As technology and software become an indispensable part of our lives, the demand for skilled people to work in this sector continues to skyrocket. For those looking to start new careers in software, it can be intimidating to obtain a computer science degree. Recently, the rise of development boot camps and online courses have opened the doors to more people trying to enter the tech field. But even then, there are still considerable challenges for these people to convince tech companies to hire them since they don’t have real world experience. That is where The Difference Engine comes in to help.

The Difference Engine was born out of the experience and passion of Kimberly Lowe-Williams. As a young child, she knew she wanted to be involved with computers in some capacity. Lowe-Williams pursued the use of computers in high school and naturally went on to major in computer science in college. In her first computer science class, she realized how difficult software development was and how it is truly a collaborative effort. Life took her away from computer science for a while, but Lowe-Williams’ passion for it never diminished. When programming courses started becoming more readily available online, she started to get back to pursuing her interests around software development. She discovered a development boot camp called Actualize and went through that program. After completing the program, Lowe-Williams started applying to development jobs, but encountered another barrier in landing a job.

Tech companies were still skeptical that developmental boot camp graduates had the necessary skills to build applications and software since they did not go through the traditional four-year computer science path. They wanted more experience in these graduates. Lowe-Williams explained, “There needs to be additional support after people finished the boot camp because a few months can pass where you are not getting a job and you’re not coding and you’re not building your skills and skills do atrophy”. The time gap makes it difficult for applicants to pass coding challenges and to articulate what they have learned in an interview. This was an issue that Lowe-Williams wanted to solve. She is passionate about making tech more accessible since she experienced firsthand how it allowed her, as a girl from a small town in Northwest Indiana, to make a living and support her family. Also while volunteering as an adult, she saw the challenges nonprofits faced that could be addressed by technology, but these organizations didn’t have the resources or funding to take advantage of tech solutions. “Technology was changing the world and people who can most benefit from it are locked out”, Lowe-Williams said.

The Difference Engine solves problems for two groups that have needs. On one hand, you have aspiring software developers who have dedicated time and effort to change their careers, but encounter challenges in showing prospective employers they have real world skills and experience to do the job. On the other hand, there are numerous nonprofit organizations trying to change the world, but operate inefficiently and don’t have resources to use technology to help them. Lowe-Williams used her background working in technology companies to create an apprenticeship for the boot camp graduates to simulate an actual software work environment where a product is delivered. In this case, the product can be a website or application built for nonprofits to help carry out their mission. “The apprenticeship is a safe way to transition from one career to the next and keep growing, keep coding,” Lowe-Williams said. “The true heart in the mission is to make tech accessible. The reason tech is not accessible is because how much it costs. To make tech accessible we have to keep the cost no to low. That is one of the reasons why we are a nonprofit to keep us mission first.” With this approach to eliminate the barrier of cost, The Difference Engine can support the large number of people trying to enter the tech world.

The process of the program starts with an applicant submitting a letter of interest to join the team as an apprentice, followed by a phone screen or face-to-face meeting. Another method to inquire is to attend one of the info sessions. Once an applicant is accepted, a technical assessment is done by the volunteer staff so they can place people on the appropriate project based on their skill and experience level. Lowe-Williams said they will not reject anyone that qualifies, but that there may be a waiting list depending on the number of projects that need to be staffed. One requirement of the 17 week program is that you need to be actively looking for a job. This serves as a motivator and confidence builder for the apprentices.

The process for nonprofits/social enterprises is similar in requesting help to work on a project. They should email The Difference Engine with details on the project and the organization must have no or low revenue. They also must have an open time frame since The Difference Engine can be constrained by the number of available developers. Requested projects must be new code (not fixing an existing site for example) and open to The Difference Engine determining the type of technology best to deliver the project. The goal is to build a minimum viable product (MVP) to solve business problems for the nonprofit or social enterprise.

The biggest challenge The Difference Engine faces is finding more funding and sponsorship so they can provide more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on and help the program become more sustainable. As with many startups and nonprofits, building a team of advocates and board members to network is also a necessity to succeed. Another challenge Lowe-Williams pointed out was to break down biases toward non-traditional software development candidates. Many tech companies filter out non-traditional resumes, so many people with high potential are left struggling to find jobs. So working with startups to diversify at conception versus trying to change views on this bias later is ideal. Partnering with good companies that believe in their mission and developing a pipeline of volunteers that understand the challenges facing these non-traditional applicants will help remove these biases and lead to more successful job placements.

During her journey so far, Lowe-Williams feels giving a voice to people trying to get into tech is one of the proudest accomplishments of The Difference Engine. Many of the apprentices didn’t have knowledge of technology or what a developer was only a short time ago. “They were working in manufacturing, were construction workers, guitar instructors, Uber drivers, moms, former nannies, and there’s been quite a few people who now have had their lives transformed.” She said these people’s children now know what a developer is and with this exposure to tech, can see the field as an option for a future career. These stories and impact fuels Lowe-Williams and The Difference Engine to support others to make that leap.

CALL TO ACTION

There are several ways to help The Difference Engine keep running and making an impact.

  • Join as a technical (Product Owners, Dev Leads) or admin volunteer to be part of the team supporting the apprenticeship program
  • Donate to help support more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on
  • As a nonprofit looking for development work to aid their cause, submit a project request!
  • Volunteer as a board member! Applicants with nonprofit and fundraising backgrounds are especially needed.