Van Jones: #YesWeCode as a diversity pipeline for high-tech

Van Jones: #YesWeCode as a diversity pipeline for high-tech

OAKLAND, Calif. — There are a dozen reasons why Jahmil Eady was an unlikely computer coder.

In college, Eady was a media studies major with a concentration in film. Her loves were “history and art and English,” as she told the New York Times. She didn’t attend a university like MIT or Stanford, with a powerhouse reputation in the computer sciences.

Perhaps most notably: in a technology industry dominated by white men, she is an African-American woman.

But her life was changed forever by a modest fellowship to attend a little-known computer training program. And thanks to a bold move by New York City’s new mayor, that fellowship program is set to grow — significantly.

Today, Eady works as a junior applications developer at Fox News. More importantly, she has gone from being yet another underemployed young person to a full-time employee with a good salary, health insurance and a 401(k).

Christine Beaubrun, a graduate who went from working at the front desk to front-end engineering at Intel, has a similar story. So does Lavoisier Cornerstone, a rapper turned developer who now works as a developer at a start-up, and teaches kids to code on the weekends.

How did Eady, Beaubrun, and Cornerstone beat the odds? How can others like her do the same?

The springboard for their success was a the NYC Web Development Fellowship provided in partnership with Flatiron School and New York City.

Flying mostly below the radar screen, Flatiron School is quickly and quietly becoming one of the leading schools for would-be computer programmers. I see it as a factory that specializes in producing inspirational stories like Eady’s.

The good news is: that factory is about to get a whole lot bigger.

This week, Flatiron School announced that it is partnering with New York City to create a new NYC Web Development Fellowship. This program will be a successor to the one that catapulted Eady into her new line of work.

Three things make this development noteworthy.

First: This is a tough, rigorous program — not for the faint of heart. It is an intensive 22-week course — designed to get people ready for careers in a highly-competitive field. For example: 27 out of 28 people in Eady’s class went on to tech jobs or further education in coding.

Second: This partnership is designed to bring real diversity into the computing field. To qualify, New Yorkers must have no prior professional web development experience. Applicants must be between 18 and 26 years old, have no four-year degree, and make less than $50,000 per year.

But if history is any guide, the Fellowship will produce a class of creative, innovative programmers that companies cannot wait to snap up.

The NYC Web Development Fellowship is launching in partnership with the City of New York, whose progressive Mayor Bill DeBlasio understands the importance of tech talent.

The fellowship is one part of a tech pipeline initiative to take young people with big dreams but limited opportunities and give them the skills they need to work at some of New York’s biggest companies.

In fact, some of the most amazing companies in New York — from Kickstarter to Buzzfeed, AppNexus, The New York Times, Microsoft, and more — are essential partners in the fellowship itself.

Third: The fellowship extends beyond the transformation it will bring to the fellows. Programs like this offer a path to solving some of the biggest problems our nation faces.

For too many Americans, today’s recovery feels a whole lot like yesterday’s recession. And even if the economy took off like a rocket tomorrow, we all know that too much genius would still be wasted.

There are young people growing up less than a mile from Buzzfeed’s New York headquarters, or just down the road from Silicon Valley in Oakland, Calif., who have the smarts and the creativity — but not the skills. When it comes to getting a job in those places, they might as well live a million light years away.

Meanwhile, the tech industry is crying out for talent.

At the lowest point in our economic troubles, tech companies were still hiring. Ask the human resources professionals in Silicon Valley and they will tell you they are desperate to find more coders, more web developers, more people with the skills for the new economy.

To be sure, part of the woeful state of diversity in Silicon Valley can be chalked up to companies that simply have not tried hard enough. But a big portion of the blame is on the simple fact that there are not enough women and people of color who know how to code.

In short, the tech industry is crying out for genius — while genius is going to waste.

Imagine the NYC Web Development Fellowship times one hundred, or one thousand.

Imagine if instead of a handful of fellowships, they were like stars in the sky.

Imagine training not dozens, but tens of thousands of young people — and putting them to work creating the apps and innovations that enrich our lives.

Silicon Valley would look different — but so would Oakland, so would New York, so would our entire economy and our entire country.

No single coding school can do this alone. Even the biggest companies cannot build to that scale. Government alone cannot do it.

What is needed is a movement that knits workshops and fellowships, schools and start-ups into one giant pipeline for talent.

We do not need to create the Flatiron School; it already exists. We need to make it bigger, make sure young people know about it, make sure businesses are ready to hire its graduates.

All this is the animating principle behind #YesWeCode (#YES), a new initiative to train 100,000 people from low-income communities to code. By stitching disparate parts into a greater whole, we can create change on a massive scale.

In the years to come, #YES — a joint partnership of Dream Corps Unlimited and the Thrive Networks — is going to raise millions of dollars to fund fellowships just like the Flatiron School’s new NYC Web Development fellowship.

That will be good news for people like Jahmil Eady.

Van Jones is co-founder of #YesWeCode — a national initiative to help train 100,000 low-opportunity, high-potential youth to become top-level computer programmers. A best-selling author, Yale-educated attorney and CNN commentator, Van has been a leader in social justice and environmental causes for two decades.


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