Disney’s Unique Take on Diversifying Its Coders

What you do have your big corporation and you want to create more diversity in your IT team? According to Fast Company, Disney has a new twist on an old strategy: offer tech retraining and apprenticeships to female “employees already well into their careers.” The program, which was created by Disney VP of Technology Nikki Katz, is called CODE: Rosie.

The CODE in CODE: Rosie stands for Creating Opportunities for Diverse Engineers. The “Rosie” part references Rosie the Riveter, the symbol of World War II’s working women; an internal CODE Rosie logo even depicts Minnie Mouse in Rosie’s iconic rolled-up-sleeve pose. In particular, the program pays tribute to the “Rosies” who programmed the U.S. Army’s pioneering ENIAC computer back in the 1940s.

For decades after those ENIAC coders helped make history, women played prominent roles in software engineering. But the percentage of U.S. computer-science majors who are female peaked more than 30 years ago and then spiraled downward for years. In recent years, groups such as Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and BRAID have worked to get young women interested in programming early, in hopes of putting them on a track to pursue an education—and then a career—in computer science. These efforts have helped, but the field’s gender imbalance remains severe.

CODE: Rosie has a couple of features that make it unique. First, it’s got a strong emphasis on apprenticeships inside the corporation.

After three months of training—in everything from basic computer-science concepts to programming languages such as Python—they’ll segue into a yearlong apprenticeship consisting of two six-month chunks in different teams within the company. Then they’ll have the opportunity to take a job within one of Disney’s technical groups.

Second, to ensure that people who join the program understand what they’re getting into, are committed enough to it that investing in them will pay off, and to give them a leg up, CODE: Rosie requires that participants do a bunch of work before they are accepted into the program.

for the first CODE: Rosie program, which kicked off in April 2016 and had a dozen available slots, applicants had to submit essays and tackle a simple coding project…. When Katz and her colleagues were formulating this year’s “CODE: Rosie 2.0,” however, they decided to front-load 40 to 60 hours of online instruction into the application process. That makes it much more of a gauntlet, especially given that a prospective Rosie must go through this material on her own time…. Along with allowing employees to show they’re serious about the CODE: Rosie program, this pre-training helps them move ahead more quickly once they’re in.

Third, it provides a strong safety net that reduces the risk to participants if the program doesn’t work out for them.

Disney holds particpants’ previous non-technical jobs open and gives each “Rosie” the option to return to her old role rather than continuing on her new career path. Of the 12 Rosies in the inaugural program, only one took the company up on this offer. (Another ended up leaving the company for a technical job elsewhere.)

Fourth, Katz invested in building strong support for the program from key techies.

To ensure that Rosies would be welcomed, Katz worked to get advance buy-in from Disney’s tech pros. “I got this lovely email from Nikki, only a few months after hiring into Disney,” remembers lead software engineer Calvin Wong. “It was basically describing the CODE: Rosie program: ‘We’re going to take a lot of candidates, teach them a lot of software engineering skill sets, and then hopefully let these candidates explore a new career path.’” Along with other employees, Wong became a CODE: Rosie buddy, responsible for both answering day-to-day questions and providing ongoing mentorship.

Wong has found that role to be rewarding, in part because the Rosies aren’t seasoned engineers. “From high school all the way until now, I’ve only being doing tech,” he says. “Having them come into the program and talk about their past experiences in consumer products and game development and all these other fields was just really eye-opening. Because I only saw the Walt Disney Company in a narrow spectrum.”

It’s not clear how big an impact CODE: Rosie will have. It’s only in its second year and it’s still very small — and it’s still too early to tell where it will go.

In a company with almost 200,000 employees around the world, a 20-person training effort like CODE: Rosie 2.0–which is open only to Los Angeles-area staffers–can’t accommodate everyone who might benefit from it. Katz emphasizes that the program is a “white glove, boutique” undertaking and there’s a limit to how far future versions could scale up. But she quickly adds that the undertaking hasn’t just changed the lives of the Rosies who get in—it’s also changed Disney.

“When you do something authentically, for the right reasons, that is maybe a little different from the way we’ve tried things before, it tends to have these ripple effects in the organization.” she says.

Although it’s still at the very early stages, I think there may be some valuable lessons here not just for large corporations but for how we think about retraining whole communities. More on that in a future post.

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