There's a booming tech scene in New York City with over 70,000 open jobs, but it's always been somewhat insulated from the city itself — a problem that's led to only one in four of those jobs getting filled.
That situation led the non-profit Coalition for Queens to start Access Code, a unique training program that teaches people from the Queens community to code iOS apps, while receiving mentorship and guidance on career development and entrepreneurship from notable figures from the New York startup scene. Six months after the first Access Code class of 21 students completed the 18 week course, the 15 graduates who accepted job offers have seen their income rise from under $15,000 to an average of $72,190; the other six students are either still in college or have chosen to launch their own startups. And the class as a whole is commendably diverse in an industry that has been struggling to attract women and minorities: it's 50 percent women, 50 percent underrepresented minorities, and 40 percent immigrants.
"We saw lots of people in the City University of New York system who graduated as computer science majors but weren't going into the tech industry," says Jukay Hsu, founder of Coalition for Queens and a member of Bill De Blasio's mayoral transition team. "Why was that not happening? It was a lot of access and network problems, and a lack of technical training." The lack of access was a particular issue, he says. "Tech startups don't think about recruiting at CUNY."
The issue of access to a major part of the city's economy is particularly important as the city's tech sector grows in influence — San Francisco is beset by tensions between the moneyed tech industry and the rest of the city, with no resolution in sight. "We want to ensure that as Cornell NYC Tech develops and as the Queens tech community grows, the broader community feels included and can fully participate," says Hsu. "We can mitigate some of the tech-as-economic-development issues seen now in SF."
Access Code students worked in small groups to conceive, design, and develop actual iOS apps from May 18th to October 1st of last year — none of them are terribly original, but the real achievement is that the results are live in the App Store. There's Shutterchef, which lets you share food photos and recipes with friends; Delockr, a secure password manager; BusyBee, a to-do app, and Score, a simple dating app. Not bad, considering 85 percent of the participants had never coded before. "The apps were really a vehicle for learning," say Hsu. Each group had a mentor from the larger NYC tech community, and the program was bracketed by weekend-long hackathons.
Moawia El Deeb, an Access Code student who worked on the Score app, found the program invaluable. An Egyptian immigrant who was raised in Queensbridge Public Housing in New York City, El Deeb was interested in programming but found the coursework at CUNY Queen's College lacking in practical utility. "After I finished the class, I would think about my accomplishments, and I didn't feel I could make anything special." The lack of access and networking opportunities were similarly frustrating. "My only aim was just let me finish, just let me get a degree so maybe I can get a job," he says. "Queens College didn't offer any resources — no one knew how to get an internship."
Meeting startup figures like Pat Moberg, who worked on the hit game Dots, changed that perspective. "I had no idea what a startup was, or if that world was even reachable," says El Deeb, who is now working on his own fitness startup. "But meeting other creators who were normal people, that really built the entrepreneur in me." Building those networks is crucial, says his fellow student Andrew Bennie, who worked on the Delockr password app and is now working on his own startup as well. "We have a community to keep in touch with others who got jobs — we have a network," he says. "We know what jobs are open as they open."
Buoyed by the results of this first class, Coalition for Queens founder Hsu wants Access Code to grow even bigger in the future, and he's getting a jumpstart from Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who's raising money for the program by "donating" his 31st birthday party. "We plan to train 100 students this year, and 500 over the next few years," says Hsu. "I believe there are extraordinarily talented people outside the usual audience for tech."