The Importance of Building a Strong Pipeline of People of Color in Computer Science

During #BlackHistoryMonth, CSforALL highlights member CodeCrew and their Executive Director’s, Meka Egwuekwe, work to nurture and build tech thinkers and doers that look like all of us.

Students at a CodeCrew Program

I (Meka Egwuekwe) attended Morehouse College, an Historically Black College in Atlanta, where the great educator Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays was president. Dr. Mays had a saying that “He who is behind in the race of life must run twice as fast as the man in front.” Black and historically underrepresented Americans have very strong headwinds ahead of us in areas like tech, the largest segment of our economy. Many of us believe all children should have access to computer science and computational thinking — -it’s simply foundational to a 21st-century education. Six years ago, I co-founded CodeCrew, a nonprofit in Memphis that teaches coding and computer science to K-12 students, as well as adults. In Memphis, we are home to some of the poorest zip codes in the country, while our largest and fastest growing demographics are also those most underrepresented as tech producers. Economic and social equity in a world that is increasingly dominated by tech is directly dependent on getting more access to computer science to these underrepresented communities such that they also reap the lucrative benefits as active contributors, while keeping our country competitive.

Students at a CodeCrew Program

Ripe for Disruption

Today’s tech industry is dominated by white and Asian males. According to a recent BBC article, black people make up only 3.1% of the workforce in the country’s top eight largest tech companies, with that share declining significantly when counting software engineers and other tech workers. The numbers in leadership at these and other tech companies is equally abysmal and unacceptable. While the tech industry acknowledges the problem, real progress towards reaching diversity in the ranks has been slow, even elusive, over the past decade.

The problem is one of both pipeline and discrimination. At CodeCrew, while we point out discrimination at every turn, we are growing the pipeline of future computer science developers and engineers and showing others a model of how to bring diversity to tech. Each week we teach coding and computational thinking to approximately 400 kids in grades K-12. Our students are awakened to the creativity, promise, and problem solving inherent in coding. CodeCrew students have gone on to win national and international competitions in app-building and hackathons. Teens Johnathan Sherrill and sisters Jada and Anaya Murray took first place in Tennessee’s Congressional App Challenge for their Walk In My Shoes: Raising Awareness and Change App, which offers users a glimpse of a day in the life of a middle-class Black man. Their storytelling app allows users to see the impact of micro-aggressions and racism from a first-person point of view.

Johnathan and Jada have also been accepted into the TED-Ed Student Talks and Raising Good Gamers program. Last year, Jada and Anaya, aged 15 and 13 at the time, saw the serious issue of violence against women on college campuses and took action. They created an app called Safety U that helps keep women out of danger at universities. This talented trio has come back to CodeCrew to lead other sessions with their peers and our younger students. These young students are just a few of a growing number from underrepresented groups showing themselves and the world that computer science is not just for white and Asian men.

CodeCrew Code School, our adult coding bootcamp has produced many graduates who have gone on to computer science careers in Memphis and beyond. Placed graduates have seen their incomes increase more than 300%. Going from an annual income of $15K to more than $50K is a significantly transformative leap from poverty to the middle class in Memphis. The personal and social impact of access to computer science education and training is life changing and affirming. And the ripple effect in families and communities cannot be overstated.

Students at a CodeCrew Program

Closing the Digital Divide

We recently partnered with a number of key stakeholders to introduce a bill to the Tennessee General Assembly to ensure every high school in our state offers computer science classes. The bill also seeks funding to train teachers to lead these classes. With this bill’s passage, and these programs implemented, we are chipping away at one of the key contributors to the digital divide — lack of access to digital education and career paths in tech.

The pandemic and remote teaching has also shone a spotlight on the paucity of access to high-speed Internet in too many communities. There are some zip codes in Memphis where more than 80% of households do not have broadband. Today, Internet access is a great equalizer and access needs to be viewed as one of our inalienable rights. It is no longer a luxury. Without it, we cannot comprehensively educate and train our greatest resources.

Corporations can step up to the plate and lobby lawmakers, as well as donate, to ensure broadband access is indeed broad. Companies can also lend their tech teams to mentor and volunteer in underserved communities. Research shows us that companies who give employees time off to volunteer have a workforce that is happier and more loyal. GoDaddy is a great example. They incentivize their employees for their volunteerism in and beyond the communities where they live, work, and play. For young people, mentoring relationships are seminal to their future careers.

Our country is only as strong as its weakest link. A thriving, diverse workforce is the only way to ensure businesses produce quality products and services and is the only way we will keep our country internationally competitive. It makes business sense to dig deep into our bench to grow our talent. We must do better to nurture tech thinkers and doers that look like all of us. These intentional steps, these positive disruptions from all directions, are critical to the gumbo of a better, more successful America. Together, we can reduce the headwinds that face us, and run twice as fast towards an inclusive and prosperous future.

About the Author: Meka Egwuekwe is co-founder and Executive Director of CodeCrew, a Memphis-based non-profit that specializes in youth and adult computer science education. Prior to founding CodeCrew, Meka had been a professional software developer for more than nineteen years, building software systems for governments and Fortune 500 companies around the world, most recently as Director of Software Development at Lokion Interactive. Throughout his professional career, Meka has made time to also work with youth and education in various capacities. He has been an Alumni Admissions Representative for Phillips Academy Andover for more than twenty years, served as youth director at his church for more than five years, and has lead a spring break college tour for high school students for fourteen years. Meka has been a local leader in the youth coding movement since founding the Memphis Chapter of Black Girls Code in late 2012. Meka is also a longtime mentor in StartCo’s business and technology accelerators, where he has mentored various companies in tech. Meka has a B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science from Morehouse College and Duke University, respectively. He resides in Memphis with his wife, Pamela, and their two daughters.

About CodeCrew: CodeCrew is a non-profit tech organization that empowers youth and adults in Memphis from underrepresented communities in tech to be tech innovators and producers through practical, hands-on computer science education and training. For more information about CodeCrew, visit www.code-crew.org.

The national hub for the Computer Science for All movement, making high-quality computer science education an integral part of K-12 education in the US.