Bitmaker Labs: Community Binds and Blinds

I love the tech community in Toronto. I feel kind of adjacent to it now that I'm in Ottawa, but pretty much everything good in my life today stems from falling in with those folks in early 2009 and keeping in touch with them over the years.

And Ottawa's certainly not in a vacuum. Shopify's got an office in Toronto, we recruit in Toronto... so when I say that I want to see the situation with Bitmaker Labs resolved as quickly as possible, I mean it. Hell, Shopify's desperate for talented coders, and Bitmaker's doing by all accounts a fantastic job.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: Bitmaker Labs is a great organization doing great work and the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities would be bugnuts fucking insane not to approve of what they're doing and move heaven and earth to get them back at 100% operations as quickly as possible. I've written as much in letters to both my MPP and Brad Duguid, the minister responsible for the department. However, when speaking out on this, a lot of the tech community has said things that are inaccurate and misleading in ways that I think we'd be pretty appalled about if they were said about us. For example:

"Bitmaker Labs is being shut down by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU)."

"Bitmaker Labs in Toronto shut down by government for what? Educating people? Helping people find jobs? Seriously?"

"Bitmaker Labs forced to halt operations mid-term by the Ontario government"

"Visited #bitmaker labs. Pretty cool! Too bad the stinking canadian gov is trying to shut these guys down."

Education's provincial, not federal, but that's nitpicking. What's more concerning to me, is that out of loyalty to our in-group, some people I respect a great deal for the things they've done are completely throwing due diligence out the window in a rush to condemn the government for shutting Bitmaker down when they haven't. At all. Bitmaker even says so in the letter on their website:

"Our lawyers have advised us that, to preempt any possible cease and desist order which could negatively impact our ability to teach going forward, we must discontinue operating our web development program immediately."

That's a pretty reasonable step to take when you consider that having a cease and desist filed against you can effectively stop you from ever having the opportunity to reopen, but they've been so successful there's no reason to think that they won't be cleared to run their programs based on the calibre of results they're delivering. Based on the firestorm this is generating, I'm half-inclined to think the decision was less a move to ensure their survival and more to generate a lot of energy to defend these guys against a regulatory process that's inconvenient for them.

It is inconvenient, and I get that. But the reality is, I could open a code school - I've even got some instructional experience - and just repurpose CodeAcademy lessons into a slapdash curriculum that wouldn't make people particularly employable. And aside from the quality of the product, there would be no difference between me and Bitmaker Labs. Crappy private colleges that take students' cash without providing much in return are very much a thing. And it's completely reasonable for governments to want to mitigate that potential problem by insisting that people who sell education are actually providing what they offer.

It's abundantly clear that Bitmaker Labs is delivering the goods and that they should be allowed to keep operating. It's easy to say that they shouldn't be subjected to regulatory hurdles because of how awesome they truly, sincerely, and clearly are. But the nature of rules is that they can't apply selectively. I may be a great driver and have a ton of friends vouch for me, but that doesn't mean I should just be able to get behind the wheel without getting a license. It's wonderfully optimistic to assume that everyone is good and honest, and if that were the case it's true that we wouldn't need rules. And I can get why many in the tech community feel that way. Shopify prides itself on being a relatively trust-heavy culture that doesn't have much in the way of formal regulations, but we get to define who joins the company. Bitmaker doesn't need to give grades or mark attendance for the same reason - they select people who are self-motivated enough that they don't need to be babysat. Being in that kind of environment is awesome, and I wouldn't trade it for the world, but if you think it's reflective of the rest of the world you're sadly mistaken.

We all want to see Bitmaker back up and running as soon as possible, but if, in our desire to make the loudest and most compelling point we can, we let our rhetoric get in the way of simply stating the facts, we give those who'd rather not do what we'd like to see an out. "We've made no decision to shut them down, they chose to do so themselves." is an easy dodge to a line like "Last week, BitMaker Labs was helping 25 aspiring programmers learn how to build sophisticated web applications in Rails. This week, their efforts are being criminalized."

Those responsible for ordering this investigation deserve to have their feet held to the fire with something more targeted like "Will you commit to not filing a C&D against Bitmaker Labs until the completion of MTCU's investigation and Bitmaker's subsequent registration as a private college in accordance with the law?" It's a yes or no question. Much harder to dodge.

So what can be done?

If you're Bitmaker Labs, keep cooperating in full with MTCU and provide them with anything and everything they need to get you guys cleared and operating as soon as possible. Do as many media appearances as you can, making it clear that you understand the need for private colleges to be vetted and that you want to work with the Ministry to get things up and running as quickly as possible, but that the reality is your organization addresses a very real skills gap and every day you spend closed is a hit to an Ontario economy in desperate need of good news with an aging population, youth underemployment, and a large provincial budget deficit.

If you're Training, Colleges, and Universities Minister Brad Duguid, get on fixing this first thing tomorrow. It's abundantly obvious that Bitmaker is one of the good private colleges that provide great value to students and skilled workers to our economy, who are well-placed to make significantly more than the average college/university grad, generating tax revenues we desperately need. The rules and processes you have in place to ensure that your staff can't make mistakes are making it too difficult for them to quickly and efficiently make what is clearly the right decision in this case. Look at reviewing your processes and the people you have implementing them - chances are you can do things more efficiently by hiring great people and giving them the right balance of autonomy and accountability - but in the immediate term, you can and should bring every ounce of pressure you have to bear on the issue of getting Bitmaker Labs' reopened as quickly as possible.

If you're neither of those folks, write to both Brad Duguid and to your MPP (you can find a list here and if you don't know your riding you can find it here). When you write to them, don't be a dick. Make it clear that the current situation is bad for young people trying to get jobs, bad for technology companies that want to stay here but struggle to find talented workers, and bad for the Ontario economy. An expedited solution that gets Bitmaker opening its doors as soon as possible and a commitment to improve the vetting and regulation process for private colleges are two things that should happen as soon as possible for the sake of the province's economy. Use facts when you say these things. Taking shortcuts in an effort to increase the rhetorical punch of your words is no different than ignoring best practices and hard coding a bunch of stuff to get the code shipped. The long term consequences are that your argument can be picked apart with talking points and ignored. Don't send a letter that wouldn't pass code review.


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