Bridging the Digital Divide with CodeYourFuture

We recently announced our partnership and support for a non-profit organisation called CodeYourFuture, which helps refugees and disadvantaged people overcome barriers to train for a career in the tech sector.

The help that CodeYourFuture provides to students goes far beyond basic training. The course is a year-long commitment, where volunteers train students in all of the skills needed to become a full-stack developer – both the hard skills required to do the job and the soft skills required to get a job. The support offered also extends to providing students with laptops and connectivity devices, as well as mentorship and help with childcare.

This is a cause that resonates especially with the folks here at Sweepr for a number of reasons. Working in the tech sector ourselves, we appreciate the diversity of backgrounds we see in our colleagues. We understand that nurturing the next generation of developers – providing training and guidance to not only get them the technical skills they need, but also help with personal development – is essential to the sustainability of a growing tech company.

“One of the best ways to help change a life is by offering a quality education and a path into a career.”

Germán Bencci, Founder, CodeYourFuture
©CodeYourFuture

Alan Coleman and Jim Hannon, CEO and CTO of Sweepr respectively, sat down with Germán Bencci, founder of CodeYourFuture, to talk about the Digital Divide and what needs to be done to help close it.

What is the Digital Divide?

Germán: “From our experience, we have observed a number of things that I think we can put under the umbrella of Digital Divide. First is the wide range of abilities that people have when managing basic digital skills – to understand how certain pieces of software work on computers and devices. Another one, even more worrying, is that a lot of people don’t have frequent or persistent access to the internet. We assume that everyone owns a smartphone and has a mobile data plan or internet at home, whereas there’s a significant proportion of society that doesn’t. So we have one area of skills and another area around access in general to the internet.”

Jim: “Obviously you can have all the ability you like and all of the drive you like, but if you don’t have a decent laptop, don’t have the means to get one, and don’t have access to decent connectivity, that’s going to be a problem. Even in wealthy societies where you would think everyone could get access to that, they can’t. We saw the Digital Divide very sharply here in Ireland, when the COVID lockdown happened. Middle class families were able to provide their children – from primary all the way through to third-level – with the technology and the wherewithal to connect and continue to learn. Whereas people coming from poorer backgrounds were completely stranded and were unable to attend any form of school.

“In fact, a number of universities and state organisations started a program called Tech2Students, where companies and individuals could donate laptops and connectivity devices, or could make financial donations, to try and close that divide. It was very successful; I think they placed around forty thousand devices with people, enabling them to get connectivity and continue to educate themselves.”

“We will be mentoring the students as they come through the program… and some of our senior developers and architects could provide coding skills examples, as well as guidance toward really good resources to help become a better developer.”

Jim Hannon, CTO, Sweepr

Germán: “The pandemic made obvious what we at CodeYourFuture have been observing for years, but it was hidden due to there being alternatives for people to get online – there were libraries that people could go to and face-to-face services. It was seen in so-called developed societies, where families just didn’t have a good internet connection at home or the devices required. Even if they did have a device, that may have to be shared with the whole family. If the family had two or more children, how would they go online at the same time? How would the parents work?”

©CodeYourFuture

What can we do to close the Digital Divide?

Alan: “I think early intervention is a good strategy. We can enable communities where an awareness of digital technologies isn’t embedded, or the infrastructure and knowledge isn’t available. The younger and earlier that kids have computers and access to technology in their lives, the easier they’ll find the transition.

“I think for people who find themselves disadvantaged within society for any reason, because they’re new or because they’re marginalised in some way, I think what you’re doing in CodeYourFuture is exactly the sort of interventions that are required. To appeal to the wider technology community to ask for knowledge, to ask for investments in infrastructure, and to ask for them to share time and expertise would probably be the main thrust of how to bridge this gap. Is there anything else we could think of?”

Germán: “The examples of initiatives during COVID that Jim pointed out, I think have to continue beyond the pandemic. People require more access to devices so that they can be online and become more familiar with it. One of the first changes we had to make at CodeYourFuture, just a few months after we started, was to find funding to pay for laptops and internet connectivity for people who wanted to take part in the course, but couldn’t afford to do so. Giving a second-hand laptop to a person can be transformational because, as Jim mentioned earlier, then they have a tool to learn and grow and develop those digital skills. Without that, it’s really hard. Programs where devices are recycled, where companies give their second-hand devices to people that need it the most – even if it’s just in a loan capacity – will make a big difference.

The second point is training. I think the lack of digital skills is more widespread than any of us realise. We see people with smartphones and tablets and assume they know how to use technology, but these devices have changed a lot over the years. Twenty years ago, using a computer device required a certain level of expertise, but not today. Nowadays, you just click a few buttons and you can do more. There are different levels of training that we can do to help people make the most of technology. We could start with browsing the internet. A lot of people do not know how to do it in a proficient way. People are using the most popular apps, in which companies are doing the most to make it simple to use. Then they go to other services and other websites, they don’t know how to use them.”

“We see people with smartphones and tablets and assume they know how to use technology.”

Germán Bencci, Founder, CodeYourFuture

Jim: “It’s also probably the case that, for your students who are interested in careers in technology, some level of mentoring and guidance is a good idea. I think startups are a good place for that, because they are typically a lot more open and you get people with a more diverse background to give that guidance. Of course, those organisations should be interested for their own purposes, such as developing a talent pool and being able to hire from that pool.

Germán: “Mentorship and role models are two different, but equally important, areas. Among marginalised groups, one of the difficulties is the lack of a role model to be able to project a future version of oneself. If you don’t have friends, family or relatives working in the tech sector – as developers or managers – it makes it much harder to set goals in that area.”

Jim: “But equally, if you can get a few over the line, they can serve as a role model for the entire base.”

Germán: “That’s what we try to do at CodeYourFuture. We know we’re training a small number of people, but we know that the influence they’re going to have in their society groups is going to be very large. Many of them will be the first to start a career in tech in their communities. Many of them tell stories about when they describe to their network and acquaintances that they are learning to become a developer, nobody believes them. They think they are joking, or think they are wasting their time. Students have told us that this makes them doubt that it’s actually possible. It’s only now, after all these years, that we can share these stories of people from the same background saying “I made it. I’m working in the tech sector as a developer” that they start thinking it’s possible.”

“Mentorship and role models are two different, but equally important, areas. Among marginalised groups, one of the difficulties is the lack of a role model to be able to project a future version of oneself.”

Germán Bencci, Founder, CodeYourFuture
©CodeYourFuture

What is the call to action to our CSP/ISP audience?

Alan: “Through the course of this conversation we’ve covered a lot of the activities, such as getting in touch with CodeYourFuture, giving time, giving money. Is there anything else that we can advise people to do, Germán?”

Germán: “I think raising awareness is fundamental. Digging deep and understanding the extent of the issue – how widespread the issue is in society – is really important. As mentioned before, organisations donating equipment has a big impact, and engaging in knowledge transfer and mentoring. The final element is the hiring process. If organisations can consider new routes to find their next colleague, their next employee, than the usual routes, that will give opportunities to people from diverse backgrounds.”

Jim: “Sweepr will be working with CodeYourFuture in two ways. First of all, we will be mentoring the students as they come through the program. That could include talking through career options in the tech sector or staging mock interviews to help prepare for the real thing. Secondly we’ll be providing technical guidance. Some of our senior developers and architects could provide coding skills examples, as well as guidance toward really good resources to help become a better developer, such as Design Patterns by the Gang of Four.

I hope we’ll be a catalyst for other companies to do the same, be it startups or multinationals. It would be great if they saw fit to improve their support for diversity and marginalised people.”

You can support CodeYourFuture in any combination of the following ways:

  1. Ask your network to volunteer their time to take part in the coding school, provide mentorship or soft skills training.
  2. Donate equipment and hardware.
  3. Raise awareness, share this post or other CodeYourFuture content.
  4. Donate money. 

Find out more about the work that CodeYourFuture do, and the opportunities to donate and volunteer, by visiting codeyourfuture.io

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