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Engineering Empathy: Tears and Fears at Dev Bootcamp

"My superego runs on a disappointment platform," said the coding student, holding his head in his hands.

The scene in the Treehouse room at Dev Bootcamp was brutal last night.

About 30 students stood in pairs and spoke to their partners simultaneously: You don’t respond to email fast enough. Why are you checking Twitter — nothing important happens there. You’re too old to be here. You’re faking it. You don’t know how to develop. You have no career. You’re the worst pair partner. Your accent makes you hard to understand. You’ll never get a programming job.

When the cacophony finally subsided, many of the would-be programmers were in tears. Some were holding hands. One man sat down and put his head in his hands.

“My superego runs on a disappointment platform,” he said to the room.

Dev Bootcamp, an intensive nine-week coding program in San Francisco’s South of Market district, offers a unique “Engineering Empathy” curriculum. As the school aims to grow from three campuses to seven next year, it’s hoping that its emotional and culture-fit training will attract students.

Every day that the 160 bootcamp students (they call themselves “boots”) learn about HTML or JavaScript, they also have an “empathy” module — there are lessons on feminism, and a night called “The F Word” on the importance of feelings.

Last night’s class was about the superego, a Freudian term for the often-critical and demoralizing voice inside one’s head.

“You have this field that touches everything we do that’s been siloed off to socially inept white dudes,” said Karim Bishay, the school’s head of admissions, who designed the empathy curriculum. “That’s changing.”

Last night, beyond the rows of standing desks and brightly colored bowl chairs, past the whiteboards, shelves of yoga mats and a large gong, the students gathered in the Treehouse room for their superego seminar. They sat on round floor pillows and legless chairs. In the window, there was a tree branch with a succulent garden planted in it.

Bishay built the empathy program for three reasons:

  • Most projects fail not because of tech, but because of the team, the “human element.”
  • A diverse group of people looking to change careers are signing up for the bootcamp, and the usual “brogrammer” culture would be problematic.
  • And, as a pastoral counselor, he saw an opportunity to coach a needy population.

“When people come to us, they’re vulnerable, they’re excited, they’re scared, they’re only sleeping a few hours a night,” Bishay said. “It’s a beautiful time to be like, ‘I’m not the doctor I thought I was, so who am I? What’s my relationship with my inner demons?'”

Each day, the students complete a 10-minute empathy-awareness activity. Perhaps they’ll talk about the times they’ve been oppressed, and the times they’ve been the oppressor. The idea is to make everyone realize that they occupy both

Bishay asked that the programmers check to see if their partner was in the room — students at the bootcamp are always paired, and code together each day.

He began with a demonstration of what it feels like to be under superego attack. He had a student stand up and talk — in this case, about a model-view-controller. As he spoke, Bishay whispered: “Stop, you sound stupid, why are you moving your hands like that, everyone knows you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s the superego. It’s the inner voice, the boss, the critic,” Bishay explained. “It says your value can only be identified in comparison to someone else. Maybe you think you got the core of object-oriented programming, and then you hear that someone completed four challenges.”

He turned to the class and paced. He pulled up a new slide: The compass of shame.

After an hour and a half of empathy-engineering, the students returned to their computers. Many would stay until 2 am, sleeping in bunk beds at nearby apartments till classes started the next morning.

Many students spoke of the empathy training, which involves intensely personal and difficult emotional sharing that leads to tears on a nearly daily basis, as a spiritual and emotional experience.

“It teaches you how to handle triggers,” said Christine Dolendo, 24. “Like if you’re pair-programming and someone’s driving all the time and you feel you can’t contribute to the code.”

engineering-empathyDavid Stavis, a 23-year-old “phase two” student, was eating banana chips and checking on a William Shatner-themed link-compression site he had built. He said that he noticed the impact of empathy training in his personal life most of all. For example, Stavis said, a few months ago, he made plans for a second-date brunch with a girl — and she called at the last minute to cancel.

“That was a trigger. It hurt for weeks. What’s wrong with me that she would do that?” Stavis said. “Now that I’m trained in EE, that doesn’t even touch me. I’ve been dating someone a few weeks now, and it’s seriously all thanks to Dev Bootcamp.”

He described times when his psyche comes into contact with failure: “My code got a bug; I pitch to a VC, and they say ‘no’; my co-founder has a different idea than I do; I look up some code and I don’t get it. Because of EE, we can recover. I have the tools to care for and care about my fellow boots.”

“And honestly, it just makes us more productive,” Stavis said. “When we get to that code, we’re fast and excited because none of our mind is occupied with emotion and self-doubt.”

So the superego can affect your JavaScripting?

“If my friend is having superego chatter, it slows the coding down.”

Here’s video of Bishay speaking about the Engineering Empathy curriculum.

EQ & Feedback from Karim Bishay on Vimeo.

This article originally appeared on

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