Week 39 at an Unbootcamp

About to finish a retraining program in web development, I’m not partaking in job-seeking anxiety or rehearsals aimed at boosting interview-taking prowess. One of my strategies is to get good enough at a specialty to be useful, and then offer to help. The rest will follow naturally. Or will it?

Placement Panic

On 9 February I completed my 39th week of training at Learners Guild in Oakland, California. That left one week to go, since, when I enrolled, it was a 40-week program.

One thing I understood before entering the Guild was that it would not guarantee me a job, or even help me find one. It would help me acquire a new set of software development skills, for which there was a brisk demand, and I would be the one taking responsibility for converting those skills into rewarding employment.

If that weren’t realistic, it would be against the Guild’s interest to adopt that policy, because we Learners were paying nothing for the training and would later pay a fraction of our earned income instead. The Guild’s business model depended on almost all of us getting employed and earning decent pay.

Experience, however, taught the Guild that its hopes for placement success were false. Yes, some graduates got job offers in the $100Ks while still at the Guild, but most did not.

This may be due in part to a supply–demand imbalance. Do a search with Google for "junior developer" qualification apply, and you get 123,000 hits. Change ju to se, so you’re searching for announcements of senior rather than junior developers, and the hit count surges to 341,000. On the job site indeed, junior developer elicits 4,621, and senior developer 22,467, listings. People exiting from Learners Guild are almost always junior developers.

The Guild decided that something had to change, for the Guild’s own survival as well as the Learners’ careers. So it introduced changes in the curriculum, in the regime of extra-curricular activities, and in the composition of the staff. The net result was a major increase in the Guild’s investment of money and the staff’s and Learners’ investment of time expressly aimed at getting jobs. These efforts are still in full force and, if anything, becoming more intense.

The trouble is that getting a job and doing well in a job don’t require identical skills. Many employers rely on personal recommendations by their current employees to prioritize applicants. Many also screen applicants by giving them problem-solving tests under time pressure, with problems unlike those likely to be encountered on the job. Not all employers do that. There is, for example, a list of over 500 organizations that follow other, typically more job-resembling, interviewing approaches when hiring software developers.

The Guild generally operates on the simplifying assumption that the practices of the most gigantic employers are universal. So, the staff and Learners spend a substantial fraction of their time generating leads, cultivating partnerships, fine-tuning résumés, and conducting practice sessions where Learners solve typical interview problems at a whiteboard under a time limit.

I, contrarian

After a few weeks participating in interview exercises, I decided to stop and spend the time adding to my job-pertinent skills instead. I have been accumulating knowledge about web accessibility, a body of standards and techniques that help the web be universally available to all, including people with sensory, motor, and cognitive abnormalities, who in some cases use technologies to mediate between them and the web.

There is an industry of accessibility consultants helping organizations make their websites accessible. There is work to be had, once a person has acquired enough knowledge to do some good.

I have applied to a few announced jobs that require accessibility skill, but I’m following or considering some other, more organic, approaches, as well:

  • Attend accessibility interest-group meetings
  • Join accessibility organizations
  • Keep studying and get my accessibility skills authoritatively certified
  • Ask experts for information about accessibility
  • Tell website owners how to improve accessibility

Each of these might naturally lead to work.

The “tell” approach could be practiced ad infinitum, because just about every website has limited accessibility. That even includes websites of companies that do accessibility consulting! If accessibility becomes de rigeur, the demand for accessibility specialists will be robust.

I usually wait until I’m in contact anyway, and then introduce this topic. Recently, for example, I replied to a solicitation by pointing out that the organization’s website

… falls far below current accessibility standards in color contrast. Just about the entire FAQ page is made of light gray (#a3a3a3) text, which has less than half of the standard minimum 4.5 color contrast. This could make it unintelligible to visitors with somewhat impaired vision. There are other missing accessibility ingredients, too, related to semantic markup.

Is it gauche, when asked “Can we help you?”, to answer “Probably not, but your website is defective, and maybe I can help you”? Not in my book, but etiquette isn’t my strong suit.


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