Up to Code

Up to Code

It used to be that a traditional college degree was the only route to a high-paying professional job. The tech industry is changing that, and New Haven-area students have a chance to be part of the disruption.

At Holberton, an international computer science and software development school with a campus at the District entrepreneurship space in Fair Haven, students from recent high school grads to second-careerists can apply for a two-year training program that leads to a diploma and the same kinds of jobs college grads line up for, says Al Bhatt, Holberton’s acting director at District. The average starting salary for the school’s first New Haven graduates is about $72,000, Bhatt reports. A hiring partner from “a large university” is now working to get around an employment requirement for a bachelor’s degree in order to hire Holberton alums, Bhatt says. “You see that out west like crazy. We’re starting to see it more and more in stodgy and conservative places like Connecticut as well.”

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Holberton’s space at District—once a CTtransit bus terminal—resembles an open-concept Silicon Valley tech office. Soft-sculpted geometric benches face a presentation stage up front. Several dozen work stations, each with its own desktop computer, are clustered in other areas for collaborative work. In “The Cube,” behind a fringed red curtain, students can unplug, relax and regroup—at least, in normal times. At the edges of the cavernous room are a few glass-walled offices housing the small staff with space—again, in normal times—for students to meet in small study groups. Computers are available for students who don’t have their own.

School days at Holberton are structured like work days around projects and deadlines, Bhatt says. “As much as possible, trying to mirror what you’re going to have to learn to do in the workplace.” For example, every morning at 11:30, a few students get up on the stage—live or projected from home—for “standup,” involving a three-minute presentation on a topic of their choice, from how to play chess to, on one recent morning, the merits of “prog rock.”

Holberton’s curriculum, delivered in five trimesters, is “just a sequencing of projects that are constantly refreshed that builds literacy in all of the major programming languages and applications,” Bhatt says. Students travel through the program in cohorts, learning from one full-time senior software engineer, Atta Kakra “Kay” Detome, who lectures “strategically” on topics the whole group needs to learn. Otherwise, instruction is tailored to whatever individual students need, supported by personal tutoring, peer learning, and good old trial and error. After the first nine months, students move into specialized tracks, where they proceed virtually along with others at US campuses in San Francisco, Tulsa and San Juan, Puerto Rico, and global sites in Colombia, France and Tunisia. About 90 students make up the first five cohorts in New Haven, whose Holberton franchise opened in January of 2019.

Second-year student Mitch Moscovics of North Haven found Holberton through a family friend who was mentoring students there. Moscovics was between jobs, “and I figured I might as well go back to school,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in computers and wanted to learn more about it.” Now specializing in augmented and virtual reality with hopes of eventually landing a job in the medical field, Moscovics adds that Holberton isn’t for everyone. If they’re “absolutely gung-ho on learning something with computer science, it’s definitely a look-into; however, it is a very intense program,” he says. For that reason, students are encouraged to make Holberton their full-time pursuit, rather than trying to hold down a job.

In part to make that more workable, Holberton requires no upfront financial investment from students. They don’t have to pay anything for the two-year program until they’ve graduated and started earning a paycheck of at least $40,000. Then, for 42 months, they’ll pay back 17% of their salary, interest-free, to a maximum of $85,000.

In New Haven, Holberton operates as part of District Arts and Education (DAE), the nonprofit, education-based arm of District, which offers public programs relevant to the new “Creativity Era.” DAE also hosts live music on the patio at Bear’s Smokehouse nextdoor or streamed from Holberton’s indoor stage.

Bhatt, who spent most of his career in New York City running consulting firms and working with major clients like IBM and Facebook, now directs DAE with a focus on the importance of the humanities to business and leadership. Under his guidance, the Holberton program is embedded within District’s social mission. He compares it to inserting the “Intel chip” of Holberton’s curriculum into the laptop of DAE. It’s important, Bhatt says, for future software engineers to understand that “technology is not value-neutral.” He gives as an example the fact that Siri and Alexa are both female-gendered assistants—essentially, old-fashioned secretaries, a stereotype we might not want to bring into the next generation. “Absent a social awareness—not a particular set of values, but just an awareness—that technology is not neutral, we’re gonna create stuff that perpetuates things that we may not want to perpetuate,” he says.

The woman for whom Holberton is named, Frances Elizabeth Holberton, vaulted past some of those worn stereotypes long ago. She was one of six women programmers who created “the first general-purpose electronic digital computer” for the US Army during World War II, according to Wikipedia. She later “participated in the development of early standards for the COBOL and FORTRAN programming languages” along with Yale alumna Grace Murray Hopper, for whom one of the university’s residential colleges is named.

If there’s one thing Holberton stands for, it’s the idea that technology is for everyone.

Holberton School at District
470 James St, New Haven (map)
(203) 401-8768 | nhv-admissions@holbertonschool.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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