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Coding Program Attempts To Address One Of The Biggest Problems In Tech

Ben Juarez
(From left) Onom Boye, NaCelease Smith, and Miguel Teran work on a final project for their i.c.stars internship.

The tech industry is known for its innovation and progressive solutions to modern day problems. However, one issue that it hasn’t been able to solve is the lack of diversity in the industry, says venture capitalist Freada Kapor Klein.

"Lack of diversity is an enormous problem in the tech industry. And because tech now is part of every business, it means it is a problem throughout the country," she says.

READ: Factory Job To Full Stack Engineer: Carlos Vasquez's Story

Klein is a partner at Kapor Capital, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, and she heads the Kapor Center for Social Impact. She says that lack of diversity is a problem across the board for tech companies, but it is especially problematic when we look at tech talent — the people who write the code, design the software that drives these tech companies, like engineers.

"Engineering talent is less diverse than all the other kinds of talent in tech companies. So, for instance, the finance department, the marketing department, people ops or human resources department. All of those functions that exist in all businesses. Those have a little bit of diversity numbers than just the engineering talent," says Klein.

But i.c.stars, a technology workforce training and placement program, is trying to change that. The program takes promising adults from underrepresented backgrounds and teaches them to code. Onom Boye, who arrived in Milwaukee from Nigeria eight months ago, is one of those people. She says when she started i.c.stars, she was a novice in the coding world.

"When I started I couldn't build an app, but right now I’m working on my application. So, on my project I’m using HTML, I’m using CSS, and I’m using C Sharp," says Boye. 

All those coding languages that Boye listed, she learned at i.c.stars in 16 weeks. She’s proud of what she’s accomplished. 

“I feel great, I feel good. Cuz right now, I can go for any interview and I can do well in the interview," she says.

But it takes a lot of work to get to that point. The highly selective paid internship starts at 8 a.m. and goes for 12 hours a day, five days a week. There are also specific benchmarks that interns must meet, like being able to build a database by week three. 

"It wasn’t program, I won't lie to you. Because coming every day, spending 12 hours coding was not really easy for me," says Boye.

And the program isn't easy for a reason. 

Ben Juarez, the technology instructor, says, "We hold very high standards in the program. This is an actual job training program. When the intern comes in, they come in with no prior knowledge of software development, no coding knowledge. And we take them to a developer level in about four months."

The fast-paced program inevitably means many interns don’t make it. For this current cohort, out of the 20 who got in, only 11 will graduate.

That makes Boye even more proud to be one of the few to complete the program. She and 10 others will walk across the stage Thursday to accept certificates of completion. Boye has one hope for her big day. 

"I hope I won't cry on that day because I am going to invite my family and friends on that day. I know that I am a bit emotional. I know that I will feel great," she says.

But is graduation the ultimate goal? Boye says no. 

"We're doing it for the money! It’s about the passion and the money. I need to get a real job that will pay me very good. We’re doing it for the money," she explains.

For her, all the labor and time put in better result in a job. Graduates of the program have gone on to become application analysts, systems engineers, and web developers.

To get a better sense of what could lie ahead for Boye, we talked to former intern Carlos Vasquez.

Angelina Mosher Salazar joined WUWM in 2018 as the Eric Von Fellow. She was then a reporter with the station until 2021.
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