Aug. 25, 2017 12:50 pm

‘Uncomfortable conversations’ are needed to build up a diverse tech talent pipeline

And the team at Coded by Kids is working to have more of them while supporting "equitable economic development" in Philadelphia.

A Coded by Kids program at the Strawberry Mansion Learning Center.

(Photo via

When the team at Coded by Kids (CbK) hears the public saying there needs to be more coding and computer science programs like theirs at every school, the response is more hesitant than excited.

“I would love it because that means more programs for us, but the reality is we’re running programs at schools where kids are in 12th grade but they’re on a 6th grade reading and math level,” CbK founder and Executive Director Sylvester Mobley said. “So I don’t care how many coding programs we run — if a kid is graduating high school and can’t read or write past the sixth grade, their options are limited.”

What Mobley and COO Maggie Deptola are saying is that, yes, the tech education focus of their nonprofit can be a part of the solution to help Philadelphia achieve “equitable economic development,” but there needs to be more of a holistic, systemic effort altogether.

That “disconnect” of people not truly understanding what kids need can lead to policies that do more harm than good, Mobley said.

For instance, the city puts a ton of focus on schools when in reality, Mobley would argue recreation centers and the programs they host can be just as important for inner-city youth whose parents may be working two or three jobs and may not be as around as often.

“There’s a larger system that has to work together in communities for there to be a positive impact, and it’s important that the people who have the most prominent voices in saying ‘This is what we need to do’ understand that,” Mobley said.

(CbK is vying for a chance to lead a panel on this topic at next year’s SXSW festival. Vote for it through Aug. 25.)

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This is why, in addition to wanting to grow the CbK team, Deptola said the three-year-old nonprofit is in a state of “finding the right words to talk about what we do and the scope of what we’re trying to do.”

One immediate way CbK has been trying to have a more lasting impact on its students is by looking beyond its one-off after-school programs and seeking funding for multi-year programs at schools.

But in addition to fostering more meaningful relationships with their students, the organization has also been making efforts to create more meaningful partnerships with outside individuals and groups, specifically in businesses, government, nonprofits and higher education.

Working with tech businesses, like the Malvern-based ecommerce company Turn5 which sponsored a couple of three-year programs in Philly high schools like the Kensington Health Sciences Academy, also creates opportunities for students to interact with professionals who are doing the kind of work they’re learning about in the classroom.

Deptola said the partnerships with higher ed institutions have been the slowest in terms of progress. Nonetheless, they’re important if CbK wants its students to be able to tour local campuses and their respective computer science programs.

One of the biggest issues that CbK is trying to address is the lack of diversity when it comes to the talent pipeline for the tech community, something that newbie technologists of color are especially aware of.

How? Mobley and Deptola have been modeling their classrooms to be made up of students from various backgrounds, cultures, income levels, etc. so they can start learning from a young age about what it’s like to work on a team that’s made up of people who may not look like you or think like you.

“These students need to learn about each other so that they don’t fear each other and have context with one another, and that when they go to start a tech company, they have a community to pull from that is diverse,” Deptola said.

But when it comes to CbK talking with or working with those folks who have a tangible impact on these students’ lives now, things have been tougher when a topic like race or diversity is brought up.

“One of the biggest challenges I have is having some of those more uncomfortable and difficult conversations with people that are needed,” Mobley said.

He added that it’s often the well-intentioned people who can “freeze up” whenever these topics are brought to the table, and as a Black man who said that to this day he’s occasionally mistaken for a server at tech events, Mobley knows that these kinds of conversations need to happen for people of color to see real-world benefits, like more funding for their startups.

To help education the tech community about this, the CbK team wants to do a better job of showing off what kind of work and projects their students are doing, especially as CbK seeks to expand its programs into the suburbs or Wilmington.

And they want to host more meetups and events of their own — like the one they hosted last night at Capital One Café — so that they can meet other people interested in reaching that ultimate goal of providing equitable economic development throughout the city.

“Everybody plays a role in that,” Deptola said.


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