Well, actually, so the school where I spent time, they outsourced it to another school, and they were having students sign up for this through a separate company. And I don’t even think the people who were at the school fully understood what the terms of the loan were.
Kim: Oh, no no no no. Please don’t use the word “loan” because to them these things aren’t loans. [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: Oh, right. OK, sorry. Yeah. [Kim laughs] But yeah, there was this one guy—one of the anecdotes that I tell in my thesis was there was this one guy who was very unceremoniously kicked out of school because… basically, they had a three strikes policy, but the rules were very poorly defined, and they were very…
Kim: Surprise, surprise.
Dr. Miltner: …differentially enforced.
Kim: Applied. [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: Yes. Exactly. And so, this guy ended up getting kicked out of school, but he was on the hook for the whole thing, and I brought that up—and all the students were very upset about it—and in the final meeting, I brought it up, and one of the co-founders of the school was like, “They think that he’s fully on the hook for the ISA? That’s not the case.” And it’s sort of like, “Well, it is, because unless you invalidate that for him…” I don’t know how you would do that at that point if he signed a legal contract. [Laughs] You know, that’s kind of…
Kim: Oh yeah, because it was from a different company, so he didn’t even understand. Yeah. Yes.
Dr. Miltner: Yes. It was outsourced. So, it’s like, “Really? Unless you’ve got some relationship where you can get this invalidated…” But it doesn’t matter if you’re kicked out of school. If you leave after you’re fully vested—which is what they call it—then you’re on the hook.
Kim: Mhm. I debunked the argument about—yes, again, I don’t like Sally Mae. [Semi-public US educational loan system] I really don’t. But it provided me what I needed. It was there for what—but I could also go and negotiate with Sally Mae and get a deferment or forbearance.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, exactly.
Kim: If I become infirm, they can discharge that. There’s a whole buncha things that I can negotiate that I cannot negotiate with these income sharin’ agreements.
Dr. Miltner: No.
Kim: The fact that it was outsourced is a problem, but the ones I’m seeing, they’re not outsourced. They are a part of the thing, and what they’re doing now—and I don’t know if you’ve heard this—they’re bundling them up, and selling them as derivatives. Financial derivatives.
Dr. Miltner: Oh god. Well, I mean, I’m not surprised, but, yeah.
Kim: So on the outset, as soon as the person signs up, this thing is sold.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, well, the students who didn’t pay upfront—which was over $50,000.
Kim: Well, have you heard the one that’s $85,000?
Dr. Miltner: No.
Kim: And it’s self-taught.
Dr. Miltner: Yep.
Kim: Ain’t no way in hell. [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: That doesn’t surprise me. I hadn’t heard about that one, but I’m not entirely surprised.
Kim: $85,000 for a bootcamp? Are you out yo mind?
Kim: $85,000 for a bootcamp? Are you out yo mind?
Dr. Miltner: I think one of the things that we need to recognize is that… one of the things I’ve been thinking about—are you familiar with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book “Lower Ed”?
Kim: Yes. I’m followin’ her. I’m tryin’ to get her on the podcast. Yes.
Dr. Miltner: So, she writes about for-profit education, right? Fundamentally, what these schools are—it’s basically kinda like University of Phoenix—but it’s not a bachelor’s degree.
Kim: Exactly. [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: But I think one of the things that we need to think about and one of the questions that we need to ask is why are these bootcamps considered to be different from that? A lot of those schools, they don’t have good reputations, and to many segments of the population they are kind of a joke, right? You know, it’s like “The Onion“ would write articles about “online frat parties at the University of Phoenix” or whatever it is.
Dr. Miltner: But these have a different cachet to them. So the branding that they’re doing and the ideology that they’re deploying I think is very compelling for people. And for certain employers in the Valley, they don’t look on this in the same way as they would if someone with a University of Phoenix degree would try and get a job with them. So I think that we need to think about the—and this is not something that I’ve thought about, or really done much work on yet, but I think it’s something that needs to be taken into consideration when we look at these schools—which is that the way that they’re perceived, and the way that they’re framed, is very different than traditional for profit education; ITT Tech or all of those types of things.
Kim: I mean, one of ’em that there was a problem, didn’t even register with the state of California, and was sent a cease and desist letter.
Dr. Miltner: Oh, yeah. Well a lot of them had that problem. A lot of them didn’t even know [laughs] that the Bureau of Post Graduate—the BPPE [Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education]—they didn’t know that that existed.
Kim: So, that tells me out the door—and this is where I’m pivoting, because this tells me education is not the business model, the ISAs are the business model. And they’re trying to slap anything they can onto these things, and see what’s gonna float.
Dr. Miltner: Oh, yeah.
Kim: Because if education was the business model, you would know what hoops you have to go jump through to get through education.
Dr. Miltner: Well, I think the other thing too, is that these are being started by technologists. They’re being started by software engineers who think that education is broken. That there’s that whole Silicon Valley idea that we need to disrupt education. You know, Peter Thiel paying people to drop out of college with his Thiel Fellows program and all of that. I mean, this is also part of that, right? I mean, the school where I did my ethnography, it was, “We’re fixing education.” Like education is broken, and how it’s really unfair that people will go to school for four years and not have a job afterwards. [Kim sighs] The ideological element of this really can’t be understated because…
Kim: And they play on that, though, because…
Dr. Miltner: I think they believe it.
Kim: Again, that’s the arrogance of white supremacy, because they play on that. You created a system, and the thing is education does not scale like that. That’s not how learning happens. So just fundamentally, it’s wrong. And that’s why I left education, because I saw that people’re like, “Oh, we need to fix education.” There is no fundamental incentive to fix education because too many people are profiting off it being broken. That’s not how education works. What these people are now are able to do is pass the test because you taught them how to take a test. But when I asked these same students, if I give them a question, and the answers don’t come in four selections, and I tell them it’s an open-ended response? They lose they damn mind because they don’t know how to put together a cogent sentence or cogent argument about anything.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, it’s challenging. But I think because… [sighs] One of the students who was one of my participants—we had several conversations, several interviews, and we emailed after I left the field site and all of that—he was like, “Everybody at that school was at… that was their last gasp.” Like, “These people were desperate.”
Kim: Mhm, and that’s what I heard about that non-profit. I asked her, because I knew people were gonna ask, “If you’re so bad, why did you…?” And both individuals said that they were desperate.
Dr. Miltner: What they went to school for—there were people in the school, there was a guy who was a lawyer—really highly educated people, who just were like… they weren’t happy with what they were doing. They wanted to make more money. And also the rhetoric that was in the press, right? This whole idea that automation is going to make so many jobs obsolete, and you need to program or be programmed. These people really believed that. That was part of their motivation.
Kim: Yeah, the fear mongering. Yeah, like, “I gotta get ready! I gotta get ready, because I’m gonna lose…” Yes.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, “I have to prepare.” I mean, the future, the automation, this whole thing about AI—there’s been a lot about AI in the news. But actually, that was also the case back in the 1960s. The whole idea there’s this amazing—I mean horrible—but amazing ad from ECPI—which was the Electronic Computer Programming Institute—it ended up getting shut down and all of that, but they had an ad in Life magazine in the early 1960s that had a picture of a computer, a magnetic reel tape. And it basically said, “Get this job before it takes away your old one. Learn how to work with computers before your job is made obsolete.” And that same fear repeated in the 1980s with the PC crisis. So you see these parts of alternative technical education “booms” happening whenever there seems to be some major shift in technology that the public is aware of.
Kim: And what’s interesting is that it has been happening historically, and yet still, historically white men have dominated. They’re the ones who have been able to benefit from it.
Dr. Miltner: Well, there’s an amazing book also, Nathan Ensmenger’s “The Computer Boys Take Over.“
Kim: [Writing a note] “Boys Take Over.” Mhm. Go ‘head.
Dr. Miltner: And then “Programmed Inequality” by Marie Hicks. Both of these books are excellent histories of early software engineering, one in the US, one in the UK, and they really look at how what was once an incredibly feminized profession—it was considered to be clerical work—was taken over by men once they realized how powerful software engineers really were. That’s a very reductive description of the work.
Kim: Oh, yeah, We saw that in “Hidden Figures.”
Dr. Miltner: Yes, exactly. So, this is really excellent scholarly work, and really kind of [inaudible] reading for anybody who’s interested in the gendered dynamics of computing. And I think another book that is coming out very soon is Charlton McIlwain’s “Black Software,” and he touches on the history of… In 1968, IBM was basically raked over the coals at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s hearing, and as a result, they started opening a lot of training centers—in concert with the Urban League, a lot of times—in what at the time called “inner city” or “ghetto”, whatever, urban centers where there were a lot of…
Kim: Black folk. Mhm. [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: Yeah. [Laughs] And so, there was this a big influx of Black employees into IBM, but they never made it to the management class for research and development, or any of the major scientific stuff; you know, marketing, sure…
Kim: HR, definitely.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, HR, sure. And we see that today, so Dr. McIlwain’s book is…
Kim: Oh cool. You’re just putting some… oh! Everybody here knows that I love putting those pieces together because I want—because I’m a Black woman. When I say something, no one’s gonna listen, so I need to defute it. I bring out all these different resources because that lets me know who’s actually interested in learning and who’s actually trying to gaslight folx. Because once I drop articles and your response is still “Oh, that’s not enough,” then, OK, yeah. Naw, you’re just wastin’ time, and people need to leave you alone.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, so these are all really excellent. These are…
Kim: I’m gonna put this up today. Actually, once we get off this call, once we finish this program, I’m gonna—I always put out when I add new things. “Hey, added new books. Who’s gonna pay? Who’s gonna send ’em to me?” [Laughs]
Before we wrap up, I really would like to—since you’ve researched this—do you have any best practices? If someone’s looking to evaluate a bootcamp, what should they be looking for? Have you ever figured that out?
Dr. Miltner: [Sighs] A lot of the—I’m sure you’re aware—that the way that a lot of these schools put out their statistics is very misleading. So there have been a couple of organizations that have tried to manage this. What was it? The…
Kim: Course Report is one.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, I mean, Course Report, though… [sighs] they are trying, but they also are… they’re in league with a lot of these schools.
Kim: ‘Cause they get paid for—don’t they get paid for people… to sponsors?
Dr. Miltner: I don’t know if they get paid. I do know that they have people from different coding schools doing guest posts and things like that, so I wouldn’t say that it’s…
Kim: Gotcha, gotcha. So there’s a conflict of interest.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, and also just the way that these statistics are portrayed, there’s a lack of transparency.
Kim: Mhm, mhm. And I don’t mean sponsors. What I meant was, I think bootcamps can pay to be highlighted or something.
Dr. Miltner: Oh, OK. I’m not fully… I’m very aware of Course Report, and I’ve looked at their materials, but I—because honestly they are one of the few sources of data out there, but their data is problematic in the sense that no one’s really collecting this material, and the questions that they’re asking… So, for example, when they say, “Are you employed after three months, six months a year, whatever,” employment is defined as full-time entrepreneurship or internship, right? Those are very different categories of employment. How many students are getting full-time, full benefits work at the type of company that they would want to work out? I imagine that that’s not the 98% that a lot of these schools project.
Kim: And that’s what I talk about. I was like, you can’t use numbers that talk about “job in tech” when I just spent $50,000 for a programming job. [Laughs] I need your numbers to reflect the programming jobs.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, exactly. I think that there needs to be a better breakdown of the different categories of employment that people end up attaining after they finish these programs. How many people finished? Did you get a job as a software engineer? Junior software engineer? Was it a startup? Because a lot of the branding for these schools is you’re going to get a job at Google and Facebook and Dropbox and whatever, and that is the case for maybe 5% of people who come out of these programs.
Kim: Exactly! And that’s… [exasperated sigh] And then I just went to Course Report, and I saw that the reviews are open to anybody. So it’s again, where’s the data coming from? How do you vet that?
Dr. Miltner: Right. So, the lack of reliable data is a real problem. And that’s something that I hope to be addressing on the UK side. And if I get a grant in the future, on the US side, because there needs to be a reliable, independent source of data, right? And it needs to be done with proper survey methodologies [Kim laughs] and proper survey analysis.
Kim: Yeah, and that’s what gets me. There’s nothing… we can do—tech is supposed to be so innovative and so disruptive, and yet it does not use basic research. This is why I tell people, that’s why there is a requirement for validity and reliability in research. So we understand that there’s bias, and we have to ask ourselves these questions, because people would ask these questions.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, there needs to be legitimate methodologies. There has to be methodological rigor for this to be of any use to people who are trying to make a really important, very expensive…
Kim: Informed. Yeah.
Dr. Miltner: Exactly. So I think the big question is, the people who I’ve seen do well, which is not—again, this is more anecdotal, because this is not something that I could say is the case for everybody, this is just my observations as an ethnographer at one school for nine months, so caveat emptor—but as you said, people who have either experience with it or a facility with it, you have to be able to pick this stuff up pretty quickly or to be able to have a lot of time to devote to really immersing yourself in this, and you need to—I think I’m not saying that if you don’t have a college degree or some sort of previous degree that you’re not going to get hired, but it is unlikely that you will be hired at the types of programs or in companies that these schools are advertising.
I have a very good friend who is at the director level at a big four tech company and we had dinner one night, and I was talking about my research and he was like, “I just don’t know why we would ever hire people from a coding school.” He’s like, “The company that I work for, we’ve got the best of the best from Stanford and Berkeley and Harvard throwing themselves at us. Why would we need to hire from these unproven organizations?” And granted, that’s just anecdotal, but I know that there are reports of a huge kind of employee gap, that there is the skills gap, that there aren’t enough skilled people to fill the jobs that these companies need doing.
Kim: And so that—you mentioned two things that I wanna end on because this is very interesting. So I’m gonna talk about your friend first. That’s the thinking that keeps the same people in the spots.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, absolutely. 100%.
Kim: And so, he’s creating a barrier there, and we could—a quality bootcamp, if designed—I’m not saying that this model does not work; what I’m saying is, this model does not scale for VC funding. Period. Just does not work.
Dr. Miltner: It works for profit. It just doesn’t work for the students. But I think it’s working incredibly well for the people who are…
Kim: Well, what I mean, by the education model. That model is not helping people get to fill those jobs that are open. So you need a curriculum designed by people who understand learning theory. You need supports in place. You need supports outside and inside of school. Financial. All these kind of things that work. But one thing I wanna end on is what I continuously talk about is—you reiterated this—the vast majority of success I’ve seen in these programs are people who have some kind of prior knowledge. But that does not scale. It’s not enough of those individuals to make this model work. So what they do is they bring in their marketing and sales people, and then they start marketin’ to people who don’t even know what a variable is.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, no, it’s true.
Kim: And that is the problem.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, it’s really exploitative.
Kim: Exactly. You have to have numbers for this to work, but there’re not enough people with the relevant backgrounds. And I’m not gonna say there’s not somebody who’s never seen a variable who can’t who can’t go into a program and learn. That is a rarity.
Dr. Miltner: It is. Right. I mean these are the people who are often held up as evidence that these programs work. You have these sort of exceptional cases who end up, through their own hard work, and a bit of luck, and whatever other factors…
Kim: Network and all. A bunch of stuff.
Dr. Miltner: Yeah, they end up getting a job. And good for them, but they’re the exception and not the rule.
Kim: Mhm. Exactly, and we need to stop pushing these as if they’re—bootcamp is not for everyone. It’s particularly how it’s designed now. It is not, and we need to stop sayin’ that.
Dr. Miltner: And I also think that they weren’t designed to be for everyone, and that’s the interesting thing, is that these bootcamps were originally designed to be skills bootcamps for people who were basically almost there, but just needed a little bit more. They had a degree in computer science, they wanted to get into data science or whatever. It was never meant to teach someone in 12 weeks how to become a fully-fledged software engineer. And even these longer programs, it’s the same.
One last thing I would like to say…
Kim: Mhm. Yes!
Dr. Miltner: One of the things we also need to consider, independent of how these these programs are designed, historically speaking, skill is socially constructed. Who is considered to be skilled…
Kim: Yes! [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: …is tied to the body that is doing the work.
Kim: That’s the same thing with what’s considered fair, what’s considered nice, what’s considered… the people in power get to define those terms.
Dr. Miltner: Well, right. And so, I think one of the other things that’s a problem with these coding schools is that it—call them a coding school, call them a skills accelerator, call them a coding academy, whatever you want—just because someone is technically skilled does not mean that they’re going to be hired to do that work. And even if they are hired to do that work, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily gonna have a successful career, because there are so many other structural factors that go into whether someone…
Kim: And these are the things that no one is addressing. [Laughs]
Dr. Miltner: Right. I think that there’s some recognition that attrition is a problem, and I have nothing but critiques for the pipeline model of staffing and workplace development, but even still, if you look at a lot of the programs—so Airbnb, for example, they have all of these “minoritized” employee groups. And their approach, they call it “inclusion and belonging”, right? “Belonging” has now made it into these corporate programs. “We understand that you need to belong at this company in order to best work and be your best self.”
But they don’t really understand what that means. For them, belonging is being part of an employee research group [Kim laughs] and then bringing your complaints to a higher up who may or may not listen to you. First of all, it puts the onus on the employees who are not the norm at that company, but also, it’s a culture issue. And it has to come from the top and a lot of the times it doesn’t. You’re dealing with deeply entrenched beliefs about computing and any kind of science being neutral. The idea the technology field is neutral.
And if you were to say, this whole idea, “Well, if you know what you’re doing, you could be the best independent of where you come from,” that is such a deeply rooted belief, and that’s one of the roots that we need to hack at in order to get any kind of change, because it really doesn’t matter what kind of bodies you get in the door. If these people are not made to feel welcome, if they aren’t made to feel valued, then they’re going to leave. And that’s what—the Kapoor Center did this whole report in 2017 on tech leavers, and unfairness was one of the main reasons that people left. And surprise, surprise, most of these people were from minoritized groups, so it’s not about skill. Yes, of course, skill is partially part of it, but that’s like 20% compared to everything else.
Kim: You speak to something I talk about to my clients, and when I’m speaking about this. So, diversity is about recruiting—how you recruit people. Where are you? And inclusion is about retention. And the problem is, companies think they get to tell a person if they feel included.
Dr. Miltner: Ha!
Kim: Included is about my experience and only I can tell you if I feel included or not. You don’t get to dictate whether your environment is inclusive or not. I tell you that. And this is where we keep screwin’ up, because we keep enabling the powers that be to dictate everything. They don’t wanna understand that this is a space that you’re not an expert in. This is a space where you—so I could be on all the minority subgroups you want to put me on, but every time, if I’ve learned that every time I speak up, I’m silenced, then I won’t say anything.
Dr. Miltner: Well, right.
Kim: So there are a lot of things that we still refuse to address and we blame it on—again—we blame it on the pipeline. We blame it on individuals instead of us dealing with the systems that are fundamentally creating both visible and invisible barriers for—and not just that, but actively causing harm to people. Anything you’d like to say in your last moments? This was a great conversation we had.
Dr. Miltner: No, I really enjoyed this conversation. I feel like I could talk about this for days on end, but I feel like I got out most of the main points of what I’ve been up to for the past couple of years.
Kim: Well, I was so happy that you brought that up. [Sighs in contentment] I love it when—like I said—when people bring the historical perspective, because it helps gird, it helps build the foundation, because people keep thinkin’ these things’re comin’ out of the air, and I was like, “No, this stuff is rooted in something.” There’s a beginning to this. You’re just dealing with the effect. But there was a cause.
Dr. Miltner: Yes, absolutely. I mean, and the trajectory really—I’m sure it goes back even further than Cold War science efforts in the United States—but the very clear parallel to now was with these EDP schools in the 1960s, and there will be more work from me coming out about that.
Kim: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m sure, so keep us posted. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a wonderful day.
Dr. Miltner: Thank you so much for having me. Yes, you too.
Kim: Bye bye.
Dr. Kate Miltner
Listen to more great #causeascene podcasts
Originally posted on August 19, 2018 I will begin this post as I begin each talk, with a list of my credentials because there’s always
There are many reasons that businesses succeed or fail but in an Information Age economy, one looms bright. The reason organizations like Amazon and Walmart