Using Programming to Help People in Poverty

First, I'll tell some stories of two dear friends of mine:

His father was an alcoholic, and his mother was terribly abusive in many ways. His sisters were both going down bad paths-- drugs, etc. It was a terrible childhood.

He used computers to escape. His family got an old computer and he poured any time he could get into that, to shut everything else out.

When his dad left and his mother couldn't support the family, he was homeless. His computer was taken away and he moved between living on the streets to shelters to cheap motels. He couldn't focus in school, so he ended up not finishing high school-- family life was just too stressful. So instead, he found books and read about computer science that way.

He learned enough this way to go to college. Eventually was able to leave his family and get a low-wage job, enough to support himself. No one told him what college was growing up, he had to figure it out later. But he did, and he's well off now.

He grew up in a terrible neighborhood. Next to one of the murder capitals of the United States. Heroin and drugs were a big problem in his neighborhood. He lived next to a chemical plant that once poisoned the water supply and made him very sick and partially permanently hurt him.

His parents and family were not good to be around-- father was an alcoholic. His parents and a lot of extended family were packed into their house. So his brother and him escaped to the attic where it was freezing (literally) but at least they could have space. His family got a computer one day, and that became his escape.

He programmed on it as much as he could. It was his way of coping with stress. His monitor burned out one day and he couldn't afford another one, so he'd steal computers from the school to be able to work on them on the weekend. His teacher once caught him and decided to say nothing-- they knew what was going on. Eventually the stress of his family life caused him to drop out of high school, but he kept escaping into computers whenever he could.

He started posting some of his work in online chatrooms, and eventually it got noticed and got him a job. And he never needed to live that kind of life again. A few years later he was making more money than he knew was possible to make growing up in that town.

Using technology and technology events to help lift people out of poverty is a different beast than using technology to bring more women or other underrepresented groups into the field. It's all related, actually, but different in nuanced ways.

Lately we've been trying to focus on bringing more people in Seattle out of poverty. In using the power we do have, however much it might be, to make an impact on people's lives.

Just knowing someone can change a person's life. We specifically partner with nonprofits who reach out to people in poverty. We are working to speak and teach workshops at the local prison and poorer schools. We're thinking of simply hosting events in poorer neighborhoods.

What we've done so far is mentoring. We keep our eyes open for anyone who may want to learn more, and talk with people about this issue so they can as well and so they can refer people to us. And we've taught those people computer science skills, introduced them to the right people, helped them get jobs.

It's not something you can exactly talk about publicly, not in the same way as say getting a lot of women to show up at a computer science event. Some people feel embarrassed about their stories, others just don't want them framed as coming from an underprivileged background.

So we quietly go on and help people.

But I bring this up because I feel the issue of poverty in our communities is one we have power to drastically influence. We can help people get out of situations like the ones I described above.

Even helping one person is significant.

And we can do that.

Seven Questions with Baldur

List of Engineers Willing to Mentor You