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How Disney is turning women from across the company into coders

Nikki Katz’s CODE: Rosie program gives employees already well into their careers the chance to reinvent themselves as software engineers.

How Disney is turning women from across the company into coders
[Illustration: Daniel Salo for Fast Company]

“You’re about to learn what it means to be a software engineer. You’re about to learn a lot about this company, and how technology is used to make the magic. But I think the biggest part is, you’re going to learn a lot about yourself.”

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Nikki Katz is giving a stirring speech in a room with walls plastered with characters such as the Incredible Hulk, Frozen’s antic snowman Olaf, and the brain-inhabiting cast of Pixar’s Inside Out. The decor—and Katz’s allusion to magic—aren’t surprising, given that we’re in a Walt Disney Company building in Glendale, California.

A Disney VP of technology, Katz has the sort of background you’d expect of someone in her position, including a degree from Stanford and a résumé with experience at companies such as Yahoo. The women she’s addressing, however, are joining Disney’s software-engineering workforce in a most unconventional way. They’re participants in CODE: Rosie, a program that gives women already at the company in non-technical roles an opportunity to switch careers.

Nikki Katz [Photo: courtesy of Disney]
Katz is speaking at an afternoon mixer the week before the 2018 CODE: Rosie program officially kicks off. A few feet away is the area where participants will return to begin class, with MacBooks and welcome packets already in place on rows of desks. 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.


Related: See The 100 Most Creative People In Business 2018


The 15-month experience changes participants’ lives in ways that go beyond the immediate career opportunity. “Coding is the language of the modern world, because everything is centered around technology,” says Leilenah Mamea, a participant in the first CODE: Rosie class who formerly worked in finance and now writes code for sites such as Disney.com and StarWars.com. “Now I can contribute to that language and those conversations.”

CODE: Rosie is certainly a big idea. But in many ways, the soul of the initiative lies in the details that make it work. Disney had to create nearly everything about it from scratch, and in some cases rethink it for this year’s class, which is the second cohort and the first open to women from across all of Disney’s divisions. “We haven’t found any precedents—internally or externally—for program like this,” says Katz.

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2018 CODE: Rosie participant Angela Alexander [Photo: courtesy of Disney]

Rosie’s legacy

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.

Among the aims of Disney’s own 700-member Women in Tech group, which Katz cofounded, is attracting talented women to the company’s engineering ranks and then keeping them happy once they’re there. It was that goal that led to CODE: Rosie’s unique mission. As she explains, “I found myself having the same conversation over and over again with a variety of women who for one reason or another, even though they were passionate about tech, just never had the opportunity to pursue that passion professionally and wanted to figure out how to break into the space.”

The CODE: Rosie logo [Image: courtesy of Disney]
In 2015, Katz began formulating a plan to help such employees reboot their careers, concentrating at first on the needs of staffers within her own division at the company, the consumer-products group responsible for items such as toys, books, games, and websites. As the CODE: Rosie concept came into focus, Disney signed up tech-training firm General Assembly to lead the classroom components; the New York-based company had plenty of relevant materials and a commitment encouraging diversity in engineering organizations through education. Guest speakers from Disney’s technical operations would also contribute to this initial training.

After considering rotating each participant through four three-month mini apprenticeships over the course of a year, Katz and her colleagues settled on two longer segments. “You’re balancing giving them exposure to different teams with letting them actually settle and get stable and learn how one team works,” she explains. “We think that six months ended up being a really good blend of those two.”

From the start, another core aspect of the CODE: Rosie program was a safety net. Disney holds participants’ 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.)

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Even for those who aren’t overly daunted by the CODE: Rosie challenge, starting out with the knowledge that they could back out provides a degree of comfort. “When I first got accepted into the program, having that net helped,” says Mamea. “But I would like to say that even without that net, I would have still done it. And I never once regretted it. About a month into the program, I was like, ‘I’m never going back to finance. This is my new life.'”

The challenge before the challenge

At the 2018 CODE: Rosie introductory mixer, Katz acknowledges that just getting into the program is an accomplishment. “You guys have traveled a long way already just to get here,” she tells members of the incoming class. “You’ve put in a lot of time, and a lot of effort, and taken risks just to show up here. And you’re at the start line.”

She isn’t exaggerating. 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. “It felt like we were applying to college,” says Alejandra Ledesma, whose prior job was in a team that translated content for Disney products into up to 26 languages.

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.

“The whole process took a few months,” says Christine Kang, a 2018 Rosie who worked on Disney’s mobile products in her previous role and has a background in journalism. “But I think that was really important. Because people can’t wake up one day and be like, ‘Maybe I’ll try this’ and then just apply on a whim. You really had to be committed throughout the entire process. And that’s why we have a really great bunch of people.”

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. “It’s not really about measuring scores or anything like that,” says Katz. “Rather just baselining the class so they’re a shared understanding of some basic concepts.”

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When Disney opened the 2018 class to women from across Disney, the number of aspiring Rosies shot up. Of 169 who began the application process, Katz expected around 40 to survive to the end. Much to her surprise, 112 completed it. CODE: Rosie organizers then interviewed 80 of those applicants, whittled them down to 30 finalists, and picked the 20 who make up this year’s cohort.

Disney was prepared to go out of its way to strive for diversity when making the final cut. But “we didn’t have to force a class mix at all,” says Katz, as she runs me through some pie-chart stats on her laptop. “It just kind of happened by choosing our best talent, which was very satisfying.” Organically, the top candidates were 75% racially and ethnically diverse. They also cover a wide range in terms of age, tenure at the company, and the positions and divisions—from theme parks to ESPN—they came from.

Nikki Katz (center) chats with Leilenah Mamea (an original CODE: Rosie participant, at left) and Christine Kang (part of this year’s cohort). [Photo: courtesy of Disney]

Relationships matter

For Nikki Katz, CODE: Rosie is a side project, albeit an uncommonly meaningful one. And for the Rosies, getting face time with her is one of the benefits of participating. “In some cases she even would notice things that we hadn’t noticed we were bringing up a lot,” says Christina Vickers, a first-year graduate. “Like, ‘Wow, you really like to talk about SQL [databases]. Do you think maybe you like data?’ ‘Yes, I do, actually.’ It was nice to see how invested she was in all of us.”

Ultimately, though, the crucial relationships for CODE: Rosie participants are with the experienced engineers they’ll work with, in their apprenticeships and beyond. In a worst-case scenario, those staffers might have seen the program as a drag on their groups’ efficiency given that Rosies are, by definition, newbies. “You’re so junior when you get out of it,” says Mamea. “Especially for someone like me. I didn’t write a single line of code before CODE: Rosie.”

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.”

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Once a CODE: Rosie graduate has successfully shifted into a coding job, it’s possible to keep up with colleagues who entered a team through a more traditional route; after all, even veterans must continuously educate themselves on new topics. Ledesma, for instance, dove into a 11-week course on machine learning and found it challenging but not overwhelming. “In retrospect, I’m really proud that I went through the class and completed it at the same pace as a senior engineer,” she says.

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. “And that’s what I’ve really loved about the program. Sure, for the women in the first cohort, there are many celebrities on campus. But also, for the rest of us, it’s just been really affirming that we get to work at a company that would invest in a program like this.”


Nikki Katz is No. 26 on the 2018 Most Creative People in Business list. Check out all 100 people here.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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