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AWS helps train formerly incarcerated people to code

The Justice Through Code program, which Amazon sponsors, teaches formerly incarcerated individuals how to write code in Python as it preps them for careers in the tech industry.

AWS is trying to help society -- while at the same time, help itself and other tech companies -- by teaching formerly incarcerated individuals to code.

The IT workforce is in dire need of talent and Amazon has committed to train as many as 29 million people to become more cloud savvy. As part of its broader training efforts, AWS is sponsoring a program called Justice Through Code, which helps formerly incarcerated people train for careers in tech.

The program, which is free for students, is a joint initiative from the Center for Justice at Columbia University and Columbia Business School's Tamer Center for Social Enterprise. Other sponsors include Google and Slack.

Maggie Carter, global lead of social impact, AWSMaggie Carter

"Justice Through Code is a great example of the power of skills training to positively change lives," said Maggie Carter, global lead of social impact at AWS.

Aedan Macdonald, founder and program manager of Justice Through Code, said he decided to target IT because it offered high-wage jobs, whereas many programs for former inmates focus on lower-paying occupations. Macdonald is a former inmate himself, having spent four years in federal prison after working in the "marijuana industry" in California before its legalization there.

Antwan, a recent graduate of the program who would not divulge his last name for privacy's sake, said it has been a door-opening experience for him after bouncing around in low-paying jobs for several years after his release from prison in 2009.

Antwan had been an electrical engineering student at Fairleigh Dickinson University but got into legal trouble and wound up incarcerated. Yet he studied law in prison, and while representing himself was able to get his case reopened and argued persuasively enough to win two hung juries and his release within five years.

Code: The great equalizer

"Code only cares if you can write the code, right?" Antwan said. "It doesn't care about any type of certification that you have. It doesn't really care about where you come from or what's your localized language. It doesn't matter the color of your skin, and it definitely doesn't matter if you've been incarcerated before. All code cares about is, can you write the code."

Antwan, Justice Through Code graduateAntwan

Where Antwan is from is the 'hood.' For some time, he lived in Baltimore in an area near where author/filmmaker David Simon set The Corner, one of his gritty depictions of life on the streets. Antwan understands the dynamics of recidivism and remembers having a stigma held against him because he'd been incarcerated. But code is a great equalizer and a way for him to seek redemption, he said.

Now Antwan is a teaching assistant in the Justice Through Code program and also a full-time apprentice as a DevOps engineer in the Columbia University IT department.

"When I started, I had no idea what a lot of this stuff was," he said. "I was hearing terms like a Linux environment, or command-line interface, just dealing with GitHub or knowing what's the Django framework for or how do you use DynamoDB. And now I use those terms every single day, multiple times."

All about Python

The semester-long Justice Through Code curriculum centers on learning to code in Python. It is designed for students who have no prior experience or training.

"You start out with basic command-line instructions, then you move into learning different classes of data types," Antwan said. "We start out with the very basics. And little by little, we add on to that, to where you start learning how to print and you learn strings, and you start learning string manipulation. A lot of it is just like, if you were learning a spoken language, where you start out learning the alphabet. And then from learning the alphabet, you move on to vocabulary, and then you start learning sentence structure."

Aedan Macdonald, Justice Through CodeAedan Macdonald

There is also a data science portion of the course, where students dive into data analysis and data visualization. They also learn about version control and Git and GitHub, among other computer science concepts.

"It's intense, but at the same time it's taught in a manner where it's not everything thrown at a person at one time," Antwan said.

"We teach a modified and actually more intense version of the curriculum that's taught to Columbia Business School students," Macdonald added.

Would you hire?

Aside from program partners, other potential employers and observers said they see the power of redemption in tech.

"Justice Through Code's only requirement for admission is that students are formerly incarcerated and/or justice-involved" -- such as probation or something related, a program spokesperson said.

Thus, the program itself does not discriminate among former offenders; all are open to apply -- both nonviolent and violent offenders.

Tech should be open to everyone as a career. Incarceration should be no barrier to entering the workplace.
James GovernorAnalyst, RedMonk

"I would hire a formerly incarcerated individual, but specifically a nonviolent offender, to work for me and my company because I know firsthand the untapped resources which can be gleaned from those persons incarcerated," said Kevin Wortham, CEO of AssureTech LLC, an IT consulting firm in Largo, Md. "However, that person would have to be able to meet daily the expectations of our company and be the best representative for our company in their dress and deportment, especially when interfacing with clients and staff."

Wortham's perspective is unique in that prior to founding his IT firm, he spent six years as a mental health counselor at both the District of Columbia Jail and the former Lorton Reformatory. He met several "closet geniuses" at those facilities who could benefit from the Justice Through Code program, he said.

In turn, so can enterprises benefit from programs like Justice for Code, added one longtime observer of the application development world.

"Tech should be open to everyone as a career. Incarceration should be no barrier to entering the workplace," said James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk, in Portland, Maine. "Indeed, without potential career paths and opportunities it's hard to see how we can affect rehabilitation. The need to open opportunities to people that have been in prison is even more pressing given the industrialization of the criminal justice system in the U.S. Not everyone that ended up in jail deserved it."

AWS' commitment

The AWS volunteers partner with students throughout the semester to provide career mentorship and bounce ideas around regarding coding assignments. This partnership continues after the end of the semester, and volunteers assist with students' Capstone projects -- a big final assignment that concludes the training.

AWS volunteers who have served as mentors in the program have been overwhelmingly positive about the experience.

"It's been rewarding and humbling for everyone involved to see the academic strength and tenacity of participants," Carter said.

AWS will continue to work closely with the Justice Through Code team to support the program as it scales. The program has already graduated at least 70 students, about 30% of which are women. Macdonald is planning to replicate the program at another university, although it is 100% remote right now.

"We support the program's efforts to upskill returning citizens by providing device donations, financial support, volunteer mentors, and by making interview opportunities available for a variety of technical roles and programs across AWS," Carter said.

Overall, the tech industry is trying to address its issues with diversity.

"I think the tech industry is more receptive than others in terms of looking at the skill set that somebody has, rather than whether they have traditional degrees in CS or whatever it may be," said Macdonald, who himself learned to code from a coding bootcamp after he got released from prison.

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