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Antoine Patton on Learning to Code While in Prison and Sharing That Knowledge

In this podcast recorded at QCon San Francisco 2019, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Antoine Patton on Holistic Ed-tech and Diversity, learning to code while in prison and founding a non-profit to teach people of color how to code.

Key Takeaways

  • There are significant challenges for children communicating with family members who are in prison
  • The motivation to build a website and then a mobile app to help address that problem
  • The power in empowerment as evidenced by his 12-year old daughter building the mobile app which has sent over 600000 photos from family members to prison inmates
  • The reason Antoine founded Unlock Academy to create opportunities for disadvantaged people to learn programming and other skills
  • To help address the diversity gap in tech we need to openly share knowledge and invite people in


00:05 Introductions

00:05 Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. I'm at QCon San Francisco, 2019. I've got the privilege of sitting down with Antoine Patton.

00:17 Shane Hastie: Antoine, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

00:19 Antoine Patton: Thankful to be here. Thank you.

00:21 Shane Hastie: You're talking on the Socially Conscious Software track with a talk, Holistic Ed-tech and Diversity.

00:27 Antoine Patton: Yes. Very, very interesting.

00:30 Shane Hastie: Before we get into the talk, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?

00:33 Antoine Patton: Yes. I'm a software engineer based out of Florida. Really into using technology for good. Trying to figure out how to empower people through technology. I know what it's done in my life and I'm like, "How do I get this to more people?" Really short background on where I come from and how I got into tech. Even though I'm in Florida now, I'm from Buffalo, New York, which is not only a very cold city, it's actually the third poorest city in the nation as well. Just for some context around being a teenager growing up in a city like that, you can imagine a lot of poverty, a lot of gang violence, a lot of drugs. Tried to navigate it as best as possible, but of course, there's just still a lot of risks just living in a city like that.

01:18 Antoine Patton: For example, I remember being 12 years old, graduating from eighth grade and the day of my graduation, my mother was robbed at gunpoint. People just ran in her house, wrong house, wrong identity, and she ended up getting the brunt of it. Put a gun to her head, and it just was like, "Wow." I just remember, thinking back then, like, "How do I get my family out of this environment?" What that led me to doing is selling drugs, and that would help me make some extra money, but of course, with that comes a big element of risk, and what that led to was me going to prison for eight years for having a gun I shouldn't have had. Because being 19, 20 years old, you're not old enough to have a permit.

01:51 Antoine Patton: New York State is super tough on guns and that led me, like I said, eight years in prison. Super tough for me. At the time, I had a daughter, she was three years old. I was only 20 years old at the time. Being active in her life and then totally being stripped away from her, made me really start to second guess purpose, and being more intentional about success and what success looks like, and even if that means taking a longer route to get there.

02:19 Self-development in prison

02:19 Antoine Patton: While in prison, I started focusing on self-development and really trying to make a better version of myself, of being the best person I can be. I just remember meeting some people who were way older than me, like 40, 50 years old, 60 years old in prison, and them telling their stories about being in prison, back to back, and being in this cycle, and what recidivism means. I never even heard the term "recidivism" until I went to prison. I was like, "Wow. I don't want to be a recidivist. I don't want to be one of these people who are coming back to prison two or three times," so immediately started figuring out, "What can I do?" One big thing was education. Like, "How do I educate myself to just open up my mind and figure out, what's better out there?"

02:57 Antoine Patton: Just being in Buffalo, New York, there's not a lot of opportunity. It's, like I said, third poorest city. The public education system is pretty broken. I never had access to coding classes or anything like that, so when I was in prison, and I got presented with this opportunity to enroll in a college program, it was really exciting. It was Liberal Arts, so they brought all kind of courses from Philosophy, to Women's Rights, to American History, even Mathematics. I think that was my introduction to coding, was I started taking math really serious and went from Basic Algebra to Complex Analysis, Probability Theory, Linear Algebra, just a bunch of subjects I'd never heard of before, but really opened up my mind to a whole new world of logic and computation, so really pulled me in.

03:47 Antoine Patton: However, they ended up bringing a course on Software Development. At that point, I still didn't think that that was something I could do. I thought it was only for geniuses, so I turned that course down. Just growing up where I grew up at, being into tech, or being into coding, or being into anything like kind of techie, you have to be in our minds, from our perspective, you're a nerd. You have to be a genius. You have to already have these crazy abilities, this amazing aptitude. Not knowing that you have the skillset all within, if you just tap into it, and you have the right resources, the right opportunities. Even though the college program brought me that course, I turned it down.

04:25 Learning Programming

04:25 Antoine Patton: It wasn't until two months later reading an article in the USA Today about tech, and this was in 2010, and talking about how mobile apps was just becoming this huge thing, and there's an app for almost everything. There's people becoming millionaires overnight, building these apps and selling them for a dollar. I'm like, "You know what? I would much rather be selling apps than selling drugs. This seems way safer." I come to find out to build these apps, you need to be a software developer. You need to know how to code, so I kind of kicked myself in the butt for not taking that coding course when I had the chance.

04:58 Antoine Patton: I told myself, "If I can at least find a book on it, I will still get into it." Because now, reading these articles in USA Today every single day, I'm just going to the tech section, just really seeing how possible it is for people to just have an idea, something that solves a problem, something that's relevant in today's society and how that can turn into a startup, and then a corporation, a bigger company, into a team, into scaling, into really being a problem solver.

05:25 Antoine Patton: Lucky for me, there was one book left. I'm in the prison, and it's like we have this computer lab. There's no Internet, but we have all 20 computers on an intranet, and there was one book left on JavaScript. I grabbed that book and I just started studying it, day-in, day-out. Took it back to the cell. I just would really focus on understanding JavaScript concepts, understanding web, and web development, and how everything works behind the scenes. It's regular websites, but never knew what was really happening behind the scenes. Nothing that was really broken down to me, growing up.

05:57 Antoine Patton: Nine months later, that book, I mastered it from front to back. I really became good at JavaScript, HTML, CSS, and started learning that there was even a bigger world. There was this thing called a backend and like, "What's happening back there? I need to figure this out." Lucky for me, even though I was able to teach myself a lot of the front-end, I needed some help with the backend, and I found me a mentor in prison, another prisoner. Someone who was in prison for about 15 years, but he had some experience with software development. I asked him, "Can you mentor me?" I just was really direct with him, asked him if he could teach me what he knew, and he was really open to it. He said, "As long as you're willing to pay it forward and teach other people what I teach you, I'll give you the knowledge."

06:36 I’ll mentor you as long as you pay it forward

06:36 Antoine Patton: It started with Java. He started teaching me Java. Then it was C and then it was C++. Before you know it, I started understanding what databases were, and APIs, and RPC. It just got deeper and deeper, and I just was like, "Whoa. This is a whole 'nother world that I can't believe I never knew about." He was a great teacher. I started using the money that my family would send me in for food to buy books. I just kept investing into myself, investing into this knowledge. For nine hours a day, that's what I did, was just literally learning software development, and architecture, and the world of startups. Understanding even like investing and angel funding and stuff. Just really trying to say like, "You know what? I'll be home one day from prison, in about four or five years. I want to make sure that I can integrate into this new world," and it really worked out.

07:20 Shane Hastie: You obviously did get out of prison.

07:22 Antoine Patton: Yeah, I'm here.

07:22 Shane Hastie: What happened then?

07:26 What problem can I solve in the community?

07:26 Antoine Patton: While I'm still in prison, this is very important, is that, like I said, you needed to have some kind of idea. You needed to solve some kind of problem. I started looking at myself and was like, "What problem can I solve in my life and/or my community?" The first one was I was in prison. I really wanted to communicate with my daughter more. She was three years old, and four years old, and five years old, and six years old. She just was getting older and older and I was missing a lot of memories.

07:50 Antoine Patton: Every few months, she would send me some pictures and some letters, so I would be able to stay in the loop, but she always needed the help of adults because kids don't know much about snail mail and postal services. I was like, "I wish there was a way where she didn't need the help of an adult," because adults are busy. They have day jobs, they have night jobs, they have school, they have things to do. Her mom was always pretty busy with everything she had going in her life.

08:15 Connecting inmates with their families using a mobile app

08:15 Antoine Patton: Instead of being bitter, I was like, "What software application can I build to make the situation better?" My thought was something that would pretty much be mobile. Something that kids can download to their phones, or tablets, or even access through a website, and where they can type a letter, attach some photos. When they press "send," in their mind, it just goes to the prison. They don't have to worry about getting pictures printed, and stamps, and envelopes, and stuff like that. What really happens behind the scene is, through some API calls, the letters and the photos get sent to our servers. We'll print it out, we'll package it, and we'll ship it to the prisons for them.

08:48 Antoine Patton: We do all of the grunt work of making this actually physical snail mail, but the kids don't have to think much about that. It just was really important for me, because I remember all of the letters I would get from my daughter, and how she missed me and how she loved me, and, "Hey, I can't wait for you to come home. I wish you were here for this," and what that did to my mind state thinking about, "I can't wait to get there either, and I will never leave you again." I wanted that same connection for other people. I wanted that same bond to be built between kids and their parents. Even if their parent was incarcerated, kids still have the right to communicate with their mom or dad.

09:20 Launching the non-profit

09:20 Antoine Patton: I started building that application while in prison. I built the first version of a website. Even built a backend and was like, "As soon as I get home, I'm going to launch this, and I'm going to turn it into a non-profit." Fast forward to November 2014, I was released from prison. Two months later, I filed paperwork to become a corporation. Three months later, we turned that corporation into a non-profit, once we got our 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. Really exciting times. Built a team, and we just started going around the nation telling people about our service. The cool thing was, as I grew the company more, grew this non-profit more, my daughter wanted to help out. She went from being a three-year-old impacted by incarceration to being a 10-year-old on the front lines with me, helping do events, helping send letters and photos out to the parents in prison.

10:07 Empowering his daughter to build the mobile app

10:07 Antoine Patton: Then eventually, she's like, "Hey, dad. I would really love to learn how to code," so I taught her how to code and at 12 years old, she built her first app. She built a mobile app for Photo Patch. I never got around to building it, and she was like, "Dad, we need this app." She was able to solve a bigger problem than me. I built the website, but so many people wanted a mobile app that I just never had time to build. Me empowering her with the skillset allowed her to go and build this application that's now used by tens of thousands of kids all around the nation. We've sent out over 600,000 photos to prisons to date, and that's thanks to her application. That's what I'm excited about being here at QCon, is that people know the power of empowerment.

10:51 Shane Hastie: She was 12 years old?

10:52 Antoine Patton: 12 years old. Right.

10:53 Shane Hastie: Wow.

10:54 Antoine Patton: 12 years old, and was able to solve a problem like that.

10:57 Shane Hastie: It comes across clearly the passion, because she had been at the receiving end of that.

11:01 Antoine Patton: Right, right. Exactly.

11:03 Shane Hastie: Truly, we talk in the user experience place about empathizing and understanding your customer. You and she surely bring that to the table.

11:11 Antoine Patton: Right.

11:12 Unlock Academy

11:12 Shane Hastie: Unlock Academy. What is Unlock Academy?

11:15 Antoine Patton: Yes, yes. I teach my daughter how to code. Her and I now are building these applications together. We're working on websites and stuff together. One day, I get fired from my job. I'm working at a cool tech startup in Florida, and they let me go because they're running out of money. They're like, "Hey, I really love your work ethic, of course, but in about a month, we're going to have to let you go because we're running out of money." I remember this feeling of like still feeling secure, still not being too worried because we have this freelancing firm on the side and it's still making money for us, so me losing a job isn't the end of the world.

11:49 Antoine Patton: I thought about where I come from Buffalo, New York, and how many people there are losing jobs on a daily basis, and the amount of stress that results from that, the amount of crime that results from that, the amount of poverty that results from one person losing their job. I wanted to give people that feeling that I have. That moment that I felt so confident, still assured that everything was going to be okay, because I know the most relevant skillset in the world, software development. How do I get that feeling in more people? I get the knowledge to more people.

12:19 Antoine Patton: The Unlock Academy was created because my daughter and I wanted to help people unlock their true potential. Let them know that, "Even though you don't have experience with tech or coding, you can still get into the industry. You can learn it today." We are people who are super relatable. We teach things in the most basic concepts. We try to keep the jargon out of it until it's necessary. The Unlock Academy is like this holistic version of school. Usually, school is just, you sit down. If you learn it, you learn it. If not, "Sorry. Go do some more studying. You have three months to get it. When the semester is over, good luck." We're more so on a passionate basis, real compassion and making sure we work with people, meet them where they are.

12:59 Antoine Patton: We understand that people have ridiculously busy schedules. People have financial barriers. People can't afford a bootcamp for $10,000. They can't afford a $1,000 class. They can't afford tuition at a college, $30,000 a year, so we try to meet people where they are. We also provide life coaches and transformation coaches to help people get over their mental barriers or any emotional barriers they may be going through with stress from being impoverished, with being a single mother, with having three or four kids you have to take care of and still trying to find time for yourself.

13:33 Antoine Patton: We understand everybody doesn't have the time that traditional coders have, where they, "Hey, I can code for 10 hours a day, 12 hours a day, and there's nothing else for me to really worry about. Everything else is going to play out. I still have six other hours to figure the rest out." Most of the students that we teach, they don't have that kind of flexibility, but they still need change, and software development can be that change for them. They can't imagine themselves getting $70,000 a year, $100,000 a year, $150,000 a year. They think that they need a college degree to get to that level, when it's just not true.

14:06 Antoine Patton: We know now how open the tech industry is to hiring people who don't have a bachelor's degree in Computer Science. As long as you have a skillset, as long as you have a portfolio, as long as you have their experience. We help people learn how to code, and then we help them get internships so they can build their experience and build their portfolio up. Then we're even helping them become freelancers too. Until you can get a job at a notable tech company or something else, or start your own tech company, at least you could be building up your experience along the way.

14:33 Shane Hastie: You spoke earlier about paying it forward. That certainly sounds like it's paying it forward. What are the barriers? What are the challenges to doing something like that?

14:42 Antoine Patton: We started off with a very audacious goal to teach 2020 people of color, how to code by 2020. Our campaign is 2020 by 2020. We thought it would be a pretty tough goal to hit, how to reach that many people, but within three months of us starting Unlock Academy, we had 15000 people enrolled in our classes.

15:01 Antoine Patton: We saw, like, "Wow. The demand is really there." However, it's just two of us. That's how it started. It was only two of us at first and it was like, we need to figure out how to get more help. We need more people teaching classes, holding tutoring sessions. We have a Slack group where all of our students are. How do we make everybody feel engaged and keep this interactive? We've been finding other software developers to help out and volunteer their services, but we need more help because now we're up to 30,000 enrolees. There's people who are signing-up on a daily basis because we've gotten a lot of media highlights and with that, we raised a lot awareness. People are signing up daily, but we still need a bigger support system for the students.

15:42 Antoine Patton: We don't want to sign people up for them just to feel like they're in this huge pool of learners and not enough teachers, not enough people to actually interact with them, so we're always looking for help in that regard. Another big barrier is just technology. A lot of people don't have computers. Even though it's 2019, computer access is still a big problem, so we encourage people to use public libraries or schools if they can. Internet is also an issue, but not as much as actually having a computer. I think that's another thing, so we're trying to work out something to either start getting donations from companies so that way we can get more computers to our students, because that's a big issue.

16:19 Shane Hastie: Your students are working through, what, an online platform? Is it synchronous lessons or is it online, asynchronous classes?

16:27 Antoine Patton: Yeah, good question.

16:27 Shane Hastie: How does that work?

16:29 Antoine Patton: Yeah, we provide a curriculum all online, and pretty much we walk them through our curriculums for front-end development, and then also backend development, and then mobile app development, and then a deep dive into databases. For example, with the front-end development, they start off learning HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. We have something called the 15 Day Coding Challenge, which really just gets them used to the process of coding. It's important just to do anything you're learning, in general, you need to do a little bit every single day. That repetition is important. We push them through this 15 day cycle, where just intensely for one hour a day, they're just watching coding videos, getting used to the jargon, getting used to coding, understanding text editors, and downloading software, and GitHub and stuff.

17:10 Antoine Patton: It's really cool how we set it all up for them just to immediately get immersed into the world of software development, but then it's also self-paced. The videos are there for them to watch whenever they want to get back to it. We have a live 24/7 video chat group for students that, if you're coding at your computer, pop open this 24/7 session and you'll see other people coding at the same time. That way, we can build this community, virtually, of people who are on the same path as you.

17:39 Shane Hastie: This sounds really inspiring. Do you want to tell us some of the success stories, some of the things that have happened? It's only been what, four years?

17:46 Antoine Patton: Yes. Four years since I've been out of prison. The Unlock Academy has only been around for a year.

17:50 Antoine Patton: We started November 18th, 2018. We're coming up on our one year anniversary.

17:56 Shane Hastie: Pretty much a year now.

17:57 Antoine Patton: Yes, yes. We're going to celebrate. Actually, next week, we're going to do like a get-together in Los Angeles for all of our students. At least the local students in Los Angeles, just to commemorate the success over the year. It's been super amazing. Just with us as a company, we've been able to get featured on the Today Show, and Forbes, and Steve Harvey's show, and Entrepreneur Magazine, but for our students, it's been even better. For example, students have started their own freelancing firms, building websites for clients that they meet all around the world, for local businesses, for their churches. All right? We're helping the churches get websites built, non-profits get websites built, but we're also helping our students make money now. They're charging, let's say, between 800 and $1,500 for a website.

18:37 Antoine Patton: This is extra money that they're making on top of their main jobs. I think that's really cool because, eventually, we'll help families eradicate poverty in their household. That's what happened in my household. We went from making $24,000 a year to making six figures a year, and that totally changed opportunities I'm now able to do for my family. We want to do the same thing for our students. We have students now who are building their own mobile apps. They come to us with an idea, and they're having a hard time paying other people to build these apps for them. They can't afford a $10,000 app, or $20,000, or even $50,000 app, but if we give them the tools and knowledge to build their own, that's what we're seeing now.

19:17 Antoine Patton: For example, a guy by the name of Jim, he built a basketball hookup app. He loves to play basketball. He's like, "Hey, I'm always looking for a way to find people in my area who are playing basketball." Pretty simple and novel, but it solved a problem for him. Now he has an app where anybody in his area can just say, "I'm looking for a game." They press "active" and now everybody in the area can pool and see what times they want to link up and be with each other. I thought that was pretty cool.

19:42 Antoine Patton: One young lady by the name of Monique, she started her own freelancing firm. Immediately after starting her firm, she just took it to everybody at her company and told them, "Hey, I'm building websites," and she was able to find her three clients and make over $10,000 just within a week of her launching her firm. It's really empowering to see stories like that, where we see people who are taking a skillset and actually generating some kind of results from it.

20:06 Diversity and inclusion

20:06 Shane Hastie: One of the things that the industry talks about, we certainly have challenges with, is diversity and inclusion. As a black man coming into tech and with a prison background, how do we fix this?

20:18 Antoine Patton: I think we should just think about what we're in right now, what we call the sharing economy. Everybody's just sharing, sharing, sharing. Whether that's on social media, or whether that's through education, or open source community. I think we just need to keep that going, but then take it back to, I think, urban neighborhoods. Because if you think about, the sharing economy has been around for a long time. The bartering system was the original sharing economy. I just think about when people like Pythagoras went back to Africa and spoke with some of the ancients there about mathematics or about philosophy. That was sharing. They shared information.

20:54 Antoine Patton: The Africans accepted Greeks with open arms and showed them everything that was on the hieroglyphics, and these temples and pyramids. They took that information back to Europe and just started creating these amazing philosophies. Same thing with the Arabics and how they introduced the number zero, and how that helped so many people, and the system we have today. We wouldn't have binary code if it wasn't for that zero.

21:18 Antoine Patton: I just think about how information was being spread back then, but I don't think we're sharing it at the same rate today with the right people. I feel like it's super open to people who already have the aptitude to learn tech, who have the interest in tech, but I think we should be getting the tech to more people who don't even know that they actually need it. Where we're headed with machine learning, with AI, how serious things really are getting, and if you don't understand these things, how it's going to totally derail you in what you do, especially with a lot of these blue collar jobs.

21:48 Antoine Patton: I just think we just need to get the information to more people who may not be interested in tech, but we need to tell them how they should be. We should make this kind of a like a mandatory thing, like getting a driver's license. If you want to drive a car, you need to have a license. I think if you want to browse the Internet, you should understand this world of technology, this world of software development, what artificial intelligence is, and what it's going to do to us 20, 30, 40 years from now.

22:11 Antoine Patton: I just think that we need this, especially like this community here in San Francisco, to take their knowledge and sprinkle it across the United States, sprinkle it to urban ghettos across Africa, and just try to give that knowledge back to people and open up doors that they may not even know were open.

22:29 Shane Hastie: On that concept of sharing knowledge and giving back, if our listeners want to contribute ... You said you're looking for teachers.

22:36 Antoine Patton: Right, right. Yeah.

22:37 Shane Hastie: How do they get involved? Where do they find you?

22:40 Antoine Patton: I'm on LinkedIn. Antoine Patton on LinkedIn. Unlock.Academy is where you can find our online school, Unlock.Academy. Yeah, just sign-up. You'll see a spot to either become a teacher or become a sponsor. Our students, we literally only charge them $40 per month as a membership fee, and we'll teach them everything about front-end and backend development that we know. Not everything. We're like coaches. We're the vessel. We'll point them in the right direction, we'll provide lessons, but then we'll also provide other resources.

23:11 Antoine Patton: If you're someone into software development and you have resources that you would just like to share with students, even if it's just joining our Slack group and posting links on a weekly basis, that still is very important to open up doors and showing people that, "Oh, the tech community does care if I'm learning stuff. They do support me along my journey." Because people are really struggling with being accepted. This whole thing about imposter syndrome. I tell them like, "Imposter syndrome exists even in the tech community, even with people who are super advanced," so just imagine having that double feeling of imposter, and being a person color, and being someone who don't have as much experience as you would like. We're trying to at least lift one of those barriers, and getting help from the tech community would be awesome.

23:54 Shane Hastie: Antoine, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It's been really good to talk to you.

23:58 Antoine Patton: I appreciate you having me. Thank you.

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