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NC nonprofit opens tech industry doors for underrepresented communities

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Wednesday, February 7, 2024   

By Laura Aka for WorkingNation.
Broadcast version by Shanteya Hudson for North Carolina News Service reporting for the WorkingNation-Public News Service Collaboration

After she graduated from college in 2018, Danielle Prioleau expected to be working in events planning. Then in 2020, the pandemic hit. “That made me rethink my career and changed my perspective because events is definitely something that you can’t really be online for – you have to be in person,” recalls Prioleau.

She was looking into tech boot camps, but was worried about the cost. “A lot of boot camps can be $10,000, which is as much as a car. I already have student debt, so that wasn’t necessarily the route I wanted to take.”

A friend told her about North Carolina-based Code the Dream which “offers free intensive training in software development to people from diverse low-income backgrounds.”

Prioleau – who lives in Maryland and had no previous thought about going into tech – says, “I applied for Code the Dream’s React course and I got in. That was just a crazy amazing moment.” She started taking courses in October 2021, finished the following March, and then became a Code the Dream apprentice in June of 2022.

Internal Support and Mentorship

Prioleau says support from the program’s staff has been impactful. She specifically points to Omer Yariv, a senior developer and mentor with the organization. “I don’t want to call him my rock but, essentially, he’s my rock.”

She continues, “I love Omer honestly so much just because I felt really connected to him. He was new in the senior developer role – just coming on into Code the Dream. I related to him because I was also new – not necessarily at Code the Dream, but as an apprentice.”

“He definitely helped me in lots of ways because this was all new for me. Honestly, I was just nervous even asking questions during scrum, which we had every day because I always thought, ‘I’m scared for them to know what I don’t know.’”

Yariv notes, “There’s more to the work than just knowing how to code. There’s knowing how to present your work, knowing not to be afraid to ask questions. In some cases, it’s knowing how to present your work in a resume or an interview. A lot of things that are beyond just being able to code.”

He adds, “Our job at Code the Dream is pretty much to help our apprentices find a better job. We want them to find another job and we want them to continue with their career. Not because we don’t love them, we do. Not because they’re not great, they are. But because we want them to have a real career.”

Yariv acknowledges Prioleau’s growth during her Code the Dream apprenticeship. “She started looking to get challenged, proactively asking to do things that are beyond what she was comfortable doing before.”

Opportunity for Outside Apprenticeship

“It’s well established that apprenticeship is a great way to build up a diverse workforce, not only ethnically and racially diverse, but also experientially diverse,” says Daisy Magnus-Aryitey, co-executive director, Code the Dream.

“However, it is extremely costly and resource-intensive for companies to build up their own apprenticeship because of the cost of the apprentices, their salary, et cetera, but also all of the resources and support around the apprenticeship department.”

Magnus-Aryitey continues, “Additionally when we’re talking about tech apprentices, they need support from senior developers. So, companies also have to figure in the cost of pulling senior developers off of projects in order to mentor these junior, starting-out folks in order to get them to the point where they can contribute.”

Because Code the Dream has its own apprenticeship program, Magnus-Aryitey says, “One thing that we really built up over the years is the ability to work with very junior talent, to bring them up, and to increase their skills, et cetera.”

“We know we can run an apprenticeship department extremely well, and what we wondered is ‘Can we do that for a company?’ Essentially run an apprenticeship in tandem where we provide the pipeline to talent, and we also provide the senior developer support needed to really grow their talent over time.”

Agreements were crafted to provide apprenticeships over the past year for Code the Dream participants with Cisco and SAS Institute.

Magnus-Aryitey explains, “Tandem apprentice partners contract with Code the Dream for the apprentices, oversight, and mentorship. This way they end up having one contract that covers the costs of all apprentices – who remain CTD employees until the partner chooses whether to make offers of permanent employment.”

She adds, “[The employers] get a simplified approach to launching a full-fledged apprenticeship program with robust support for apprentices.”

Real-World Experience

“The culmination of a year’s worth of discussions and work [with Code the Dream] is where the tandem apprenticeship came from,” explains Alex Boakye, vice president of solutions development, SAS Institute.

Boakye – who is also a Code the Dream board member – continues, “Eventually we landed on the fact that what would be good is if we could take [Code the Dream] apprentices after they’ve done the training, bring them into SAS so that we can introduce them to corporate culture, provide mentorship for them, teach them high-level coding skills that they wouldn’t have.”

“Then at the end of the year, we can do an assessment to figure out how well they acclimated to the corporate culture, look at metrics and how they’re performing against both interns and entry-level engineers that are coming in – and see if they can make a high impact.”

The Code the Dream apprentices started their yearlong SAS apprenticeships at the beginning of 2023. Boakye happily announces, “We started with 10 and we ended up hiring all 10.” All 10 –who completed their SAS apprenticeships in December – started their new jobs this month.

Prioleau explains she will continue the same work she has been doing as an apprentice with the guidance of the same manager. She says she will be translating internal SAS products for outside use by other companies. “We are writing the SAS products in React is because it is a more modern framework. We’re able to use less code and we’re able to use updated styling.”

She adds, “Nothing should visually look any different. It’s just from a coder’s view – should be more robust and should be able to be run quicker.”

Yariv is happy that all the apprentices have secured permanent jobs, recalling some struggled earlier with imposter syndrome. “’What is going on here? I can’t find my hands or my feet.’ And we are like, ‘That is normal. That happens to us, too. You’ll see that in a month, in two months from now, it won’t be an issue anymore. You’ll just know it.’”

“Being there with them and reflecting back that what they’re going through is normal, not just for apprentices, but for any developer – I think is part of the support that we could give.”

Boakye says the support from Code the Dream developers is a critical part of the process. “My view on this is they need a safe space to be able to go. That gives them a safe place to go and have a discussion. They can let their guards down and not feel like they’re being measured or tracked, or that they have to put up any facade.”

He notes, “I mentioned to the apprentices that we are a business. At the end of the day, we care about profit. To me, they are an investment that I am making and I believe that I’m going to get a return on that investment.”

Boakye adds, “I wanted to make sure that they knew, ‘Hey, we have you guys here because you do good work. We’re going to help you build your career.’ My hope for them is that they’re going to become the next leaders in the technology industry.”

“They’re going to go from doing their jobs or not even having the opportunity to be in tech to now making six figures,” says Boakye. “Personally, the way I love to make impactful changes in diversity is if we want to change communities and we want to change laws that are unjust, my view is change one person’s life at a time.”

What’s Next?

As the first group of SAS apprentices transitions into permanent employment, another group of 10 began their next chapter earlier this month – by starting their SAS apprenticeships.

Reflecting on the tandem apprenticeship model, Magnus-Aryitey acknowledges Dan Rearick, her co-executive director. “We work together on all big initiatives, especially this one!”

She says, “I’m so grateful for our partners who work with us to pilot this program. I’m so grateful to the team because it was a lot of work on our end to put things in place and starting something off is very, very difficult.”

She adds, “We saw this as a way to disrupt traditional hiring practices.”

Boakye notes, “I am hoping that after you put out this article, other company leaders will look at it and see that there is a path to doing this kind of work in their companies. And that the key thing is it’s beneficial to society at large.”

“We’re looking for the intersection of doing work that contributes to the world in general and to the communities that we live in, but also is profitable, right?”

Yariv – whose career has mostly been working at startup companies – says, “I don’t think I’ve ever worked at a company where the value was so powerful where you could see it on a daily basis.”

He continues, “Sitting with people and hearing their stories, seeing them get a job, seeing them go through that tandem apprenticeship, seeing how they become better – it’s heartwarming. And it is, for me personally, much more rewarding than product work.”

And Prioleau, one of SAS’s newest associate software developers, says, “Looking back, I definitely think there are specific people that have been placed in my journey to lay out the path for me – which is awesome to think about.”

She adds, “My dad tells me every day, ‘Danielle, can you see how much you’ve grown?’”

Laura Aka wrote this article for WorkingNation.

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