Liz R Blog

As we mentioned over a year ago, Substantial is a proud sponsor of Ada Developers Academy, the Seattle-based non-profit software training program for women. As sponsor, we not only provide financial support but receive an Ada intern for the second half of the year-long program. Our intern, Liz, is halfway through her Ada intern experience and we asked her to capture some of her thoughts on the experience, including some pointers for future potential students and sponsors (ourselves included).

For those who are not yet in the loop, Ada Developers Academy is a new non-profit all-women's software training program in Seattle. Substantial is a sponsor of both the inaugural cohort of Ada students who are starting to wrap up their internships as well as the up-and-coming second group of students starting this September. The program is designed to create an alternative pipeline of developers to help fill some of the high-skilled labor shortage in Washington State. This shortage is compounded by the fact that over 85% of programmers are male. Ada Developers Academy is an attempt to address these problems by training women for technical positions. The program is a year-long intensive training program with six months of project-based classroom instruction followed by a six month internship at a Puget Sound tech company.

As an Ada sponsor, Substantial is part of the educational process of the students, both inside the classroom and during the internship. Unlike many traditional students coming out of CS programs, the Ada intern isn't stuck doing some internal pet project, but rather she is fully integrated into the development team, participating in daily stand-ups and weekly retrospectives. We get code reviews on our pull requests and exposure to new frameworks and languages, while also getting the chance to work with an experienced development team.

What does being an Ada sponsor mean? It means that Substantial provides:

Culture Fit & Support

Being an Ada sponsor is much more involved than simply writing a check and waiting for an intern to show up six months later. Part of what makes the Ada model so effective is that the long classroom portion gives time for the students to explore the potential culture fit of each company. Each sponsoring company had to be involved with the learning process and the students' development long before their internship started. Of course, the public face of a company isn't always the most representative of what it's like to work there, so we also had interviews and tours. Then, each intern was matched to a company based on the students' and companies' preferences, optimizing for the highest number of matches.

There was a large range of companies represented, from publicly traded international companies to start-ups and small businesses; Ada gave us a broad range of choices. This gives us a leg up as we start to consider what we'd like to do after Ada officially ends. Now, instead of having to figure it out on our own through a series of job that are a bad fit, we've already gotten a feel for different company cultures and explored the many different types of companies that hire developers.

My priorities for an internship culture fit included a spirit of entrepreneurship, teams with well-rounded, socially skilled developers, and an emphasis on continual education & collaboration. My "stretch goal" for an internship fit was to be placed in a company that already employs at least one female developer. Substantial has exceeded my expectations on all of these-but more importantly, Substantial has created a space in which I can see a future for myself.

We in the program are coming from diverse backgrounds, but have all hit the same challenges as junior developers who also happen to be women. It can be intimidating when the industry has such a negative reputation for the way women are treated. By having peers from Ada as a built—in network as well as having access to current industry professionals who are involved in the program, Ada and the sponsoring companies have created a safe space for us to focus on technical and professional development.

Skill Development & Career Guidance

Ada is not just a means for companies to get more women in their hiring pipeline. It is also a way to reshape the way we value skills in the development world. None of us are going to be computer science experts after just one year, but we are developing skills that complement traditionally valued coding skills. Part of this involves pairing frequently with other students, writing blogs, and publicly presenting our work. Most of us came into the program with these skills, but we've now had the chance to hone them through the process of working in teams and explaining our code. We come out of the program as well-rounded potential hires, not just another coder with an esoteric undergrad project on their resume. We believe these so-called soft skills, in addition to learning current industry practices like Agile and TDD, are what will set Ada students apart.

Substantial has been incredibly supportive in my growth as a developer outside of the code I write. They've given me guidance on how to explore the parts of development that I'm curious about, as well as helped me pick stories on projects that play to my skills. For example, I've been able to work with Marcy to explore my interest in accessibility and I've been placed on an iOS team so that I can explore a new language and framework. The company has also given me the freedom to attend different conferences, like Open Source Bridge in Portland earlier this summer and StrangeLoop in St. Louis this fall, as well as supporting me in giving my first talk at CascadiaRuby. My project partner from Ada, Hsing-Hui Hsu, and I gave a practice run of our talk to Substantial and with their feedback and collective expertise about conference speaking, we crafted an even better talk. Having the opportunity to work with such fantastically skilled developers has helped me further my interest in technology- even surprising myself when I discovered after pairing with a traditionally educated developer that I'm a lot more interested in hard computer science than I had ever anticipated!


Starting three months before internships, each sponsoring company provided mentors to students as part of a month long rotation. This provided Ada students with the chance to meet people from a potential internship company as well as get some outside perspectives on programming and the tech world. Substantial, going above and beyond, provided two: Mark Kornblum and Robin Clowers. My mentoring rotation with Substantial happened to fall directly before the internships started, so not only did I get a month of mentoring before the internship started, but I gained two allies as I transitioned into the company. My mentoring has continued on a weekly basis, where my mentors have proven to not just support me in theory, but they have advocated for me on the job when I needed it. Having the continuity of mentorship over the last four months has proven to be one of the best benefits of coming to Substantial so far.

Team Rotations

Substantial's internship is unique because it has been designed around team rotations. Instead of sticking with one team or project for the entire six months, I am joining four different teams for six weeks each. Part of what makes this great is the chance to see how different developers and teams work. From the more organic collaboration on one team to the hierarchical structure of another, simply getting exposed helps me to better judge what kind of developer I'd like to be and what sort of teams I'd like to work on. Through this switching, I've also been given the freedom to pursue the technologies I am interested in and to define what I'd like to work on.

Switching teams is not without it's challenges: it also means repeated onboardings and getting up to speed just in time to switch teams. It takes time to learn the existing code as well as to learn how other team members think and communicate. While this is a valuable skill to practice, it can also be frustrating because sometimes it feels like I am not producing enough code on my own. The flip side is that I get the chance to pair with a diverse set of developers- some with traditional CS backgrounds, some without, some who have teaching experience, & some who've never paired before. All of these different pairings have led me to have a broader understanding of the different methodologies and tools developers use in their daily workflow.


There are a lot of bootcamp style code schools out there these days, but Ada Developers Academy has really provided each student with the tools, opportunities, and support to learn how to develop software, not simply code. In our internships with sponsoring companies we have learned what it's like to be part of a real engineering team shipping production code. Just eight months ago we barely knew how to navigate on the command line, now it's empowering to be able to pull up an app or website and say, "See this awesome thing? I helped build it!". With multi-faceted training over six months followed by internships from companies like Substantial, we'll be graduating the program with a strong foundational understanding of practical coding and the on-the-job training needed to understand how to apply that knowledge on real world development teams.

Ada Developer Academy has just completed selection of students for its second cohort. We can't wait to meet this new class and look forward to the next intern to come our way!