Technology is where the action is right now in the business world, but two obstacles threaten to put the brakes on the speed of success: There aren’t enough skilled workers to go around, and the workforce itself – like the tech industry in general – isn’t very diverse.
The latest effort to turn both those trends around and boost the local tech talent pipeline begins Saturday, Aug. 20th, at TechSquare Labs with the TechHire Open House/Code Start Demo Day.
Earlier this summer, Atlanta was chosen as a TechHire City. This Obama administration initiative to equalize the supply-demand tech workforce ratio in the tech workforce includes $4 million in federal funds to train 450 Atlanta citizens ages 17-29 in tech-related skills over the next four years. The Open House will give potential students at chance to learn about the program, including how to apply for TechHire scholarships.
The Demo Day portion of the event also gives local entrepreneur and angel investor Rodney Sampson, a partner in diversity and inclusion initiatives at TechSquare Labs, a chance to show off the CodeStart program he founded as a way to add more people of color to the tech workforce.
One of Sampson’s best arguments for CodeStart is a 2015 McKinsey and Company survey showing an ethnically diverse workforce can boost a company’s bottom line by 35 percent. “This is not an altruistic business case, not a Kumbayah moment. The best (startup) teams are diverse,” he said. “Some may argue, ‘Well, we were already producing great companies that are scaling,’ but if you look at Pindrop, Ionic, Luma, look at the co-founders. They’re black, white, Indian, Latinos. It’s a mixture at the highest level.”
Sampson started teaching coding and entrepreneurship to Atlanta residents via his Opportunity Hub center in 2013. He reached out to the White House in August of last year regarding the TechHire program, and later merged Opportunity Hub with TechSquare Labs to launch Code Start. That program has joined with the Iron Yard coding instruction school and the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency to implement the TechHire funding.“Not only will the ATL TechHire program increase access to tech education and support a diverse, inclusive workforce in Atlanta, it will reinforce the city’s position as one of the country’s top tech hubs,” said Lindsey Owings, The Iron Yard’s campus director in Atlanta. “We cannot wait to hit the ground running and begin working with the students who are the future of the tech workforce and the future of the industry.”
“If we’re going to have more diversity and inclusion, not just in Atlanta but nationwide, then we have to build that diversity, and address the technical challenges, from the ground up,” said Sampson.
Demo Day represents the halfway point of the year-long CodeStart program. Some of the 12 students that make up the inaugural cohort have already found work at Emory University and the Morehouse College of Medicine. Their initial training in Java was provided at the Iron Yard school. Jeff Nelson, co-founder of local business intelligence startup Cinchapi, is helping out with intermediate coding/development, and officials from LexisNexis are introducing the students to data sciences. Additional instruction comes from the ATDC and the Gifted Education Foundation.
The students live at Ponce City Market while in CodeStart. “We want them in an upwardly mobile, millennial type of environment where they can explore, and also a safe space where they can learn.”Sampson recently caught up with the students who are now at Emory. “I asked how it was going and they said, ‘Oh, we’re learning Python.’ We’ve taught them to learn forever. We taught them the skills to keep learning because technology is constantly changing and new languages are being adopted, especially in the startup community. Another student is building an iOS app. I said, ‘We didn’t teach you that.’ ‘Oh, I’m teaching myself.’ They’re teaching themselves what they want to learn, and we created that environment for them.”
Sampson says that training plays into what Mayor Kasim Reed has called the “moment” Atlanta is currently enjoying. The city’s success in establishing itself as a tech hub – luring large company headquarters to the city, enabling the growth of its startup community, even attracting Google Fiber – give Atlanta a unique opportunity to show the rest of the country how to grow a diverse tech workforce.
“He (Reed) is absolutely right, but we have to seize that moment,” Sampson said. He hopes to do that by expanding CodeStart to other cities and seeking corporate partnerships. As for TechHire, “knowing our mayor’s heart for expanding Atlanta at this moment in time, he’s helped shape what Atlanta has become. Our next mayor will help shape the next 50 years of economic policy for Atlanta and the region. It’s up to us to adopt that mantle.
“We used our influence from the White House all the way down to make sure Atlanta was best positioned to become a TechHire City, and to get the TechHire grant we got. We believe in this city and we believe in this region.”
The TechHire Open House/Code Start Demo Day runs from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 20. Admission is free. You can RSVP here.