Can coding change the course of a life?
For an increasing number of low-income young adults, the answer to that question is a resounding "yes."
Coding is altering the trajectory of David Chatman's life. This summer, the 23-year-old East Palo Alto native and Palo Alto High School graduate completed CodeCamp, a nascent coding boot camp held in East Palo Alto.
The first half of camp was spent learning HTML and CSS, two core web languages. During the second half, camp participants were tasked with using what they learned to build a website. Speakers from prominent tech companies came to talk to the students. The four-week program ended with a demo night, which resulted in 10 students getting into a startup accelerator program.
Like many in East Palo Alto, Chatman had been headed for a career in retail -- in his case, retail management -- but a car accident and a family emergency derailed those plans.
Today, armed with skills he learned at CodeCamp and a newfound passion, he's working on launching his startup, a social network for East Palo Altans to broadcast their talents and share aspirations. The website, Ambition Spotlight, has already received attention from international hackathon organizer AngelHack. Chatman also landed an internship at a Redwood City data company, where he'll be working on a project geared toward getting younger generations of women into tech.
Chatman is also actively involved in StreetCode Academy, a new East Palo Alto nonprofit organization hoping to create a gateway for low-income youth into Silicon Valley through hackathons, after-school tech courses and community. And they're not the only ones locally eyeing tech as means to empower young people. Last year, Bayshore Christian Ministries in East Palo Alto helped a group of four high schoolers participate in a global app competition for young women. This year, the Palo Alto school district partnered with the City of Palo Alto and software company Palantir to offer an after-school coding class for a group of mostly low-income Gunn and Paly students. StreetCode also carries on the mission of Plugged In, a now-shuttered East Palo Alto tech nonprofit founded in 1992 to help bring computer access and education to East Palo Altans.
The founders of StreetCode see coding not just as a benefit for individuals, but as a way to address the inequalities ever-present in Silicon Valley.
"Most of the people in East Palo Alto work retail and manual labor jobs, and wages for these jobs are stagnant, but some are declining," said Shadi Barhoumi, a StreetCode co-founder and one of two Stanford University undergraduate students who created CodeCamp. "Meanwhile, housing prices are rising as tech workers flood the Valley and the tech boom marches on. That is an existential problem for the East Palo Alto community.
"It would be, I think, lofty and overambitious of me to say that StreetCode is going to solve this problem, but I think StreetCode is the East Palo Alto community, and hopefully Silicon Valley as a whole, putting its foot down to say that we recognize the inequality present in our society."
For Chatman, StreetCode is about breaking the Valley's glass ceiling.
"There are kids that want to get into tech, but it's impossible because they don't look like a Mark Zuckerberg. They don't look like Bill Gates," Chatman said. "They don't look like anyone up there. And when they do try to find their role models, they are far and few between."
Chatman's role model is Tristan Walker, perhaps the Valley's most visible and successful African-American entrepreneur, who started by putting location app Four Square on the map and later founded a company that creates health and beauty products for African Americans. Walker is the exception to the norm in an industry dominated by companies that employ remarkably low percentages of minorities. (Google disclosed this August the company's overall ethnic breakdown: 61 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black. And of Googlers who climbed the ranks to leadership positions, 72 percent are white, 23 percent Asian, 2 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic.)
"I want to be the Tristan Walker of East Palo Alto," Chatman says with conviction. "I want kids and people to look up to me and then say that 'I can do this.' And that's the biggest thing. We all can do this."
StreetCode Academy is the product of a partnership between the organizers of CodeCamp, Stanford students Barhoumi and Rafael Cosman, and Live in Peace, an East Palo Alto nonprofit working to change beliefs, values and behaviors that lead to violence. (They do this through music, a college-prep program and, now, StreetCode.)
Not long after the partnership began this summer, StreetCode hosted a 12-hour hackathon for high school students in November, complete with live music from Live in Peace, an app competition, rap battle, graffiti mural drawing, and hip-hop and basketball workshops. Next week, Barhoumi and Cosman will begin teaching StreetCode's first official courses, two of which are more academically inclined (web development and computer science fundamentals through video games), and two are more hands-on (EPA Now, an East Palo Alto-specific news website, and Technovation Challenge, the entrepreneurship competition for young women). The classes will run two days a week after school. (Go to streetcodeacademy.org to sign up.)
"The three things that StreetCode aims to do is one, teach people how to code and help them get into college with their coding abilities; two, get people internships in the tech industry -- so they get job experience and also money in their pockets, which is important; and then three, help students who have entrepreneurial ambitions to start companies to show that a person from East Palo Alto doesn't have to be under the auspices of a Silicon Valley institution," said Barhoumi, whose love for teaching and coding was born his junior year of high school when he created San Mateo High School's first programming club. "They don't have to be employed by Google or Facebook for it to be shown that they're valuable."
Barhoumi -- who is earnest, energetic and visibly inspired by the people he works with -- admits he can't yet fully understand what it's really like to live in East Palo Alto. He first got to know the community after he arrived at Stanford and started teaching an after-school web-development class at the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy.
But he and his co-founder have partnered with people with deep roots in the community. One of them is Heather Starnes, longtime community activist and co-founder of Live in Peace. Another is Olatunde Sobomehin, a Stanford University graduate who's worked in East Palo Alto for 15 years, doing everything from working as an intern at Plugged In to serving as deputy director at youth development organization Mural Music & Arts Project.
"I've been doing programs in East Palo Alto for 15 years (and) this is the most exciting program that I've seen," Sobomehin said of StreetCode. "There's everything you want on the 'end' side. There's self-expression on the end; there's prestige and notoriety and acclaim on the end. And then there's something that all of us want -- there's sustainability and there's economics and there's livelihood at the end."
That's what hooked Chatman when he first heard about CodeCamp and made him decide to turn down a job offer and live without his cellphone for four weeks while he couldn't pay the bill.
"My initial thought was, 'I can make a lot of money,'" he said. "People pay thousands of dollars for websites."
That thinking also drove his CodeCamp project, called SuaveFx, which marketed his graphics and web layouts as a business. But the SuaveFx website would also have a section called Ambition Spotlight where he would highlight talented East Palo Altans, from hip-hop artists to basketball players.
But, like so many others in the Valley, Chatman's initial business idea pivoted, and he dropped SuaveFx to focus on Ambition Spotlight.
For each Ambition Spotlight user profile there's a name, photo, self-description, an answer to "Where do you want to be in five years?" and "What I'm doing to get there." Instead of "likes" or "follows," other users can click "believe in me." When someone clicks that on your profile, you get a message: "David Chatman believes in you."
This kind of a platform is critical in a community like East Palo Alto where many bright young people fall into the same path that he did. After his mother fell ill a few years ago, Chatman dropped out of Foothill College his freshman year to help out. He got a job at Home Depot.
"Honestly, in this city, if you don't go to Eastside College Preparatory School, it's hard to go to college," Chatman said. "The story of me helping my mother is very consistent here."
He mentions his friend Will, who had a full scholarship to California State University, Fresno, but couldn't go because he had to stay to help his family.
"I can't show disrespect towards that because I've done the same thing, but it sucks because those are the challenges that we have to face," Chatman said. "But if I give my friend Will some place to showcase the stuff that he can do, there's no amount of support that he can't get from the world. That's the biggest thing for Ambition Spotlight -- showing your talents, showing your voice, let your voice be heard and watch the support rain in, because that's all we need at the end of the day."
But Chatman's vision for StreetCode goes beyond that. He hopes it disrupts the definition of tech itself.
"Tech isn't a pocket protector with glasses and a tucked-in shirt," he said. "Tech has no skin color. And that's what kids think right now, that, 'I have to be white; I have to be Asian; I have to be Indian; or else I can't get into tech. Tech's not for me.' Especially being from here, 'I need to play a sport for me to move on with my life, for me to move forward with my life.' But that's not the only option.
"That's why, in a sense, Ambition Spotlight and StreetCode work so well, because we both identify that (that path) is not the only option for everyone out here. If you don't make it, you don't have to work in retail. If you don't make it in sports, you don't have to sit at home and wait for that next call to come in for another interview. There are other options out there. There's your own passion and there's tech. Follow one or the other."
StreetCode is holding an open house week from Monday, Jan. 5, through Thursday, Jan. 8, from 3 to 7 p.m. at 763 Green St., East Palo Alto. Tour the facilities, meet the StreetCode team and learn more about classes, which start Jan. 13.