TOPICS > Nation > technology

Cracking the code to a more diverse tech workforce

August 2, 2015 at 9:49 AM EDT
The giants of Silicon Valley -- Google, Twitter, Facebook -- report that just three to four percent of their workforce is black or Hispanic, and men outnumber women by more than two to one. Now, tech companies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to address the imbalance. In New York, one camp is training such a new generation of software coders. NewsHour Special Correspondent Karla Murthy reports.

KARLA MURTHY: Remember the classic arcade game “Space Invaders”? These high school kids are building their own version from scratch using “Python,” a computer language they’re learning at coding camp.

These boys are in the middle of a six-week summer program run by “All Star Code,” a non-profit group in New York City that prepares young men of color to work in the tech industry.

17-year-old De Andre King lives in Queens. He did well in his 10th grade computer class, so his high school counselor encouraged him to apply.

DE ANDRE KING: I didn’t get in the first time. I did the application again, and when I got the email that morning, I was excited.

KARLA MURTHY: How has it been so far?

DE ANDRE KING: It’s been excellent. It’s kind of, like, I’m doing something every day that I enjoy. It’s kind of, like, I’m already having my job.

KARLA MURTHY: A job, even a career, is precisely King’s goal.

DE ANDRE KING: If I already am well-versed in HTML, CSS, Java, Javascript, Python, then I can now build something and bring it to the table. That gives me kinda the upper head over my- over, you know, other applicants.

KARLA MURTHY: Philanthropist Christina Lewis Halpern launched All Star Code two years ago to address the tech industry’s lack of diversity.

She saw organizations dedicated to getting more girls interested in “STEM” — science, technology, and math — but nothing comparable for boys of color.

CHRISTINA LEWIS HALPERN: People kept on expecting me to come in and talking about girls.  I had to do so much explaining of making the case that boys of color are underrepresented as well.

KARLA MURTHY: Halpern’s inspiration for All Star Code came from her father, Reginal Lewis. He grew up in the segregated south and made it to Harvard Law School, became a successful Wall Street financier, and the first black American to own a billion dollar company.

After her father died in 1993, Halpern discovered that a summer program for black students at Harvard Law had been instrumental in her father’s path to success.

CHRISTINA LEWIS HALPERN: If my father were a young man today, he would want to be in tech.  And that’s why we exist, I wanted a program that could help young men who were like my father, who are talented, who are driven, but didn’t have access.

KARLA MURTHY: Halpern, who is on the board of her father’s foundation, has donated $600,000 to All Star Code. This year, it received almost 240 applications for 40 spots. Most students are black or latino and attend New York City public high schools. And 70 percent are from low income families.  

Bryan Lozano is 16 and lives in the South Bronx with his three brothers and his parents, who are from Ecuador.

BRYAN LOZANO: My mom is a stay-at-home mom. She really takes good care of us. And my dad’s actually a cook — down by 59th Street.

KARLA MURTHY: Lozano says, growing up, his parents couldn’t afford to buy him the latest gadgets, but that hasn’t stopped him from learning as much as he can about technology.

BRYAN LOZANO: I build small little, like, robots. And I’ve worked on large and small drones.  And they come with pre-built — microcontrollers that are coded by, you know, programmers.

And, you know, I wanna know exactly what’s going in these chips.

KARLA MURTHY: At camp, Lozano and his classmates learn coding by working on projects like designing apps and video games, robotics and website design. Lozano says he’s used to figuring out computer problems on his own, but in class it’s different.

BRAYAN LOZANO: Whenever I come up against any obstacle, I have to find a solution online, or test out different things.

TEACHER: Who’s used a breadboard before?

BRAYAN LOZANO: But here, you know, our teachers are here to guide us in the right direction.

TEACHER: The way this works, if you’ll notice, is it’s set in sort of like a grid. There are four sections broken up like that.

KARLA MURTHY: In addition to the teacher, there are two camp graduates and two college students majoring in computer science to help out in class.

ACACIA DAI, Teaching Assistant: I learned all this stuff over the course of at least a month. And they are doing all the fundamental stuff in two weeks. So it is a lot.

DE ANDRE KING: I’m not gonna lie. there’s certain days where I don’t understand ’cause I don’t- I’m learning, you know. It’s like the process. Nobody knows everything.

KARLA MURTHY: On this day at camp, King was struggling to write the code for his Space Invaders game. After an hour, he thought he finally figured out how to get his spaceship to work.

DE ANDRE KING: I started inputting the code, and I thought I got it. You know, I was excited. I was, like, “Yes, this is gonna work, I’m finally gonna be able to move onto the next step.” And when I press — when I pressed “enter” — it didn’t work.

KARLA MURTHY: That’s when he announced to the class: “I have failed.”

DE ANDRE KING: Once you say that, everybody starts clapping. And you- it kind of blocks you from being discouraged. At first when I would fail, I wouldn’t say anything. You know, I would try to tough it out. And one thing that comes with failure is, you know, embarrassment. Here, there’s none of that. There’s no, “Oh, you’re stupid,” or anything like that.

CHRISTINA LEWIS HALPERN: Celebrating failure is intrinsic to our program. When you fail at something, when you struggle with it, that doesn’t mean you’re bad at it. That means you haven’t done it enough. That’s an opportunity to learn.

KARLA MURTHY: Marissa Shorenstein is President of AT&T New York, which contributed $100,000 to All Star Code.

MARISSA SHORENSTEIN: We’re very excited about the organization and what they’re doing.  We’re really excited about the talent pool that they’re going to develop, and we support a lot of other programs around the country that are helping to invest in young talent.

KARLA MURTHY: AT&T has also given 1 million dollars to the group “Girls Who Code.”

Other companies are investing heavily in training, recruiting, and hiring initiatives to improve diversity. Apple spent $50 million this year, Google says it will invest $150 million, and Intel announced it will invest $300 million dollars.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Organizations have been trying to figure out how to do this better. They’ve been throwing resources at it.

KARLA MURTHY: Columbia Business School professor Katherine Phillips studies the effects of a more diverse workforce.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: It’s not gonna be beneficial if you have a routine task. But if you have a situation where you need innovation, you need information and ideas to be exchanged, you need people to think broader and bigger about the problem that you’re facing, you are going to get more out of a diverse group than you will out of a homogeneous one in those circumstances. That’s what the research suggests.

KARLA MURTHY: Phillips says groups like All Star Code play an important role in preparing students to enter a diverse workforce.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: One of the things that we know is that people tend to learn better when they’re comfortable. And so in fact having a situation like that one where you can get support from and validation from other people who look like you is really important.

KARLA MURTHY: Another goal of All Star Code is to expose students to the industry. The kids go on field trips to companies like Yelp and Goldman Sachs, and all classes and workshops take place inside the offices of companies like Microsoft and Google.

CHRISTINA LEWIS HALPERN: Nothing compares to our students coming in every day alongside active, working professionals.

KARLA MURTHY: The class we visited was held at “Alley NYC,” an office for tech start-ups. Keenan Williams runs a company here called which expedites commercial real estate mortgages.

He happened to walk by the camp door one day and wanted to know what was going on.

KEENAN WILLIAMS: That nonprofit does things that I wish I had access to when I was 13, 14, 15, 16.

KEENAN WILLIAMS, in class: That’s what I like to hear; ingenuity, innovation, who else?

KARLA MURTHY: Williams stops by the class every week. Today, the boys are pitching him ideas based on their coding projects.

BRAYAN LOZANO: Let’s say there’s a car robbery. And so you can essentially take picture of the model of the car that you know was stolen. You can use paint shop to generate the color you’re looking for of the car, and you can look through images on Google Maps to find the colored car.

So imagine your car gets stolen and you had a way to have an app that would change it to a bright green color so you would know if it was a stolen car.

KEENAN WILLIAMS: Oh, I like that.

KEENAN WILLIAMS: I go in there literally just to help them broaden their horizon. Think bigger. Maybe two years from now, they’ll remember the guy that came into to their program at ASC think, “He told me X and I’m doing X.” So legitimately, I’m definitely trying to be an example.

KARLA MURTHY: So if you could work at any company right now, where would you want to work?

DE ANDRE KING: I don’t wanna be cliché but I guess I would have to say Google. You know, there’s nothing better than working at Google.

KARLA MURTHY: Does it bother you that today in a lot of those places, in a lot of big tech companies like Google, there aren’t a lot of people who look like you who work there?

DE ANDRE KING: It’s not surprising to me that there’s not people of color in the tech field. But if I can be that person to change it, you know, it’s kind of like being the change that you want in the world.