I am more and more aware of inclusion in the problem of technology. In 2017, I found a non-profit organization in Los Angeles That was addressing a large and complicated part of the problem: career opportunities for youth of color in low-income communities. His show met middle and high school kids and taught them to code. In addition to that, the children learned the social skills they would need to be successful working in technology. The nonprofit would make sure they had laptops and WiFi, make sure they showed up to class, and otherwise open the doors to a career in technology. Paid internships hadn’t crossed my mind yet.
A nonprofit organization teaches kids to code and sparks their interest in computing, eventually exposing them to well-paying jobs. Sounds good right?
What I learned next got me thinking. Teaching the kids to code worked, not overnight and not on the scale we need, but the kids were completing the program successfully. However, graduates were reaching the next layer in a deep generational quagmire, with no middle- and upper-class access to technology such as personal networks and internships, it was very difficult for these children (now young adults) to get their first jobs.
Even if they were able to get internships, many of these students were responsible for contributing to their household income as soon as possible. Working an unpaid internship to get a better job later on was simply unsustainable. They needed a way to keep developing their skills and they needed a way to get paid to do it. If there’s one thing I remember clearly about learning to code, it’s that it took hours and hours of generally “unproductive” time that wouldn’t be worth it in years. This could well be one of the (many) factors underlying the problem of inclusion in technology.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. If you can code a bit, what are the limiting factors that are keeping you from making any money with that skill? I have used services like Upwork and Fiverr that allow you to connect with developers from all over the world. You definitely get what you pay for, but the overall quality score is not as high as I would like, nor is the transactional nature. I also don’t love the security and privacy implications of giving access to my codebase to strangers around the world, or worse yet, to my credentials. And let’s face it, I really don’t want to be someone’s first customer. By definition, the chances of an amateur result are quite high.
What I was wondering was this: can you pay these beginning developers to build standardized code snippets? The benefit of writing in these discrete pieces is that the developer does not have to create a complete application; They can tackle writing a small piece in a larger job application, so you have an appropriate amount of responsibility for the skill level of the coder.
At the same time, the coder can have a sense of fulfillment by having responsibility for a specific area. And if, as a platform, we regulate things like how we handle passwords and sensitive data, these application ingredients, or “modules,” would be relatively safe to use.
By building in a modular way, we can also combine the pieces in new spontaneous ways; a user who interacts with these modules in an application without code could create something quickly, safely and quite custom according to his needs. With just 100 modules, there would be as many ways to combine them as there are atoms in the universe. It would easily be 10 times faster than compiling from scratch and with fewer errors because less new code is released per change. And if all of that were true, it would be a lot of fun to use.
Without code, with source code
In general, I am wary of the absence of code, but decided that it might be acceptable if we gave users access to its source code. The platform would be incentivized to keep users being great, rather than being blocked against their will. And if you hit the platform limitations or think you can run it cheaper / safer yourself, just kick out a NodeJS app. Exposing the source code of the applications we produce also supports version control using modern services such as GitHub. Most importantly, I wanted the application code to be written the same way that I would write it myself. Simply faster.
The paid internship experiment
For the internship itself, they worked 20 hours a week. I gave them assignments and began training them, employing a combination of independent time and “office hours” during which I would be available in real time. They fixed bugs and designed levels for the game I was building. We design experiments and review analyzes to see lean start-up concepts in practice.
The results of the paid internship
They needed a lot of training. However, I’m at my best when I have someone to introduce myself to, so it worked. I tried to balance project maintenance while delving into the skills they had already been learning: how to sift through ideas, debug an application, manage a repository, and work as a team. They were in their twenties who wanted to get better at writing code and getting a job in technology; I am more than a decade ahead on that same path. We had a lot in common.
At the end of the two months, one of the interns broke up. The other accepted an offer to be a co-founder of my next company. The game we had worked on was finished for the time being, and I wanted to start writing this platform without any code that I had in mind. He also wanted to take the concept of “paid internship building modules” one step further. We spent a year exploring different ideas, building prototypes, and trying to build a module-based UX. Something that feels like real code enough to be powerful and different enough that it feels accessible to the average office worker. Inclusion in technology doesn’t just mean people of different backgrounds, but skill levels as well.
At one point, we felt like we were about to fit into the product market and we picked up an angel investment. We added a co-founding chief marketing officer and a co-founding engineer. An advisory board. We ran the paid internship program again with two more people; They created some new modules for the platform and they were a nice temporary addition to our team.
The original question we had: could programmers with this skill level build these modules? – He came back with a resounding, “Yes, more or less!” Someone mentioned our paid internship program in a career panel for women in technology and we received eight requests in one weekend. Whatever it was we were building, there seemed to be an appetite for the paid internship program. This seemed like a step towards improving inclusion in technology.
No product, but with little hope of inclusion in technology
The paid internship program had tentative and anecdotal stages to improve inclusion in technology. However, despite everything we tried on the marketing front to get people interested in the no-code platform, nothing came true. We were really struggling to find a community of users to access. We were close to getting some big clients, but they all sold out. One for a vertically oriented competitor, the other for how early we were. SOC 2 compliance is difficult for a team of five four-month-olds with no income. We had to downscale the team as we continued to search for a fit between the product and the market.
At that point, we received a gratifying comment: I got an email out of nowhere from SpaceX. One of the original paid internship participants was applying for a software engineer position and mentioned me as a reference. I spoke with the recruiter and gave him an honest assessment of his strengths and weaknesses; I probably sprouted a bit, but I really tried to contain how much I wanted it to work. The last thing he wanted was to exaggerate his ability and let them finish over his head. Drum roll… They got the job!
Internships paid as part of the entrance ramp
Whatever small role we played in his journey, we were able to be part of the ramp to take this kid (well, they were a kid when they started the original learn to code program) from East Los Angeles to a professional role in technology. . Would they have gotten the job at SpaceX without our paid internship? I have no way of knowing, but I’d like to think it was a notch in his favor.
We are still trying to figure out the correct use cases for the no-code platform. Building modules seems to work. Building with paid interns from underrepresented backgrounds seems to work. If we can unlock that on a large scale, it will be a benefit to society. A step towards true inclusion in technology. And we will have goodwill with the next generation of a scarce resource: great engineers who dominate the way we think. That feels like something worth addressing.
We have basically stopped marketing while trying to figure out what we are building. How we position the platform and how it is monetized is currently an open question; we haven’t figured out exactly who our user is and what problems they need to solve. We think it could be in the automation space, streamlining business processes.
To continue exploring this path, we need two things:
Real world problems to solve. What processes would you like to see better at work? Even if you are not sure how to resolve them, it will help us to hear about the pain and frustration. We’ve heard about onboarding team members, syncing inventory levels, creating purchase orders, and ingesting data. What else?
Paid intern applications. We have a few spaces open for next cycle of paid internship program. Our next cycle will have four people, now that we have seen two work. We’d love to meet people from underrepresented backgrounds who can write a little code and are looking for their first job in technology.