Tech & Work

Code Crew: How a husband and wife team are bringing coding education to New York's women and minorities

Felicia and Jamal O'Garro made the switch from finance to software development. Now they're helping others do the same.

Image: Code Crew

It was 2010 and Felicia and Jamal O'Garro were out of work.

Like so many others, their jobs (both worked in financial services) had evaporated due to tough economic times, and the husband and wife had to answer an important question for themselves: What now?

They started researching, considered going back to school for an MBA, or maybe computer science degrees, but quickly started finding out about folks who were getting jobs as developers or engineers without traditional CS education.

"We realized that people were getting hired by just teaching themselves the basic skills, so that's when we decided to learn programming and coding to get engineering jobs," Jamal said.

And that's exactly what they did. Both care currently employed as software developers, but their path to finding career stability didn't end when they got hired.

The O'Garros run Code Crew, a New York-based organization that offers affordable classes, workshops, and meetups of various lengths and intensities. Those interested in learning topics like front end development, mobile development, Ruby on Rails, and others can find guidance and community.

It started with them organizing study groups with free material they found online. Within a year, they had 7,000 members.

These days there's a burgeoning of non-traditional educational tracks for folks looking to get into tech. As the White House projects a million open tech jobs by 2020, it's becoming an appealing thought for many. A defining factor for Code Crew, however, is their mission to provide opportunities for women and minorities.

"Just learning how to code has changed my life drastically, as well as Jamal's, so I think everyone should have the opportunity whether they feel like they want to actually pursue this full time or part time, or just to enhance their current skillset," Felicia said.

For the O'Garros, it's personal.

Being minorities themselves, Jamal said they just don't see that many people in CS coming from their demographic — "What we noticed with tech in general is that a lot of women and minorities feel very intimidated because it's very male-dominated for the most part. What we want to do is make it more inviting for people to come in from that non-traditional background." Jamal said.

Just because a person doesn't necessarily fit the mold for what a developer "should" be, doesn't mean they should write themselves off.

They hope that because they didn't fit the mold themselves, but made it anyway, that will be an example to to others.

And it is — Arama Mara has been with Code Crew for about a year. She's been a musician and a songwriter for the past eight years. She got introduced to coding while living in Los Angeles, and then after moving to New York, and sought out the local tech scene. She found Code Crew and has been attending classes and workshops for the past year.

"[Felicia and Jamal] made the transition. They weren't computer science majors or anything like that, and I think they approach teaching differently because of that," she said.

Mara said they make the classes fun and unintimidating. She can count on Felicia to crack joke and drop plenty of pop culture references to help explain concepts.

Code Crew also does outreach workshops like HelloGirl!, I CODE NY, and CodeStars, each with an aim like focusing on Ruby on Rails for women, or bringing coding education into other boroughs like the Bronx.

Keeping all this afloat means that the O'Garros are incredibly busy. Their day starts around 5:30 or 6 a.m., includes an hour or two of Code Crew business before going to their full time jobs, working over lunch, and the spending their nights — which can last until midnight, either teaching class, working on curriculum, or working on their newsletter.

They're also frequently available outside of normal Code Crew hours if students need them.

Natalie Wilson is currently a nurse, but is looking to get into coding. She's taking her first course — front end development— with Code Crew. She said Felicia's talked her through moments of doubt.

She remember coming home frustrated and telling Felicia she was having trouble.

"She said a lot of key things and helped me through it," Wilson said. And that included figuring out how to think more like a developer than a nurse. The advice helped her simplify and refocus.

The O'Garros make sure they're balancing rigor with beginner-friendly vibes so students like Wilson and Mara can make progress and end up with the skills they need for careers in coding.

And that means it's easier for Wilson to come up with an answer when she asks herself if she's doing the right thing.

"Do I want to sit at a computer and create fantastic techie things that people can adore, or do I want to make an application that's the wave of the future? That's what I weigh when I get home every time," she said. "That's what keeps me going."

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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