Making Use of Time: Caesar’s Journey from 8-years Incarcerated to JavaScript Developer

While Bushwick may be the next up-and-coming area in Brooklyn, it still got the right amount of grit. You could say that about Ornell Caesar.

The first time I met him was in January 2018 — less than a 100 days from when he got out of prison after serving 7.5 of an 8-year-sentence. He worked at a startup founded by Timothy Woo, one of our WeXL Board of Directors.

WeXL is a nonprofit that provides a platform for emerging creative minds to excel and contribute as a diverse workforce in the global economy.

Caesar — cool, composed, calm — is a sharp coder, so everybody says. He’s also one of our WeXL emerging creative mind (ECM).

The details of Caesar’s sentencing goes something like HBO’s The Night Of: Caesar wakes up in the middle of the night, in jail, bloodied up, beaten up, charged with a felony of assault with a deadly weapon. No fingerprint evidence or DNA on the gun that wasn’t his…and the victim walked out of the emergency room in less than hour. No one dies in this true story.

Still, after three lawyers and thousands of dollars of legal fees, Caesar gets slapped with 8 years.

“I promised myself I would make use of my time,” Caesar tells us on video. “I learned sign language, Spanish…I didn’t want to be further behind than the people outside.”

After transferring from multiple facilities throughout the state of New York, he lands at one running the Bard Prison Initiative, a program from Bard College, which teaches inmates and former inmates how to code.

Caesar learns full-stack JavaScript programming and builds a public health app for a career fair where he gets noticed by Andrew Cencini, a computer science professor at Bennington College.

Andrew then introduces Caesar to his former student Rohail Atlaf — Timothy’s co-founder — and Rohail and Timothy hire Caesar to work for their startup.

“Would you want to work at Google or Facebook if they offered you a job?” I ask Caesar.

“Yeah!” He answers like it’s a dumb question.

“Let’s keep in touch, and maybe WeXL can help you get in front of some Silicon Valley companies.”

Fast forward to almost one year since our first meeting. WeXL connects Caesar to our technology partner, Nag, Inc., a 28-year-old tech firm based in Washington, D.C., run by a father and son team — Swapan and Mo, respectively.

The plan is to have Caesar work with the Nag team to create a presentation on data and storytelling with JavaScript during DeveloperWeek San Francisco. WeXL and Nag are launching the What Matters Survey Data Platform, and it’s a perfect opportunity to bring Caesar out to showcase his own talent.

Within three weeks, Caesar learns how to build a data visualization dashboard that aids in telling a story on prison reform and recidivism.

For Caesar’s first expedition to excel with WeXL, we also connect him to Rasha Khatib, a software engineer at Quora. She says her “favorite part of learning D3 and data visualization isn’t the coding — that’s the easy part — it’s the storytelling.”

She recommends the book, Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter More Persuasive Data Visualization.

Thanks to the generous support of the team at Autodesk Forge, WeXL is able to upgrade Caesar from staying at a hostel to the five days in a hotel. Autodesk is the official WeXL “What Matters Program Launch Partner.”

On Friday, February 22, 2019, Caesar presents his learnings at the Google Community Space during WeXL’s “Combatting Fake News with Data and Javascript” at DeveloperWeek San Francisco.

From left to right: Ornell Caesar; Whitney Lawrence, Autodesk Forge; Mo Nag, Nag, Inc. presenting at Google Community Space during DeveloperWeek San Francisco 2019

Not able to attend the event, Rasha sends the following texts to me during Caesar’s presentation:

A screenshot of the text message exchange between Rasha Khatib and me sent on Fri., Feb. 22, 2019

Watch Caesar’s full presentation here.

Before flying back to New York, we take Caesar to Google for lunch and a tour of the GooglePlex thanks to our new WeXL mentor, Michee Smith, a Product Manager at Google who works on the Data Transparency Project. Caesar learns that it’s best to have an employee referral when applying to Google. He now knows at least one. :-)

(from left to right) WeXL’s Emerging Creative Mind, Ornell Caesar; WeXL CEO Arabella DeLucco; Google Product Manager, Michee Smith; WeXL Board Member, Timothy Woo; (right photo) Caesar enjoying a bike ride at the GooglePlex in Mountain View, Calif.

Somewhere in between this whirlwind 5-day stay in the San Francisco Bay Area, Caesar shares his experiences with the criminal justice system on our WeXL television show, REPRESENT.

Caesar joins public policy innovator and California State Senate candidate, Josh Becker, on this episode, “Post-Prison Prosperity”, which will premiere online on our YouTube Channel at 6 p.m. PT / 8 p.m. CT / 9 p.m. ET. Come and live chat with us!

Get a reminder to this premier and a link to our new What Matters Survey by signing up for our newsletter.