A student in the CodeYourFuture program makes her final presentation.
More than 108 million people were displaced at the end of 2022, the highest level ever recorded. That means roughly 1 in every 74 people on Earth are dealing with the uncertainty, social stigma and economic hardship that comes with leaving home behind. Migrants are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty, even if they hold professional degrees. But a newly expanded partnership between Slack and the U.K. nonprofit CodeYourFuture could help refugees and displaced people build new careers in the tech sector.
"For people who are forced to move, many don’t see themselves getting settled into a new country, finding a high-paying job, building a life for their family as something that is necessarily accessible to them," said Deepti Rohatgi, executive director of Slack for Good, the company's effort to bring historically underrepresented people into the tech space. "You can't be what you can't see, right? And the fact that we are giving this hope to potentially millions of people is incredibly exciting."
Tech careers can change lives
Around seven years ago, Slack linked up with partners including the Last Mile program at San Quentin State Prison in California to launch Next Chapter, a technology apprenticeship for people leaving prisons and jails. In the years since, the program has placed nearly 50 formerly incarcerated people into highly-skilled apprenticeships and full-time positions at companies like Slack, Zoom, Asana and Square.
"We found a model that worked, that provided training and support and made a pathway into high-paying tech jobs for a population that is incredibly large in the U.S.," Rohatgi said — referring to the roughly 1 in 3 U.S. adults with criminal justice histories.
Seeing the success of the program and how tech training can change lives, the Slack volunteers behind Next Chapter were inspired to apply what they learned to another global crisis: the wave of migrants entering Europe who often struggle to find employment and economic stability.
"We did an analysis of a bunch of different groups — and what we found was that, similar to formerly incarcerated individuals, nobody had found a pathway for refugees into the tech sector and into high-level, high-paying jobs," Rohatgi told us. "So, we wanted to take our time and build a similar program that was more global in nature and had a bigger footprint."
Creating new opportunities for refugees and displaced people
Rohatgi spoke with leaders at more than 40 nonprofit organizations and ultimately landed on CodeYourFuture, which trains refugees and low-income people for careers in the tech field, as a core partner for this work.
CodeYourFuture's existing curriculum trains would-be tech professionals in software engineering, with more than 70 percent of graduates going on to careers in the field, according to the organization.
The new CYF+ program — launched by Slack and CodeYourFuture in January after nearly three years of development — goes a step further, with a model that's custom-made to train refugees and other displaced people for the in-demand field of site reliability engineering.
"The prior graduations that CodeYourFuture had were much more front-end, lower levels," Rohatgi said. "People were getting jobs, but what we saw when we had conversations with them is they weren't growing in their careers. What we decided to do with CodeYourFuture+ is focus on a very specific skill set — highly, highly skilled engineering that is in huge demand. You cannot find enough system engineers in Europe, so to build the pipeline, that's what took us so long was to create the curriculum to get that training done."
The program includes an open-source site reliability curriculum, developed by CodeYourFuture along with Slack engineers and volunteers from other tech companies. In only two months, the curriculum has been downloaded more than 2,000 times. "There's a huge demand for the content," Rohatgi said. "We created a curriculum that anybody can use, which I think is super exciting."
A work placement program for refugees that's starting small and poised to scale
Along with the open-source curriculum, Slack and CodeYourFuture are trialing a work placement program that mirrors Next Chapter. The first two participants started in January with an eight-week course, followed by a a six-month paid work placement at Slack. Rohatgi checks up on them often and says they're settling into their new roles.
"They love it. We build so much support for them," she said. "They have an executive coach who is an early Slack engineer in that team. So, if they have questions, they have somebody they can ask, who can help them with their code, who understands what Slack does. They also have a coach on the CodeYourFuture side."
Still, the roles are demanding, and the work is not for everyone. "The engineering work they do is hard," Rohatgi said. "It's not going to be an option for all refugees and for everybody or, frankly, every coder. Similarly with Next Chapter, not everybody who comes home from prison can be an engineer."
Understanding how well the curriculum prepares apprentices for their work placement and how they're able to take on the role is essential for future success. "I think they're learning a lot, they're growing a lot and they have all the support they need," Rohatgi said. "We have every intention of continuing to hire more apprentices, and hopefully we'll scale to other companies."
Next Chapter grew from Slack as the sole employment partner up to 17 participating tech companies today, and Rohatgi sees CYF+ following a similar path.
"We're using the Next Chapter program as a model," she said. "Once one company signs on and we prove the model works, then we get to two. And then once you get to two, the model's proven — you prove you have great candidates, that the conversion rate from apprentice to full-time employee is high — and then other companies will join pretty quickly is what I found. But I do think a big reason for that is because we spend so much time building these programs. These programs aren't something we do in three months. These are programs we build in three years."
Slack and CodeYourFuture are in talks to launch a second work placement cohort this fall. They're actively seeking other tech companies to get involved — and they're already seeing an interest.
"System reliability engineering is a very in-demand field, so there are a lot of companies that are interested in this program and in getting this talent," Rohatgi said. "I've had a few conversations already, both with CodeYourFuture and a couple tech companies, for engaging in getting these folks. So, hopefully it not only continues at Slack, but scales to other companies."
There's a clear business case for more employers to get involved. "This isn't necessarily social responsibility. This is good business," Rohatgi said. "You get a very well-trained engineer that you need, that you aren't able to find, and I think that's what makes Next Chapter different and what makes this program different."
Further, people who are given an opportunity they didn't see themselves having tend to be highly motivated once an employer does open the door. That's a big motivator for tech firms, which face the highest employee turnover rate of any industry, according to recent research from LinkedIn.
"One thing we see with Next Chapter, and obviously this is a different situation, but what we see is that when you do give people a chance, they tend to stay," Rohatgi said. "So, you don't have that turnover issue we see with lots of other folks. It's just good business, frankly."
Companies interested in participating in CYF+ are encouraged to contact CodeYourFuture.
Images courtesy of CodeYourFuture
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.