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Amazon’s ditching degree requirements for devs to boost diversity

With a new Lambda School training program, Amazon's hoping to improve diversity — and meet hiring demand.

Amazon campus

Amazon hopes a new Lambda School training program can help increase its diversity.

Image: Amazon

Anytime you start a conversation about diversity in tech, the "pipeline problem" comes up: The pool of qualified workers that tech companies recruit from isn't diverse enough. Amazon — a company where only 7% of corporate employees are Black — is trying to change that, with a new nine-month Lambda School training program that offers income share agreements for students instead of up-front tuition.

Traditionally, Amazon hasn't hired software engineers without a computer science degree or a certain amount of work experience. But with the new program, that's changing. Amazon will essentially treat graduates from the Lambda School course the same as those with a four-year computer science degree, according to Lambda. "This is, in my mind, pretty monumental," Lambda founder Austen Allred told Protocol. "This is the first time Amazon is saying, explicitly, 'We are hiring software engineers without a degree.'"

And degrees, Allred thinks, are overrated. "As a society, we've over-rotated on the importance of a degree to hiring," he said. "That has a lot of unforeseen consequences." One such consequence is tech's lack of diversity. "If you charge a high-cost tuition," Allred explained, "you've eliminated folks who have demographically come from lower incomes, and folks who are less able to take on more personal risk." In other words, "you just cut out a whole lot of diversity."

Lambda's financial model, Allred argued, can help fix that problem. As an alternative to charging tuition upfront, Lambda students can choose to take out an income share agreement, or ISA. The agreement means students don't have to pay Lambda anything until they start earning more than $50,000. At that point, they start repaying Lambda 17% of their salary for 24 months, capped at $30,000 total. The ISA, Allred said, "eliminates the downside risk for people, and brings a different cohort of folks than charging upfront tuition." That could in turn help Amazon diversify its workforce.

Beyond the financial arrangement, Lambda has a careers service focused on getting graduates ready for job interviews. That goes beyond technical skills: Allred stressed the importance of teaching soft skills too, such as the vernacular of the tech industry or how to ask for feedback. That training, he said, results in better hiring outcomes.

But although diversity is part of the reason behind Amazon's Lambda partnership, it's not the only one. Amazon always has an immense demand for more software engineers, and would benefit from minting new ones tailored specifically to its needs. The curriculum for Lambda's partner program is adapted from Amazon's internal training, meaning that graduates will know exactly what Amazon wants them to know.

"Amazon is dying to hire from this program," Allred said. Participants aren't guaranteed a job — legal and regulatory requirements prevent that, according to Allred — but "Amazon would like to hire as many people from this program as they can." (Allred wouldn't disclose whether Amazon is paying Lambda to run the program.)

For Allred, the program could be the start of something much bigger. "I am trying to figure out if it's possible to make ... connections early enough that the employer pays for everything, instead of the student," he said. In the near term, he wants employers to agree to pay off the students' ISAs, instead of the students. Further out, "I would love to get to the point ... where students basically have a soft job offer on day one," Allred said. "If they do XYZ, they will have a soft job offer, and then if they accept that offer, their education will be paid for. That's kind of the Holy Grail that I'm working towards."

That won't be easy: "A company doesn't want to commit until they've seen what a student can do, and a student doesn't know what they can do, and we don't know what they can do," he said, "unless we can predict it, to some degree."

Even if Lambda can figure that out, tech's diversity problems won't fix themselves overnight. Once workers from underrepresented backgrounds are through the door, Amazon will have to work hard to retain them. Though Amazon says attrition rates between Black and non-Black people are similar, a recent Recode report outlined a company culture that some viewed as biased against Black people. Fixing the pipeline problem is a start, but the work won't end there.

Protocol | Fintech

Marqeta turns to a fintech outsider

Randy Kern, a Salesforce and Microsoft veteran, is taking a plunge into the payments world.

Randy Kern is joining Marqeta after decades at Microsoft and Salesforce.

Photo: Marqeta

Marqeta has just named a new chief technology officer. And it's an eyebrow-raising choice for a critical post as the payments powerhouse faces new challenges as a public company.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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Protocol | Policy

What can’t Jonathan Kanter do?

Biden's nominee to lead the DOJ's antitrust section may face calls to remove himself from issues as weighty as cracking down on Google and Apple.

DOJ antitrust nominee Jonathan Kanter's work as a corporate lawyer may require him to recuse himself from certain cases.

Photo: New America/Flickr

Jonathan Kanter, President Joe Biden's nominee to run the Justice Department's antitrust division, has been a favorite of progressives, competitors to Big Tech companies and even some Republicans due to his longtime criticism of companies like Google.

But his prior work as a corporate lawyer going after tech giants may require him to recuse himself from some of the DOJ's marquee investigations and cases, including those involving Google and Apple.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Enterprise

Couchbase plots escape from middle of database pack with $200M IPO

The company has to prove it can beat larger rivals like MongoDB, as well as fast-growing competitors like Redis Labs, not to mention the big cloud companies.

Couchbase celebrates its initial public offering on the Nasdaq market.

Photo: Nasdaq

At first glance, Couchbase appears to be stuck in the middle of the cloud database market, flanked by competitors with more traction and buzz. But fresh off a $200 million IPO Thursday, CEO Matt Cain relished the opportunity ahead to prove why his company can beat out rivals the market considers more valuable.

The NoSQL database provider's public offering helped propel Couchbase to a $1.2 billion valuation. But unlike one of the last big data-related IPOs, market leader Snowflake's historic debut on the public markets last December, Couchbase has some work to do to differentiate itself.

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Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

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SPACs are so Q1 and other takeaways from a disorienting year in IPOs

Amid the frenzy of tech IPOs this year, a few surprising discoveries stand out.

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Image: CSA Images/Getty Images

2021 is shaping up to be a disorienting year for tech IPOs. The first six months brought us the Alex Rodriguez SPAC, an $85 billion Coinbase debut and a mysterious delay in the Robinhood S-1 filing that was ultimately cleared up when the firm paid a token fine.

Amid the recurring frenzy, it's easy to slip into a familiar pattern of analysis: Wait for an S-1 to drop, react to the financial disclosures, then see whether the stock "pops" after its trading debut. By the time one stock starts trading, several tantalizing new S-1s are already up for inspection. The problem with this cycle is that it stops too early: A stock's opening-day pop only really reflects the extent to which a few overworked investment bankers underestimated investor demand. A pop makes for headlines. It doesn't make a company.

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Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.
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