In a crowded classroom in downtown Boston, Anne Demosthene was using NASA data to build a weather app.
She had come a long way in a short time. Just seven weeks earlier, Demosthene was learning basic technical skills in HTML.
“It was over my head a day ago,” she said with a laugh.
Through a nonprofit called Resilient Coders, Demosthene and about 20 other young adults are working to turn the tech industry’s traditional image of software engineers on its head.
The group helps young people of color in the Boston area break into an industry that typically relies on recruits from elite universities and other technology companies, said David Delmar, the group’s founder and executive director.
This approach, Delmar said, has made it difficult for minorities to enter the field.
“This workforce pipeline is so well-baked that if you do not have access to it, it’s much harder to break into professional employment,” Delmar said.
Nearly 70 percent of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce is white, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center. Blacks are slightly underrepresented in the industry, making up 9 percent of STEM employees, compared to 11 percent of the total American workforce.
Delmar said minorities also need to prepare for a rapidly changing job market. The rise of automation will be “catastrophic” to communities like Roxbury and Dorchester, where many people work as retail associates or drivers — jobs that may be on their way out.
“We’re worried about the future of Boston’s workforce,” Delmar said.
At one of the program’s regular community nights last month, students, graduates, prospective students, and tech industry mentors worked side-by-side on coding projects.
Amanda Beiner, a software engineer at Privy, a Boston marketing platform startup, said that outside of the traditional hiring pipeline, opportunities for young people starting out are scarce. Hoping to find qualified minority candidates, she began attending Resilient meetings, and eventually hired a graduate who has become a trusted colleague. Beiner said the students she has met are not only technically skilled, but also self-directed and determined learners. “I think the great thing about anyone that comes from not-your-traditional computer science degree background, is that they come from nontraditional experiences,” she said.
The 14-week boot camp is both a learning experience and networking opportunity, Delmar said. Teachers are on the lookout for talent, and students can display their skills first hand. This is crucial, Delmar said, because computer engineers tend to follow a “show, don’t tell” philosophy.
The group also holds two hackathons during each boot camp to drum up interest for the next cohort, inviting young adults to spend a day at the program brainstorming and learning coding basics.
Students break off into teams and tackle broad questions such as “If you had technical superpowers, what would you fix?”
“No one is looking to solve hunger in a Saturday afternoon,” Delmar said. “But it gets people thinking about a problem and thinking about themselves as empowered to catalyze that change.”
About one-third of candidates are accepted into the boot camp, which pays students $500 a week.
At the end of the program, students present their projects at a demo day to an audience of prospective employers, Delmar said. The next demo day will be held Dec. 13.
Many students gave up full-time jobs to enter the program. Alejandro Garcia, 23, who lives in Allston, left a full-time position in customer services at a pharmaceutical company to join the program, with an eye on becoming a back-end developer.
“As long as I can get my foot in that door, I’m happy,” he said.
Kyle Rigo, 26, who lives in Fall River, had left his job as a carpenter to pursue his dream of owning his own entertainment media company.
“The growth of the tech field is what intrigued me,” he said. “I wasn’t happy swinging hammers.”
Demosthene said the program has helped her learn new skills at an “exponential” rate. She started off with only a theoretical knowledge of computer science but quickly became proficient at a range of coding tools. “You could say it was like a rocket ship launch,” she said.
Morgan Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.