Tech’s High Barrier to Entry for the Underprivileged
Let’s take a walk through the deepest part of the hood
I wanna know who it was that said it was all good
He must’ve never been to the corner
And spent the half an hour or longer
Where you could smell reality stronger
- Take a Walk by Masta Ace
For many people who didn’t grow up in or around New York City, there are a few things that come to mind when they hear the name “Brooklyn.” Many automatically think of hipsters and indie rock concerts. Some think of artsy lofts and farmers markets. Others think of “brownstone Brooklyn,” where one can potentially afford a cute home and raise a middle-class family without the distance and suburban-like qualities of Queens.
What people typically don’t think about are the underprivileged communities that exist here, many of which have become home to people priced out of their old homes in brownstone Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and other neighborhoods near Manhattan. For the most part, those who work in the tech industry don’t know or think much about these types of communities. This becomes apparent when highly respected members of the tech community say things like this:
What Sam Altman doesn’t realize is that when he says, “anyone,” he actually means, “anyone who holds a socioeconomic status similar to mine.” Let’s talk about those who don’t fall into that category for a little bit.
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my living room with my buddy Maurice. Maurice is a 14-year-old from a small Brooklyn neighborhood called Ocean Hill. You may have never heard of it, but it’s a subsection of the now-famous Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, right next to the infamous neighborhood of Brownsville.
Even though we’re very different from each other, we’ve got a few things in common. For example, we both have Nuyorican mothers. We were also both raised in the New York metropolitan area in communities with a majority-minority population. However, there is one major difference between us that makes our lives almost nothing alike: Maurice’s father is a black man from Brownsville, and my father is a white man from Detroit whose family moved to the suburbs during the white flight. That difference is about all it takes to make or break someone’s chances of success in the United States.
I met Maurice on February 22nd, 2014, at a high school hackathon. Each team consisted of at least one technical mentor, at least one non-technical mentor, and a mixture of students with and without programming experience. Maurice and I ended up on the same team, where I was a technical mentor and he was one of three without any programming experience. Despite having no experience, he was extremely enthusiastic and seemed to be having quite a bit of fun at the event.
After the hackathon was over, Maurice gathered every team member’s contact information and wrote it all down on the back of the business card I gave him. Later that night, I received a phone call from him, and he asked if I would be able to teach him how to code. I love teaching, and Maurice seemed like a nice kid, so I offered to help. He immediately said, “okay, go,” and awaited instruction. I explained that I wouldn’t be able to teach him over the phone, but then I found out that he didn’t have internet at home. If that surprises you, you should know that this is actually a bit more common than you may think.
Anyway, I suggested that we meet in person, and we arranged a time that weekend for our first lesson. Since Maurice didn’t own a MetroCard or have internet at home, we went to one of two businesses nearby with free WiFi: Dunkin Donuts (the other one is McDonald’s). We had to use my laptop, since his laptop at home didn’t have a working display.
I started teaching Maurice the Python programming language, and he picked up the basics pretty quickly. He was eventually able to build a program that calculates a person’s age, given their date of birth. It was extremely humbling to see the look of accomplishment on his face when he got it working. To make sure he’d be able to continue learning in his free time without internet, I downloaded some resources onto a USB drive, including a book on Python programming.
Maurice did indeed continue to program in his free time. One problem we ran into was getting him past bugs. The only ways we could communicate were by speaking on the phone or text messaging. Maurice has an Obama phone, and his plan only gives him 250 “units” of communication. One unit gets him either a single text message or one minute of talking. Of course, speaking on the phone is probably the worst way to debug a program, so Maurice would text me his Python programs for me to help him out. This was extremely difficult, especially because of Python’s whitespace indentation and Maurice’s phone’s inability to send text messages with line breaks or multiple consecutive spaces between other characters.
These were painful times, but we got through them. He applied for the GenTech summer entrepreneurship program and was accepted, which was awesome news. This meant that he got to work on a programming project with other high schoolers, most of whom were older than he was, and he was also given a free laptop to replace the broken one he had at home. Another part of the program is to attend weekly talks all throughout the city given by people in the tech industry.
Shortly after the program ended, Maurice told me that his parents were finally going to get cable internet at their home. This was great for both of us, since he now had fewer obstacles to overcome, and we had fewer issues with communication. However, his journey to becoming a software engineer isn’t quite done just yet. He still has to get through high school and will likely need a substantial amount in scholarships and/or financial aid in order to attend college.
At this point, you may be wondering what I’m getting at. You may be thinking that I started off by disagreeing with Sam Altman, and then going on to prove his point that anyone can learn to program. This isn’t the case, however. Let’s think about everything it took to get Maurice to where he is currently.
- He needed to attend a hackathon all by himself at Times Square, very far from his home in Ocean Hill.
- He needed to be lucky enough to be on the same team as a technical mentor who was willing to go out of his way to teach him. In fact, I believe that Maurice also contacted the other technical mentor on our team after the event, and was ignored.
- He needed to program at home, in his free time, without internet or any other nearby help. Maurice’s father once thanked me for mentoring him, saying that, “nobody else around here is doing this,” where this meant programming software.
- He needed to apply to a summer entrepreneurship program and be accepted, which in turn required him to go into Manhattan every week during the summer, which, again, is not that close to where he lives. He was also lucky that this program gave him a free laptop.
Maurice is also lucky enough to have parents that care for him greatly, and was raised to have a good head on his shoulders. Last time I saw Maurice’s father, he told him, “go build your future!” Maurice was coming over to my apartment to sleep over so that we could attend HackBushwick together the next day. He also seems to have good instincts to become friends with other good kids. I just met one of his friends today, who also seemed to have a great head on his shoulders. Maurice is trying to help him get into programming as well.
We must realize, though, that Maurice is an exception. Not everyone in his neighborhood has the same combination of drive and luck. Like all underprivileged communities, there are many families that battle with substance abuse, crime, greater levels of poverty, single-parent homes, and plenty of other issues.
Had Maurice been born into a middle-class family, he would’ve had internet access much earlier in life. He would also have had a higher chance of attending a high school that offers a programming or web development course, and his school would likely be of higher quality overall. He’d have the ability to spend money on resources, such as books on programming or even something like a General Assembly course (I had two high school students in the first class I taught there). He’d know a lot of other kids who are into programming, which is extremely important when starting off. He would also have a virtual guarantee of attending college, likely without the need of hefty scholarships and financial aid beyond reason.
Even when Maurice overcomes all of these obstacles, he’s still going to have a long road ahead of him. Whether people like to believe it or not, racism is rampant in this country, and unconscious bias will certainly be something he’ll face. I know he’ll prevail, but I really just wish it wasn’t so difficult.
As a community, we need to make it less difficult for those from underprivileged backgrounds. If you’re in the tech industry and truly care about diversifying the workforce, and not just by hiring more white and Asian women, you can help. There are plenty of ways to volunteer your time in neighborhoods you’re likely gentrifying. Become a mentor at iMentor. Become an instructor for ScriptEd (I’m planning on it). Attend student hackathons like the one at P-Tech. Get involved with Coalition for Queens. Just do something, and stop thinking that programming is “creating something from nothing,” because “nothing” actually translates to quite a bit of privilege.