THE SILVER ISSUE
The week of January 25, 2015
Issue24--SilverIssue_SeniorsCoding_2500px

It’s never too late to learn to code

By Selena Larson

Laurie Alaoui’s alarm rings at 6:40am every morning. After she gets off the couch in her daughter’s living room in San Francisco, Calif., she spends some time playing with her grandchildren and, promptly at 8am, heads to class.

The 57-year-old is a student at General Assembly, a coding education program, or “coding bootcamp,” that turns students into app makers and Web developers in just three short months. Alaoui is the oldest in her group, and one of five women in the 19-person program. One man is near her age, but the rest, she says, are under 30 and much more like the stereotypical computer programmers we think of.

“We have one kid that just turned 20,” Alaoui told the Kernel. “The 30-year-olds feel old. In fact, one of them told me he was sure he was going to be the oldest one there.”

For most adults past 50, retirement, not a career change, is top of mind, perhaps from jobs they’ve been at for decades. For Alaoui, learning to code was a dream she needed to pursue—one sparked a few years ago when she saw a TEDTalk on augmented reality and gesture technology called SixthSense, developed in the MIT Media Lab. She was stunned by the presenter’s ability to use the tips of felt pens to move photographs across a screen and display a watch face on his arm by gesturing. She showed the video to all her friends whenever anyone came over.

“I saw that, and he said anyone can build this,” she said. “He put it on open source, which I had never heard of before, and that means it’s up on the Web and you can take it down and you can use the code to do what you please. I thought it’s so amazing, and he’s just giving it away.”

Alaoui wanted to learn to use it and, after reading an article in the local paper about coding bootcamps, decided to apply.

“I started looking into it,” she recalled, “and realized I needed to know more about coding before I could even apply.”

Back to school

In 2015, a common refrain is “everyone should learn to code.” Programs like the Hour of Code and Computer Science Education Week make it so students, teachers, and parents across the U.S. have the materials and opportunity to learn basic coding concepts. Even President Obama has written a few lines himself, hoping that seeing a president contributing to Web development will inspire young people who will fill future technology careers.

It’s estimated that by 2020, there will be 1 million more jobs in computer science than graduating college students to fill them. As opportunities in technology for both startups and large corporations like Facebook become appealing and lucrative career fields that need talented engineers to fill an increasing number of positions, coding programs are a way for students to learn the skills needed for entry-level positions more affordably than with a college degree.

“The 30-year-olds feel old. In fact, one of them told me he was sure he was going to be the oldest one there.”

Coding academy General Assembly costs between $3,500 and $11,500. Other programming boot camps include Hack Reactor, which costs almost $18,000; Dev Bootcamp, which costs between $13,000 and $14,000; and the women-only Hackbright Academy, with a tuition of $15,000. Most of these programs are highly immersive, meaning students take programs in lieu of a full-time job.

In major cities like San Francisco and New York, there are a number of these programs that promise to turn students into programmers and provide them with a job as soon as they graduate. In San Francisco, there are at least 13, and they act as feeder schools for the ever-growing number of tech startups in the city, as well as companies like Google and Facebook.

Many of these programs are controversial because of their high fee and lack of oversight from educational boards. They certainly don’t teach as much as four-year degrees in computer science or engineering. In California, coding programs came under scrutiny in early 2014 when the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education discovered that they were offering educational programs without complying to state regulations. (The programs eventually complied.)

Some code schools provide scholarships for students, but often even with financial assistance or payment plans, these programs can be extremely cost-prohibitive. Sometimes students turn to crowdfunding to help with tuition, while others drive for Lyft or work on other side jobs to save up enough money. Additionally, some experienced engineers who spent their college years pursuing computer science complain that graduates aren’t qualified enough to be in the tech workforce.

Most graduates, however, will find themselves in junior positions, working in an environment that nurtures their new skills. And companies that look to learn-to-code programs to hire new engineers know the level of education each student receives.

Of course, the narrative that everyone should learn to code might not be entirely correct. But Alaoui is out to prove that everyone, no matter their age, can learn to code.

Making a difference

As a single mom whose children had left the nest, learning to code was an adventure she initially undertook on her own. But since no one was around to help answer her questions, learning programming languages was almost impossible.

Photo by Laurie Alaoui

Photo by Laurie Alaoui

Alaoui (pictured above) began teaching herself coding concepts through online tutorials, beginning with Python, a programming language for fast prototyping and a popular first language for people who want to experiment with machine learning. At first, Alaoui studied on Udemy, a massive open online course (MOOC) provider that lets students learn from top professors at universities across the world for a very reasonable price.

MOOC education companies like Udemy, Coursera, and Udacity are popular among self-learners like Alaoui because students can take classes ranging from data science, programming, machine learning, and other computing concepts for free or considerably less than traditional college courses or learn-to-code academies like General Assembly. For Alaoui, Udemy wasn’t enough. She began to travel from her home in Sacramento to San Francisco once a month to attend meetups for various programming languages.

In 2015, a common refrain is “everyone should learn to code.”

“At the first meetup I went to, I only knew two percent of the words the guy said,” Alaoui chuckled. “And that’s if you include ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

But as she began studying more and pursuing online classes, she eventually became code-literate. And after a year of work, she was confident enough to apply to General Assembly.

Coding academies like General Assembly have rigorous application processes, and due to high demand, most students who apply don’t get in. Alaoui said that she was nervous at first, but she built a website as part of her application and was called in for an interview. She was soon accepted into the three-month program.

While many of the students in the program are interested in building applications like Angry Birds or for on-demand delivery, Alaoui wants to put her newly acquired skills to work building apps that might actually change lives.

This might sound like Silicon Valley-speak, but Alaoui’s first project for General Assembly was created to help her navigate the streets as a handicapped driver.

At 17, Alaoui tried to save a car full of women in a serious car wreck, but the car moved and rolled across her legs. After years of surgery, she can use them if she’s careful, but she struggles finding a parking spot in San Francisco that’s not only handicapped-friendly but also not on a serious incline—a common feature in the area that can be hard for people in wheelchairs to navigate.

So far, her mobile application built with Ruby can show users the location of handicapped parking spaces, as well as the times of day they’re available for free. She has yet to work out the incline data—the “slope of each street turned out to be super hard”—but is continuing to build the app in hopes that eventually it can help people everywhere who have trouble getting around big cities with minimal parking options.

“Programming is so powerful; it gives you the opportunity to do so much for society,” she said. “You can change people’s lives.”

Battling ageism in Silicon Valley

It’s no secret Silicon Valley struggles with ageism. In 2007, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “Young people are just smarter.” In 2013, a survey conducted by PayScale, a company that provides data about hiring trends across various industries, found that just six of 32 top technology firms had a median age of 35 or older. And eight of the companies had an average age of 30 or younger. It’s gotten to the point where older people are pursuing plastic surgery to fit into tech’s youthful culture.

“Programming is so powerful; it gives you the opportunity to do so much for society.”

Alaoui knows it will be difficult to find a job, even with the help of General Assembly, where instructors assist with resume building, networking, and job placement.

“I don’t know as though I’ll have as many opportunities, because people hire people they know, and besides my kids’ friends, I don’t know a lot of younger people,” Alaoui said. “But every time I speak with a developer, they are always so encouraging. I ask them specifically about [ageism] because it is something I am concerned about.”

Alaoui plans after graduation to join a startup in San Francisco to be close to her two children and grandkids, particularly at a company that focuses on social good. Like the other women in her cohort who have discussed the best strategies for getting hired at a tech company, Alaoui knows it’s as much about confidence as it is about who you know.

“I’m hoping I don’t experience too much of that, but I don’t know,” she said. “If I don’t try, I’ll never know.”

Her dedication to this new pursuit takes her late into the evening, often staying at General Assembly until 9:30pm, when instructors tell students it’s time to go home. On bad days when her legs ache, she can still work with her legs up, or even from the couch.

Alaoui goes back to her daughter’s, where a supportive family is proud of a grandmother taking courses often thought to be for young people.

She’s not a programmer at a swanky San Francisco startup—yet. But in the meantime, she’s built a computer game for her grandchildren. That way, the entire family can participate in the learning adventure together. And eventually, Alaoui will no longer be on her daughter’s couch but in her own San Francisco home, building mobile applications.

“I’ll code as long as they let me—it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “I used to sit at home and play Sudoku, but this is so much more fun.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated for clarity. 

Illustration by J. Longo