Each innovator in this spotlight series illustrates aspects of the New Learning Ecosystem in action. Code Nation’s focus on targeted, marketable skills training in addition to teaching and fostering social capital for students, represents Precision Learning + Support and Endorsement. To learn more about the New Learning Ecosystem, click here.

Code Nation is dedicated to building social equity by providing students in under-resourced high schools with the skills, professional experience, social capital, and confidence to pursue high-paying careers in technology. As a nonprofit organization, Code Nation currently operates in New York City, San Francisco, and Oakland, with plans to expand into Chicago in 2020. As a recent recipient of a competitive grant awarded by Strada Education Network, the organization is expecting to serve more than 5,100 students over the next three years.  

To scale its efforts and stay on top of the latest software development demands, Code Nation enlists a wide range of industry partners. The nonprofit recruits and trains software engineers to become volunteer teachers of cutting-edge software development and social capital skills. Not only are volunteers able to give back to their communities, but they also get to build a diverse future talent pipeline of software engineers for their own companies.

After Code Nation students complete an initial year-long class, they can opt into an afterschool fellowship program where they gain real-world experience by working on-site with software engineers on specific client projects. Students complete the program with a professional portfolio, a network of software professionals, and essential interview and presentation skills. Alumni of the program often stay connected professionally to one another and their volunteer teachers. They also become donors and volunteer themselves to pay it forward.

We talked with Becca Novak, CEO of Code Nation, about her vision of social equity and economic empowerment for young people.

Q: What is Code Nation’s mission?

A: Our core mission is to provide young people with equitable access to tech skills and social capital that will lead them to economic empowerment. There are high-wage jobs available in coding and computing, and we think our students are just as capable as anyone else. They just need access to the skills, experiences, and connections to get those jobs. 

I started my career as a teacher in San Francisco, the heart of the tech industry. I saw first-hand how young people in my classes didn’t have the opportunity to get the kinds of jobs that would enable them to stay in the city. 

To diversify talent and opportunity in the tech industry, we must extend access to equipment, training, and social and cultural capital. Our program is deliberately designed to do this and as a result, we are opening greater access for more people to enter the tech sector. 

Q: What’s your secret to success with the students?

A: For young people to pursue a career, it’s more than just having some technical skills and some interest. You also need a sense of self-confidence that this is something that you can do well. In any job search, there are going to be hurdles, and you’re going to get rejections. We help students develop a level of confidence that helps them persist and handle hurdles or rejections.

We build that sense of confidence throughout the duration of the program because after two years, they develop a strong sense of what they are doing and their ability to perform, as opposed to maybe taking a short workshop.

By the time our students leave the program, they’ve established at least eight really powerful relationships with software developers, often closer to 20.

We also help facilitate professional connections and relationships for students. It’s important that they learn the value of building trust and finding someone who can serve as a reference for you and speak to your coding and technical skills. They also learn the benefits of having mentors in the industry that they can turn to, to ask for help and advice. By the time our students leave the program, they’ve established at least eight really powerful relationships with software developers, often closer to 20. We’ve had our volunteers serve as references for alumni in their job search and many of them keep in touch for a long time.

Q: How do industry partners and volunteers benefit from working with Code Nation?

A: One of the things that I think makes us successful is our close connection to industry. We rely on our volunteers and on our corporate partners to bring resources and their experience and share those with the students in our programs. We see ourselves as a bridge between schools, students and the tech sector. It is in everybody’s interest to connect, and yet in many of our cities these worlds are really very separate. We’ve been lucky that, in our communities, there’s an amazing interest in giving back. 

Our partnering companies are really invested in making sure that we’re building a strong and diverse talent pipeline. They know it is in their best interest to support their employees doing volunteer work with us. They need top talent, and there is a shortage. Almost every company that partners with us is trying to figure out how to hire the technical talent they need because there are so many open jobs in the tech sector that go unfilled. 

What keeps them with us is that it’s really a meaningful experience for the volunteers. They get to know students really well over the course of the year, and then they get to see them going on to secure these great jobs.

Equally important: I get asked all the time, how do you find people who will commit to teach three hours a week plus prep time for an entire school year? What keeps them with us is that it’s really a meaningful experience for the volunteers. They get to know students really well over the course of the year, and then they get to see them going on to secure these great jobs. And it’s wonderful. They become part of a community and part of the movement that’s making this change in our schools and communities.

Q: What’s your vision for the future?

A: I want our young people to be able to contribute to shaping the world around them. Part of my vision is that they can have the opportunity to deliberately pursue their own path and create the world the way they want it to be. They are smart, complicated, interesting and fun people, as we all can be. They just need access to learning the skills, the network, and the work opportunities available to them.

When we look at who works in the tech industry now, it’s limited in terms of who has access to learning the skills, landing the jobs, starting and leading companies, building our software. We know that the tech sector is shockingly non-diverse. And that workforce doesn’t reflect the reality of our country or our world. And those same companies are therefore not creating products that serve and reflect diversity, further limiting social equity.

I’m interested in creating a world where many different people have the opportunity to start companies, build businesses and develop technology. It will create greater economic and social equity and generate many more interesting and better products that serve more people. I’m excited about our contribution to this future where opportunities and doors are open to everyone.

Code Nation students collaborate with program volunteer Evan Hammer, the head of product at Focusmate, during the 2019 Code Nation Hackathon, a daylong hacking competition in New York City. CREDIT: Submitted by Code Nation

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