Seattle coding boot camp changes lives, grows with $10M grant from Melinda French Gates

A growing computer coding academy in Seattle aims to transform the tech industry by training diverse software engineers. And in the process, it is transforming students’ lives, too.

Just a couple years ago, Haben Foto was one of them.

Foto grew up in Eritrea, living under large tents as her parents fought for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia.

“You have to hide from the war planes that would come to bomb the camps,” she said. “Education was at their forefront of what they were fighting for, education and health.”

When she was nine, they moved to the capital city of Asmara.

“At that point, did you have any exposure to the idea of coding and technology?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“Ohmygod, no!” Foto said with a laugh. “No, I think probably the first time I’d seen a computer was in high school in the late 90s.”

Foto studied English literature and education, urged on by her mother.

“She was always pushing me to be— [she told me that] you have to go to the only university that we had,” she said. “I had that in my head, always. That I have to be somebody.”

That propelled her and her husband to come to the U.S. for post-grad and opportunity. Then she heard about a computer coding boot camp.

“I heard about Ada from a friend who worked at the Red Cross with me,” she said.

Ada Developers Academy started in Seattle in 2013 to encourage more women into the tech industry. This year, dozens of students will sit in in-person classrooms and virtual classrooms and do six months of coursework followed by an internship for another five months. But it’s not that easy to get in.

“It’s fairly rigorous, the application process,” Sheldon said.

“Oh, yes!” Foto agreed.

“There’s a lot they’re asking of you,” Sheldon said.

“Once, if you make it all the way, then it’s like half of the battle is won,” Foto said.

“Just to get in!” Sheldon said.

“Just to get in,” Foto said, “because a lot of people want it.”

It took several years, two children, and some beginner coding lessons from a friend on Facebook for Foto to finally study and apply.

“I made it on my first try — and yeah!” Foto said with a laugh.

“Our admissions percentages hover between 15% and 20% so it is pretty competitive to get in, which really just speaks to the need and really, why we’re growing,” Ada Developers Academy CEO Lauren Sato said.

Sato explains tuition is free funded by many local partners, including big names like Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Students can get zero-percent loans for living expenses.

“We’re looking for folks who really need this opportunity, who couldn’t necessarily afford to go back to school,” Sato said. “We prioritize serving Black, Indigenous, Latine, Native Alaskan, Pacific Islander communities because we know those are the groups that are the most underrepresented in tech… and now we are really women and gender expansive. So anyone who doesn’t identify as a cis[gender] male can apply to Ada.”

They’re tackling a big problem: According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 25% of tech jobs are held by women. Of that group, 7% are Asian women, 3% are Black women, and 2% are Hispanic women.

Sato says Ada creates a lasting community where students learn how to pick up new skills quickly, call out injustice in the workplace, and advocate for themselves.

“The average incoming salary of an Ada student is about $45,000 and the average salary, starting salary when they graduate is about $117,000,” Sato said. “So they see a really dramatic increase, which could then lead them to not negotiate as hard because it is such a stark change from where they’re coming from.”

In July, the academy caught the attention of Melinda French Gates and her investment company, Pivotal Ventures. It awarded them $10 million. Thanks to that funding, they’re expanding to Atlanta this year; Washington, D.C., in 2023; and three more markets after that.

To be sure, though, the academy isn’t easy.

“I remember the first week being-- exhausted beyond measure,” Foto said.

She recalls suffering from imposter syndrome and the academy offering child care when the pandemic led to prolonged school closures.

All of it, she said, was worth it. All the support, she said, meant the world. Foto landed an internship with Microsoft and started working there as a software engineer last February.

“Do you feel proud of yourself?” Sheldon asked.

“I do!” she said. “So much!”

She said she feels proud of the financial stability she can give her family, the future they can plan, and what they can do for others.

“I come from a community where you help your people a lot,” she said, “and so now I can do that.”