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Sapphire Now 2018 - bridging the tech divide by getting youth the digital skills they need

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 6, 2018
Amidst the Sapphire Now frenzy, I had a memorable chat with the non-profits in the SAP's Bridge the Tech Divide program. These companies overcome daily barriers to get under-represented youth the skills they need to succeed. It's not easy, but the light bulb moments are worth it.

Bridging the tech divide lunch session

When it comes to the future of work, I have two bones of contention. One is that the educational system is terribly aligned for the automated workplace of the future.

Two: many talented folks never get a chance to shine because companies insist on hiring those who are already have hands-on work experience. That exacerbates the so-called "digital divide."

Systemic changes may or may not come. But in the meantime, we need upstart organizations to seize the opportunity to train and nurture talent. That means getting marginalized folks with potential on track with tech, creative, and entrepreneurial skills. At Sapphire Now, I had the chance to meet a bunch of these companies during a memorable lunch chat.

SAP bridges the tech gap at Sapphire Now with nine cool non-profits

These organizations came to Sapphire thanks to SAP's Bridge the Tech Divide Sapphire Now program, run by Katie Morgan, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility for SAP North America (SAP CSR). The nine non-profits included Canada Learning Code, Let's Talk Science, and techgirlz. All told, the nine companies:

  • serve over 2.5 million people worldwide
  • teach everything from coding (the most common offering) to engineering/robotics, professional skills and entrepreneurship.

Getting youths excited and literate about tech was one thread that united the group. Several organizations empower girls into tech projects - and maybe, someday, careers. Others emphasized the intersection of tech literacy and business skills.

Needless to say, they were all feeling a bit overwhelmed by the massive show floor - something that can be daunting even to a Sapphire Now regular (the group was on deck for a show floor tour).

Debating the skills needs of a tech-savvy generation

With SAP's commitment to a range of diversity-at-work initiatives, including outreach to under-represented youth, this project is right up their alley. All these organizations were brought to Sapphire Now by Morgan's team. Orlando is a tropical sauna in June and the show is a madhouse. So, I had to ask: what motivated these organizations to get on a plane amongst screaming Disney World fanatics? The answers:

  • To break down organization isolation.
  • To swap stories and learn from each other's wins and mistakes.
  • To unite around common projects - either to share resources, or to have a bigger policy influence.

They were also eager to give SAP's technology a test drive, mixed in with a format of round tables, workshops, and design thinking sessions.

So why does a generation that's grown up with smart phones against their pillows need a digital education? The answer: there is a big gap between being a consumer of technology and being a maker.

My concern about young people - and consumers of technology in general - is that the smart phone consumer is spoiled by instant gratification. Mobile tech is great for convenience, summoning cars, food, and social connects. But smart phones aren't the best teacher of the discipline, creativity, testing and perseverance that's required to code a great app.

The folks around the table agreed with my point, but they were quick to cite examples of young people embracing the chance to create. If you give students the resources and opportunity, they'll seize that chance. Easier said than done. These organizations all have track records, but the obstacles to growth, or even carrying on, are significant:

  • Motivating students that putting down a smart phone and learning how to code will be good for their careers.
  • Breaking down the cultural and self-image barriers that prevent individuals (particularly young girls) for pursuing careers in tech/coding.
  • Teacher training - kids need mentors; that means teachers must be competent to teach modern tech literacy.
  • Overcoming the problem of schools with outdated equipment on different hardware and software.
  • Supporting long-term behavior change by involving families and peer recognition.
  • Balancing development of tech and business/entrepreneurial skills, not always an easy mix.
  • Funding, funding, funding.

Oh, and one more crucial one, courtesy Kevin English of NAF: convincing hiring managers that trained high school students are very capable of taking on technically intensive work.

Break through the noise by finding your own voice

Once you show students the coding behind the screen, kids want to learn more. It's about providing them with an "authentic context" for seeing how their skills could apply (e.g. building an app with a social purpose). If the project makes a difference to the outside world, that's a big motivator to find a solution, and to push through the failures along the way.

Helping to upskill and provide a viable career path is a worthy goal in itself. But I think there is a bigger prize: that lightbulb moment when you are working in a creative medium, and you realize this will give you a form of expression you never had. You discover a talent amidst your self-doubt, a way to excel that was denied in other settings. I owe everything to the high school English teachers who showed me I could turn my alienation into expression. You can find the same in code or startups.

Those moments blow the roof off the limitations you've placed on yourself. The organizations in the room shared great examples, from the student in techgirlz who discovered podcasting, to high school dropouts who found projects they never found in school. As Tyler Menezes of SRND said:

They were always told, "You can't do this; you're not smart enough"... To make something out of their own mind and bring it into the world is something they really haven't done often. Every program here has seen that moment.

Building real projects for real clients is an emphasis for some programs. Competing in app challenges or in front of judges can be a life-altering moment. Jenny Bradbury of nfte said she hears this often:

This program taught me I can do things I didn't think I could.

Finding your voice is also about finding community. Communities around young people can be negative, e.g. gangs, so finding recognition and belonging for the right things, and not the wrong ones, matters.

The move from consumer to maker isn't always a feel good story. Most forms of creation require better bandwidth and more equipment than a typical phone. As Tyler Menezes pointed out, 27 percent of U.S. households don't have high speed computer access; across the world, that number is closer to 60 percent. That can make it difficult for students to finish projects. Without systemic changes, that divide will persist.

That's not a problem you can solve over lunch. Here's hoping that these dedicated folks found common ground and hatched plans in Orlando that will carry forward.

Bonus: a short video introducing Katie Morgan.

End note: if I can obtain a link to all the bios of the partner companies who participated, I'll add it.

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