The Google Lab That’s Building a Legion of Diverse Coders
When the doors to Code Next opened in Oakland today, Errol King knew the hard work of launching a community computer lab was a prelude to a far greater challenge. Google launched the lab in one of the nation’s most diverse cities to introduce black and Latino students to coding and help reverse the tech sector’s persistent lack of diversity.
King is the program’s “experience manager” (yes, that’s his real title), and part of Google’s team that joins schools and community organizations like Black Girls Code in identifying and cultivating potential computer scientists. “We decided from the beginning that we would build with the community, not for the community,” he says.
This is key, because people like Oakland entrepreneur Freada Kapor Klein have a far better sense of the next generation of coders and engineers. “There is so much untapped genius,” she says, in the fourth most multicultural city in America. Oakland is 26 percent black and 25 percent Latino, making it far more diverse than the US.
The challenge lies in tapping that pool. Demographic reports from Google, Apple, Facebook, and others confirm what many already suspected: white men comprise the bulk of the workforce. Blacks comprise about 7 percent and Latinos about 8 percent of the tech sector, in a nation where those numbers are 12 and 16 percent, respectively. Women comprise about 30 percent of tech, despite being 51 percent of the population.
There are many reasons for these disparities, including the barriers to computer science education facing minorities. About half of all black and Latino students lack access to such classes, and students who don’t work with computers early on typically don’t pursue careers in that field. Companies like Google want to draw kids of all backgrounds into coding, because it’s the right thing to do and because it is essential to their future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the industry will have 1 million more computer science-related jobs than people to fill them by 2020.
Opening the Doors to Code Next
Google started a pilot program for Code Next at the beginning of the year, inviting about 70 ninth-graders into a lab not far from downtown Oakland. Students visited the lab twice a week from January through June to pursue projects ranging from coding and game development to 3D modeling. The company says 86 percent of the current class is black or Latino, and roughly evenly split among boys and girls.
King says says the curriculum “open-ended” and “iterative” to encourage exploration. “We wanted makers to find their way in large sandboxes,” he says. The space includes a computer science lab and engineering lab, but also a leadership lab where students are encouraged to talk about how their projects fit into a larger cultural conversation.
As the curriculum evolves, Google hopes to, in the parlance of the tech sector, open-source it to educators everywhere. And although Code Next isn’t designed to lead kids straight into Google, King says, “I think it would be a good outcome if some of our makers and engineers make their way to Google.”
Oakland Tech Tensions
Google chose Oakland for its first lab because it wanted to work with a diverse community with a commitment to computer science education. (The company has a second lab slated to open next year in Harlem, New York.) Oakland possesses a strong sense of social justice, and its proximity to Silicon Valley gives it a strong understanding of tech culture, with groups like Hack the Hood, The Hidden Genius Project, and Black Girls Code working at the grassroots to diversify the industry.
Still, some are skeptical of Google and its ability to collaborate with the community. “There’s definitely a spirit to this city that tech companies recognize and respect, but also have to learn to work with,” says Claire Shorall, manager of computer science for the Oakland Unified School District. The pushback makes sense. Anyone who is familiar with Oakland knows its history as a center of California counterculture, from the founding of the Black Panther Party in the sixties to Occupy Oakland in this decade. A culture of progressive protest still runs deep.
Shorall concedes that tech companies have a presence in the education landscape, though companies like Intel and Salesforce tend to offer internships and grants. Google’s approach is, if nothing else, unique. “I think part of the reason why this is getting so much interest and attention is because there’s a physical location in Fruitvale,” she says, referring to the neighborhood where Google established the lab. “And Google’s a big name.” She understands why people might be skeptical—Code Next is still new, and people wonder about Google’s commitment and the impact it might have.
But she doesn’t consider this skepticism a bad thing. “Community pushback signals that there’s engagement on both sides,” she says. Google has joined the community. Now the community must push it to be responsive to what those kids need to succeed in computer science. It is in their best interest. And Google’s.