New Fellowship Prepares People of Color for Coding Careers

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Aug 26, 2014

The graduation ceremony started with a freedom chant led by fellow Angie Rollins, a member of the BYP100. The 40 plus people in attendance joined in, clapping and repeating the chorus: "What side are you on my people?/What side are you on?" It grounded the event in this political moment, referencing Michael Brown and Ferguson in the chant as they began. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was a graduation for community organizers, or radical political educators. Instead, it was a graduation for 11 newly trained coders, finishing the first-ever Code for Progress (CFP) fellowship. They all spent the last four months in an intensive coding bootcamp in Washington, D.C., learning from instructor Aliya Rahman the basics of a handful of different coding languages, with the hopes of beginning their careers in technology.

The graduation was held at Google’s downtown Washington, D.C., offices, a fact that felt both fitting and somewhat ironic given recent conversations stirred up this summer with the release of Google’sApple, LinkedIn and Yahoo’s self-reported diversity statistics. Unlikely to be a surprise to anyone working within the  industry, the stats show abysmal representation for non-Asian people of color overall, and a poor showing for women as well. So for the 11 fellows, seven of whom are women of color, they are unlikely to find many peers in their future places of employment. The freedom chant, while distinctly out of place at Google, was actually quite fitting for the mission of CFP–its goal is to bring politically minded organizers into the tech industry.

The fellowship is a direct response to the lack of diversity in the tech field, and it also tries to address a root cause of these disparities: access to computer science education. "Folks who are in communities of color have a higher probability of going to a school that doesn’t teach computer science," says Rahman. "Seven kids took the advanced placement computer science exam in Washington, D.C., [last year], compared to hundreds in Maryland and Virginia."

Even if you look beyond your high school education for this training, people often find college-level computer science courses to be unwelcoming or the faculty unsupportive. Both Aurea Martinez, one of the graduating fellows, and Sabrina Hersi Issa, the owner of the technology and digital agency Be Bold Media, have had experiences that turned them off of computer science in college. Hersi Issa describes being "frozen in fear" during computer science class, and Martinez says that the competitive environment kept her from even enrolling in the courses. There are other ways to learn how to code, including intensive courses similar to the CFP model, but Rahman says the cost makes them inaccessible for many women and people of color. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

CFP not only focuses its recruitment on "historically excluded communities," they also pay the fellows a $3,000-per-month stipend while they are learning to code during those four months. That erases one barrier to education and the class of fellows demonstrates this. Pamela Davis, a 56 year-old black grandmother, had been a low-wage Walmart worker prior to joining the fellowship. It was her use of technology–particularly social media–to organize with other workers that got her interested in learning more about tech. That organizing also got her fired from Walmart, along with 27 other workers, a termination that the National Labor Relations Board has deemed illegal and for which a settlement is in progress. "I’m reinventing Pam. This is the chance for me to do something new and different," says Davis about what’s next for her after the fellowship. "So this was time for me to flex my wings. [For] the last chapter I want to do something that will at least leave my footprints. We’re trying to raise up a new generation to care about the world so that we’re not in this situation again."

That’s another distinction for the fellowship–it isn’t just about getting people of color into tech, it’s about getting social justice activists into the field. Most of the fellows were inspired to apply for the program by their past activism and the potential they saw for technology to improve their work. Martinez, for example, had been involved in undocumented youth and immigration activism before joining CFP.

Both Rahman and Hersi Issa* describe finding their way into tech through organizing jobs that required tech solutions. Hersi Issa found her own training after her first employer at an NGO asked her to take on some technology projects. She said yes while knowing she didn’t have the necessary skills. "The day that she asked me I went to a local community college and I started the class the next day," Hersi Issa says She used the class to learn and test out her work assignments and her boss was none the wiser.

These kinds of non-traditional forms of education are often necessary for women of color to gain vital skills, but even once they have the credentialing and experience, racism and sexism affect how often they are received. Rahman, who is the lead trainer for the fellowship and is responsible for the curriculum, describes constantly being questioned by men in Washington, D.C., about whether she knows how to code. This is after she’s told them that she teaches a coding class. And while the fellowship has created a safe space, says Martinez, when the fellows have gone to citywide coding and hack events, she’s noticed that the women’s suggestions often get questioned.

It’s these aspects of the race and gender gaps in the tech sector that may not be getting the attention they deserve. One of Google’s first responses following the release of their diversity stats was to offer free coding classes to women and people of color. That paints a picture, perhaps inadvertently, that the lack of diversity is just about the fact that women and people of color don’t know how to code. In reality, it’s much more complex than that. Once you get in the door, how are you treated? Are you supported? Google, Apple and others now have well-designed websites and materials addressing diversity at their institutions, but Rahman wonders if the efforts go beyond public relations: "Their communications staff is definitely working on the portrayal of the problem," she says. Google’s materials detail the myriad affinity groups that exist within the company–from Greyglers (older employees), to Gayglers (LGBT employees) to a Filipino affinity group. But Hersi Issa has her doubts about the impact of these groups: "I think affinity groups in organizations play an incredible role in creating community, but in terms of pipelining [people of color] into major positions of leadership–who holds the power?" I contacted Google to request an interview, but a spokesperson for the company declined stating that "Google’s diversity team is making an effort to focus on the work at hand rather than speaking publicly at this time."

The environment of the CFP graduation was both celebratory and emotional. It was clear from the remarks that the group has fostered a real community that may actually serve them even more than the technical skills. It’s already proving useful as they work together to support each other’s job searches, sharing resources and being transparent about interviews. About half of the fellows, says Rahman, are moving along in the process of final interviews and negotiating offers. She hopes they’ll continue to back one another up in their new positions during the final eight months of the fellowship. The first class won’t be the last–there are already plans to have two classes of fellows next year.

While Silicon Valley has been getting a lot of attention in recent months, we know these diversity problems aren’t unique to that industry alone. Adria Richards, a developer whose firing from SendGrid after tweeting about sexist jokes overheard at a conference rocketed her into the public eye, still doesn’t think the industry is the problem: "Overall I can say that what I believed before the PyCon incident still rings true for the tech workplace. It’s a fantastic career to have and the media sensationalizes the conflicts in the industry regarding gender and race.  It’s a cultural problem in America, not just technology." She and most of the women of color I interviewed for this article remain optimistic despite the major barriers. Hersi Issa lays it out: "Women of color are the original creators–the ones making a way out of no way since the dawn of time. If you gave them the reigns of power I can’t even imagine what would begin to be unleashed in this world."

*Post has been updated. Previously Hersi Issa was identified as "Issa."