A Bronx Tech Tale

Innovation in tech education and job creation from the birthplace of hip hop

Exit the subway. Walk by a check cashing service and under a freeway overpass, past some guys chatting on a stoop at three in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Across the street there is a hot dog factory and downstairs a methadone clinic. The business people and civil servants in crisp suits that I have been trailing to our destination look out of place here.

I’m in the South Bronx attending the grand opening celebration of the Urban Development Center, or UDC for short, a partnership between software consulting firm Doran Jones and workforce development non-profit Per Scholas. Doran Jones provides software engineering and testing services to major financial and media companies. Per Scholas is a 24-year-old educational non-profit focused on providing tuition-free training to prepare its graduates for jobs in the tech industry. The UDC is part of a movement to “reshore” tech jobs that have been offshored to places like India back to the United States.

Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas, kicks off the grand opening of the Urban Development Center.

Plinio Ayala

The UDC is in full-on party mode today, but on a previous visit, I could see the team in action on a typical work day. With an open floor plan, bright cheery colors, the flickering of computer screens and the tapping of keyboards, the vibe here feels a lot like many other tech companies. There are not yet any motivational posters on the walls nor a foosball table in the lounge, some of the typical trappings of a tech startup, but give it time, as they have just recently moved into the newly-renovated space.

Other elements are starkly different. Diversity is one of them. Almost all of the employees come from minority groups underrepresented in the tech industry. More than half of the employees are women. Most of them have come through Per Scholas’ workforce development training courses. These training courses attract a wide array of people, ranging from young people without college degrees looking for job opportunities beyond service and retail, to older career changers, to the long term unemployed.

We are also in one of the poorest congressional districts in America. It is a community lacking in opportunity, but certainly not lacking in creativity, determination, and grit. This is the birthplace of hip hop after all.

Tristan Delgado, software tester at the UDC

Tristan Delgado

I meet the upbeat and confident Tristan Delgado, a 26-year-old Per Scholas grad who is currently working at the UDC as a software tester for Doran Jones.

I’m thriving in a real career that I never before knew existed. I love being a software tester. I’ve been exposed to so many different types of technology and software. I even do games testing on the side as well. That’s been pretty sick….As soon as I got into this field, I was able to actually start affording – you know – living. These are livable wages. Before I came into software testing, I looked forward to a 25 cent raise in my check. That’s how gritty it was.

But Tristan is still plenty gritty, if by “gritty” we mean “driven.” He commutes by bicycle 17 miles each way from his home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to the UDC in the South Bronx. Tristan had previously dropped out of community college but ended up completing two training courses with Per Scholas. He then worked with another tech company before coming back to take a job at the UDC.

Like Tristan, most of employees at the UDC are software testers. Software testing is a largely unknown and unseen part of the tech industry. This is the kind of tech work that is making sure that things like corporate intranets and our online banking apps work properly. It’s not sexy. It’s not disruptive. But it’s essential.

And it’s a tremendous market opportunity. At the UDC, Doran Jones is offering software testing talent to major corporations at rates that are competitive with the competition in India and with the added benefit of being just a 30-minute subway ride rather than 16-hour flight away. In addition to being in the same time zone, software testers at the UDC also bring the competitive advantage of native English proficiency and greater cultural proximity to their clients than the overseas competition. All of this matters for the precise and demanding problem-solving necessary for good software testing.

At full capacity, the UDC has space for 450 software testers and is rapidly building a client base to reach this capacity. As part of the partnership agreement, Doran Jones has agreed to fill at least 80% of these positions with Per Scholas graduates and will be sharing 25% of revenue with the non-profit. The innovation here is in the talent pipeline and the business model.

Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones

Matt Doran

At the opening ceremony, Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones, announces that an existing client wants to nearly double the number of testers that they want to hire at the UDC. The mood is jubilant and optimistic, but there is still much work to be done to convince more corporations to hire US-based talent for software testing.

Matt recently told Wired Magazine about a potential hedge fund client that turned down a proposal from Doran Jones because “our guys don’t look like the traditional consulting firm.” There is a lot of work to be done to convince potential clients and to shift cultural perceptions, but you can feel that change is happening, and Doran Jones and Per Scholas are driving it forward.

Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones

Keith Klain

“Cheers to all the determined people out there… No more excuses,” exclaims Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones, as he gives the final toast to celebrate the opening of the UDC. This is the Bronx after all, known for its grit and determination. Just as when hip hop emerged here decades ago and changed the sound of music in the United States and worldwide, the movement that is emerging here has the potential to change the face of tech. No more excuses.

Olivia is a 14-year-old high school student collaborating with Doran Jones to build an app for her school

Olivia

This story has also been published in the Huffington Post.

Transformative Storytelling

I regularly teach a Transformative Storytelling workshop organized by BeSocialChange at the Centre for Social Innovation in New York City. I wrote this post as a resource for former and prospective students, as well as anybody else interested in the subject matter. You will find an outline of what we cover in the workshop as well as links to resources below.

Transformative Storytelling

Last Call for Cornell Design Thinking Innovation Lab

Register for Cornell Executive Business Education’s first 2-day Intensive Innovation Lab in New York City, May 7-8. People only associate Stanford with Design Thinking, the 5-step innovation methodology that helps companies create new products, services and redesign processes (an $11,500 investment).

Now, Cornell​ will be offering executive classes teaching the methodology in NYC. A 10% discount off the $3990 fee is available for 2 or more people from a corporation and the fee is reduced to $2500 startups and nonprofits. The April 17th deadline is nearly here. I will be there as a coach and mentor.

Learn more & register

unnamed

Become a Disrupter by Design

11016085_1117742461574407_7466114296811380591_n

Think of the best conference you can imagine. Combine it with a vacation where you meet a random group of wonderful, whip-smart, people that you embark on a series of unforgettable adventures with. Top off all that awesomeness with the fact that you’ll be cerebrally stimulated and learning game changing skills for active participation and purpose. That’s what our fellowship programs are. Join us in NYC! I hope to see you there.

Learn More and APPLY NOW!

APPLICATIONS FOR OUR JUNE PROGRAM CLOSE APRIL 15th 2015.

0e4df4_309755fd9b3a4f598e10bfae042208de.png_srz_p_416_469_75_22_0.50_1.20_0

12 Fellows. 7-Day Intensive Program.
Sunday 14th – Saturday 20th June 2015 in NYC
By Application Only

Extensive Experiences In Disruptive Design and Social Innovation. Amazing Mentors. Curated Networks. Mind-changing Activations.

Real World Projects and Challenges. Clients. Change. Sustainability. Design. Social Innovation.

 

Learn Design Thinking @ Cornell NYC

CornellFlyerFixed001

Learn to be a Design Thinker at Cornell. Design Thinking, is the practice pioneered by top innovation firm IDEO, taught at Stanford University and used by some of the worlds’ most innovative companies. Cornell Executive Business Education has built upon this design and added an increased element of applicability to your everyday business life as well as an element of how do you lead innovation back on the job which is vital in the current market. It allows organizations to innovate & solve problems quickly around the needs of key stakeholders. This innovation methodology helps organizations to unlock hidden customer needs and build customer ideas into breakthrough solutions. It works for business to consumer, business to business and for nonprofits.

What is it?

This intensive, two-day skill-building workshop in New York City on May 7-8, 2015 is designed to introduce business leaders to this innovation methodology. It is part of the Cornell Executive Business Education delivered by the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.

Led by a team of Cornell experts, Tracy Brandenburg and Toddi Gutner, you will learn a new way to generate innovative ideas, how to get to know your customers better, and design an innovative solution to a complex, real-world business problem.

You will hear from, Claudia Kotchka, Senior Executive and Change Agent who successfully led an innovation culture transformation at Procter & Gamble. A pioneer in innovation practices, she led the integration of design, innovation, and strategy while globalizing the design capability of P&G and currently advises Fortune 500 Companies on Innovation and Design.

You will introduced to practical tools and techniques that you can implement in your workplace to generate fresh ideas that improve business performance. New York City will be your “classroom” as you develop consumer insight strategies and learn world-class best practices in the competitive environment.

What Can You Expect to Learn?

Multi-disciplinary teams learn the process to solve challenges quickly and cheaply. Participants can expect to learn:

  • Techniques for building empathy in order to understand human needs and desires
  • How to generate a compelling a design vision based on deep insights gleaned from fieldwork
  • Effective brainstorming techniques to generate and select innovative ideas
  • How to do rapid, low-resolution prototyping and understand its importance in the innovation process
  • How to test prototypes with real users and make multiple iterations based on user feedback
  • The ability to implement the Design Thinking process in any organization

Throughout, you will benefit from Cornell’s extensive connections, Ivy League faculty expertise, and an immersive learning process. At the end of the program, successful graduates will receive a Cornell Executive Business Education certificate of completion.

Who Should Attend?

The program is designed for middle to senior managers and business owners who want to strengthen their skills as innovation leaders.

Building on the idea that all managers and leaders can be innovative in their roles and organizations, the program focuses on developing skills, tools, and practices that can be applied immediately to transform ideas into action.

When and Where is it?

When:
Thursday, May 7th; workshop 8am-5pm; cocktails and dinner 6-9pm
Friday, May 8th; workshop 8am-5pm

Where:
Cornell Financial Engineering Manhattan
55 Broad Street
New York, NY

Cost:
$3,990.00 per person for two-day intensive, including meals, cocktails.
Organizations that send multiple participants will receive discount.

Registration Link:
https://wdbcs.secure.force.com/ExecEd?program=Design_Thinking_Innovation_Lab_5/7/2015-5/8/2015
Note: Enrollment is limited to a first-come, first-serve basis to the first 40 registrants.

If you would like additional information about this program, please contact Toddi Gutner at tlg86@cornell.edu.
If you would like additional information about our Individual Executive Education programs, please contact Devin Bigoness (Executive Director for Cornell Executive Business Education) at dbigoness@cornell.edu.