3,000 black New Yorkers learn coding from former street vendors

  • Street vendor turned software engineer Devin Jackson used free resources to break into the technology.
  • He started We Build Black to help black New Yorkers transition into tech and get high-paying jobs.
  • We Build Black offers free programming such as social events, tech conferences, and coding bootcamps.

Kris Lee, a network engineer at a law firm, learned for free how to transition into a software engineering role. And he credits a community of black tech workers in New York City for his success in switching.

Lee stumbled upon a warehouse meeting led by Devin Jackson, a software engineer who taught others the basics of the Python coding language. Today, Lee works as a senior cyber security engineer for a software company.

“I experienced firsthand what having a community does to you,” Lee said.

These small meetings were just the start of workforce development organization We Build Black’s efforts to help people learn to code. It stems from Jackson’s belief that free career development programs are more effective than informational events like diversity panels in breaking down institutional barriers that keep black people out of tech, he said. His efforts to effect socioeconomic change fueled his efforts to create an organization aimed at helping black people, especially at-risk youth and women, build community and land high-paying jobs in technology.

“I used to feel really annoyed by the fact that certain opportunities weren’t given to us,” Jackson told Insider. “And I wanted to complain. But I also wanted to concretely do something.”

Since Jackson founded We Build Black in 2017, the Brooklyn-based nonprofit has grown from a one-man operation to a volunteer-run group that has raised millions of dollars to support more than 3,000 members in their career development, Jackson said.

But before starting We Build Black, Jackson first broke into software development himself from a non-technical background.

Unlike most software engineers, Jackson never attended high school or college; he sold graffiti t-shirts and comedy tickets on the streets of Times Square. He left the streets to attend coding workshops, received scholarships to enroll in Python and data analytics bootcamps, and studied for several professional IT skills certifications.

He started his tech career in 2013 as an IT help desk intern at consulting firm Accenture, and about a year later landed his first job as a full-stack developer at a boutique software firm in Brooklyn, according to LinkedIn. Today, Jackson works as a technical product manager at the cannabis technology company LeafLink.

“It was wrong,” he said. “I was like ‘I’m never doing anything but this’.”

We Build Black hosts coding meetups for Black tech workers to network and learn new skills

Like organizations like Black Women Talk Tech, Black Boys Code, and Black Tech Pipeline, We Build Black offers coding courses, mentorships, and networking events to Black workers who want to pursue tech careers. After all, less than 5% of the 3.2 million software engineers employed in the U.S. are black, according to data from career-building platform Zippia.

But Jackson said We Build Black looks to differentiate itself by taking a community approach to its programming. A member enters with a goal—for example, fixing a bug or learning to code with Python—and participants with that skill can offer their help.

“Nine times out of ten you talk to somebody in our community, they just say they don’t have the money for it or they can’t do it,” Jackson said. “When you knock down those barriers and provide those resources, there’s no excuse.”

In the past, We Build Black has hosted hackathons, conferences, coding competitions and even a re-entry program to help teenagers with criminal records learn web development skills. Due to timing and financial constraints, these programs have ended indefinitely, according to Jackson.

The next step for We Build Black will be to build out the job pipeline

We Build Black is now focused on building out its workforce training programs, Jackson said.

The program selected ten black students out of hundreds of applicants to learn user experience design, data analytics or Android app building through the fast-track program. Students are encouraged to complete their training with perks such as computers, smartphones and cash prizes, according to Jackson.

After completing the course, students work on a capstone coding project for their portfolio and interview for internships at Shopify. Students who don’t get the internship are matched with jobs at other tech companies, Jackson said.

New programs will continue to roll out. In 2023, We Build Black plans to launch Crowns and Code to match high school seniors with mentors from Bungie, a game development company, according to Jackson. And former students, like Lee, have stuck around to help the organization grow through partnerships, funding and other efforts.

Jackson said he wants to make sure people don’t have to go through the same financial hurdles he faced.

“It sucks, but you have to keep trying to find a way to break through that door if that’s the door you want to go through,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *