Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Presentations Holistic EdTech & Diversity

Holistic EdTech & Diversity



Antoine Patton believes we need people who are experiencing life-altering problems (health, poverty, etc.) to help solve problems. There needs to be a conscious effort to provide them with the tools and education needed to solve their own problems. Patton discusses how he is leveraging his unique experiences to help solve the problems of people with similar experiences.


Antoine Patton was incarcerated at age 20 for 8 years. While in prison, he learned to code and taught his daughter after his release. They collaborated to build an app that allows families to freely send photos to their incarcerated loved ones - Photo Patch. He launched Unlock Academy, an online learning platform, and vowed to teach 2020 Black and Brown people to code by the year 2020.

About the conference

Software is changing the world. QCon empowers software development by facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation in the developer community. A practitioner-driven conference, QCon is designed for technical team leads, architects, engineering directors, and project managers who influence innovation in their teams.


Patton: Thank you, guys, for coming here. I did not expect everybody to be here today. My exercise will even show that. We're going to do something today called a diversity sprint. It's like a design sprint but really focused on diversity. We have a lot of people here, but let's try to make it work, let's work in teams. Let's collaborate and see if we can solve some problems. We're going to look at diversity through this lens of education and empowerment, that's what I want you guys to keep in mind throughout this.

Some steps we're going to go through today is the problem. I'm going to be talking really fast because I know time is short, but I really want to get to this finals part. Then we're going to do some expert interviews. We're going to do a lightning-fast demo. We're going to decide on a solution. Then we're going to actually prototype that solution and then test that solution. If anyone here has done a design sprint, or at least know what it is, these things usually could take days. Five days is usually recommended. We're going to try to do this in 50 minutes with about 50 people. Let's try it out.

Overview of the Problem

First, let's talk about the problem. The problem is less than 12% of coders in the United States are black and Latino. That's a pretty astronomically small number. We would love to make that bigger. What I do want to make clear now is that even if we get that number up to 40% or 50% of coders are black and Latino, that does not mean that white people and Asian people or Indian people lose jobs. Those two things do not go hand in hand. We can actually get an increase of black and Latinos, and everybody who has a job right now can keep their job. The reason why this is possible is because as you guys know, tech companies around the globe are hiring. There's over 10,000 new tech jobs every single month that are being available. There are slots that need to be filled, and I think we can fill those slots with people of color.

A lot of people think that inclusion is the biggest problem. We hear diversity and inclusion go hand in hand, and personally, just being a black man, I do not think that inclusion is our bigger problem. I do not think that there are tech companies in Silicon Valley or San Francisco or L.A. or New York who are just racist and do not want to hire black and Latinos. I think that the biggest problem that we have is access on both sides. We have the tech companies who have an access problem. They cannot access a pool of black and Latino coders. If you know of a pool, some website where you can go to and find, say, 1,000 black and Latino coders, raise your hand. That's the problem, we just do not even have that kind of access for tech companies. Then, there's black and Latinos who don't have access to finding success in the tech industry. What we want to do is figure out, how do we fix this access problem?

I want to look at it through this lens of education and empowerment. As Alex [Qin] said, I'm teaching 2,020 people how to code all online. We have an online curriculum. I do a lot of study, I question these people a lot, I get a lot of feedback, and I ask them about what they're going through and what's stopping them from coding, why haven't they started coding before, and I hear a lot of the same things. One, education cost is huge. Two, technical equipment. A lot of black and Latinos just don't even have the equipment that they need to even get started. Then three, time. Living in poverty is not easy, and unfortunately, for a lot of black and Latinos, poverty is a real situation.

These, as we go through this design sprint, are the problems that we're trying to solve: time, equipment education. These are the impediments for our user. Let's talk about them a little bit more in detail. Time - we would love for anybody who wants to learn how to code or become a project manager or become a designer, they need dedicated studying time. Many marginalized people don't have the leisure to spend time on non-compensated activities. I know, to some people, having a hobby of learning the latest UI framework or machine learning is something that you can really bake into your schedule. That's not the case for a lot of people who have two jobs or single parents, and so on.

Access to computers - a study I looked into showed that I think this was with Census, that over 40% of households, black and Latino households do not even have access to a computer or laptop. The cost of education, I think this is a no-brainer. College tuition, of course, can be between $25,000 and $40,000 a year on average for a computer science degree. Frankly, a lot of black and Latinos are terrified of going deeper into debt that they have already accumulated before they even reach college. Then, also, boot camps are cool, but they can also be expensive, between $5,000 and $15,000 as well. If we can help them make it through these impediments, we can reach tech success. That's what we want to do. Get them from this point over here.

Expert Interview

We're going to do a case study. This is where we're going into the expert part. We'd look into somebody who went through all of these barriers of time, of not having equipment, not having education system there to help them out, but was able to still make it through – moi. If you look at this right here, this little timeline, I have built the visual one. This is me in 2008, super stressed. This is me a year later, in state prison. 20 years old, super young. Then, fast-forward 11 years, this is me on a Steve Harvey show with my daughter, really talking about the lives that we're changing around the world. Within a 10, 11-year period, I was able to go from here to here.

My timeline over here, I graduated from high school in 2005. Three years later, I was arrested for illegal possession of a weapon. I was actually enrolled in college at the time, but I didn't put it up there because I was just there just to be there. I didn't know what I was doing in college. In 2009, I was sentenced to eight years in prison. My daughter was just three years old when I went to prison, so that was really devastating for me. I started teaching myself how to code in prison, and I'm going to talk a little bit more about that. Fast forward, down to when I was released from prison, in 2014, within two weeks of being home from prison, I found a job in a tech industry. I was hired as a front-end web developer within two weeks of being home from prison. Over the years, I was able to work myself up the ranks, from just being a front-end developer to being a full stack developer at the top tech companies based in Florida.

I also am an entrepreneur at heart, and I started a nonprofit called Photo Patch, which allows kids to send photos and letters to their mom or dad in prison. Literally, we've built a way to automate this communication. I was in prison, and my daughter always had a hard time sending me letters and pictures, because she will have to wait for the help of an adult to get pictures printed, to get envelopes, to get stamps. I said, "As a developer now, how do I solve this problem? How do I automate this or make this a lot more efficient?" Photo Patch was the idea. I built this website, and when I came home from prison, I launched it, turned it into a 501c3 and built a team, and we've helped a lot of kids connect with their mom or dad in prison.

Also, a couple years later, I started something called Atlas Digital Group. It was a consultation firm. This is was how I really started making a lot of my money, building apps and websites for people. This is on the side for my day job. Then, last year, I started the Unlock Academy. The Unlock Academy, we did a soft launch, November 2018, so almost a year ago. Our mission was to teach 2,020 people how to code by 2020. I'm sorry I don't have time to go deep into the details of why I wanted to start with that number, why I wanted to start teaching people how to code online, but long story short, I just wanted to empower more people to have the level of comfort that I now have. I went from being in poverty to having a lot more freedom, flexibility, and financial safety net, as people say.

I've been able to introduce over 15,000 people to coding over the past year. I taught people how to build their first websites. Even now, I have more students who are more advanced and getting into mobile development, Python development, and so far. I've helped raise over $500,000 with charities focused on youth and social entrepreneurship. Through our Photo Patch Foundation, we've connected over 30,000 youth to their mom or dads in prison.

How did I get so strong in prison? How is this possible? Not just physically strong, but mentally, emotionally, and most importantly, spiritually. Truth is, I got access to time, equipment, and education. This is the key part. Being a kid growing up in Buffalo, New York, which is the third poorest city in the nation, time is just not on your side. I know a lot of you probably think there's not enough time in a day, but even as a kid, I've found out early on how short time really is.

I remember, 13 years old, the day I graduated from 8th grade, I got dropped off in a limousine in front of my mom's house. Super excited, just came back from Niagara Falls with my friends, and we just were happy we graduated 8th grade, on our way to high school. I kissed my mom on the cheek, tell her I'm going outside to play with my friends. I go two houses down, I'm sitting on a porch with my friends. Ten minutes later, I hear the loudest scream I ever heard in my life, two houses down, and I see three men running by with guns and a mask on. Instantly, me and friends looked at each other and we're "Somebody just got it really bad." Somebody got it. When I heard that scream, it started registering, "That was my mother's scream. What the heck just happened?" Come to find out, my friends, 13 years old, chased these men with guns and masks. I go to my mother and figure out what happened. The men ran in the house, had a gun, put it to my sister's head - my sister, she was only 11 months old at the time; I had 2 twin sisters, they were 11 months old, - they put the gun to her head and told my mother to give everything up.

My mom is a weary woman. She doesn't have anything to give up, so she gave her purse. Come to find out, it was a mistaken identity, they ran in the wrong house. From that moment on, it just really pushed me to say, "I need to get my family out of this neighborhood, out of this circumstance, out of the ghetto." Fear, I say, is what pushed me into my new entrepreneurship, which is selling drugs. That's where I went to next. I started thinking "Ok, I have a job that's not doing enough. Now, what?" What I'd noticed a lot around me is people are either selling drugs or they have a job or they're doing a little bit of both. That was me.

I had a summer youth job. Then I was that guy in the mall passing out samples. Anybody ever been to the mall, you see the guy passing? That was me. That was just wasn't enough, that was not paying the bill. I started off selling crack cocaine, and I quit within three days. Instantly, I saw what crack was doing to people, and I said, "This is not for me." I'm 14 years old, 15 years, I'm "This is not the way I want to live my life. I don't want to hurt people like this." I switched and I started doing what almost everybody in California doing - selling marijuana.

This was years and years ago, but that was my first really stab at entrepreneur, and it worked. I started seeing myself go from selling little bags to selling bigger bags, to selling pounds, and I was able to take care of my family. I know it wasn't the best route, especially being a kid, but it helped me and my family for a while. In the long run, it maybe did more harm than good, because I ended up going to prison for having a gun. When you're a drug dealer, you have to protect yourself, protect your investment, protect your inventory. That sent me to prison for eight years. Really tough, but while I was in prison, some beautiful things happened.

Inside of prison, you have a lot of free time, of course. I think that's what everybody knows. Equipment, I was lucky enough to get enrolled into a college program, by the name of Bard College. It was really exclusive, out of 1,500 prisoners, they only accepted 15. They let 15 people in to get access to this liberal arts college and started taking all kind of courses, from anthropology to philosophy, to women's history, you name it. It was a really diverse curriculum. With that came access to a computer lab, and I was able to type up all my papers and be on the computer for about nine hours out in a day. Then also, I got access to education.

Even though the school was there, it was a liberal arts college. What happened for me was I read an article in "USA Today" and it was talking about this explosion in the mobile app world. This was in 2010. That phrase "there's an app for that" just started taking off. I just was looking, I'm "How the heck are people becoming millionaires off of selling free apps or these $1 apps?" Here I was, selling pounds of weed for $1,000 and I still was poor. I still didn't really make it to where I wanted to be. This is the world I need to be in. I need to figure out how to get into the tech space. I started really getting addicted to these tech articles. The money that my family would send me for food, I would spend on magazines like "Inc." TechCrunch is one of my favorite blogging platforms now. What else? "Forbes," "Entrepreneur," all of those popular ones, "WIRED Magazine," just really trying to understand what was happening in the tech space from all of these different areas.

That was my education, reading all of these magazines and publications. Eventually, I got enough audacity to start teaching myself how to code. I found a JavaScript book, and I started just mastering JavaScript, and that's what I started with, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. After a while, I found a mentor in prison. He was imprisoned for about 15 years at that time. He had a computer science background. I asked him if he can mentor me, and lo and behold, he did. He started teaching me about Python, C, and sockets, and servers, and database, and algorithms, and it just really exploded my brain as far as the potential of what was happening around me.

I kind of cured myself by sending myself to prison, but I really do not think that prison is the only way for these things to happen. If I would have just left my environment, I could have still done the same thing. I was trapped in that ghetto, and if you have not been in a ghetto, you do not know what I mean, but it's really a trap. It really is overwhelming, so much pressure, and it's hard to see outside of it. I have friends and family now who have seen me go from being a drug dealer to being this tech guy on the internet and they still don't know how I did it. They still can't see themselves doing it. They still don't believe that I know how to code. They just don't get it. I'm a walking testimony for them, but that's how overwhelming the hood is.

How Do We Scale This?

How do we do this? How do we scale what I did and make this possible for other blacks and Latinos around the nation? If we could scale the number of people of color in code, then we can scale the diversity numbers, because we've all seen those numbers, and they're pretty crappy. I just think it's going to take both sides.

Our goal is techonomic justice. We're going to use tech to empower more people to have more economic mobility, upward mobility in the tech space. What I want you guys to think about is if you had unlimited resources, what would be a practical solution you will come up with to help empower more people of color who do have interest in coding? There is an interest. Like I said, I started off with the mission to teach 2,000 people how to code. Within months, I had an email list of 15,000. Our student base, our Slack group is flooded with students. I can't even pay for a plan if I wanted to, because I can't afford it. We're still on the free plan.

What we're going to do today, this is going to be our breakdown. We have about 30 minutes, which means I ate a little bit into your demo time, but I'll take away from the testing part. I don't know how we're going to do this, and I encourage you guys to help out, because I literally only expected five people, so I was going to do one group, that's it. If 10 comes, we'll do 2 groups. You guys have exceeded my expectations. I see maybe four groups if you guys want, break into quarters, and let's just start working.

I already did the expert part, I was the expert. I gave you guys a good understanding of what the problems are. Let's do a few minutes of figuring out what are possible solutions and then coming up with some ideas. This is like a really silent exercise. As you guys are in groups, it's really just about writing down what you think on these little sticky notes.

Just as a quick reminder, what you're doing right now, you could be doing this on your phone or you could just be thinking about from past experiences, research. How are these problems usually solved? I'll go back so you can look again at what the problems are: time, equipment, education. How are these things usually solved? Then we'll spend the next five minutes trying to figure out how to just ideate and coming up with ideas on what we can do.

Ok, time. How was that? A couple of good ideas? Your team is going to tell you determine how good your ideas are. What we're going to do is, as you break up into groups, let's say this section right here, you'll put all of your sticky notes across this wall. Then it's everybody's job to go through and read each one and just put a star next to the one that you like. Because there are so many people - usually, it's like two or three stars that you get - give yourself four or five stars. You've got five stars max if you want, and that's how many you put a star next to.

Ok, time. This next stage is going to be the prototyping stage. I hope you guys have tried to get one idea down or at least merged two ideas or three ideas together. Now, how do we bring this to life? What does this look like more fleshed out, just one idea? I heard this group already going into heavy details.

We have these boards. That's where I want to see you guys flesh out that idea, the one that you guys chose. Flesh it out over here. Whatever prototype looks like to you, that will be great. It could be a flowchart, it can be a picture, it can be stick figures, I don't care. Whatever that looks like to you guys, just try to bring it to life on these big flip charts. For this phase, you have seven minutes on prototyping, and then we're going to spend the last five minutes on just going the ideas.

I personally want to thank you all, seriously, everybody who interacted and engaged. This is a serious problem and something I'm really passionate about. To see all of you all interacting and working together to come up with solutions is super humbling, and I'm going to take this back to my students and show them some of the stuff that you guys came up with and just the efforts, and I've got some pictures and videos.

We're going to give each group two minutes. Let's start here, two minutes, one presenter, and just try to crush it.

Participant 1: What we have here is a paid apprenticeship, but not any paid apprenticeship, because this one is franchisable with a playbook so that we can scale it out to all these local communities. It's not going to work unless it's local community-focused. The key thing is that there's two types of training. There's the on-the-job training. Four days a week, the student will be on the job, with a mentor, at the company, learning the ropes of the company. One day a week – roughly, we'll work on that - they'll spend that at the headquarters training in the soft skills, like something as basic as "Maybe don't wear the 'wife beater' at work." That was an example from Dr. Pamela Gay here.

We're going to focus on the 18 to 24-year early career. Obviously, we know there's needs in all age groups, but we're going to focus on this group for ours, because we hope one of the other ones are going to focus on the others who need it. It's full time, and then we provide health care, childcare, housing, and food, all the support services that someone might need. We're going to focus a lot on community building, both amongst themselves and at large, so bringing community leaders to come speak to the students. Amongst each other, a big part of that is the concept of paying it forward, where, as part of it, they will end up with a full-time offer, but also, down the road, once they have established themselves, they will come back as mentors as well so that it builds a community of people. Down the road, what you hope to see is that entrepreneurship rises out of it, where because they have this network of really amazing programmers now that not only will they work at the big corp, but they can start funding their own companies. I threw that as a bonus idea, I just came up with it. I think I've covered everything that we talked about.

Moderator: They get a full-time offer.

Participant 1: Yes, I mentioned that. Full-time offer at the end so that would be the outcome. What's good for the company who sponsors this is that it's hard to hire. They're going to have someone who's going to have all this amazing support service that the company doesn't necessarily have to pay for. They get a good hire.

Participant 2: We had something very similar, with the similarity of paying the teachers and the interns, getting a return full-time offer, with specifically a focus on marketing so that it can inspire a lot of people to join this program. Something that came up was magazines, which hopefully could even have things that might not be accessible through the phone or through the internet. People could possibly order or just find these magazines, maybe do coding practices on them, who knows? Then, also, when we hire these grads, which is a similar age group, but maybe this program can be open to any age group, the new grads should be able to go back to their communities and provide exposure and really spread the word, further emphasizing the marketing of this program.

Patton: Nice. Love it. Thank you.

Participant 3: Our idea had a lot in common with the apprenticeships idea but more about event-based, social, local thing. Say, at a community center, you have a three-hour event that has food and child care, and you allow people to come and learn to code on hardware that you have in that area, and then they leave with some additional skills. You also have the opportunity to do apprenticeships within that, so people that really are into it and want to help out with the event, they could have some additional time to learn. We've also talked about recording the results and publishing them in a way that the community has access to, like a newsletter or something, to show that people are growing within the community, and this is how they're doing it, and this is a real thing that you can do.

Basically, providing free access to something that people want but don't necessarily know anything about, and then supporting their needs while they're there. If they don't want to pay for dinner or make dinner, and their kids need something to do, we provide that. That's our idea.

Participant 4: Emerita [Participant 2] pointed out something really interesting. I didn't know about the public school system, which is schools are really incentivized, especially monetarily, based on standardized testing, in the sense of the better their students do on standardized testing, the better the school is compensated and supported from federal funding. We were trying to think about, "What's the prototype of getting coding or basic computer science concepts into public curriculum?" One of the ideas we had for a prototype, of course, was forming a pioneering committee or body to start to do research on effective programs, whether they're former teachers or persons in tech who have a background in teaching and education, coming up with prototype curriculum that could start to be evangelized either to standardize testing or public policy on education. Then most importantly, looking at places in the standardized curriculum where certain portions that are currently mandatory could be made elective or optional to create the alternative of engaging with computer science concepts and even just basic logic earlier. We understand the limitation of access to hardware, and even really nice schools don't have computer labs.

It's how early can you insert basic coding concepts, even like for-loops, people are mentioning Scratch and Simon Says, into curriculum to try and foster a shift in thinking that schools then are incentivized to start creating context for these things and that there is an accessible portion in standardized testing that then gives a feedback loop to continue developing these programs locally in ways that work for the school, because every school is going to be different. If we get that pioneering the curriculum, making that policy shift in standardized testing in even federal or state level education requirements, we can create a feedback loop to having more of these ideas that are equipment agnostic in education.

Patton: Thank you. I'm glad I recorded all of that.

Participant 5: We took similar elements from the other groups, but one of the things I do is I do a lot of volunteer work for other nonprofits. I introduced this idea and the team thought it was ok to present. In order to pull scarce resources, the idea would be to work through other established nonprofit orgs for underserved youth. We think that this would be a good approach, because a lot of established nonprofit orgs already are very much in touch with the community. I've listed a couple that I work with in Southern California that I'm directly a volunteer for, but the notion is that, for pulling these scarce resources like the computer, but also just having a way to already embed within the public school systems and work, there's so little to go around, it seems, between all the nonprofits on our public institutions to go off and yet create other organizations and other programs. It's very difficult, I personally think, although personally, I would totally be excited to be challenged on that one.

Then from these programs, I think you just kind of let different things emerge. As you work with a lot of underserved youth, you realize that the problems aren't just about academics and grades and learning to code. It's really about helping with the overall environment and creating and changing those things. You could maybe consider focusing on partnering so that you don't have to reinvent everything.

Patton: Smart, thank you. Thank you all, I appreciate it. The last thing I'm going to say is if you work at a company who has a budget around diversity, try to encourage them to ingrain education into that. More than just saying diversity, think about education. I just heard it all over again. Everyone said the same thing - people need internships and education. Try to slide it in if you can. That will be my one takeaway and call to action, is to encourage the higher-ups to make some real practical decisions to make this happen. I'll be taking notes of all of this and try to digest it all. If you want to get in contact, please do. Don't be surprised if you see some of these things get executed one day. I don't want this to all go to waste, I really want to see this happen. Thank you, guys.


See more presentations with transcripts


Recorded at:

Jan 01, 2020