TAP into the Future

The following is written by Mimi Fox-Melton, Director of TAP Programs.

In 2012, when CODE2040 launched the Fellows Program, the goal was to connect amazing Black and Latino/a software computer science majors to internships at top tech companies. As the first couple of summers passed, we started to think about all of the other Black and Latino/a CS majors in the country. Every year, we found that over 40% of applicants had the technical chops to do the job but only around 10% of them were getting jobs. Something was fundamentally wrong with that. We had to look at how we helped prepare students for the tech interview process.

I came on board last year to pilot Technical Applicant Prep (TAP), a new program designed to help prepare Black and Latino/a Computer Science majors for the barriers they would face while landing their first internships. The program consisted of webinars, workshops and retreats on professional development topics like technical resume writing, prepping for the technical interview, and networking 101. TAP programming impacted about 600 students in 2015, in seven cities around the country. Feedback from TAP events was overwhelming, like this one from TAP student Ariel Thompson:

“I didn’t know what to expect from the retreat — I almost talked myself out of it — but it exceeded my expectations at every turn. You and your team thought of everything. You anticipated our needs, our fears, our questions, and addressed them thoughtfully and effectively. The workshops, the breakouts, the informal lunch conversations — every moment was engaging, informative, and inspiring. I truly don’t see how the TAP retreat could have been any better than it was in the time that we had.”

When it finally came time to start thinking about TAP 2016, I wanted to dig past the survey data we collected following every retreat, deeper than what students say when they are coming off the post-retreat-and-community-building-high. I wanted to take a look at a bigger dream, one that would address the needs of the thousands of students we hadn’t yet made contact with, still hopelessly dropping out of computer science programs. What I found was startling:

  1. Black and Latino/a CS students are highly disconnected from their peers
  2. They are highly disconnected from the tech industry
  3. They rarely have access to mentorship, especially from folks of color
  4. Universities are struggling to prepare all computer scientists (especially Black and Latinx’s) and are deficient in preparing Software Engineers
  5. Universities are succeeding at creating environments where students are suffering.

These factors lead to an academic experience that can be extremely painful and fraught with paralyzing self-doubt, as students have to prove themselves not only during their admissions process, but every other day of their academic career. The result is students who at best, graduate with scars, or don’t graduate at all. Studies show CS attrition overall hovers around 30–40% (Beaubouf & Mason, 2005), but for underrepresented students of color, attrition jumps to around 70%. One of our university partners reported that their annual CS attrition rate is 95–96%, and that’s at an HBCU!

We know that there are four reasons why students of color drop out of CS:

There is lots of evidence that indicates that the high attrition rate in CS departments is bad for business. In the next decade, the United States will need over 1 million more STEM professionals, most of them highly skilled. So it’s no surprise that schools are partnering with companies like Google to overhaul their curriculum to better prepare students for their careers in the industry. In our early conversations with universities, there is a tacit understanding that curriculum isn’t enough, and acknowledgment that university CS departments and even career centers aren’t equipped to deliver targeted programming like mentorship, internships, and community building for a diverse STEM community.

So, this year, we’re going to be overhauling TAP. Instead of suffering through to a CS degree, switching majors or departments, or dropping out of school altogether, TAP envisions a fourth option — where Black and Latino/a students are thriving, understand their potential in the industry, and have clear pathways to achieving their goals. TAP is a year-long program that follows the academic year, designed to build skills, community and career pathways as a bridge from computer science academics to software engineering careers. TAP programming will be guided by these principles:

  1. Every event, workshop or webinar topic will be directly linked to at least one of the top 4 reasons students drop out of CS
  2. Programming will reach students as early as possible — preferably in the first intro class of their freshman year
  3. Engagement with students will be service-based and relational, not transactional
  4. Programming will take students on a journey over the course of the year and their academic career
  5. Students need more than just professional development- they need community, mentorship, coaching and connections to the tech industry- and will receive all.

We’re kicking off this year with Tech Trek, a Bay Area Spring Break for 40 Black and Latino/a CS majors from around the country. In addition to our monthly web-based events hosted by company partners and volunteers, we’re going to be piloting First Years On Campus, a cohort-based program for CS freshman with local- and virtual-engagement designed to increase their network and community, and lower their likelihood of dropping out of CS.

Though 28% of the US is Black and Latino/a, we only graduate with only 18% of CS degrees. Imagine what that number could be if we implemented targeted interventions at the most crucial moments of our students’ academic careers. Imagine the difference if our students knew a community of supportive peers and grown ups. A series of small interventions and connections can radically change the trajectory of a student’s life. Help us make it happen.