Recalibration of power: Building an equitable tech pipeline in PhillyMay 7, 2021 Category: Featured, Long, Purpose
DisclosuresThis story merges two articles originally published at our sister site, Technical.ly, with some additional content.
Back in January, the six-year-old, Black and Latinx-led nonprofit Resilient Coders, based in Boston, brought its coding bootcamp to Philadelphia.
The nonprofit provides free tech training to its students and pays them a stipend during the course of the 20-week program, and it has quite the record of success. It reports that in 2019, 85% of its graduates found jobs averaging $90,000 in salary within six weeks of graduation.
But the nonprofit’s mission is about more than tech.
The 2019 graduates mentioned in the stat above? They’re all people of color. And because the basecamp is free — different from the common fee-for-service or income-sharing agreement models of other bootcamps —participants are able gain skills without incurring the costs typically associated with job training or higher education.
We support our students in their learning. We support alumni on the job. And we support them as they take to the streets in their peaceful defense of justice. Resilient Coders has never been about coding. It’s about the recalibration of power.
— Resilient Coders (@resilientcoders) June 2, 2020
Resilient Coders’ managing director of engineering, Leon Noel, led the nonprofit’s expansion into Philadelphia.
Noel is a native of South Philadelphia and grew up aware of the city’s unemployment gap that has existed for decades now. As a student at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science 15 years ago, he had two years of C++ classes and said that while the ability to train individuals in tech jobs is not new, diverse communities are still missing out.
“It’s patently wrong when you have such a vibrant tech economy and in communities of color you’re seeing double-digit unemployment,” he told us in January. “With COVID, it’s only accelerating. We saw how fragile jobs prevalent in our communities of color are.”
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With the economic recovery a long way off, Noel sees the work of Resilient Coders as an opportunity to train individuals for high-growth careers that will be automation resistant. Connecting diverse communities to opportunities in a booming local tech economy could also possibly build a sustainable pipeline for communities of people that have been struggling for decades.
There was no application to join the first Philly cohort of Resilient Coders. Instead, those interested attended an organizational hackathon in December 2020.
The first cohort of the Philly bootcamp included just five students from Philly (out of an anticipated 10), as well as 21 from Boston. They are set to graduate on May 28, and until then, Resilient Coders will guide the students through the job search process.
A day after members of this inaugural cohort shared their presentations on their work at a virtual Demo Day, two soon-to-be grads told us about what led them to the program, and what they have spent the last four months building alongside their training.
Finding community through technology
Georgia Gwinnett College graduate Jasmin Alvarez was working in ecommerce when she found out about Resilient Coders via the Techqueria Slack channel. That’s where Alvarez, a former exercise science major, connected with an alumni of the program who explained what the training was like.
“It was something I [saw] myself doing,” said Alvarez, now 25. “I wanted to solve an issue back home in my home state Georgia. I would see problems and while we said we could solve them through technology, no one took the initiative. That’s where I got into coding and self-teaching.”
Alvarez decided to take a big step and moved to Philadelphia for personal reasons while a part of Resilient Coders’ first local cohort, though the program hosted all of its coursework virtually.
During the program, Alvarez built an app called Food Amor, which would allow customers to purchase leftover food at a steep discount. She got the idea from her time working at a bagel café that made bagels fresh, only to have employees throw away leftovers at the end of each day.
“There is so much food waste,” she said. “I read an article [that said] in Europe, they have refrigerators that they leave leftover meals in and people can grab them if they want them.”
Her app includes a local finder for people to look for food banks if they want to donate instead of buying food for themselves.
Alvarez said she’s appreciated the support of Resilient Coders’ staff: As someone used to learning on her own, she noted a distinct difference in her getting hands-on help from instructors that she didn’t find learning on her own. And being a part of the org’s first Philadelphia cohort took on a new meaning after Alvarez acquired COVID-19 during the course of her training.
“It was a struggle because there were deadlines for my work,” she said. “The [Resilient Coders] staff supported me and they actually told me to not work, but I kept working whenever I had the strength. I had emergencies through the program, but they were really understanding toward that, especially when it came to my family and my own well-being.”
As a Mexican American used to only speaking Spanish at home with her parents, the transition to coding in English has presented a significant learning curve and she hopes that in the future, Resilient Coders can teach people how to code in non-English languages. Still, she said her experience has been a positive one and set her on a positive trajectory.
New country, newer skills
Like Alvarez, 24-year-old Danstan Kimuli saw a different path for himself by pursuing a career in tech. Originally from Uganda, Kimuli arrived in the U.S. three years ago and started working as a pharmacy technician in Kensington four months after his arrival.
Kimuli was reliant upon using public transportation to get to work. But when the pandemic happened and he felt less comfortable on SEPTA, he resigned from his job and focused on his passion for technology.
“I started taking a few tutorials on the internet,” he said. “A few months after taking tutorials, Resilient Coders found me. I received an email from the Nationalities Service Center about Resilient Coders. Interestingly enough, this was the first cohort in Philadelphia, and it’s managed to set my life on a different [course].”
Kimuli considers adaptability and problem solving among his characters traits, so he’s appreciated how Resilient Coders teaches its students how to learn new skills and adapt to new situations. He also values the organization’s business model that provides free training to its participants and a stipend to go with training.
“Most bootcamps cost you money and people end up getting in debt,” he said. “They changed the game.”
Kimuli built an app that can connect people experiencing homelessness with places to stay. The idea resonated with him on a personal level: When he was new in the U.S. a few years ago, he was sometimes unsure of where he would live next.
“[This] can be crucial to society,” he said. “Other people may face a similar situation. My app will help connect people who will face temporary homelessness to rooms that may be available in homes, or new homes altogether.”
After his time with Resilient Coders, Kimuli, like Alvarez, plans on starting his tech career while helping others like him thrive. He’s currently looking for work.
“It’s not about just getting a job but also supporting my community and others who may be in my position, because I needed help,” he said. “I want to see others prosper. I was a new kid in this country and couldn’t afford college. This is something I really appreciate.”
Sabrina Vourvoulias contributed to this report.