Coders Cultivate Diversity


Cultivating Coders, an Albuquerque-based coding boot camp, doesn’t just teach students how to code, it helps solve community problems.

Instead of having students complete small tasks and projects that are solely related to the boot camp, Cultivating Coders asks students to identify issues within their own community and then create software that can aid in fixing them. That means the 8-week program not only helps students develop coding skills; it also promotes community development.

“The idea is let’s do something that once we leave, they can still use it and it will benefit the community,” said Charles Ashley, co-founder and president of Cultivating Coders. “It wasn’t just, ‘oh we train them and leave,’ it was, now we give them a tool, we give them resources and they’re going to manage that.”

As one might imagine, this is a very unique business model, and one that recently garnered a lot of attention. Ashley, and fellow co-founder Charles Sandage, recently won Tech Startup of the year at the South by Southwest conference in Austin.

“Winning [Tech Startup of the year], number one, validates your business model, number two it gives you exposure,” Ashley said. “It has really catapulted us into a position where people will say, ‘wow! If people who are proven in the tech industry really like what you’re doing, maybe we should give you a second look.’”

Cultivating Coders is a traveling coding boot camp that teaches valuable coding skills and brings opportunities to underserved communities. So far, the organization has been focusing mostly on New Mexico’s Native American population.

“Native American is not even on the radar when it comes to coding. There’s a number, there’s a percentage of people in tech and it’s 94 percent Asian and Caucasian,” said Sandage, co-founder and chief technology officer. He said fewer than 1 percent of coders are Native American. “Under one percent and it’s not even on the pie chart because under one percent probably means .002 percent because there’s three [Native] people in the tech space that are doing it.”

Sandage said the group reached out to Native communities because of this lack of representation, and because the pair already had connections in the tribal space.

“The idea is to kind of help our own neighborhood, our own backyard, first and then, hopefully, it catches on nationally, internationally,” he said.

Ashley added that New Mexico’s Native American communities are in need of individuals with coding skills. Currently, when organizations, such as tribal governments or casinos, need help developing websites and software, they often have to contract that work to individuals outside of their community.

“They pay somebody in the middle of Albuquerque, somebody in the middle of Phoenix with no tribal affiliations money to develop,” Sandage said. He said this happens because members of many tribal communities have never gotten the opportunity to learn how to code and develop software. The pair is hoping to change that.

By partnering with tribal entities such as governments and casinos, Sandage and Ashley hope to create a boot camp experience that allows participants to solve community problems by working with community institutions. They want students to develop software that can be put to good use by local organizations.

“What happens is those students now have accidentally fallen into an eight-week internship with those [tribal] entities,”Ashley said. After the boot camp is over, he said, the hope is that local organizations will start employing graduates, keeping money within the tribal community.

“You’re going into a community and not only are you teaching kids and young adults valuable coding skills, but then you’re also giving the community a new resource,” said Charles Rath, the president and founder of Resilient Solutions 21, an organization partnering with Cultivating Coders. “It’s really a brilliant sequence of events.”

Rath’s organization has agreed to offer internships to a few students graduating from the boot camps. His company helps organizations solve large-scale problems by utilizing experts and data to drive decision-making.

Providing opportunities

Ashley said he thought of the idea for a traveling coding boot camp while working with Central New Mexico’s (CNM) boot camp in Albuquerque last year.

“Charles Ashley, in general, is a very socially conscious person. I think he sees the world through that lense,”Rath said. “I think he was introduced to the power of coding through coding boot camps…I think he naturally started thinking about how the coding boot camp can also solve socio-economic issues as well.”

Sandage was a part of CNM’s boot camp, which is where he met Ashley and was introduced to the Cultivating Coders idea.

“We would just talk daily about random stuff, not anything business,” Sandage said. “And then he brought the idea as far as, ‘hey, why can’t we just go there?’ And I said, ‘why can’t we?’”

The pair quickly realized that if they wanted to provide a coding boot camp for people who couldn’t afford to come to Albuquerque and pay for a camp, they were going to have to do more than offer a reduced price. Lots of prospective students didn’t own laptops, or, if they did, they didn’t own very good ones.

“We decided, we’d just give them laptops with all the software, libraries of stuff that they would need to help develop themselves and help actually do work,” Sandage said. The company has even provided housing and meals to help students succeed.

At these boot camps, Cultivating Coders also provides a number of other resources, like life coaching and entrepreneurial training. Ashley said the students they work with need more than just training in coding, they also need to learn how to market themselves and how to succeed in today’s economy.

“We just have to a little bit more catch-up,” Sandage said of working with underserved communities. “That’s the coolest part about going to the tribal space is that we don’t really care what your background is, because the future is endless.”

Startup of the year

Ashley said winning Tech Startup of the year in Austin came as a big surprise.

“There’s no way I thought we were going to win,” he laughs. Ashley says they attended the event in the hopes that they would meet prospective business partners, and winning the pitch competition was just a happy side effect of that decision.

Sandage, on the other hand, would have been surprised if they had not won.

“[Ashley] nailed the pitch, didn’t leave anything out and walked off. He could have just dropped the mike,” Sandage said. “The energy the entire time was from us and the idea. I told him when he walked off, we won. We’re good.”

“I’ve never seen a business idea get such a warm reception in such a small amount of time,” Rath said. “Every time I see Charles [Ashley] explain the concept to people they light up.”

Ashley said they met a lot of really interesting people at the event, and he’s excited about the partnership opportunities that came out of it. Cultivating Coders has developed a number of partnerships already, like the one with Rath’s company, but they’re looking forward to the possibility of doing business with a big-name company.

“We have some exciting things that we think are brewing behind this,” Ashley said.

Social good

Both Ashley and Sandage are passionate about creating opportunities for people who have none, and both say social good is the main driver for their involvement in Cultivating Coders.

“I’ve always had this inner passion to do great things for people and give back,” says Ashley. “It’s hard to explain. I makes you feel good. It makes you sleep better at night.”

Sandage says he wants to see real diversity in coding.

“I’m almost taking it like a competitive challenge,” he said. “I’m going to show you that we can go find developers in the far reaches and they’re going to do the same amount of work and the same quality of work and they’re actually going to be changing the community.”

Ashley said the biggest perk of the job is working with students who are excited about their futures.

“We’re excited about the progress, but we’re more humbled by the reaction of the students that we’ve already recruited for our first classes, at how eager they are to participate. Or when they say ‘we’d never thought we’d have this type of opportunity in this area,’ and ‘this is what I’ve always wanted to do.’ That excitement and enthusiasm is what humbled the both of us,” he said. “The business part is cool, but the genuineness of students is the part that we both remember the most.”

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