How I Volunteered and Learned Something Last Sunday

March 09th, 2015

Aaron Welch

Aaron Welch

SVP, Product
Last weekend I took a few hours out of my weekend to do my (small) part to foster opportunities in the tech community. You know what?  It felt damn good, and taught me some things as well.  You should do it.

When we first started having conversations about what kind of company we wanted Packet to be, one of the themes that came up frequently was that as a technology company we have a unique ability to provide opportunity to smart, motivated people who may not have had access to the economic and educational resources as many of us did. Tech is one of the few sectors where someone can move into an upper middle class salary without a college education. If you are smart and motivated, you can train up and become successful; hands-on experience is often more valuable to tech companies than an expensive 4 year degree.

There is a rich ecosystem of tech-training organizations with varied demographic and technology focuses, all with the common mission of providing an on-ramp for people to develop a successful career in tech. One of the organizations Packet supports is Coalition for Queens, which creates economic opportunity by developing computer programming skills with and offering entrepreneurial training to adults from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds, in particular those who do not have a college degree.

Last December we raised over 10k for Coalition for Queens (c4q) by throwing a fundraiser with tech partners and other individuals working in the space, and through organizing that event I had the opportunity to learn more about one of their most exciting programs, Access Code. Access Code is a 9-month course in mobile app development for individuals with no prior coding experience that prepares them for entry-level developer jobs at the many tech companies in NYC looking to hire and grow talented developers.

Access Code

This year, Access Code had a total of 620 people apply for the program, from a very diverse group of individuals, the pool was narrowed down to 80 best applicants, of which only 35 will be accepted. Pretty competitive, but also shows how much demand there is for these types of programs!

I was lucky enough to be asked to help out as a Teaching Assistant for the last round of the application process: a 3 hour HTML/CSS workshop. I happily accepted. My job was to help students in an “open office hour” style; answering questions, helping debug code, providing guidance, and providing an evaluation of the candidates to help inform the final decision making process. Exciting stuff :)

The students were given an assignment, which is to create a basic “personal web page” of their design, using JS Bin, html, and css. They were also directed to work through this course from Codecademy as pre-assignment work, and given a short course on fundamentals of html and css. I spent most of the morning with a woman who was working through how to display two images side by side. We started there (floats! alignments! clearing!), and continued on to flesh out the div structure, style it, and populate it with some content.

It was a lot of fun, and forced me to recall and explain some of the details of the box model, css and positioning. It really is true that you learn by teaching. It quickly becomes clear where you really know your stuff and where you are rusty and hazy on the specifics. But outside of the technical details, it was so rewarding to work with someone so smart, motivated, and just beginning to see the potential power of programming. All of the students were so inquisitive, asking questions not just about the specifics of this assignment, but about the underlying concepts of programming, the differences between languages, and discovering that there are many ways to accomplish the same thing - and that the “right way” to implement something often changes depending on the greater context of the end goal.

If you happen to be a developer, and find this compelling, I’d urge you to volunteer, either at Coalition for Queens, or a similar organization. If you are not a developer but still want to help, these organizations are almost always non-profits that can really use your donations, no matter how small. It’s up to us as members of the tech community to support these efforts both through volunteering and donations, but also by being a place where these talented students can come work and continue to grow after they graduate from these programs. That’s part of our mission at Packet, and it feels great.

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