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Solving Silicon Valley’s Diversity Problem, One Fellow at a Time

Tech boot camp General Assembly offers scholarships for minorities and veterans. Three recent grads share what they learned.

Photo courtesy of General Assembly

All eyes were on Silicon Valley this past summer, not only for the latest and greatest tech innovations, but also for the latest (but not so great) indications that the industry’s diversity is sorely lacking. From Apple to Google to Facebook to Twitter, several companies publicly confessed that their employee bases are predominantly men, as well as largely white or Asian.

Before the outpouring of vows to make the Valley more inclusive (full disclosure: I worked for a Silicon Valley-based employer that releases its gender breakdown), tech boot camp operator General Assembly announced an Opportunity Fund this past spring, where companies and individuals can bankroll much of the tuition for students who identify with historically underrepresented groups—women, veterans, Latinos, and blacks.

“We are in a unique position to help narrow the diversity gap in the industry by giving people the education, skills, and opportunities to break into tech, and we see Opportunity Fund as the first step toward that eventual goal,” GA co-founder and CEO Jake Schwartz said at the April launch.

Google, Microsoft, jobs-for-veterans resource Hirepurpose, and rapper Nas were initial supporters for these minority-focused fellowships. PayPal and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian signed on in August, and now the latest scholarship from 500 Startups’ Dave McClure (for GA’s user experience design classes) is currently accepting applications.

We asked three of the first fellows from the web development immersive program in New York City to share their takeaways a few months after graduation.

Alexandra Ackerman

Google Fellowship for Women recipient

Currently works as a full-stack web developer at Gertrude

You graduated college with a degree in both culture and media studies and journalism. Who or what sparked your interest in web development?

Well, I was working at The New School with one of my professors named Heather Chaplin and she invited me on a project called “Data Toys.”…We were designing digital toys to describe complex journalistic narratives based on data…I was working with a bunch of developers then, and I was really envious of their ability to create these really exciting digital narratives. That’s sort of what sparked my interested in web development, because I wanted to create things on my own.

There’s been a lot of talk about how tech can become a much more inclusive industry. How has this experience with Opportunity Fund changed your perspective on that issue?

Oh goodness. I definitely think it can be more inclusive. And, actually, in my [GA] program a lot of the students were women, were people of color, and people from all different backgrounds. And it’s sort of weird because, in my experience, I’ve only had people be really accepting. But I’ve heard from some friends who are on the West Coast that it’s a little different, as far as the tech industry and getting women involved in really big companies. Right now, I’m working at a startup, and they’ve been extremely helpful and extremely nice. I haven’t really had any bad experiences. But I think overall, from my experience in General Assembly and looking forward, I think access to education and scholarships to get more women involved are really important.

In exchange for your scholarship, you needed to volunteer 100 hours with underprivileged youth. What did you pass on to the students, and what did the students pass on to you?

Overall, I think code is a way to solve problems and being able to mentor kids to be patient and solve any problem that comes their way was something that I passed on. And I think, if anything, that’s what they gave to me, too, because when I wasn’t able to answer the questions, it made me a little nervous at first. But then I realized, with code, you say, “You break it, and you build it.” We just kept trekking forward.

Francis Castillo

Nas Fellowship for Blacks and Latinos recipient

Currently volunteer codes for CodeNow

What were you doing before taking a General Assembly class?

I had previously worked in financial services…Two years prior to starting the program, I had been laid off because they were shifting the operations down to North Carolina. I liked what I was doing, but I wanted to take a different route. I always liked tech, but I just didn’t know how to go about it: to really get that tech education without having to go back to school, get a master’s degree, or change my undergrad. I was looking for a different route.

What are some of the key lessons from your classes that drive your current volunteer work?

Beforehand, I always felt like you had to have this really broad skill set—like you had to know everything. One of the things you learn in the program is that it’s quite impossible for you to know everything…I’m looking stuff up. If I get stuck on something, I’ll see if … somebody else had that same problem. What was their solution to the problem, and how can I tailor fit that to my current circumstance?

After this Opportunity Fund fellowship, what advice do you have for minorities who want to pursue a career in tech?

Make sure the dedication’s there. Definitely do the pre work, take advantage of the resources that are out there like Code School…I felt like already being exposed to certain languages prior to even applying makes a big difference, because [General Assembly] is a hard program... There’s a constant barrage of different technologies, languages. It can all get a little bit confusing at one point or another…There’s got to be a passion component to it…because it’s a lot of work.

Patrick Karsh

Microsoft Fellowship for Veterans recipient

Currently works as a full-stack web developer at Tripwing

Your experiences prior to General Assembly ranged from several years in the U.S. Navy to several months in Teach for America. What prompted the move to tech?

I had wanted to work for a startup or a tech company, really, since probably halfway through college. I thought because I had already picked my major that I wouldn’t be able to transition from what I did do, which was political science, to tech. It wasn’t until I sort of discovered a lot of these coding boot camps and that you can self-teach yourself how to be a software engineer or programmer that I actually realized that transition was possible.

How did you first hear about the fellowship associated with General Assembly, and what made you apply for it?

I had applied to a bunch of different coding boot camps. I had gotten into several of them. I had applied to GA but I hadn’t heard back from them…Then I got the email for the scholarship from a not-for-profit called Hirepurpose… When I had been applying, I didn’t really have any concept of how I would pay for it. I just was of the mindset like, “Oh, I’ll get in, and I’ll then figure something out.”

Now that you are a software developer, what are some of the key lessons from your classes that drive your day-to-day work at the startup?

For me, the most important thing is that when I’m building a site, it’s easy for the user to use and [that] what the user is doing makes sense. A lot of people are overly concerned with the code being perfect and the code following every convention that’s out there. My goal is to create a usable product, rather than write some amazing code…That’s what sort of differentiates me from somebody who had a more traditional background and doesn’t have any sort of career outside coding.

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