Disrupting the classroom

Tech companies teach city kids programming skills

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joe@sfbg.com

Programmers-in-training line the work tables at HackReactor, a software engineering boot camp many in the tech community call a "university disruptor" due to its speed in training coders. Those hunched over computers are typing their way toward a goal: joining the ranks of the 12-week course's alumni, now employed at tech companies like Adobe, Beats Audio, Pandora, and Hipmunk. But walk past the rows of intensely driven (yet casually dressed) engineers and you'll also encounter the program's unlikely new trainees: San Francisco high school students.

Tech company HackReactor and nonprofit Mission Bit are co-training San Francisco Unified School District students for the summer, and throwing them into the trenches with pre-professional engineers.

Soon, these students will be proficient coder kids.

"Mission Bit gave us our first understanding of what javascript was," Gisela, a 17-year-old Lowell High School student told us. "Hack Reactor said 'now make a game,' and threw me into the code."

The free program is a new extension of Mission Bit's after-school coding classes, offered this year at Mission High School, a SFUSD public school, and Lick Wilmerding High School, which is private. The semester program is paid for by tech companies: mainly WeChat (Tencent America), with in-kind sponsors including Salesforce, HackReactor, DeNA, Brightroll, AdRoll, Rackspace, co.lab, and Tagged. The summer program is fully paid for by HackReactor.

It also comes at a crossroads for San Francisco: Its communities of color are being priced out just as its tech industry is searching for ways to enroll more diverse workers.

Though many pin the displacement problem on the rising cost of housing, there's also another less-spoken-of culprit: Local tech companies draw many applicants from around the world to fill jobs instead of hiring local residents.

This may be due in part to lack of trained prospective employees locally.

There's a broken education pipeline between local schools and the tech sector, both sides admit. The new effort by Mission Bit and HackReactor may be a first step towards plugging the leak. If the program is successful, subsequent iterations may establish the first stable pathway to technology sector jobs for San Francisco students.

Though the intern program is still in its beta phase, it shows much promise, and comes at a dire time for the city.

 

PROBLEMS CONVERGE

The summer coding program may hold solutions for three problems that coexist simultaneously: displacement of communities of color, the tech sector's shocking lack of diversity, and the SFUSD training gap.

The city's Mission District, often pointed to as tech workers' most desired neighborhood, saw 1,400 Latinos leave between 1990 and 2011, while its white population grew by over 2,900, according to a recent study by Causa Justa, Just Cause.

The tech industry has a complementary problem: Google recently revealed its employees are 70 percent men and 61 percent white. Just five percent of Google's workforce is black or Hispanic. Though the Asian population is 30 percent of its workforce, that's still out of line with the significant Asian presence in the Bay Area.

Sources tell us Google puts heavy effort into diversity recruitment and likely had better percentages than the rest of the industry. Google claimed in myriad news reports that potential employees of color were difficult to find.

But SFUSD's 52,000 students are 25 percent Latino, 41 percent Asian and 10 percent African American, so why not recruit students from our diverse local public schools, bolstering San Francisco's flailing middle class at the same time?