YWeb Career Academy Tackles Tech Diversity, Madison Racial Disparity

It’s one thing to lament the tech industry’s lack of diversity, as many have done in recent months. It’s another thing to actually go out and do something about it.

One group attempting to do its part to boost the number of women and minorities in software companies, at least on a local level, is the YWeb Career Academy in Madison, WI. The academy is led by the local YWCA and Adorable, a Madison Web development shop. Backed by a $68,000 state grant, the nonprofit academy is in the midst of an eight-month, 400-hour intensive program, training more than a dozen locals in front-end Web development, such as HTML and JavaScript coding, user experience design, and project management. The program is free for participants, and classes are held at the YWCA’s Empowerment Center, which provides resources to community members, like help with resume writing and scouting for jobs.

YWeb is a rarity in terms of diversity—half of the applicants accepted into the initial program are minorities and half are women, Adorable co-owner Jim Remsik says. Some of them have faced hardships like job loss and homelessness. And that was the idea behind the program: to give “marginalized groups” access to training needed to score an internship, and potentially a full-time job, at a software company. Organizers thought “we could really have an impact in the careers of those folks as they got started and address the rather obvious issue of it’s a white male party in tech,” he says.

Short-term, hands-on coding programs have been popping up all over the country in the past few years as the demand for software-savvy workers has grown. Some, like Dev Bootcamp and General Assembly, charge fees. Others are tuition-free and are trying to tackle the tech diversity problem head-on, like YWeb and Seattle’s Ada Developers Academy, which helps women get internships and jobs in software programming.

YWCA Madison CEO Rachel Krinsky says YWeb helps address two problems in Madison: a growing demand for tech talent and troubling economic disparities between whites and blacks. “We are in the business of helping people find ways of becoming economically self-sufficient,” she says. YWeb is “important because it provides a chance for a new life for people—a career, rather than just a job.”

YWeb has had its fair share of growing pains (more on that later), but by the end of the pilot program in May, every participant—ranging from age 17 to age 60—is guaranteed an internship with a local tech company. One student has already gotten a head start on that, working 70 hours a week between two internships and YWeb classes, says Tonia Brock, a YWCA employee who is coordinating the academy. “He is a living example and proof that our program will be successful,” she says.

Brock, a former California resident who earned a two-year degree in computer system administration from Madison College, feels especially passionate about YWeb because she is a woman of color. She has experienced firsthand how people in her demographic sometimes get pigeonholed and conditioned to think they’re only supposed to pursue jobs in fields like healthcare or social work, but not science, technology, engineering, and math. “Some people feel like they can only apply for certain jobs,” Brock says.

She has been excited to see YWeb students realize they can be trained in computer skills and get a shot at jobs like developing apps or managing software teams, even if they don’t have the means or desire to attend college. “People are smart enough and capable of that shift, but they need the support,” Brock says. “They hadn’t given themselves that opportunity because they put blockers in their mind.”

YWeb follows a “flipped classroom” format, meaning students go through online lessons on their own time, then put those teachings into practice during labs held from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Labs include time to work on software projects with instructors and interact with local tech executives who speak to the class and volunteer as mentors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, YWeb’s intensive format has presented logistical challenges for participants, causing about half of the original group to drop out of the program, Remsik says. Some don’t have Internet access at home, making it difficult to keep up with the lessons outside the classroom. Some have struggled to find … Next Page »

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