The many benefits of diversity in tech

By Michele Valdez

The TechIMPACT program at a New York college helps young unemployed or underemployed people get to work in the fast-growing tech industry.

LaGuardia Community College recently celebrated the first-ever TechIMPACT graduation. The program provides free training in the latest coding, web software development, systems management and other in-demand tech areas where average salaries start at more than $60,000 per year. It’s designed for New Yorkers between the ages of 17 and 29 who are unemployed or underemployed, and often without a college degree. Of the 18 students who graduated from the first cohort, 67 percent were unemployed, and half do not hold a college degree.

The benefits of the program are powerful and numerous. Struggling New Yorkers get on the path to a career in the fast-growing tech industry—enabling them to better support both themselves and their families. And NYC-based businesses and entrepreneurs have a much larger pool of well-trained candidates to fill job openings.

But perhaps the best illustration of the intrinsic value of TechIMPACT is what happened when three students in the program—Naomi Meyer, Yamil Burgos and Muhammad Usman—participated in a team challenge at TechCrunch’s Disrupt NY 2017 Hackathon. TechIMPACT students are encouraged to participate in hackathons and other local tech events to help them acclimate to their chosen field and network with peers and hiring managers.

Their idea was for an app that would help new U.S. immigrants learn to navigate going to a doctor, earning a driver’s license, cleaning their clothes at a laundromat and other tasks in their adopted home. It was a progressive idea that would have been unlikely from a group of non-immigrants with limited understanding of immigration issues. Data has shown that staff rosters at many tech companies are disproportionately white.

An overarching critique of the tech industry is that it creates apps and tools for people from top-earning socioeconomic levels. Our students, with their personal experiences of navigating immigrant issues, were able to create a user-centered platform that addressed an unmet need. Incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences into the tech industry could greatly benefit both the growth of the tech ecosystem and consumers alike.

Therefore, as Meyer, Burgos, Usman and the 15 additional members of our first TechIMPACT cohort launch their tech careers, myself and the program staff are very excited to see the effect they’ll have on the tech ecosystem. Especially, whether before too long they’ll help create and implement innovative tech-based solutions to issues that affect their community, as many are part of groups that have been traditionally marginalized in our society.

TechIMPACT is funded by a three-year $3.9 million federal grant to LaGuardia Community College from the U.S. Department of Labor’s TechHire Initiative to address the tech skills gap by creating a wider pool of highly trained candidates to fill job openings, and help disadvantaged young adults find good jobs. TechIMPACT is one of just 39 programs nationwide, and one of two such programs in the NYC area.

The rigorous training included five weeks at LaGuardia, where students received a brush-up course on coding and a review of professional conduct expectations, followed by a 12-week intensive web development training at partner company, General Assembly. Our pedagogical approach emphasizes team-based learning, with students working together on projects and frequently reviewing each other’s code, and uses tools created by industry experts at Google, Facebook, and tech startups. Each student graduates with a solid portfolio to show hiring managers during interviews.

“TechIMPACT prepared me well for the grueling hiring process. Right now, I’m completing coding challenges (a critical step in the application process) for several jobs I’ve applied to,” said Meyer, who previously worked as a teacher for several years and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from a university in New Zealand. “I’d wanted to do my undergraduate in computer science, but in my first class I was the only woman among 100 students, and I wasn’t comfortable in that setting. Being able to pursue my passion for technology without incurring more student loan debt, was a dream come true.”

The free training is worth $18,000-20,000 per student.

As word has spread about our free, high-quality tech training, applications to TechIMPACT have soared. Working with our partners at General Assembly, Udacity, The Software Guild, and Uncubed, we expect to graduate more than 300 New Yorkers in 11 cohorts, over the next three years. Of these students, those in need of a transition to employment will be connected with paid internships with participating employers. Companies including IBM and WalMart have signed on to interview qualified candidates for long-term hiring, and we are actively looking for additional employers to work with us over the next three years. Furthermore, 100 people currently working in tech will be provided with free training to support their career advancement in the industry.

Michele Valdez

is director of technology training initiatives at LaGuardia Community College. Valdez oversees LaGuardia’s new TechIMPACT program.