Resilient Coders Tackles Tech Diversity Issues, One Person at a Time

Xconomy Boston — 

Growing up in Boston, Steven Julien-Stewart witnessed the gentrification of the city’s neighborhoods, although at the time he didn’t fully understand what was happening—he just knew his neighbors were moving away.

“When you’re younger, you’re not thinking about things like rent increases,” the 23-year-old says. “You just see friends disappear.”

Julien-Stewart has moved between different Boston neighborhoods, ranging from the South End, one of the city’s more affluent areas, to Dorchester, one of its poorest. Poverty and lack of equal opportunities for people of color are two issues that motivate Julien-Stewart, a self-described community activist and aspiring entrepreneur.

Steven Julien-Stewart

Steven Julien-Stewart

“A lot of the time people that look like me, there’s often more barriers than necessary,” Julien-Stewart (pictured above) says. “Because of that, it pushes me to do more.”

One of his recent pursuits is learning to write software through Resilient Coders. The two-year-old Boston nonprofit teaches Web development skills to teens and adults from underserved communities and helps connect them with job opportunities.

“Coding I see as a universal key,” Julien-Stewart says. “It allows me to go through doors that I probably wouldn’t go through” otherwise.

Resilient Coders is part of a wave of organizations that have popped up in recent years offering short-term software training programs. The idea is to teach participants the skills needed to land good-paying jobs in the fast-growing tech industry. There is evidence the approach can work. A 2016 Course Report study surveyed 1,143 graduates of 52 coding bootcamps and found that 73 percent of them had gone on to secure full-time software jobs; those positions boosted their wages an average of 64 percent, or $26,021 annually.

But some observers have raised concerns that many coding bootcamps aren’t accessible to everyone. The average student pays nearly $12,000 in tuition, and that doesn’t count the costs incurred if the student quits his or her current job to take coding classes full-time, plus the time it takes to find a job after completing the program.

The irony is, programs meant to provide a ladder to more lucrative careers often end up serving people who already have opportunities—namely, middle-class, college-educated white men. In this year’s Course Report study, roughly 76 percent of the coding bootcamp alumni surveyed had at least a bachelor’s degree, 55 percent were men, and 70 percent were white.

In other words, some coding schools aren’t doing much to improve the lack of diversity in the tech industry. To be fair, that’s not a core focus for a lot of the organizations—but some have made it a fundamental part of their mission. Resilient Coders is one of the software training organizations that specifically aim to serve groups that are underrepresented in the tech industry, such as women and people of color. Others include YWeb Career Academy in Madison, WI, Ada Developers Academy in Seattle, and Laboratoria in several cities in Latin America.

Resilient Coders founder David Delmar, a self-taught software designer and developer, was working at PayPal’s Boston office when he started thinking of doing something about the lack of diversity in tech. He was at an industry conference a few years ago, at the “height of the app obsession,” he says.

“I saw these brilliant people pitching beautiful and elegant solutions to inconveniences,” he recalls. “At the same time, they’re down the street from serious problems.”

David Delmar

David Delmar

Delmar, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, says he didn’t see many people of color in tech and “decided that’s a serious problem” he wanted to try to address.

“I have a personal belief that technology should go hand in glove with social progress,” Delmar says. “I believe technology exists for the task of advancing the standard of living for all, going back to irrigation and aqueducts, or the wheel.”

So, is technology currently failing our society? Delmar won’t go that far, “especially when you consider the fact that startups, and technology companies broadly, hauled us out of the recession,” he argues.

The problem, he says, is not everyone is getting a shot at taking part in the economic prosperity of the tech boom. “It’s not equitable change.”

In Resilient’s early stages, Delmar took vacation days while still working at PayPal to teach coding classes at a Boston-area youth detention facility. He found that many of the students grew up under difficult circumstances at home and in their neighborhoods, and had “slipped through the cracks of the traditional education system,” he says. But many of them possessed the right traits for coding.

“A lot of these young people are very intelligent, very resourceful, very aggressive people,” Delmar says. “Those are the things that make for good technologists.”

After Delmar had some early success training kids at the detention facility, he decided to quit his job at PayPal to run Resilient full time.

So far, about 120 people have participated in the organization’s various programs, Delmar says. Resilient initially focused on teaching software skills to high school students, but this year it expanded its focus to adults hoping to find employment in the tech industry. It added a seven-week bootcamp for people ages 17 to 27, and 21 students have graduated from the two sessions it has run so far, Delmar says. Those students pay nothing out of pocket to participate; Resilient’s programs are funded by donations and revenue it generates from an in-house Web design and development shop, Resilient Lab.

The best of the bootcamp graduates can get hired for a three-month apprenticeship at the lab. During the apprenticeship, they continue learning while also getting paid to work on projects for clients. Those apprenticeships ideally lead to employment, Delmar says.

Resilient—which currently operates from CIC’s downtown Boston offices—also runs a more informal “coworking” program where youths and adults can hang out for a few hours a week working on various software projects.

Delmar says almost all of Resilient’s students have been black and/or Latino, and many of them are men.

“Before this year, we had a hard time recruiting young women,” he says. “This is largely due to the fact that we tend to work with ‘high risk’ and ‘proven risk’ populations, which skew heavily male. Our most recent bootcamp included two young women, who swept first and second place in the class” and earned apprentice spots in the lab, he says.

So far, Resilient has helped eight people land software internships or jobs at places such as the Boston Globe, Boston University, and digital design firm Fresh Tilled Soil, Delmar says.

Julien-Stewart is one of them. After completing Resilient’s bootcamp and scoring an apprenticeship in its lab, he was offered an internship with Colaberry, a data analytics services firm that also trains military veterans and people of diverse backgrounds for jobs in software. Julien-Stewart is currently pursuing an associate’s degree in business management from Southern New Hampshire University, with plans to get a bachelor degree.

He says Resilient supports and encourages its students, showing them what it takes to secure a job as a coder. But it’s up to the students to follow through. “What you put in, you get out,” Julien-Stewart says. Resilient is “not spreading any false hopes,” he adds.

Resilient’s job-placement numbers won’t make a dent in tech’s diversity problem any time soon, but it’s still early days for the nonprofit. And Delmar says he prefers working with smaller groups of students in order to have a bigger impact on them.

“If you can say as an organization that you have alumni that go through your program and that really hasn’t changed their lives, other than to give them warm and fuzzies of ‘maybe they were inspired’—fuck that,” he says. “We’re in the business of making real change. For us that means concentrating on fewer young people.”

Delmar says Resilient might increase the size of its programs eventually, but that will depend on raising more money and growing the pool of partner businesses looking to hire Resilient grads. “We don’t want to outstrip the demand with the supply,” he says.

In the long run, Delmar says he thinks employers can help move the needle on the diversity of the tech workforce by instituting more in-house training programs for new hires. He says such initiatives could provide more opportunities for applicants of diverse backgrounds who show promise but still need to learn some additional, specific skills before they’re ready to do the job. Some Boston-area companies already have such programs, including Akamai Technologies, Wayfair, and Intrepid Pursuits, Delmar says.

He wants more companies to say, “We’re going to take someone who’s not quite there yet, but shows the characteristics we need—integrity, hustle, urgency—that we want as part of the mosaic of our company culture.” He adds, “That’s how this problem is going to begin to tip.”

[Top photo of Devonte Stewart taken by Steven Julien-Stewart. Courtesy of Resilient Coders.]