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Finding Common Purpose

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “handoff” problem between different points along the pathway to lifelong success, and in my most recent posts I’ve focused on the transition from high school to some kind of post-secondary education or training that results in a good-paying job. To help ensure the success of a young person on the pathway, those three components of the pathway—high school, further schooling or training, and employment need to be working well together. So, to explore that further, I spoke with Mike Scannell about company recruiting at State Street Bank and Kevin Dowling about being a college student preparing for a career. Those two discussions grew out of my participation on a panel discussing the workforce of the future, about which I wrote in a blog post that kicked off this “series.”

Based on those discussions, I also wanted to speak as well with someone who could represent that third component, broadly defined—in this case, a program that provides training to young people to support the transition to a good-paying job. I had a number of program directors in mind, and then David Delmar Senties posted a comment to the first of the series I just described. So we arranged to speak.

David is an ideal person with whom to continue this discussion. He’s the founder and executive director of Boston-based Resilient Coders, which describes itself as “training people of color for high-growth careers as software engineers, and connecting them with jobs.” He started the nonprofit in response to his own experience in the workforce.

“I’m a little bit of an odd duck in that I am both a white male but also Latino. I grew up in a Spanish-speaking home,” he explains. On his own professional trajectory, “folks had taken a pretty steep chance on me over and over and over again, largely because of –quite frankly—my whiteness and maleness.”

At a certain point in the startup world, he looked around and had a “moment” and began to ask, “Where’s mi gente? Where are the other Latinos? Where are people of color in tech? And I started peeling back layers of the onion and discovering that there were all kinds of incredible, very real systemic barriers that kept certain people away from the tech economy—and the entire economy as a whole.”

Resilient Coders, David’s response, is “a very highly competitive coding bootcamp” that works “exclusively with people of color from low-income backgrounds.” They are brought into a very rigorous program (soon to be 20 weeks) at the end of which “they’re ready for careers as software engineers.” And placement’s been very successful, David reports. “Almost all of our students nowadays go to work at full-time jobs as software engineers at our partner companies.” The list of partners is pretty impressive; the group includes Wayfair, Constant Contact, PerkinElmer, Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Broad Institute.

Resilient Coders is a great representation of supporting people in getting on and staying on the lifelong pathway to success. Software engineers in the United States are earning starting annual salaries that average about $85,000, and Resilient Coders earn a starting salary of $98,300.

The young adults in the program are “beyond high school, and the overwhelming majority do not have a college degree.” David describes his program as a way to get past the “gatekeeper to wealth” that college has come to represent for communities of color.

David describes “a well-baked workforce pipeline” in Boston, with “white, privileged kids coming from other cities and states to go to one of our illustrious four-year institutions, and then they get placed into a job. But, ironically, most people born and bred in Boston don’t have access to that pipeline.” They can’t “break into this sort of college-input workforce pipeline, and too many companies out there are asking for college degrees.”

Mike Scannell raised that same issue in the employer context when I spoke with him, advocating for “taking a fresh look and adopting a new perspective on the real requirements for an entry-level position”—specifically whether a four-year degree and a certain GPA are needed. David’s take on it is a bit different. “This is Boston. This is the land of the four-year institution. You can clap twice and 10 Harvard graduates fall from the sky. And as long as that’s the case, you can put that out there in your job req without really giving it too much thought, because you know you’re going to get applicants regardless of whether they are qualified.”

With that description, David nails the problem of the system failing people along the pathway. But he goes even further, characterizing the requirement of a bachelor’s degree as “classist and racist.”

“We’ve had someone say to us, ‘We don’t even care what the degree is in, as long as they have the degree.’ What they’re saying is that they would like to find a legally permissible way to discriminate based on someone’s parents’ ability to pay for college. A degree in 19th-century horticulture is better than no degree and having spent those four years working? That’s madness. And it’s classist.” David told me that most Resilient Coders had “attempted college and had to drop out because they couldn’t afford it.” It’s an ideal example of people willing and able to get on the pathway, but barriers they cannot control stand in their way—in this case, financial.  

Standardized tests come into focus for David, too. A huge number of studies “say that SAT-style assessments continue to skew white and male, for all sorts of reasons. And so to conduct an SAT-style assessment is also sexist and racist. So, if a recruitment process requires a bachelor’s degree and requires passing some sort of assessment, it’s just not going to be equitable. It’s not going to be meritocratic. You’re going to continue to surface white men all day, every day.” 

The challenges along the pathway are multifaceted, and how they affect people in Boston may not necessarily be precisely the same elsewhere.

But structural barriers at the root, combined with the systemic failure to see addressing the issue as something to be done in tandem among schools, training programs, and employers, is a national phenomenon.

Steps like the 35-year-old national organization Jobs for the Future launching the Pathways to Prosperity Network illustrate this: it aims to “boldly reimagine how U.S. education and workforce systems meet state and regional talent needs and prepare young people for careers.” It currently operates in 14 states across the country.

David recognizes that the growth of Resilient Coders (getting more young people jobs) is driven by the number of partnerships he forms with employers. There are plenty of young people interested in Resilient Coders, and there is no doubt that the need for software engineers will continue to grow, especially given the relentless technology advances made each year. 

My discussion with David continues in my next blog post, in which he shares with me the hurdles he has to jump to get more companies on board as employers of Resilient Coders. It turns out his “whiteness” helps him do that.