Tech in Underserved Communities: Beyond Feel Good Stories

It’s hard not to miss the sentimental value in the stories of those whose lives were changed by tech’s opportunities. But something is missing.

by Stephanie Morillo on March 17th, 2014

Startups and tech companies are at the forefront of a financial and technical boom. The number of organizations that aim to increase the participation of underserved populations in tech is also rising.

I’m no stranger to many of these organizations and the work they do, but as a Latina from the Bronx, no such organizations existed when I was growing up. I found myself learning how to code in my friend’s living room two years ago, after I was laid off from a job in corporate communications. Since then, I’ve turned tech advocacy into a career – I manage a course for people with little to no programming experience that want to change careers and become developers, and I’m hands-on in the classroom as a teaching assistant for an evening course also aimed at programming novices.

But what I find missing from these conversations and organizations are the points of view from the very populations these organizations are trying to help.

Portrait of the author.

Morillo, the author. Portrait by Katy Walker.

Stories Vs Reality

It’s hard not to miss the sentimental value in the stories of those whose lives were changed by tech’s opportunities.

By now you’ve probably heard of Leo Grand, a homeless man in New York City who was offered a choice by a young entrepreneur named Patrick McConlogue: $100 in cash or coding lessons. He chose coding and soon became a sensation in tech. His mentor McConlogue was praised for changing Leo’s life, yet few stories dared to delve into the systemic injustices Leo faced before and during his ordeal on the streets. Grand launched his app, “Trees for Cars”, in December but we have yet to hear if his time and efforts have translated into a job. Is Grand a developer now? Did his hard work and determination open any doors into a career and life change, even if not as a full-time developer?

This is not to take away from the time and effort both Leo and McConlogue spent on coding and building an application. Far from it. I myself was unemployed when learning to code, and it took me a while to find a job in the industry. During this time, I oscillated between feelings of elation and frustration and despair. There were weeks that I poured over code on my Ubuntu-outfitted PC, and weeks were I said, “To hell with it!” and didn’t code.

My mentor gave me free tickets to a Ruby conference and a Ruby camp, and I bailed out on both. I felt like a fraud, a fake, and frankly, when I had to find a job in the face of continued unemployment, coding seemed like a frivolous activity. It took me a year to find a job, any job, and that first gig was a part-time job teaching other noobs how to code.

I’m aware my own story can sound compelling, but it’s dangerous for media and the tech industry to milk a “feel good story” without considering if the subject’s life and if their hard efforts have given them the access many need. If Leo Grand is still on the streets on this cold March morning, what does that say about us?

The Pipeline Problem

I’ve experienced a lot of generosity from people in tech, no more than from my own friend and mentor, a Latino from the Bronx who taught himself how to code. What was especially difficult for me was unlearning the societal conditioning that comes with being a person who isn’t the “face” of the community. I was a good student, but the under-resourced schools I went to did not prepare me for a career in STEM, nor did they expose me to careers in the field. I did not grow up knowing what an engineer was. I did not know any software developers. I did not know the first thing about programming.

I went to a small, Catholic school in the Bronx, as my parents believed that the education I received would somehow be better than the one at the public school across the street. Classes were smaller and there was more individualized attention, but the school was even more strapped for resources than the public school was. Most of the teachers were young and earning less than $30,000 a year; in fact, the most talented ones stayed on for just one year before getting more lucrative jobs in neighboring Westchester county. They were eager but inexperienced, and often had to tackle a number of subjects. One year, our middle school teacher taught social studies and religion and the next, math. He confessed that his sister, a math teacher, spent the previous summer helping him craft lessons and teaching him how to instruct math.

In these conditions, classes were taught in a vacuum with no effort to connect our learnings to personal development and possible career paths. Computer classes in school were focused solely on learning how to type and use Microsoft Word, and how to navigate the Internet. The only professionals I knew were educators and healthcare professionals. Many people that I grew up with transitioned into careers in those fields, some of them went into finance, and none of them pursued careers in STEM.

A pervasive, if all but unspoken, belief in tech among some developers and entrepreneurs who grew up tinkering and hacking is that newcomers to programming lacked curiosity as children. At age 12, I was creating webpages on AOL and Geocities and a number of other services. I taught myself very basic HTML in the process. I was far from being uncurious, but with no one to guide me and more importantly encourage me, there was only so far I could go with my Internet interest. Even now, at twenty-eight, I struggle to explain to my immigrant parents what programming a website means. After all, it was only two years ago, before I committed to sitting on my friend’s couch and seeing Ruby and the command line for the first time, that I thought programming a website meant pasting HTML tags and CSS into WordPress templates.

Whenever I tell people the story of my learning to code, they really latch on to the “feel good” parts, but it was far from feeling good all of the time. I frequently confronted the feeling that I was delusional and it wasn’t for me; I broke down after three weeks taking a Rails class because I could not make the connections between the command line and the editor, and what actions were called where. I wanted so bad to make this a career and have the new beginning that I desperately needed. Sleeping on my friend’s couch, looking for jobs during the day, and hacking in the afternoons and into the evening didn’t feel very good at all.

Diversity in Tech

We’ve seen the infographics and have heard the statistics: the number of women and minorities, especially Blacks and Latinos, entering the tech industry is dismal. No Black students took the AP Computer Science exam in eleven states and no Latinos took the exam in eight states. The tech industry seems to “know”, begrudgingly, that diversity is necessary.

But why? Diversity does not boil down to just seeing a lot of brown and female faces in a sea of people. It’s not simply about “feeling included.” It’s about solving real world problems. Frankly, a guy from Connecticut working as a developer in a SoHo startup cannot anticipate the needs of a worker living in rural Nepal – or a working class Bronxite trying to support their family. Technology and the plethora of apps available on the market today do not tell every story and do not solve every problem.

We need diversity because we need people who know their communities and the unique challenges those communities face. We need to empower them to use technology to solve these problems. We do not need a certain group of people deciding that the only apps everyone on the planet want to use are food apps or weather apps or photo sharing apps, or games with ads.

The tech industry needs to learn to live with being uncomfortable, to be open to listening to others. And to recognize that tech is more than just fun; for some people it represents one of the only viable opportunities to make a living and move up. When I was unemployed, I couldn’t entertain the thought of taking out a loan and going back to school or applying to a coding bootcamp – like one that I currently work for. The idea of taking on debt while I didn’t have any financial stability was nerve wracking, as was putting my job search on hold in order to take such a course. My priority was to find meaningful work as quickly as possible.

The author at the front of a classroom, motioning to projected material as students watch.

Morillo, the author, teaching rapid prototyping at her current job.

Working in tech became the most viable option. Thinking on it now, staking my life’s ambitions and dreams on a career in tech – “Women are in demand! You’ll get a job as a developer, they need women. And you’re a woman of color!” – was dangerous; it made me increasingly cynical and took away the element of curiosity that is really what would get me to work through a problem that I was stuck on for hours.

It was only after my friend helped me get the part-time teaching assistant gig that I realized I didn’t want to be a developer, but I wanted to help people through the same issues that I faced. Even now, I don’t always know what to say when someone tells me, “I’m unemployed and I don’t know if what I’m doing is worth it.” I can only tell them, “I too was on that boat. I kept going. And someone believed in me enough to give me the little break that I needed to confirm that it wasn’t all for naught.”

For a member of an underserved community, breaking into tech involves more than just learning to code. It involves coming to terms with an education system that was never equipped to expose and encourage certain members of the population to participate in STEM in the first place. It means that the very experiences that make you “diverse” are also the ones that are the most difficult to express and have recognized, because they are the ones that don’t always feel good.

Getting Beyond Feel-Good Stories

My own story has made me believe that maybe all of the kids smiling in brochures for coding programs need to be mentored by people that didn’t come from substantial privilege. Some of these students invariably have issues in their personal lives or at home that keep them from completely devoting time and energy to their learning.

Do they have computers? Do they have parents that support them? Is there no stability in the home? Is there a lot of crime in the neighborhood? What else is going on underneath those smiles?

A lot of what happens in life is beyond what we can control; telling kids from underserved communities all they need is to believe is disingenuous. Belief is unequivocally important, but it is not “all” they need. They need stable forces around them, they need people who believe in them, and they need resources that they can’t get anywhere else. They also need people who understand and can anticipate the upheaval that a sudden disruption can cause in their learning process. Belief alone didn’t get me a job after twelve agonizing months of searching.

For the privileged in tech – White men, specifically – the onus falls on you to recognize that the roads to tech are not yet equal and no one path is less valid than the other. It also means that you don’t have the answers to every problem. Some problems involve more than beautiful code to solve; some problems require first-hand experience. Until we get to the point that STEM education and exposure for young children is ubiquitous and accessible, we must understand that the tech industry will lose out on tapping into brilliant minds who could help us identify and solve problems that underrepresented people continuously face.

I salute the organizations that see the potential in bright kids – and yes, bright adults – who aren’t the face of tech, who understand the need for including these minds in the fold of the tech industry. But what I want to see are more mentors that look like these kids do, and that have faced similar circumstances.

If these kids and young adults can see themselves in the faces of the talented educators and healthcare professionals in their own neighborhoods, they should also be able to see themselves reflected in tech professionals. People who understand that the road is not easy, and won’t minimize someone’s humanity by reducing them to a story of “how they overcame.”

The road is not the same for everyone and the whole person – and what they bring to the table – must form the basis of any real conversation in leveling the playing field for women, people of color, and the low-income (or any combination of these). Otherwise, you’ll end up teaching a bright adult how to code without considering if they have a place to stay for the night, or food to eat, or a job to help them meet their basic needs.

A feel-good story lasts only as long as one news cycle; building a foundation takes more time. But the effects last longer.