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Who’s to blame for the Iowa caucus app? Hint: Not the developers

If more people with untraditional backgrounds pursue software engineering, we’ll all be better off—as long as they get proper mentorship.

Who’s to blame for the Iowa caucus app? Hint: Not the developers
[Source images: OnstOn/iStock; Markus Spiske/Unsplash]

“…others had much less experience in digital politics, according to their LinkedIn profiles. One of its workers recently was a prep cook for Starbucks. Another was a teacher.”
The Wall Street Journal

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When news of the Iowa caucus chaos hit my Twitter feed, I caught wind of a trend in the coverage referencing the inexperience of the developers who built the app. I had a visceral reaction to the suggestion that a former prep cook or teacher was taking the fall for the app’s failure. The narrative suggests that someone with that experience, a person who decided to become a developer later in their career, is unqualified or less qualified than those with a traditional pedigree. This is fundamentally untrue.

It is true that people who are new in their profession should have mentorship, training, and oversight, especially when their work is so critical. To blame the apprentice is wrong. Blame the teacher.

Some of the most creative, genius developers are self-taught or shifted into software development midcareer.

I’m not involved with the Iowa caucus nor do I have any insider knowledge of what transpired or who the developers who built the app are. I am, however, a software developer. When I started coding in 1997 at my first company, we built a noncritical chat feature for our website, Versity.com. We raised funding and expanded quickly, and as the site grew in popularity, the chat feature I wrote was so poorly written that it took down the website dozens of times. We consulted a more experienced developer who observed and then suggested, “Let’s just remove the chat feature. It’s not important, and it’s killing the stuff that is important.”

I’d never thought of that. We removed chat, and our site (and our company) was saved. For me as a young developer, the obvious solution wasn’t yet obvious.

With time and practice, you learn what to prepare for. You gain instincts for how things will go awry, what scaling bottlenecks to look out for, what users might do that would surprise you, and how to code defensively. As with any profession, building instincts based on applying your trade isn’t something they can teach in school. Giving a recent graduate two months to build an app that has the potential to shape the future of our democracy is the equivalent of taking first-year med school students, throwing them into an operating room, and asking them to perform open-heart surgery—on presidential candidates. It’s simply negligent. When you hire developers, you take on the responsibility of making them successful; that includes time to learn and make mistakes in a lower-risk environment.

Talent is everywhere

One of the most surprising things I’ve learned as CEO of Twilio and with interactions with thousands of developers over the past decade is that the qualities that make the best developers have nothing to do with the degree you got (or didn’t get). Some of the most creative, genius developers are self-taught or shifted into software development midcareer after completing a coding boot camp. In fact, I believe that those who have the intrinsic motivation to become developers on their own possess a drive you can’t teach.

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A few years ago, Twilio launched Hatch, an apprenticeship program designed to provide access to software engineering roles for people with nontraditional educational, professional, and personal experience. Most of our apprentices have completed a 12-week boot camp or accelerator program such as Hackbright Academy or Hack Reactor. In their first two months, the apprentices are paired with Twilio engineers to work on less mission-critical projects to hone their skills. For the second half of their apprenticeship, they are placed on an existing, fully functioning Twilio engineering team. After the six-month apprenticeship, the team has the opportunity to hire that engineer; we’ve given offers to 95% of Hatch graduates.

The distance these apprentices travel to get to Twilio is a great indicator of how they will be as employees. Twilio currently has 17 Hatch graduates working with us as engineers—they are some of our best and brightest, and they are working on some of our most strategic and demanding projects within teams across the company. It’s an incredible privilege to employ these apprentices, and Twilio, our community, and the products we deliver to our customers are stronger as a result.

As an industry, we are undergoing a massive transformation, where every company is becoming a software company. As this happens, the demand for software developers is increasing—Evans Data Corporation predicts that there will be 28 million software developers in the field by 2023. The next cohort of developers is not going to all have four-year computer science degrees. And we’ll all be better for it. A more diverse demographic of builders will bring us a more inclusive industry, which is absolutely essential for innovation.

Which brings me back to the Iowa caucus.

Referencing the developers’ former roles as an indicator of their competence is dangerous because it contributes to a false narrative. It fails to acknowledge the inherent responsibility we have as leaders to train, mentor, and empower the people we hire and rely on to drive innovation forward.

Whether you are an enterprise, a tech company, a nonprofit, or even a political organization, I encourage you to create a path for early-career developers. Not because these developers serve as cheap labor, but because this cohort of developers brings something to the job that those who entered the career path more linearly cannot. If you understand how best to work with new developers and take the time to invest in them through mentorship, you will be astounded at the talent you will help create.

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To the former Starbucks prep cook and former teacher, and current software developers—keep building.


Jeff Lawson is cofounder and CEO of Twilio.

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