Tag Archives: programming

Coding school is becoming everyone’s favorite form of job training

For many years, construction skills training (often but not always in the form of YouthBuild) was every funder’s and every nonprofit’s favorite form of job training, often supplemented by entry-level healthcare work, but today the skill de jour has switched to software, programming, and/or coding. Case in point: this NYT article with the seductive headline, “Income Before: $18,000. After: $85,000. Does Tiny Nonprofit Pursuit Hold a Key to the Middle Class?” While the article is overwhelming positive, it’s not clear how many people are going to make it through Pursuit-like programs: “Max Rosado heard about the Pursuit program from a friend. Intrigued, he filled out an online form, and made it through a written test in math and logic…” (emphasis added). In addition, “Pursuit, by design, seeks people with the ‘highest need’ and potential, but it is selective, accepting only 10 percent of its applicants.” So the organization is cherry-picking its participants.

There’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking participants and most social and human service programs do just that, in the real world. As grant writers who live in the proposal world, we always state in job training proposals that the applicant (our client) will never cherry-pick trainees, even though they do. In the article, important details about cherry-picking are stuck in the middle, below the tantalizing lead, so most people will miss them. I’m highlighting them because they bring to the fore an important fact in many social and human service programs: there is a tension between access and success. Truly open-access programs tend to have much lower success rates; if everyone can enter, many of those who do will not have the skills or conscientiousness necessary to succeed. If an organization cherry-picks applicants, like Pursuit does, it will generally get better success metrics, but at the cost of selectivity.

Most well-marketed schools succeed in “improving” their students primarily through selection effects. That’s why the college-bribery scandal is so comedic: no one involved is worried about their kid flunking out of school. Schools are extremely selective in admissions and not so selective in curriculum or grading. Studies have consistently suggested that where you go to school matters much less than who you are and what you learn. Such studies don’t stop people from treating degrees as status markers and consumption goods, but it does imply that highly priced schools are often not worth it. Thorstein Veblen tells us a lot more about the current market for “competitive” education than anyone else.

My digs at well-marketed schools are not gratuitous to the main point: I favor Pursuit and Pursuit-like organizations and we have worked for some of them. In addition, it’s clear to pretty much anyone who has spent time teaching in non-elite schools that the way the current post-secondary education system is set up is nuts and makes little sense; we need a wider array of ways for people to learn the skills they need to thrive. If Pursuit and Pursuit-like programs are going to yield those skills, we should work towards supporting more of them.

It is almost certainly not existing schools that are going to boost more people into the middle class, as they’ve become overly bureaucratic, complacent, and sclerotic; see also Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education on this subject. While many individuals within those systems may want change, they cannot align all the stakeholders to create change from within. Some schools, especially in the community-college sector, are re-making themselves, but many are not. In the face of slowness, however, nimble nonprofits and businesses should move where this grant wave is going.

No Calls, No Bother: “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” and the Grant Writer’s Work

In “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” Paul Graham writes

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. [. . .]

But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

People who make things are often experiencing flow, which is sometimes called “being in the zone.” It’s a state of singular concentration familiar to writers and other makers. Managers may experience it too, but in different ways, and their flow emerges from talking to another person, or from productive meetings—but a tangible work product rarely emerges from those meetings.

In part because of the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule, we try not to bother our clients. When we write proposals, we schedule a single scoping call, which is a little bit like being interviewed by a reporter. During that call we attempt to answer the 5Ws and H—who, what, where, when, why, and how—and hash out anything unique to a particular RFP or client. We ask our clients to send any background information they might have, like old proposals or reports. And then our clients usually don’t hear from us until the first draft of the proposal is finished.

Just because we’re not noisy doesn’t mean we’re not busy, however. We’re writing during that quiet period. Writing works best when it’s relatively uninterrupted. If you’re a part-time grant writer in an organization, you may be used to phone calls and emails and crises and all manner of other distractions that hit you at least once an hour. In those conditions you’ll rarely if ever reach a consistent state of flow. These problems have scuppered more than one proposal, as we know from candid conversations with clients’s on-staff grant writers.*

We only have a single scoping call or scoping meeting because we know we’re better off writing the best proposal we can given what we know than we are attempting to call our clients every hour when we don’t know something. Our methods have been developed over decades of practice. They work.

Writing isn’t the only field with flow issues. Software famously has this problem too, because in a way every software project is a novel endeavor. Software is closer to research than to manufacturing. Once you have a manufacturing process, you can figure out the critical path, the flow of materials, and about how many widgets you can make in a given period time. That’s not true of software—or, in many cases writing. This list of famous, failed software projects should humble anyone attempting such a project.

Ensuring that a project, like a proposal, gets done on time is simply quite hard (which is part of the reason we’re in business: we solve that problem). But it can be done, and we work to do it, and one way is by ensuring that we don’t waste our clients’s time.

We don’t call ourselves artists, at least in this domain, but, as Joe Fassler says, “Great Artists Need Solitude.” Writers need solitude. The best work gets done in chunks of undisturbed time—for Neal Stephenson, those chunks need to be about four hours, which sounds pretty close to the way we write.


* People are often surprised that we get hired by organizations that have full-time grant writers already on staff. But this is actually quite common.