Life was good for Jamal and Felicia O’Garro. The college sweethearts had successful careers in the financial industry in New York and they had just gotten married.
But three days after tying the knot, Jamal got laid off. A couple of months later, Felicia lost her job as well. It was 2010 and the economic downturn hit the financial sector hard.
Having a difficult time trying to find jobs in their field, the O’Garros considered going to business school. But not wanting pile more debt on top of their undergrad loans, they looked at other options. They noticed that software engineering was one of the fastest growing professions.
And the kicker… they didn’t need computer science degrees to get into the field.
So they taught themselves how to code, often spending 60 to 70 hours a week reading, studying, and taking online courses. Within a few months, they both found work as developers and started a meetup group in Manhattan called Code Crew to collaborate with other New Yorkers learning to code.
“Initially we thought it would be a couple people in a coffee shop with us learning, but it grew extremely fast,” Felicia said. “I think within the first couple of months we had over 1,000 members.”
Code Crew quickly outgrew coffee shops and co-working spaces so they had to shut down the meetup. They decided to transition to teaching classes, and to particularly reach out to women and minorities, who they noticed were underrepresented in the tech field.
“We started the outreach program because the Code Crew sessions were diverse but we felt there weren’t enough women and enough people of color there,” said Jamal, who grew up in the Bronx. “So we decided to go out and spread the word and make it more attractive to people who looked like us.”
Code Crew’s mission is to make computer science education fun and affordable. And you don’t get more affordable than free. Through their three-outreach programs—I Code NY, CodeStars, and HelloGirl!—they are helping change the face of the tech community in New York with free, robust, high-quality computer science programs.
With I Code NY, they go to inner-city neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, as well as Newark, N.J., to teach one-day workshops. HelloGirl! is an outreach to women that Felicia spearheads, through which they team up with Railsbridge NYC to teach women Ruby on Rails web development.
CodeStars is a 12-week introduction to computer science course. Usually classes like that costs about $5,000, but with Code Crew there’s no charge.
“We wanted to give minorities, women and also unemployed residents of New York City a course because that’s the kind of demographic we were in when we first started so we wanted to give back,” Jamal said.
They estimate they’ve taught more than 1,000 students through their various classes and workshops. LaTiesha Caston of Brooklyn took the CodeStars course after connecting with Jamal and Felicia through their meetup. She had a background in graphic design and wanted to learn to code but had trouble teaching herself.
“Just going from having a design background to, at the end of three months, having an app I could submit to the App store and now building my second app is incredible,” Caston said. “I learned a completely new trade, a completely new skill and I’m able to look for jobs in a different field… The fact that it was all free is mind-blowing.”
The students of Code Crew come from all walks of life, and most of them don’t have tech backgrounds. That’s why so many of them are drawn to the O’Garros and their story.
“I think the reason they’re such great teachers is because they did not have a computer science background and taught themselves how to code so I think that’s why their teaching style is inspirational and positive and encouraging,” said Patti Donahue, a Queens resident who has taken two courses with Code Crew.
Running all the outreaches, teaching classes, and working as software engineers, it’s hard to see how the couple has time to do it all. But it’s been their lifestyle since they were laid off five years ago, and they’re committed to giving back to the community.
And just like their first meetup that started to outgrow its space, Code Crew may soon outgrow the Big Apple. The O’Garros went to the first White House tech meetup summit in April and connected with groups from across the nation, and there are plans to bring the programs to Detroit and Chicago.
“We want to give people another option of how to get out of their situation,” Jamal said. “I grew up in the Bronx, Felicia grew up in Jersey City. These are places where you may not have many opportunities. We were fortunate enough to have an opportunity to go to college and make a better way for ourselves, but not everyone has that particular opportunity.”
“With coding and software engineering, you don’t actually need a degree. So our goal is to try to make this skill accessible and affordable to people from high-need areas like ourselves.”
Life is good for the O’Garros again. Now they’re working hard to make sure people from underserved diverse backgrounds get a chance to improve their career prospects through technology.
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