Tommy Collison is Head of Business Development and Communications Strategy at Lambda School, an online coding academy and job training program that doesn’t charge tuition until its graduates are hired. We sat down with Tommy to talk about what managers should know about hiring software engineers without a four-year CS degree or other traditional credentials. We talked about the benefits of non-traditional candidates and how to hire well and onboard quickly.
A four-year CS degree isn’t the end-all, be-all
“My older brother never did CS in school,” Tommy told me. “He was coding from the age of like 11 or 12.” When considering non-traditional candidates, employers may focus too much on “lagging indicators of ability.”
That older brother is Patrick Collison, Irish billionaire entrepreneur, and co-founder and CEO of Stripe.
Tommy wants hiring managers to know there are a ton of talented software engineering candidates who have their “10,000 hours” of coding experience, but don’t have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. Many employers are overlooking these candidates to their detriment.
“Different industries are differently organized,” Tommy said. “You can be the best lawyer in the world, but if you haven't passed the bar, you're going to have a pretty significant uphill struggle.” He says coding is well-suited to online programs like Lambda School. But, not just Lambda School. “There’s Udemy, there's YouTube. There's so many different ways you can learn to code. You don't actually need credentials. It’s very meritocratic, for want of a better word. If you can write React, you can write React. Employers should recognize that and realize that the pool that they can pull from is much bigger than they might otherwise think.”
Not only is that pool bigger, but it also has its own unique advantages. For example, as the average student is in their 30s, many students enter Lambda School with industry experience. They’re not there to launch their careers, but to learn new skills and increase their salary.
“Whether you come from restaurants or whatever, a lot of students go and get a job in the industry they were in, but now as a coder or a data scientist,” Tommy said.
Tommy says hiring managers love it when new hires already know the industry. A Lambda School graduate with healthcare experience, for instance, will onboard in health tech more quickly than someone fresh out of a CS program without that industry experience. “The on-ramp is much, much less,” Tommy said. “It's much easier for them to integrate into the team because they have background.”
Tommy wants hiring managers to overcome any biases they might have about candidates with non-traditional or underrepresented backgrounds. He says his colleagues speak to many hiring managers who resist speaking with Lambda School because they had a bad experience with a bootcamp grad.
“Evaluate the candidate on their own terms,” Tommy said. “There are probably some amazing candidates that you're passing over because you're just writing this whole thing off. Evaluate each candidate on their own positive and negative traits.”
The candidate may be a poor fit. But don’t refuse a whole category of candidates out-of-hand. “I’m not negating your bad experience, but not all bootcamps are created equal,” Tommy said.
How to successfully hire and onboard a non-traditional coder
Speaking of evaluating bootcamps and coding academies, we wanted to know what criteria hiring managers should use to evaluate training programs.
“I think the big thing is hours spent coding,” Tommy said. The syllabus is also obviously important. “But the concern I have when people write Lambda School off as a bootcamp is that the school is twice as long as many other boot camps our students spend between 750 and 1000 hours hands-to-keyboard, actually writing code. And that delta in time spent coding I think is really, really valuable.”
Another thing to look at, according to Tommy, are the candidate’s portfolio pieces and projects. This is “the highest value signal a lot of the time,” Tommy said. He says this is “part of a larger conversation about how terrible whiteboard interviews are, and how hard it is to interview people.”
Lambda School emphasizes student portfolios. “90% of the projects at Lambda School are solo projects,” Tommy said. “You have to be there with your code and your keyboard, and you have to learn how to do this. And we do have a bunch of group technical projects. They are designed to be as close to a real working relationship as we can get, in the sense of you have someone you're reporting to, you've got deadlines, you've got a timeframe, a spec list, wireframes, mock-ups. Those are portfolio pieces that the students can then turn around and use to help them get a job.”
Take-home technical assignments are another fairly good measure of whether a candidate can do what you want them to do.
After that, it’s about communication skills and industry knowledge. “Once you're down to the last two or three people, they're probably all going to have the technical chops and they'll all make you a React app to the same standard,” Tommy said.
One of his favorite stories involves a graduate with a PhD in Philosophy. After getting the candidate hired, Tommy and his colleagues mentioned to the hiring manager that the graduate had a PhD in Philosophy. His colleagues said what a pity it was that coding has nothing to do with the candidate’s extensive studies.
But the hiring manager corrected them. The final two or three candidates all had the technical chops. “Our guy who had gone through language school and who had his PhD was just much better at communicating his ideas and why he wrote the code this way and communicating with the team,” Tommy said. “That's what made him stand out and that's what got him the job.”
Connecting with Tommy and Lambda School
Next up for Lambda School is a yet-to-be-launched Lambda Fellowship, where a graduate in good standing works at a company for four weeks on a spec project. Should the company decide to move forward with the graduate, they have first shot at hiring them. If the company or the student doesn’t want to continue working together, Lambda School covers the cost of their salary for a month. “It’s like a one-month free trial of an engineer that just slots into your dev shop,” Tommy said. “It's a scoped-out project that we work out with you. We pay the fellow for the first four weeks. We'll cover the cost if you decline to move forward with them. If you hire the fellow, you should pay us back. But otherwise, you're good.”
Tommy said the origins of the Fellowship was how difficult it is “to get a sense of who people are out of a resume,” Tommy said. “It's really just a question of, this is a React job. Can this person write React? It's pretty hard to fake. So, ‘Show me what you can do,’ seems to be what we're hearing from hiring managers day in and day out.”
I asked Tommy what else he might want people to know about hiring non-traditional candidates and Lambda School grads in particular. “Every interview I do, I get the question: ‘What's Lambda’s finder’s fee?’ Tommy said. “And I'm like, ‘We don't have one.’ That does seem to be just super unusual.”