Courtesy of Ramiro Rodriguez
Daisy Magnus-Aryitey never saw herself as a computer programmer. A native of Ghana who immigrated as a child, she imagined it as a job for men who grew up playing video games.
“I compared it to playing football,” says the Durham mother of two. “It was out of the realm of possibility.”
But when she heard about a program that would help her learn coding, she jumped at the chance to find a high-paying job that was also flexible enough for parenting. Just a little over a year later, she’s working in IT for Duke University.
She credits her teacher, Ramiro Rodriguez, for the fast transformation. He’s the founder and lead teacher of Code the Dream, which aims to steer people from immigrant and minority backgrounds into careers as computer programmers.
Rodriguez came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child, and went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science at Cornell University. Since moving to the Triangle a decade ago, he’s co-founded his own technology start-up. Yet over the past two years, he’s still found time to teach and mentor dozens of young people, some of whom have already gone to work as programmers. Most are immigrants, refugees or others who might lack the resources to pay for their education or support their families.
Dan Rearick, director of Uniting NC, helped develop the program. He says Code the Dream helps participants and brings diversity to a field that is still dominated by white men. And he says Rodriguez has almost singlehandedly made it a success.
“He’s a brilliant guy who’s very invested in this work and willing to spend his time teaching these students,” says Rearick. “With his help, some of them have made this amazing leap all the way from working minimum wage jobs to being full-time software developers.”
Success in business
Like many of his students, Rodriguez says he didn’t know much about computer science when he went to Cornell.
Rodriguez had grown up in West Palm Beach after coming to the U.S. as a child with his mother and grandmother. He excelled in school, and although he was the first in his family to attend college, he gained acceptance to a prestigious Ivy League school.
Cornell also had a blind admissions program, which guarantees that if you are accepted, the cost of your education will be covered with grants and scholarships.
“I was lucky,” he says. “Not everyone is that lucky.”
He was majoring in electrical engineering, but found the computer science classes he was required to take more interesting. He went on to work as a contract programmer, and later moved to the Triangle.
A few years ago, he and a partner started Riivet, creating and selling a service that allows clients to easily livestream events online.
So far, their main clients are small racetracks broadcasting their races, but the platform they created can be used by anyone looking to broadcast content on the internet or sell it on demand to clients.
“The future is livestreaming,” he says.
Having his own company allows him the flexibility he needs to work with Code the Dream, which he sees as a way of helping other young people achieve the success that he did.
Rearick and Rodriguez thought the program would be particularly helpful for students who were brought to this country as children illegally but are now taking part in the deferred action program put into place by President Barack Obama. Rodriguez is a participant in the program, which allows immigrants brought to the country as children to have a renewable permit to remain legally.
But participants must pay out-of-state tuition at North Carolina colleges and universities, which can be prohibitive.
“Software development is more of a meritocracy than other fields,” Rearick says. “If you show someone you have the skills to do that job, you can bypass some of that very expensive formal training.”
Programming knowledge could provide a job that doesn’t require college, or help them pay for college.
“This becomes a kind of trade school where you can learn a skill that helps you provide for your family,” Rodriguez says. “Other students might get a job programming while they’re in college to help pay for their school even if they decide not to become programmers.”
Rodriguez is the main teacher, though Rearick and another volunteer also help. Rodriguez has worked as a tutor and teacher assistant, but says it’s still been a learning process.
“I’m always seeing what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “It helps to be flexible.”
Students learn to code their first app within the first month of classes, working in groups of 12. They also meet with mentors from the tech industry and tech entrepreneurs. Some have attended startup conferences.
Rodriguez guides the students through the early steps using online tutorials and providing support where they need help. The first few classes focus on the most basics of concepts.
Magnus-Aryitey says that at her first class, she asked Rodriguez to explain the difference between a “programmer” and a “software engineer.”
“He was very patient, and he was never flustered by our questions or how basic we needed to start,” says Magnus-Aryitey. “He was ready to help us along even if he had to explain something 10 times.”
They start by creating games that might do math problems or play games, and then progress to building a web application with step-by-step instructions. Eventually, they create their own applications.
One student created a tool being used by a local nonprofit to better visualize how they allocate resources in a format similar to a restaurant menu. Another created a tool with different science experiments for children that can be sorted by everything from age to messiness level.
Students can text or email Rodriguez anytime with questions throughout the course and after they finish, though he notes that teaching them to solve their own problems is a big part of the learning process.
“We teach them to search for answers and Google for themselves like they’ll do once they’re working for someone else,” he says. “But when they can’t find the answers they can come to me.”
Several students have gone on to complete a more intense online training using scholarships and their own money.
Rodriguez is seeking to expand the program, perhaps even out of state, and to recruit programmers who can serve as one-on-one mentors with students. He says he hopes to work with nonprofits who need programming work done to give students real-life tasks as part of the course.
It’s his first serious volunteer effort, and one he finds rewarding.
“It plays to my strengths and I love seeing what they can do,” he says.