With COVID reshaping IT, Syosset startups hit stride

Face the nation: The national demand for computer programming professionals is rising fast -- and diversity can save the day, according to We Connect the Dots and the Nebula Academy.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

If you thought the computer-savvy were in demand before the pandemic, better re-check those spreadsheets: Digitation has soared, and with it the need for skilled coders and programmers.

This is brilliant news for We Connect the Dots and the Nebula Academy, the Syosset-based brainchildren of founder Laurie Carey on an ongoing mission to educate new generations of software specialists, in direct response to evolving workforce needs.

Both We Connect (a nonprofit focused on high school-aged students) and the Nebula Academy (a for-profit coder school for adult professionals) made the pandemic pivot in 2020, switching to all-remote instruction – right in their wheelhouse, according to Carey, who noted “digital is part of our world.”

“This is what we do,” Carey said. “For us, it was just a matter of flipping everything to digital. And it went even better than we expected.”

While the technology and techniques transitioned nicely, the digital swing did challenge a cornerstone of Carey’s philosophy: Both We Connect and the Nebula Academy emphasize collaborative problem-solving, a team-building ideal best explored in person.

Younger students in We Connect’s educational programs faced an additional challenge: “screen burnout,” as Carey put it, referencing long Age of Coronavirus school days filled with digitized learning.

“The biggest challenge we’ve had are kids being burned out after being online for so long every day,” the innovator noted. “But we got over that quickly and made it more engaging, by redesigning our team-building activities to make them more online-immersive.”

The same applied to the latest Nebula Academy cohort, which completed its 22-week training program in August – the first of two 2020 cohorts funded by a $196,000 New York State Department of Labor grant, secured through the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council’s 2019 funding application.

With slight team-building modifications for remote projects, adult learners took to the all-online training program exceptionally well. “No traveling, just walk right up to your computer,” Carey said. “A lot of adults said they didn’t know if they could ever do in-person training again.”

In addition to parlaying the sister organizations’ digital chops, the pandemic has shined a light on some critical societal truths – not only the increasing demand for experienced programmers, but the urgent need for diversity in the computer sciences and the disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on “underrepresented populations,” both of particular interest to Carey.

“The people COVID has hurt most are these underrepresented populations,” she said. “That’s where we’re seeing the biggest unemployment disruption and the biggest skills gap.”

Team spirit: In-person bonding is out for now, but We Connect the Dots is aces at online collaboration.

Notably, an upcoming Nebula Academy software-engineering bootcamp is comprised entirely of African American students – not by design, according to Carey, who noted “that’s who came to apply” – while another evening training course is filled with a rich blend of ethnicities. The diversity, Carey noted, does not go unnoticed.

“We try to have a lot of diversity in our guest speakers,” she said. “And they have commented, ‘Wow, you guys look like me! I never see this!’”

Nonprofit We Connect is also gearing up for a big finish to its pivotal 2020. And while it has certainly challenged the learning program’s focus on collaborative group dynamics, the pandemic has actually opened an intriguing new door.

Registration opens today for We Connect’s sixth code-a-thon – traditionally, a multisite, multistate, sometimes multinational and always multiday (and sleepaway) coding event with plenty of in-person activities on the schedule.

This January’s 2021 Code-A-Thon, naturally, will be all-digital – and that’s “actually exciting for us,” according to Carey, who said the remote format “removes some of the inhibitors we had with students because of the sleepover part.”

Laurie Carey: All systems go.

“That has held us back, because it’s been a physical-presence thing – you had to be there,” she said. “Some communities didn’t have the resources to run the program and some wouldn’t embrace the liabilities surrounding it.”

Others just couldn’t get their head around the overnight thing. Carey drew an analogy to overnight Scouting trips, but said some parents couldn’t grasp how coding and programming benefit from similar bonding.

“Some people just didn’t get why it was an overnight event,” she said. “But the doors are wide open now.”

As such, We Connect expects registration for its sixth code-a-thon to come from “all over the world” and to “increase substantially,” according to Carey, who anticipates recruiting about 50 volunteer mentors (registration now open) and wants to keep a roughly 4-1 coder/mentor ratio for the Jan. 29-31 digital event.

Meanwhile, We Connect is enjoying an ongoing partnership with Westbury-based Jovia Financial Credit Union, which supported the nonprofit’s 2020 summer programs and is already in for 2021 – “an investment in the Long Island community,” Carey noted.

“We are teaching the skills we desperately need our workforce to have,” she added. “Jovia is partnering with us on our student initiatives, which is their market – their customers are mostly educators, so that’s a nice fit with the work we do.”

With that alliance bolstering the cause and her nonprofit and for-profit entities both answering direct needs deepened by the COVID crisis, Carey is pleased with the progress she and her partners have made since We Connect the Dots launched in 2012.

“Do we think every student will get a coding job when they’re done here? No,” she said. “But they’re getting really good at using computers and different platforms and technologies.

“We’re teaching them to learn, so they can pick up any new technology and any new concept,” Carey added. “What we’re teaching today might not even exist in five years – but they’ll understand how to learn, how to use the Internet as a resource, how to work in teams and solve problems together.

“All of these skills are transferable to the workforce.”