Widening the Field for Tech Talent

Reflections from Code for America's first apprenticeship cohort
Gwen Rino, Anule Ndukwu, and Symonne Singleton joined Code for America as apprentices in June 2018, and full-time staff members six months later.

In 2018, Code for America launched our first-ever apprenticeship program in an effort to equalize access to opportunities in tech. Hiring a diverse staff that is representative of the people we serve is key to our success, and we are acutely aware that access to opportunities in tech is not equal. We envisioned the program as a learning experience not only for apprentices, but for us as an organization: by building our capacity to train and support junior talent we widen the reach of those we can hire, expanding the diversity of our candidate pool and providing ourselves and the larger tech space with skilled candidates from diverse backgrounds. So last June, we brought on our first three apprentices: Anule Ndukwu and Symonne Singleton as software engineers, and Gwen Rino as a data scientist.

We are also incredibly happy to report that after their six-month apprenticeship ended, Anule, Symonne, and Gwen all joined the organization as full-time staff members. In honor of their one-year anniversary at Code for America, we sat down with them for a conversation about what they’ve learned, the advice they’d give to others entering the tech field and their experience helping make government work for all Americans in the digital age.

What drew you to Code for America’s apprenticeship program?

Anule: The mission statement! I was inspired by the organization’s clear and concise vision for the future of technology in government. The optimistic, empowering message and the work that came of it was unlike anything else I had encountered since completing my coding bootcamp. In my eyes, the apprenticeship provided me with an opportunity to give back with my technical skills and work towards a future that includes everyone.

Gwen: So many things! Having a mentor and lots of on-the-job learning opportunities. Being a full member of a production team right away, even though I didn’t yet have relevant professional experience. The mission of the organization. The chance to contribute to projects that meaningfully improve people’s lives.

I also appreciated that the job announcement expressly welcomed career-changers like me. Most internships and apprentice programs only target recent grads, so the Code for America apprenticeship really stood out.

Symonne: I was first drawn to Code for America’s apprenticeship program because it particularly sought out underrepresented and non-traditional applicants. As I dug deeper on the company’s work, I saw that much of the values and mission of the company aligned with my own, which I didn’t think was possible in the tech world.

What advice do you have for graduates on the job hunt, or people looking to transition into a new field? What advice would you give to yourselves a year ago?

Anule: Follow what motivates you! This job came totally out of left field; a year ago, I would have never believed that I’d be a software engineer, let alone one working in civic technology. But, whenever I was conflicted, my decision ultimately landed on that which made me curious and prompted me to learn more.

Gwen: If you’re thinking about changing careers, go for it! You get to have all the excitement and stimulation of learning something brand new, but with the confidence you’ve earned from all your previous life experience. It feels much more playful to be a beginner the second time around!

Symonne: If I were to give job seekers advice it would be to push past the fear of failure, or not being good enough, or not knowing enough. Instead, realize that as a new member to your company, you can come at the problem with fresh eyes and a different perspective. That is your strength, not a weakness.


What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned since you started working in tech?

Anule: The (digital) world is your oyster. So many amazing projects got their start from someone having an idea and making it a reality. I always assumed that the most successful companies were focus-grouped into existence, but the most impressive changes I’ve found are simple fixes that happen to catch on.

Gwen: I’m really impressed by the commitment to the process rituals, especially retro, that allow teams to continually learn and improve.

Symonne: I’ve learned that there are so many ways to touch technology. There isn’t just one way of being an engineer or technologist, and you do not have to be technically minded to have a truly meaningful impact in a tech company.

Can you talk about the experience of working alongside a Code for America mentor?

Anule: I had a wonderful experience working with my mentor, Ben. I always felt that I had an advocate and someone whom I could approach with questions about the tech world. He made sure that I knew that my experience was valued at the organization and encouraged me to continue expanding my skill set. Even though we are now working on different projects, we continue to meet monthly.

Gwen: My mentor Eric is a patient and enthusiastic teacher. I’ve learned so much about how to do solid, dependable research by pairing with him on a range of analyses and projects. I’ve been pleased to discover that, even though I have less experience than he does, I still have valuable things to offer. There is a lot of give and take in our professional relationship.

Symonne: Working alongside a mentor was paramount to my success as an apprentice. My mentor, Paras, provided hands-on learning opportunities every single day and was invested in my long term success. He also encouraged me to take risks and push myself as an engineer, which was very valuable to my individual growth. By the end of my apprenticeship, Paras was a teacher, friend, and co-collaborator.

What’s the most exciting/powerful/fun thing you’ve worked on during your time at Code for America?

Anule: The most exciting thing I’ve worked on is our Code for America style guide for designers and engineers. I love working with people from different disciplines across the organization to create a design system that build empathy and dignity into all of our user experiences.

Gwen: It’s really powerful to meet people who use our tools and talk with them about their needs. I’ve observed DV court, met with probation officers and conducted usability testing with SNAP applicants—all first-time experiences for me.

I’ve also been really excited to present some of my research results in professional settings, like the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and the Association for Criminal Justice Research in Oakland. These have been amazing opportunities for a person in her first year in a new profession.

Symonne: For years before I decided to transition to engineering, I have been deeply invested in creating some change, big or small, in dismantling mass incarceration. It is a deeply rooted and complex problem, with many ways to be helpful. For example, clearing records means removing barriers previously incarcerated people might face, like difficulty getting housing, a job, or government services.

With that in mind, the most powerful project I’ve worked on at Code for America is the automated record clearance pilot in California. I had never imagined that writing code might allow me to have a widespread effect on individuals impacted by the criminal justice system. Through some simple engineering work, paired with crucial partnerships and research, our team was able to show that automated and automatic record clearance (which removes barriers, while saving significant money and time for governments and constituents) is not only possible, it’s here.

Want to hear more about tech apprenticeships? Our friends at TechEquity Collaborative recently hosted an event on hiring diverse talent and the rise of apprenticeships in our office space. Watch the panel below.

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