Trying to figure out how to break into the tech industry can be daunting. Traditional four-year institutions can be expensive places to learn computer science and lack of exposure to the skills needed in the industry as a whole can derail a career before it gets started. In this Expanding Opportunities in Tech podcast series produced in partnership with Cognizant Foundation, we examine alternative, free training programs, each offering a foot in the door to teens and young adults from historically underrepresented groups in the tech industry, including women, BIPOC, and people from low-income backgrounds.

Five years ago, Miriam Cortés, then 33, found herself juggling massive college debt and unable to pay her bills despite working full-time as a substitute teacher and holding several other part-time jobs. “I had one of those—when you’re in your 30s—’What am I even doing?’ panic attacks. I have no money right now. I can’t afford rent,” she recalls.

Out of high school, Cortés earned a B.A. and then a Master’s degree but says the timing was wrong and she was unable to find work in her chosen field—industrial engineering. That’s when she started piecing together a number of jobs to earn a living. Cortés was thinking of moving back to her hometown of Miami from Seattle when a friend told her about Ada Developers Academy, an 11-month free program with the goal of “preparing women and gender-expansive adults to be software developers.”

At first, she was skeptical about a free school that made such big promises in such a male-dominated field. “There’s no way that there’s a free program that helps you find a job, or an internship, and then if that doesn’t work out with the internship company, it helps you find a job further on and you don’t owe them anything. That’s not real.” she remembers thinking.

But it was real—and still is—and Cortés was soon on a pathway that has changed her life.

She started out learning software languages such as Ruby, Ruby on Rails, and JavaScript, but she says those weren’t the most important skills she learned. “It’s really hard at the beginning…but you’re getting into an industry where that’s going to be your reality for however long. I have since learned Python and Java, and some other stuff, but essentially your most used skill is the learning how to learn on your own, or learning how to figure out the right questions to ask.”

Part of the Ada program is a paid internship. Cortés did hers at Zillow, the online real estate hub, which hired her as a full-time software development engineer. Now 38, she’s gone from working multiple jobs and barely making ends meet to having a $118,000-a-year career that she loves.

Cortés says Zillow also is providing her with opportunities to move up at the company and gain new skills at her own pace. “I’ve really appreciated that at Zillow, There’s been micro ways of figuring out what I want that next step to be for me. I feel very lucky now.” She also has embraced the Ada mission and now sits on its Board of Directors.

Opening the Door for More Women in the Tech Industry

Lauren Sato, CEO, Ada Developers Academy (Photo: Ada Developers Academy)

Cortés is exactly the type of woman Ada Developers Academy can help—smart and motivated, but stuck in a job or career that, for whatever reason, isn’t right for them, says CEO Lauren Sato.

“We have over 500 alums now at Ada—and another 5.3 million women who left the workforce over the last year—who can attest to their career not being a good fit, whether it’s because they just ended up not liking it, or it wasn’t a good fit for their families and their family decisions,” Sato tells me. “We’ve had accountants come to Ada and they realize that they want more flexibility, they want better benefits, they want to be paid what they’re worth. They end up at Ada and build these incredible careers that really work with their lives.”

Ada doesn’t admit students with a traditional tech background. “We’re looking explicitly for folks who have grit, who are community-minded, collaborative learners, and who have a demonstrated ability to solve problems strategically. That problem-solving ability is really a critical skill as a software developer.”

Sato says that 90% of the women have job offers at the time of graduation. “In the last cohort, 40% or 50% of them had competing job offers. So, we’re seeing pretty high conversion rates with our corporate partners through internship. Our students are also leveraging those offers to get other offers elsewhere, which is really, really exciting. That’s probably our favorite part, is when we start to see our students have that economic power and ability to make those choices.”

She adds that the demand for software developers isn’t slowing down. “There’s just an insatiable need for talent in this market. Companies are constantly competing to hire folks, which means the benefits keep getting better. The opportunities for advancement keep getting better and that’s what makes me really hopeful that the students that we’re serving today are actually going to end up the leaders of the industry down the road.”

You can listen to the podcast here or find it wherever you find your podcasts. Read and listen to all the stories in the Expanding Opportunities in Tech series here.

Episode 209: Expanding Opportunities in Tech: Miriam Cortés, Ada Developers Academy graduate, and Lauren Soto, CEO of Ada Developers Academy
Host & Executive Producer: Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief, WorkingNation
Producer: Larry Buhl
Executive Producers: Joan Lynch and Melissa Panzer
Music: Composed by Lee Rosevere and licensed under CC by 4.0.

Download the transcript for this podcast here.
You can check out all the other podcasts at this link: Work in Progress podcasts