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Open Access: How A Nonprofit Is Giving Techies Without Tuition Their Shot

A nonprofit founded by a former Army officer is taking participants with an average salary of $26,000 and turning them into code masters.

In a crowded classroom on a recent Saturday morning in a donated community college space in Queens, New York, more than 20 students were huddled together learning the basics of building Android apps. The scene wasn’t too different from any learn-to-code intensive, as these things go. There were bagels outside, and teachers urgently getting the projector ready before the lesson kicked off. But the differences were apparent when students were asked to introduce themselves: They told stories of coming from Siberia, Ethiopia, Brazil, and even the Bronx.

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The class is part of a six-month intensive program called Access Code offered by a local nonprofit, the Coalition for Queens (C4Q). Access Code is trying a radical experiment: taking self-driven techies (and aspiring techies) from modest financial backgrounds and offering them free nine-month long programming intensives that require 22 hours a week of in-class instruction alone. And in the process, students are immersed in tech culture and taught everything from how to write a résumé to understanding how to make friends at your startup.

Building Ties To The Tech World

Jukay Hsu, the founder of both Access Code and the Coalition for Queens, is a Harvard College graduate who participated in the school’s ROTC program; following graduation, he served as a U.S. Army officer in Iraq. In his time overseas, he both commanded a rifle platoon and worked on local economic development projects, eventually earning a Bronze Star. (Disclosure: Hsu and I both attended New York’s Stuyvesant High School, several years apart.)

Access Code also acquired impressive backers for the program. Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian is supporting Access Code financially, as are Google, Verizon, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, the Kate Spade & Company Foundation, the New York Community Trust, and New York’s City Council. Alongside Access Code’s full-time employees, volunteer teachers come from New York’s tech community as well.

The program has strict acceptance criteria, including questionnaires, in-person interviews conducted by engineers at New York tech firms, and a preliminary in-person weekend workshop. Only 5% of applicants are accepted.

Participants currently have an average salary of $18,000 entering the program, and only 50% of them attended college; 50% of participants are female, and 60% African-American or Hispanic. Hsu added, “We want to expand into creating a more inclusive tech ecosystem. And we want to think deeper about what it means.”

In some cases, that means propelling students all the way from Queens to Y Combinator and Buzzfeed.

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Success Stories

In one case, an Access Code graduate went on to demo at Y Combinator and raise $1.85 million for his startup.

Moawia Eldeeb, an Egyptian immigrant from a working-class family who learned how to code via Khan Academy and attended Columbia University on scholarship (while working in a gym the whole time), launched a fitness startup post-graduation with a partner called SmartSpot. SmartSpot, a video logging system for workouts that uses machine learning to identify posture issues, raised $1.85 million from Khosla Ventures and Signalfire. SmartSpot also secured a spot at legendary accelerator Y Combinator.

When I attended Access Code, the guest speaker that afternoon was Paola Maldonado, an iOS developer for Buzzfeed. Maldonado, graduate of Hunter College, a public university in New York City, says she was unhappy working in a series of administrative jobs at local nonprofits. Maldonado registered for Access Code in the hopes of transitioning into the tech sector, and was accepted after a grueling interview process.

Maldonado, like many of the program’s participants, had an extremely long commute to Access Code. A resident at the time of the outlying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge, her subway commute to Queens on weekends would routinely take 90 minutes. “It was a lot of class time,” she told Fast Company. Following graduation, Maldonado interned at startup Viggle for six months before landing a job at Buzzfeed.

Other Access Code graduates have landed jobs at Condé Nast, Lua, Mommy Nearest, and CafeMom. Coalition for Queens claims the average income of graduates from their first iOS class jumped from $26,000 to $73,000.

The Grinder

On the day I stopped by Access Code, the students were an equal mix of nervous, geeky, and enthusiastic as they did icebreaker exercises and learned about their lesson plans. Every Sunday, they would be sitting in classrooms from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and immersing themselves in the finer points of Android app development.

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Instructors repeatedly raised their mantra: “You will need to work hard. Don’t give up, and stick with it.” Attendees were drilled in the importance of working with others from very different backgrounds, of mutual respect, and even how to work collaboratively on projects in the classroom.

Then it was on to a crash course in the basics of programming, and what we actually talk about when we bring up basic topics like the command line, conditionals, Git, and debugging. Students went through the daylong classroom sessions, and were then expected to do another 10 hours of homework outside of class.

As an observer, what I found interesting is that the participants Access Code selected all had one common personality trait: They were all self-starters who skewed toward being autodidacts. It was a room full of the proverbial college students working themselves through school by working three jobs, and of the learners who carried as many books as they could possibly carry home from the public library.

Hsu says a big part of the concepts behind Access Code came from his military service. “My experience in the military has affected my thinking about our work at C4Q and sources of nontraditional talent,” he told me. “The vast majority of soldiers I worked with did not have a college education, and some of the smartest, most talented, hardest-working individuals I have ever met were among them. There’s incredible talent everywhere, and it reveals itself if provided the appropriate opportunity, training, and structure. I’m confident that we can and should expand pathways in tech to those with less educational attainment and from low-income communities, and NYC’s tech community will be stronger for it.”

Later in the semester, the students are learning about something just as challenging as app development: talking to coworkers in the tech world. “Non-Technical Training,” which covers approximately 24% of program time, includes everything from whiteboarding to crash courses on the various steps of the product development process. There’s even instruction on how to pitch to investors.

But Does It Scale?

When I spoke to Hsu, he emphasized that although learning the basics of coding is easy, Silicon Valley’s culture has a very real tendency to exclude others.

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“There’s an idea in tech you don’t need a college degree, which is true,” he told me. “However, a Stanford dropout with no degree looks much better than someone who never went to college. We want to learn how to expand access to people from other backgrounds, get them involved in technology, and teach them new skills. We can diversify tech socioeconomically. We feel that
having more entrepreneurs from different backgrounds will benefit the economy as well.”

Access Code, however, also exists in a very specific world: It takes place in a big city with a booming tech sector, a large population of people interested in learning how to code, and infrastructure in place that allows easy public transportation access to classes on weekends. Their model is not unique but not easily replicable.

Nonetheless, it offers something very unique: an example of how to quickly funnel qualified talent into the tech sector, and drastically improve the income of participants.

“Expanding tech education is a difficult challenge” for Coalition for Queens, Hsu said.

“We’re able to build Access Code based on the current conditions of the NYC tech ecosystem and the deep community engagement that we have to identify top talent from nontraditional backgrounds,” said Hsu. “We’ve learned that it’s not just about teaching technical skills, but having strong industry partnerships, having nontechnical training and learning so cohorts are fully integrated into the tech ecosystem, and a strong program culture.”

He added that other programs planning tech education for diverse and low-income communities need to understand their students will likely have varying skillsets and knowledge basis, and one of the important things is to “know the audience you want to serve through the program.”

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The next round of applications for Access Code will take place in late 2015; applicants can sign up for the Coalition for Queens mailing list for more information.