Diversity is crucial to a software company’s continued success.
One 2011 Forbes study of large corporations found that having a workforce with a “diverse set of experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds” was “crucial to innovation and the development of new ideas”, as well as being extremely important “to attract and retain top talent.”
One source of diversity that shouldn’t be overlooked is hiring software developers who learned outside the typical CompSci college track.
Software development in the modern era, more than ever, is problem solving. Software is no longer a niche or a toy, it’s everywhere, infiltrating all aspects of our lives. People who haven’t been molded in the traditional CompSci schools of thought are more likely to approach those increasingly larger and more complex problems from different perspectives.
Combining as many different perspectives and approaches to problem solving leads to more creative and thoughtful solutions.
“…we cannot truly embody excellence, a hallmark of our storied institution, without diversity.” - Dr. Dennis A. Mitchell, Columbia University
Developers with non-traditional backgrounds (NTBGs, for short) are becoming much more common due to a desperate search for talent from software companies, the proliferation of bootcamps, and more resources available for self-taught developers.
I speak from experience, as I am one of those developers: I went to college for wood products engineering and worked for almost 10 years in the construction and building materials industry. I was a self taught developer in high school, then went to a bootcamp when I decided to make the career change.
Evaluating Diversity in Software
So, having established that different perspectives are good and NTBGs are becoming commonplace, what should we expect from this? How will bringing in NTBGs affect our business? Where are they typically stronger or weaker? And how should we assess them when we’re hiring?
While I’ve only worked in this industry for a few years, but having gone through a bootcamp myself and having worked with quite a few NTBGs already, I’d like to discuss my experiences and insights on those topics.
Please note: in no part of this discussion am I intending to say NTBGs are in any way better than developers who followed the traditional CS college route! But I do think there are some generalizations we can make about people who took a traditional route vs those of us who did not and there’s a lot to be learned in those differences.
Let’s start with common strengths I’ve found in a lot of NTBGs. The trait they share is taking a path less traveled to the software industry. They either taught themselves the entire way or picked themselves up from a dead-end job, found the time and money to restart, and carried themselves into a new industry.
We can infer from this career trajectory, and I’ve also found from my experience working with them, that they tend to be motivated, self-starters. I’ve also found they have the ability to “struggle well”.
They might not know the silver bullet solution, but they are willing to fire a lot of lead bullets and learn from the hits and misses.
NTBGs tend to have a mindset for continuous learning, which is highly important to the kind of developer who will grow and learn over time.
There are also some generalized weaknesses in the group. NTBGs do not come pre-packaged with a deep understanding of algorithms and patterns, so those may need to be taught with some patience and empathy. On the plus side, it may be better to be able to teach them the right way the first time rather than having to fix bad habits. But many NTBGs will have succeeded despite not understanding how the underlying parts work.
The metaphor I use is a factory worker who might know how to put the pieces of a finished product together, but couldn’t tell you how each of those individual parts were made or how they operate on the inside. This doesn’t make them bad, but you will need to be thoughtful about their initial projects and teams so they can be successful.
Hiring NTBGs effectively might mean changing the way your interview and hiring process works. The traditional style of the developer interview sometimes can be more of a vocabulary test, checking for memorization over comprehension and concept synthesis. With NTBGs, and especially where this is their first industry job, it is important to assess them in a more holistic way.
Anyone can memorize some definitions and concepts, and without a college transcript to check against, you’ll want to be sure it’s a good fit for your organization and their team.
The most important thing to assess is how they think, not what they know. I like to conduct interviews with a wide-ranging whiteboard problem without a single “correct” answer and then work cooperatively with them on solving it.
Some points I look for during this process are how they approach a problem, how quickly they realize they are on the wrong path, how they change course when they are on the wrong path, and how willing they are to take constructive feedback. Together these criteria can inform a lot about problem solving ability and will help determine whether they can continue their learning process into a successful development career.
It’s also important to assess their ability to synthesize information from other fields. One of the upsides of bringing in NTBGs is the diversity of experience and background. If you see them actively referencing lessons or relevant knowledge from other careers into solving the problems at hand, this is a good sign that they can help you solve problems from an outsider’s perspective.
Once they have passed the above tests, I’m going to then recommend the exact thing I warned about at the start: the dreaded “vocab test”. However, rather than using it as a pass/fail test metric, I recommend using this to measure how much mentoring they might need and in what areas we would need to concentrate.
NTBGs are often seen by traditional-track devs as a risky bet, while successful ones are treated like unicorns. While the majority of incoming engineers will almost certainly continue to be college CompSci grads for the foreseeable future. I predict we will continue to see a rise in bootcamps and self-taught students transitioning from other fields as software continues to touch all areas of our lives. A strong indication of this is the recent news of Google and Apple removing the college degree requirement.
It’s to our benefit to find ways to take advantage of this trend.
Scott Stahl, Software Engineer at Skiplist