Code Academy, Minorities in Tech and the Nitty-Gritty of Programming

“The New Promised Land- Silicon Valley” documentary hosted by Soledad O’Brien and aired last week by CNN brings up an important but hardly discussed topic in today’s tech industry.  The program was said to be a sensationalized account, pointing out that there are very few African-American startups out there that are venture-backed.  And when it comes to minority leaders and entrepreneurs in tech, there’s certainly a lot to be said about Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity.

But all hope is not lost. A Chicago-based tech academy that some 35 people are paying $6,000 for 3 months of computer-programming education.  The program was founded by two African-American entrepreneurs and has catered students even from as far as South-East Asia. What’s more is that these two entrepreneurs had zero programming skills as of spring 2010.

According to Neal Sales-Griffin, the 24-year-old Code Academy CEO and former Northwestern University student-body president, he wanted to start a tech company because “the art and the fun and the value of tech is in the creation process and the quality of the design, and you have to be a part of that.” He was an employee at Sandbox Industries in 2010, and left because he wanted to be a coder and start his own company. He also thinks that, “too often, (business-school graduates) see tech people as resources. That’s crap.”

During the process of bulking up his knowledge of coding, he stumbled upon books, followed internet tutorials and took the time to self-educate.  But without hands-on experience with guided leadership, Sales-Griffin hit a wall.  It was then he saw an opportunity to educate those interested in learning more about computer programing for today’s market, weeding out the unnecessary, building his own school to teach the principles he learned from personal experience and expert advice.

“I had gone through the fire and the flames and thought no one else should have to go through this,” Sales-Griffin said. With this in mind, he and a fellow African-American entrepreneur Mike McGee, who happens to be his successor as Northwestern University’s student-body president, founded Code Academy.

Sales-Griffin has attracted Jeff Cohen from Leapfrog Online as the school’s lead instructor and has consulted tech VIPs such as Harper Reed, chief technology officer of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, who later became a guest speaker at Code Academy. Dave Hoover, a senior engineering manager at Groupon Inc. helped the Code Academy with its tenancy at Groupon’s River North headquarters. Bernhard Kappe, CEO of Pathfinder Software LLC, primed Sales-Griffin at a competition last summer.

It’s important to see someone take action in creating the future they envision, especially when it comes to an industry as promising as web technology.  Chicago’s becoming quite a hub for tech education amongst blacks, Latinos and women.  And maybe it’s the diverse nature of the city itself, existing at the crossroads of an entire nation, but there’s something especially nurturing about the tech scene in Chicago versus an over-saturated region like Silicon Valley.  I suppose this is exactly what the tech industry needs.