Four millennials huddled at workstations, bent on solving the mysteries of malfunctioning computers. “We’d have to open it up,” said a young man, stumped by a particularly challenging case.
“Have you Googled it?” one responded. “If you fix it …”
“I’ll be the hero of the day!” he cheered softly, pumping his fists in the air.
At the Mission Techies Academy, local youth have a chance to break into a sector that has transformed the city — a transformation that threatens to displace them if they cannot find their futures within it.
“We need to be earning six figures, living in San Francisco,” said Mercy Mena, the program’s most recent female graduate, while slogging over repair tickets for 10 iMacs from Bryant Elementary School.
“Still, you might not be comfortable,” said her peer and a fellow Missionite, 22-year-old Juan Cardenas, as he searched the web for a ’Toshiba sticky keyboard solution.’
“As long as I can pay my bills, I’m comfortable,” Mena replied.
Leo Sosa, the Mission Economic Development Agency’s technology training coordinator, created Mission Techies to connect and empower “disconnected youth,” primarily Latinos age 17-24, with education and career opportunities in information technology.
Now entering its sixth 12 week session, about a handful of students have graduated from each class, with most continuing in relevant training, education or employment according to Sosa. Word has spread, with recent trainees learning about the program from other youth programs, relatives or by visiting MEDA themselves.
“Here’s a place where you can come and learn a skill,” said Sosa, who is the academy’s primary instructor. He described the gap between high school and college completion as a young person’s “second and last chance“ to secure their career path.
“When I was their age, I didn’t have a coach like me,” he said. “My mentor was the streets.”
Sosa entered tech and teaching after a leg injury from his late-night, blue-collar job prompted him to get a computer science degree. He frequently cites how poorly minority groups are represented in the tech industry. A U.S. Census Bureau report states that, while 15 percent of the nation’s workforce was Hispanic in 2011, only 7 percent of workers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — were Hispanic. Sosa believes programs like Mission Techies can improve those numbers, and with them young lives.
Participants in the program have three months to gain basic skills they need to pursue careers in information technology. From 1 to 5 p.m. three days a week, the “techies” are in a free but demanding boot camp. To get a taste of the different career paths, like web development and system administration, they learn a little of everything IT: from software and coding to hardware and networking.
In the process, Mission Techies offers free tech support and computer repair (parts not included) to community members willing to entrust their devices to budding tech workers.
Techies In Training
In the last three weeks of Mission Techies Academy’s most recent session, only four of its 17 original applicants remained: Juan Cardenas, Mercy Mena, Ramiro Quezada and Elijah Toluao. Of the 17, 12 enrolled and eight have dropped out for any number of reasons including work pressure, a loss of interest and a family emergency.
Sosa put on the pressure. He had them work with Macs, something they hadn’t done before. (“I gotta say, Macs are a pain,” Cardenas would later joke at the Mission Techie graduation.) Ten computers from Bryant Elementary School were waiting in the hall, and Jamestown Community Center requested that 20 of its computers be serviced soon.
The four trainees also had a weekend job fair on the horizon, and each had a mentor in the tech industry, working for places like LinkedIn or Google, to correspond with. “I really want you to be serious about this,” said Sosa. “Everything you’re doing (now) is preparing you for that internship, that part-time job.”
“Believe me, the money’s good,” he added. He pointed out that, to support his family, including a newborn, 23-year-old Quezada works the graveyard shift at UPS. “You don’t have to be doing that for very long,” Sosa told him.
To practice working as a tech support team, Sosa had each trainee have a turn in a specific role: floor supervisor, inventory manager, and technician.
“Juan, your job is to find out what is up with the sticky keys,” he said, assigning Cardenas to the technician role and eliciting laughs.
Fellow technician Elijah Toluao, 24, faced a less humorous job. “It’s not turning on,” he said of the older MacBook Pro placed in his care.
“Nothing?” asked Sosa, grabbing some cables to connect the laptop to an external monitor. “Now we’re going to be troubleshooters.”
About an hour of troubleshooting later, the MacBook Pro turned on — but also off, over and over again. “Just getting it on is a success,” said Toluao, continuing to tinker and recording his steps on a clipboard. He narrowed the problem down to the laptop’s motherboard or battery.
“I’m hoping it’s the battery,” he said. Replacing a logic board is “like replacing the whole computer.”
(“It’s the logic board,” said Sosa, with an expert glance. The MacBook Pro’s owner said he let his little brothers play with the computer. ‘I think they dropped it,’ he said.)
The work is “a lot of problem solving and research,” said Juan Cardenas, who had moved from searching for ‘sticky keys’ to looking for a replacement trackpad. “It’s pretty rewarding.”
As the day wound down without any project finished, Sosa led a debrief.
He asked the trainees to imagine they were already working for tech companies. “It’s 5 o’clock,” he said. “You know your work isn’t nearly complete. What do you do?”
“Stay overtime,” came one answer. “Try to close up,” was another.
“Are you ready for the real answer?” asked Sosa. “Get your sleeping bag!”
He said he wouldn’t ask the techies to stay to do more work. But “I’ll be here tomorrow at 9, if you want to come,” he added, referring to a Friday — not part of the program schedule.
The techies said they would be there.
Hopes for the Future
Upon graduating from Mission Techies, having only learned the basics, trainees still have a long road ahead before they can be successful in the tech industry. The 17-24 year olds receive $500 stipends and continued career support with an emphasis on internship placement.
Ramiro Quezada is interested in becoming a programmer, and dreams of working at Google. “Right now I like Java,” he said. “I got it really quick. You tell the computer to do something, and it does it — that’s pretty cool.”
Elijah Toluao did so well learning Java, he will be teaching the language to the latest Mission Techies cohort. Like previous techies, he’s hoping to continue his training at Year Up, or perhaps Galvanize.
In the meantime, he’s studying computer science at City College. He said being responsible for others’ troubled computers “felt a little overwhelming” at first. “You learn a lot of patience,” he said.
Juan Cardenas, also a City College student, is studying economics and accounting but is considering a switch to IT. He has gone from working security gigs at Zynga and Lyft to being mentored by a Google employee through Mission Techies. “I can picture myself working at one of those tech companies someday,” he said.
His mentor, Alex Wolfe, seemed to agree. “(Cardenas) is like a sponge,” said Wolfe, a UX manager at Google. “He’s ambitious, respectful, very hard working — all the qualities that you want.”
At their graduation, Cardenas spoke hopefully to his fellow techies. “Before you know it, we’ll all be able to afford our own apartments in San Francisco,” he said.
Wolfe said he would continue helping Cardenas build his web development skills post-Mission Techies. He volunteered to be a mentor because he “didn’t walk in through the front door” of the tech industry himself, Wolfe said. “It’s a tough journey; people need to help you out.”
Mercy Mena’s route toward tech has been a little longer than her Mission Techie peers’. At age 29, she is an exception to the program’s guidelines. Her caseworker at Homeless Prenatal told her about the IT training opportunity.
“The flier said ’17 to 24,’ — I don’t know what gave me the courage to apply anyway,” she said. Once she discussed Mission Techies with Sosa, with his encouragement, she committed herself to the program.
Because of her age, Mena could not receive a stipend for graduating. But she oozed gratefulness just the same. She hopes to do something creative in technology to support herself and her 5-year-old. “I talked to (Sosa) and said I was interested in coding,” she said. “He said, ‘We’ll have to get you ready for Tech SF.’”
Sosa is ambitious for his students, and for the future of the program. He leads his students on trips to tech workplaces, and imagines Mission Techie graduates bridging the gap in minority employment in the sector. In April, the program was accepted to Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference in June, leaving the group about a month to learn to code apps in Swift — starting with some simple games.
Recently, the program won a partnership with the Full Circle Fund, that will supplement its funding from the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Sosa hopes to expand the academy to younger and “even senior techies,” he said.
“Young people have transformed their lives,” he said. “Being in there with them is the best.”
For more information about the Mission Techies Academy, contact Leo Sosa at the Mission Economic Development Agency at 415-282-3334 ext. 105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.