In the next four years, economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics predict that the country will add more than 1.4 million new technology jobs. Yet, based on current graduation rates, there will be only 400,000 computer science majors to fill those jobs. NationSwell Council member Jessica Santana sees that gap as an opportunity for the 1 million children who attend public school in New York City. At the nonprofit she co-founded, New York on Tech (NYOT), students from more than high schools (and counting) learn the digital skills employers desire. NationSwell spoke with Santana, herself a product of the city’s public-school system who has worked in the tech industry, about how the next generation can diversify tech’s booming business.
What’s on New York on Tech’s curriculum?
About 85 percent of the tech workforce is white or Asian, and 74 percent are male. Do the students you meet express that they don’t see role models in tech?
At the beginning of our program, we survey how many students know somebody in the industry or participate in a technology extracurricular program. Last year, about 90 percent said that New York on Tech was the first time they ever did anything technology-related as an extracurricular program. For many, they’re the first [in their family] to go to college. There’s a huge disconnect in where they can access career advice. So while they don’t formally say they lack mentors, the information we collect shows they do.
On the other hand, it’s also important to know that some students in our program don’t realize they are the only African-Americans and Latinos in technology. We intentionally place mentors of color from diverse backgrounds into their lives, so they won’t feel alone in their journey. If we come from the school of thought that they can’t be what they can’t see, then it’s our job to make sure that we recruit mentors intentionally.
Only 1 percent of New York City students are receiving computer science education. How should public schools be teaching the material?
There’s an opportunity for schools to explore how they teach 21st-century skills outside the actual computer science curriculum. To be a real technologist, what’s currently being offered [in computer science classes] in under-resourced schools is insufficient to move the needle on diversity in the tech workforce. Schools need to ask themselves whether their lessons are industry-aligned, that they’re actually going to prepare students for jobs, as opposed to just meeting educational standards.
Tech is so often associated with Silicon Valley. How does New York’s scene, on the other coast, differ?
The biggest difference between the valley and here is that New York City has diversity. Over there, it’s very homogenous. But here, there are so many pockets of diverse talent that can be employed. Most of the engineering departments stay in Silicon Valley, so you’ll notice there are a lot of opportunities in New York in sales, media and business development, a lot of non-technical jobs, too. It’s not the biggest industry yet in New York. Do I think it has the potential to get there? I’m not sure, to be honest. FinTech (or financial technology) is huge here, and we’re seeing a move toward tech in fashion and food as well.
How did you personally get involved in this work?
I’ve always been a technologist. I got a MacBook in eighth grade through PowerMyLearning, which was founded by fellow NationSwell Council member Elisabeth Stock. My parents were very strict. When my friends couldn’t come over, it was me and my computer. Having access to that first computer ignited a curiosity in me that wouldn’t have been possible for my friends, who didn’t have machines of their own.
I was a first-generation college student. As soon as I graduated with a master’s in information technology and started working in the industry, I was making four times my parents’ household income. When I realized that, in one year, I was going to make what my parents were making combined in four years, I asked myself, “How did I get here?” That question quickly became, “How do I get others here?” Because going into a technical program was an avenue out of poverty for me. I see how transformative it is for students, who came from communities like mine, to have these skills.
Was it tough for you to break into the tech industry?
When I was still working in the industry proper, as a technology consultant, I learned that the things that made me different made me powerful. It took me a long time to get comfortable with that. Oftentimes, I was the only woman, the only person of color, the only woman of color. As I matured, I started owning that difference: the fact that I was a Latina with curly hair and an accent who wouldn’t let those things stand in my way.
What are you most proud of having accomplished?
To this day, the greatest thing I’ve accomplished, honestly, is graduating from high school. Then being able to go to a four-year college completely transformed the way I saw opportunity, the way I set goals, the way I thought about business and the way I saw myself as a global citizen.