Recurse Center

Building a better and more diverse community

The short: We now have need-based living expense grants for blacks and Latino/as, as well as people from other groups traditionally underrepresented in programming. Etsy, Juniper, Perka, Stripe, Betaworks, and Fog Creek have partnered with us to fund the grants, and help make the demographics of Hacker School better reflect those of the US. Hacker School remains free for everyone.

Some history

In early 2012, we partnered with Etsy and began offering need-based grants to women who couldn’t afford to pay for living expenses during Hacker School. This was part of a larger effort to make Hacker School more gender-balanced, and it has worked extremely well.

Over the past two and a half years our community has gone from being under 5% women to being 35%, and from being a few dozen people to nearly 450.

Simultaneously, and in many ways because of this, Hacker School has become a better experience and community along almost every dimension.

Why diversity is important to Hacker School

There are many reasons why diversity is valuable, but there are two reasons why it is especially important to Hacker School as an organization.

The first is that diversity helps to reduces the harmful effects of stereotype threat. Put another way, we focus on diversity so Hacker Schoolers don’t have to. We want you to be able to focus on becoming a better programmer, not being the only person like you in the room. The more diverse Hacker School is, the easier it is for a greater range of people to do that.

Second, a large part of the value of Hacker School is what Hacker Schoolers learn from each other. Hacker School relies on a diverse range of experiences and perspectives; if everyone were the same, no one would have anything to learn from each other! Our self-directed and peer-driven educational model is in this way very different from traditional, one-size-fits-all approaches to education.1

Given this, it’s unsurprising that Hacker School has gotten better as our community has grown to include more women, trans people, genderqueer people, older people, younger people, parents, and people from a greater range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

A long way to go

But while we’re proud of the progress we’ve made, we’re still far from where we want or need to be: Hacker School is still not 50% women and, like the programming world at large, it is still overwhelmingly white and Asian. And while we strive to eliminate it, our community isn’t free of sexism or racism.

Today, we’re excited to take the next step in building a stronger and more diverse community, and announce the largest expansion of our grants program to date. We’ve secured grant funding for our next full year of batches, and are expanding our grants program to support people from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in programming, in addition to women.

This is only possible because of the outstanding support and commitment of our partner companies. Etsy has committed over $200,000 in grants for the coming year, and Juniper has pledged an additional $100,000 for grants. Etsy and Juniper have been the two greatest champions and supporters of female programmers at Hacker School, and we are honored to have their continued and expanded support.

We’re also thrilled to announce four new grant sponsors: Betaworks, Fog Creek, Perka, and Stripe. These companies are deeply committed to supporting and increasing diversity in programming and are all sponsoring multiple grants over the next year. We couldn’t be happier to be working with them.

We applaud these companies for not just talking about the importance of supporting diversity, but for stepping up and doing one of the most effective things we’re aware of: Giving money directly to those who need it, with no strings attached.

The details

Our grants are now available to people who identify as women, black, Latino/a, Native American, and Pacific Islander. Since Hacker School charges no tuition, the grants are intended to be used for living expenses during your three months of Hacker School: You can use your grant for housing, food, childcare, or anything else you need during your time here. Each grant is for between $500 and $7,000, depending on the need of the recipient.

Hacker School is in the unusual position to be able to support both relatively new and very experienced programmers from a wide range of backgrounds. There are other organizations focusing purely on getting more people from underrepresented groups into programming and we think that’s an important part of the puzzle. But we also think it’s vitally important to additionally support people from underrepresented groups who are already working as programmers and who struggle with the pervasive discrimination in our industry. The lack of black and female programmers is partially because of how few initially enter the field, but also because of how many are driven out by racism, sexism and unsupportive environments.

So, whether you are entirely self-taught or you have a CS degree, we want you at Hacker School. And regardless of if programming is just something you do for fun or if programming is something you’ve been doing professionally for years, we want you at Hacker School. People with everything from three months to 20 years of programming experience have told us they found Hacker School to be a life-changing experience.

Not lowering the bar

As we said when we announced our grants for women two and a half years ago, we are in no way lowering our admissions bar for anyone. We hold everyone who applies to an equal standard, and no man has ever been denied admission to Hacker School because a woman was admitted. We accept every person who applies who we believe we’re a good fit for and who would benefit from and contribute to Hacker School.

We are always eager to reduce bias in our admissions process, and so this year we began automatically generating pseudonyms for applicants. Instead of seeing names like “José Smith” and “Kimberly Lin” we now see names like “Croissant Wave” and “Representative Mint” when doing our initial application review. We conduct Skype interviews and applications still contain personally identifying information like GitHub links, so the pseudonyms are only intended to eliminate unconscious bias in the first minute or two of our application review.

The data from our past two years of batches has been remarkably consistent: The percent of women in a given batch is statistically indistinguishable from the percent of women who applied to that batch. If 35% of applicants for a batch are women then the batch will be approximately 35% women. We’ve found the same to be true at every step of our admissions process: Men and women are invited to interview, advanced to a second interview, and admitted at the same rates. We believe this provides strong evidence that we’ve succeeded in our commitment to holding women and men to the same admissions standards.2

This also suggests that one of the bests paths to a vibrant and diverse community is outreach: Our community has grown larger and stronger not by turning people away, but by welcoming people from a broader range of backgrounds to apply in the first place.

If you want to spend three months programming with friendly peers with a wide array of experience levels and perspectives, you should apply to Hacker School. And even if Hacker School isn’t what you’re looking for, please help us spread the word.

Grant sponsors

Please contact us if you’re interested in supporting diversity and sponsoring grants at Hacker School.

Update 10/1/14: After making this announcement, we were told that “Hispanic” is a word few people identify with and many find hurtful. We’re sorry that we weren’t as informed as we could have been and we’re grateful to everyone who let us know how we could do better. We’ve removed “Hispanic” from this blog post and from the rest of our site. We’ve also replaced “non-white Latino/a” with “Latino/a” because it’s more straightforward and better takes into account how people self-identify.

  1. Consider a traditional lecture-based class with a fixed curriculum. That model is built around homogenity, not diversity: It’s much easier to operate if everyone involved has the same background, interests, learning-style, and rate of growth. Our model is the opposite: It’s helped not harmed by diversity.

  2. We haven’t previously tracked other demographic information in our admissions process, so we don’t have similar data for other groups, though we believe the same is true for them as well.