(Published in Berkeleyside.com)
While grinding through software coding courses at San Francisco programming school Hack Reactor, Albrey Brown, 24, often found himself as one of the few students of color in the room.
Meanwhile Bianca Gandolfo, 26 — like Brown a Hack Reactor alum and former instructor — used to view software engineering as a career path for “a white guy in a basement by himself.”
Instead of ignoring these realities, as some might, the tech-savvy duo decided to do something about it.
Enlisting Hack Reactor as a partner, the pair has launched Berkeley-based Telegraph Academy, a tech coding school that aims to teach software engineering to under-represented minorities and create a network of tech workers of color.
The first class of students, arriving at the Academy’s bustling Shattuck Avenue location from as far away as Honduras and the East Coast, will fire up their computers on June 29.
Brown and Gandolfo opened the doors to Telegraph Academy in February. They describe it as a small learning community for students of all backgrounds that will teach the essential steps to make it into prestigious software engineering bootcamps, land a first job in tech, or simply break the glass ceiling that exists for engineers of color.
Brown said the tangled world of tech bootcamps, that places a premium on expensive prep programs and personal references, often “leaves people out because they don’t know what they don’t know.” “We’ve tried to break down barriers to that box to allow people to gain confidence or just say that they can code,” he said.
The pair aspires above all to narrow the alarming race gap in the tech industry. According to Hack Reactor data, black and Latino workers comprised 28% of the American workforce in 2014, yet among tech workers the numbers are in single digits.”They are the fastest-growing populations in the country, yet in the tech industry there is a huge race disparity,” the report stated.
Data visualization site Information is Beautiful published numbers last year showing race breakdown in the general population in the U.S was 64% white, 4% Asian, 16% Latino, and 12% black. Power-house tech companies such as Apple and Google showed a dismal record when it came to diversity, with 55% and 61% white respectively, 15% and 30% Asian, 11% and 3% Latino, and just 7% and 2% black.
Brown, a native of South Berkeley and a 2009 Berkeley High School graduate, and Gandolfo, a 2012 UC Berkeley graduate from Contra Costa County, volunteered for years together at the Berkeley YMCA. Gandolfo introduced Brown to Hack Reactor, and from there a passion for software engineering, as well as a lasting friendship, was formed.
Brown presented the idea of Telegraph Academy to Hack Reactor last year, who agreed to sponsor the program and entrusted Brown with finding a co-founder. “Obviously, that was Bianca,” Brown said. “She mentored me, and has a lot of experience building community — she just gets things done.”
Gandolfo was initially worried about the image of a white woman co-founding a school focused on attracting racially and socio-economically diverse students. “When I was first presented with the idea, it actually made me very nervous, as a white woman, because it’s a topic that’s very controversial — it’s definitely going to make waves,” she said “But because of that nervousness, I knew I should do it. Because who else is?”
When asked whether or not she was concerned about some of her students not being able to relate to her experiences, Gandolfo said the idea had crossed her mind. “I can’t relate to them in a lot of ways,” she admitted. “And I think that’s OK. But what I know I can do is teach them how to code, and how to become a great software engineer.”
Gandolfo has done a lot of work helping women break into the the coding world. “With women, we have a lot of resources,” she said. “And I’m not saying that we should give up on that front, but there are a lot of communities for women in tech. But we don’t see as many for people of color.”
Having said that, Gandolfo says bringing women of color into Telegraph Academy is a priority. “It’s something that’s really important to me,” she said. She is working with organizations like Women Who Code and Girl Develop It, and “just getting the word out on a lot of channels that women interested in tech are paying attention to.”
Classes at Telegraph Academy will be taught by five instructors and there are eight people on the team in total. “[Gandolfo] and I are going to be the lead instructors,” said Brown. “We also have two ‘hackers-in-residence,’ who will help students with work on a daily basis. We’ll also have domain experts who are engineers in the field give lectures and basically support the students. A typical day is going to be eleven hours a day, six days a week of work for three months. It’s coding all day, every day. You have to give up your outside life for a program like this.”
Tuition for the intensive, 12-week program is $17,725. The school offer a variety of tuition deferrals and scholarship programs to ensure qualified applicants are able to attend whatever their financial situation.
The coding school, located on Shattuck Avenue, plans to relocate to a bigger office space in Oakland in early 2016. The decision stems both from the expectation that they will soon grow out of their two-story Berkeley office, as well as a desire to be most accessible to their target audience. “Oakland has a similar history of progressive issues — it’s also one of the most diverse cities in America, which fits really well with what we’re doing here at Telegraph Academy,” Gandolfo said.
Asked if they ever thought of starting the organization in San Francisco, Gandolfo said: “Our hearts are in the East Bay — this is mine and Albrey’s home. It just makes more sense for us to be here, culturally and economically.”
Brown added: “Oakland has a lot of space, and the goal we want to hit is maximum accessibility. We don’t want to have to serve only 15 students at a time — the scaling aspect of going to Oakland and getting one of those big, vacant buildings would be a central part of Telegraph Academy. Oakland can also get us closer to a bunch of hiring partners — start-ups that we can invite to our space so that students could see the level of engineering they need to create jobs for them. It’s much more of a strategic move.”
Oakland is also increasingly a national hub for training under-represented youth in coding and software engineering. Lotus founder and philanthropist Mitch Kapor opened the Kapor Center for Social Impact (formerly the Kapor Foundation) there, and is a director at the city’s Level Playing Field Institute. From its Oakland base, Qeyno Labs, run by Kalimah Priforce, orchestrates ‘hackathons’ that take place around the country, helping to prepare high-potential youth in low-opportunity settings to become the next generation of developers, designers, and engineers. And Hack the Hood, run by Oakland Local founder Susan Mernit, trains low-income youth of color in technology and marketing skills, putting them to work designing websites for local businesses, for example.
As to the future of Telegraph Academy, Brown says his vision is clear. “My number one goal is to create strong engineers, and to be reaching out to engineers who are already in the industry for their references and mentorship. I want [the academy] to be known as the first place to go to when you want to hop into a network of engineers of color.”