Join Emma Wright as she explores CIC Boston’s innovation community, meeting with local entrepreneurs to discuss their trials and triumphs launching new ventures. This episode features David Delmar, Founder of Resilient Coders, a nonprofit education organization providing training to make tech jobs accessible to underrepresented communities in Boston.
Below is a partial transcript of the CIC Founder's Spotlight interview with David Delmar, Founder and CEO of Resilient Coders.
Emma Wright: You've had quite a career in web design and UX working for big companies like paypal -- but you didn't start out in this field. What led you to design?
David Delmar: So I went to art school. The plan was to be a comic book illustrator. I love to draw, so I went to school and left with my degree in design. I love design, but everybody that I went to interview with were like, "cool so you can design, but can you also build some of these websites that you're designing?" -- and I'd be like "I said art school."
No, I can't I can't build the stuff out, but I can design it. So I just got a lot of "thanks, but no thanks." That was until I landed an interview at the Boston Phoenix. And I've got to tell you, they took a pretty wild shot on me. They went in and I got the same interview questions. "Can you actually build this out?" And I said, "yeah I can do that." And they went for it. They took a huge chance on me. I taught myself the fundamentals pretty quickly. And then I just I started kind of gravitating towards towards web design and web development and I started realizing its value in the art world as well.
The example that I always give people when they ask about combining art and technology is that I actually once during a make-a-thon event that I had when I was at Paypal, I drew the beginnings of a comic book that pulls in Facebook data; the name of the character is your name, the other characters are your friend's names, it takes place in your city, that kind of stuff.
One of the things that I love most about development was the fact that I believe technology to be --particularly the startup innovation community -- I believed it to be a meritocracy. I believed it to be one of those things where if you're just really good at it, you can make it, right? And this allowed me to believe about myself that I'm this special flower because I taught myself all this stuff.
You go to a tech event and you just look around. If we're in a meritocracy, the numbers in the field would reflect the numbers in the city, right? We should have X number of women, we should have Y number of people from communities of color... and it's just really not the case. The kind of "aha" moment was when I went to this huge festival, a big tech conference. I heard some of the best and brightest, these kind of brilliant luminaries of our day, get up on stage and pitch these beautiful and elegant technical solutions to non-problems -- to, like, micro inconveniences.
And I left feeling a little bit disappointed as someone who believes in technology as a meritocracy. and I actually believe that technology has a role in social progress. I believe the whole role of technology, going back to the development of the wheel and the aqueducts in Rome, has the responsibility of advancing our standard of living for all of us. You can't you can't even talk about a moment in social progress or a pivotal moment in history without tipping your hat to the technology that made it happen. You have to think how different the civil rights movement of the 1960s would be without TV. This is the role that I believe technology must play in society.
The point is, I felt like technology could do more. Should do more. Must do more. I felt that members of the tech community had a responsibility to reflect on what technology is, what technology should represent in our society, and then how do we get there. I was at this festival and I started listening for the language that I grew up with, which was Spanish. And I started just counting people that I could visually identify as people of color, and I made it to 14 people. We're talking like one of the big tech conferences in the country, like tens of thousands of people, and I was there for about four days. This is a problem. This is a real problem. And back in 2013 nobody was talking about this problem. So I left and I I just started kind of trying to figure out what we needed to do. I actually started volunteering some of my time while I was at PayPal. I took like a vacation day a week, every Wednesday, and I went down to a youth detention facility and teach a class. And while I was doing this I was kind of workshopping other ideas, like, "I'm going to build my way out of this problem," or "we're going to create a piece of software that solves the problem."
At one point I actually threw a lot of my ideas at Tim Rowe (Founder of CIC) - I had sort of pinned him down and would say, like "well I'm thinking we might do this. I think we do that." And he'd kind of find a polite way to say, "Let's let's keep thinking." And everyone I was shopping these different ideas too, I'd end with "Also, I'm teaching this class at this youth detention facility, and..." People would be like... "hold up. Forget about the other stuff you're talking about -- what did you say about teaching young people who are disenfranchised how to develop websites?" And that took root.
I had spoken on the phone to the educational director of this facility while this was going on -- and she asked me "Well you know what, what name should we get to this class of you're doing?" And I said I don't know, like, "Coding 101?" She was like, "That's a stupid idea. No one will attend this class. You should find a way to make it clear to these young men that their challenges and their hardships can actually be an asset to them. Something that, in the name, you articulate the fact that this is something that can make them unique and also illustrates what the class actually is." "All right well, what about some like Resilient Coders?" She was like, "Cool that will work." And the guys really just gravitated towards it.
EW: how did you get into to developing this full program? Recruiting people? Choosing Boston?
DD: Well I kind of did everything the wrong way. I'm a huge proponent of the Agile Methodology. And so I made a commitment that I wanted our nonprofit to operate, feel like, and retain the culture of a tech startup because that's where we were all from. And so I decided that we were going to build the program the way that I used to build software, which was to identify some assumptions that we were making, to build a shortcut or test those assumptions, then measure them, build, pivot. So this kind of constant build--measure--pivot loop over and over and over again. So for the first year-and-a-half we were just testing, doing a whole bunch of cohorts. We did a cohort at a detention facility. We did a cohort at South Bay House of Correction facility, four different "troubled schools", summer camp, like, a one-week coding camp. We did it all. We did all the things, each time specifically testing things. And one of the things that we noticed was that within our cohorts we had a small group of individuals who were a little bit older than high school, and they asked if they could join anyways. And of course we said "Sure, why not" and kind of looked the other way. And we discovered that this population came to this discipline with a completely different mindset. They came with notebooks open. So we decided to launch our first ever bootcamp in January, 2016, and now we're on bootcamp number five.
EW: So your team is ramping up the number of boot camps per year, You have your agency up and running, and you just hired another team member. What's the next big challenge for your team?
DD: Jobs. The first thing that I think about every morning when I wake up and the last thing I'm thinking about when I go to bed is how are we going to place butts in the seats. Jobs. Everything we do -- the lab, the instruction, and everything that goes with that -- serves the ultimate purpose of placing individuals into into lucrative, meaningful jobs and career paths. And we're scaling up the number of people that we serve which means that we also must scale up the number of jobs that we place into. What we get asked a lot is "what can we do? Can we volunteer our time?" The answer to that is far and away, jobs. I want you to go to your company and advocate for one of our Resilient Coders to be hired into your company. It might be an uncomfortable conversation, right? But I have a personal motto that you should try to make somebody uncomfortable every day. Have that conversation make somebody squirm a little bit. I would press people to have a conversation with their company around your D & I, diversity and inclusion policy. The overwhelming likelihood is that you don't have one in your company.
Something that we also kind of poke and prod at is hiring practices. A lot of people have a lot of unconscious bias in the way that they hire and people don't really realize that. A classic example of this is that if you're if you're interviewing for a job as a developer you might be asked to show some work that you've done on a free and open source software project. You know who contributes a free and open source software projects? People who have the time to work on stuff and not be paid, so that is, on some level, exclusionary to a class of people who are strapped for time. We talk a lot about the privilege of time at Resilient Coders, and our students are given stipends to be here because we don't want to take for granted or assume that individuals have time to take to take a couple of months off of work.
And so there are many practices at the point of hiring that go well beyond, like, "Am I just as likely to hire to Shauna as I am to hire Sean?" But people I think are aware of some of them and not aware of others. And by the way, a plug if people want to learn more about some of the sort of unconscious bias that we've uncovered by just talking to folks -- you should check out resilientcoders.org/diversityplaybook. It's totally free. It's essentially a whole bunch of stuff that we've noticed that people do that have locked entire groups of people out of jobs. Degree inflation is another one. There are a lot of companies out there that when they have a req out, the B.A. is required. And you've got to ask like, is the B.A. really required, and why? Is it just because you and I learned a certain number of interpersonal skills while you were in college and assume that that's how everybody else learns them? Or is because that Psych 101 class that you took sophomore year is really important job?
So there's a lot of stuff that there to unpack. There's a lot that people may not agree with, which is great. I got to make somebody uncomfortable today, but hopefully that helps start a conversation. That's a huge one for allies, for people who are like I want to hire a Resilient Coder at my company, but nobody will listen to me. We will arm you with data. We have data in there from McKinsey, from the Kapoor institute, a whole bunch of different organizations that have said "look at the numbers." Companies that report being ethnically diverse report returns that are a 35 percent stronger than the national average. There are real numbers to be had there.