Interview: can tech and education solve social inequality?

The tech industry has created millions of jobs and an unprecedented level of wealth. It allows people across the whole planet to solve a wide variety of problems and improve the communities around them. Coding is one of the most valuable skills of our time and students around the world are beginning to learn it earlier in their lives than ever before.

The problem? Education affordability, social and racial disparities and gender discrimination. Many kids in low income families have never touched a computer, never given the opportunity to learn computer science, or what’s worse, they don’t believe they can ever become software engineers, thinking of the job as something reserved for privileged people.

The good news is that there are a bunch of amazing engineers out there focused on mitigating these problems, and today I’m interviewing Fernando Sanchez, Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft and Co-Founder of ‘Geeking Out Kids of Color‘ (GOKiC), a nonprofit focused on empowering kids of color with education in computer science so they can use technology to help make a positive impact in their communities. His story is not only inspiring, but also one that I hope reaches any kid out there thinking that they are not allowed to be part of the tech industry.

How did you get started in tech and how did you prepare yourself to land a job at Microsoft?

Video games have always been my escape. When I was a kid I was bullied and video games, like for many other kids, were a safe space for me. As a result, a large part of my life was shaped by video games. One day I woke up to one of the happiest days of my life, my parents bought a Super Nintendo. I remember playing Mega Man for weeks! Until one day I was decided, I wanted to create my own video games. I brought this up to my parents and without hesitation they gave me the right advice, I needed to learn coding.

Fast-forward, landing a job at Microsoft was in fact a bumpy ride, it took me 4 long years and 4 interviews to finally make it. The funniest part is that my biggest fear wasn’t my coding skills or that I wasn’t ready, it was my almost-non-existing English. My fluency was limited to the equivalent of ¿Dónde está la biblioteca? That became the first check-mark on my preparation and I enrolled in a year-long intensive class that gave me the confidence I needed.

Getting rejected 3 times was hard but I took it as motivation. Thanks to family, teachers and friends supporting me, I landed 3 jobs that taught me key skills I would eventually need if I wanted to join Microsoft. Following my passion, I kept practicing my algorithms and data structures skills and even got a chance to participate in the world finals of an ACM programming contest! Finally, as I was getting ready for graduation, I got two calls: Microsoft and Grad School. Got accepted to both! That night I made a decision I never regretted. I joined Microsoft.

The tech industry is creating more and more high salary jobs, but social inequality is also growing, leaving some people behind. What do you think is the best way of combating this problem?

It’s important to mention that we can’t talk about social inequality without talking about privilege and systems of oppression. Social inequality does not follow a uniform distribution, when we hear that a percentage of the US lives in poverty, it does not mean that everyone is equally likely to be in poverty. Inequality is shaped by privilege and power across the spectrum of intersectionality. This is what makes the problem hard. When we talk about high salary tech jobs we are most likely talking about jobs filled up from affluent communities, places where all they need is a little push, maintaining the cycle and leaving underserved communities behind. I firmly believe we can make a difference by providing equitable resources, education and critical thinking, making it a fair game across social intersections. It’s not easy, but I believe humans are smart, let’s solve it!

What do you think when you see ads offering coding classes to middle-schoolers, especially around tech hubs like Seattle or San Francisco?

Expensive, privileged, exclusive. I remember someone once asked me: why don’t you teach CS in Sammamish? FYI, Sammamish is one of the wealthiest cities in Washington (and the US). Why should we preserve privilege and give the highest paid jobs to people that have most options opened? We need to focus our efforts on communities that historically have been underserved and underrepresented if we truly want to tackle social inequality. Surprisingly you don’t need to go far; driving 15 minutes away from Seattle you get to see the reality that tech bubbles hide. Underserved communities without computers or internet, much less tech education in their schools. Let’s bring those classes into communities that are getting left behind. Let’s bring equity.

Gender and racial diversity is a well known priority for most of the big tech companies. Why do you think this is such an important topic?

I remember an article exploring how machine learning applications are inheriting human biases, specifically racism in the criminal justice system. Reactions were mixed, for some scientists this was outrageous, how can computers be racist? they just execute code. For social scientists this was clear, they run a program to predict recidivism, and when the results were incorrect black people were labeled twice as likely to reoffend. It made big waves, such that now machine learning research has its own research branch to reduce bias in our programs. Of course, algorithms aren’t inherently racist, but because of the way we are coding them, training them, they are learning the bias of the teams behind them. It is imperative for any major player in power to ensure there’s proper representation on new research, technology and products, as they will determine how our future runs.

Did you have a role model when you started studying computer science? How did it help you?

I did. In fact, throughout my life I’ve had many role models that carved many aspects of my personality, including my passion for computer science. Each member of my family became my first role model, they created the pillars, the values on which I stand, and I learned the value of knowledge. When in college, my dean and a handful of teachers shaped my passion for computer science, the amazing things we can do by just coding and the importance of generating knowledge and teaching it. When I joined Microsoft, a friend of mine, an amazing woman, citizen and activist, became my inspiration to stand by my values and reflect on social problems. Then I met my next role model, my badass manager, pushing me harder and always believing in me as I grew in Microsoft. And finally, my partner, who helped me put everything I learned together with my social duties to finally give back to my community.

Many influential people even outside of my computer science studies helped me shape my values and my drive to keep learning, teaching and become an active member in my community.

How did you get involved in a nonprofit like GOKiC and what’s its core objective?

The roots of my involvement go back to college when I realized I was privileged. That was a key moment in my life, and after that a growing feeling of social debt took over me. I remember countless and amazing conversations with my closest friends, shaping my values and what I believed in. By the time I graduated, it was clear, I needed to use my skills for social good… but what? how? I only knew the why.

It wasn’t until years later, after becoming an immigrant, that I met Pedro Ciriano, executive director of GOKiC. Living at the heart of Seattle, an impressive tech hub, I became blind to social injustices happening close to me. Pedro was the catalyst and the reaction burst my bubble. Without notice I was drinking from a firehose of knowledge. What shocked me profoundly was how little I knew, in general terms, about oppression, in specific terms about (the construct of) race and its global impact. I needed a framework, vocabulary and confidence. By the time I learned the fundamentals I was ready, I knew what to do.

It is a long story, but it is important because that is what’s at the heart of GOKiC and our mission: to close the STEAM educational gap in underserved communities, empowering kids to become creators of new knowledge and providing what they need to make a positive impact in their communities.

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Image via GOKiC

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