Can an in-person coding lab revitalize a city and diversify the tech industry?

Google and Ford Motor Co. think so. They're working to make it happen in Detroit.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer
Three students share a table and laptops at Google's Code Next lab.

Students at Google's Code Next lab in New York City work on a partner-coding exercise in Javascript.


Improving diversity, equity and inclusion in tech is top of mind for educators across the globe. And yet, when students of color in tech look around, they often realize that not many of their peers or teachers look like them. 

The same is true when Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students enter the workforce. And the number of people of color in tech is often out of alignment with the demographics of local communities.

Work to address these issues continues. But progress in increasing diversity in STEM jobs remains "uneven," according to a 2021 report.

Several years ago, Google employees of color came together to talk about ways to address this ongoing challenge. Their collaborative conversations gave life to the Code Next program in 2015, according to Kyle Ali.

Ali is Google's interim senior lead program manager for Code Next. He spoke with ZDNet about its launch.

In the Code Next program, Google engages 9th through 12th graders in live coding labs where students "have access to live coaches, world-class technology and learning experiences that would both shape and mold their confidence," Ali said.

"[We] also help them build the skill set and a network that can enable them to step into some of the most rigorous computer science programs and to step back into their own communities and to become makers and to become the builders and shape the future of technology."

READ THIS: Diversity in tech: What it means and how to get there

Why Detroit and Michigan Central?

Code Next currently has labs in New York City and Oakland. Ali said the program has evolved. When the pandemic hit, Google launched Code Next Connect. This online version of the program currently has students from 42 states. 

Ali explained to ZDNet why they chose Detroit as the next place to grow Google's in-person presence. 

"We've got our lab in Oakland, we've got our lab in New York City, so we've got the coasts covered," Ali said. "But the Midwest has always been on our radar, and Detroit just proved to be such a unique opportunity."

Earlier this year, Ruth Porat, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Google and parent company Alphabet, announced that the company would join Ford Motor Co. as a founding member of the Michigan Central redevelopment project. 

Ford wants to transform the 30-acre urban site into a "walkable innovation hub" that will feature "new and revitalized buildings, a first of its kind mobility testing platform, multiple outdoor plazas, open spaces, and 1.2 million square feet of commercial public space."

According to news reports, Ford plans to invest $740 million in the project. The state of Michigan also "plans to align more than $126 million in new and existing investments, programming and resources" to support the project.

"And the opportunity to be a part of that project was really exciting to us," Ali said. "To bring our content into a place that has a rich cultural history, and bring our content to a place that has a rich industrial history, to be there now as it begins to have an impact on the future of technology felt really exciting.

"When we think about our labs," he continued, "what's really, really important to us is our students feel like they have a sense of ownership in our labs. When they walk into our space, we want them to feel like it is indeed their space.

"Particularly in Detroit, this is an amazing opportunity," Ali added. "Because not only are they going to walk into this lab and feel like they are owners in their future and owners in the future of Google, but we're hoping because of what that building represents for the city that they feel like they are indeed owners in the future direction of the city at large, and that's really special for us."

Five students of color sit on benches in front of a mural. The mural depicts a timeline of the invention of computers.

Code Next labs include spaces designed by Kurani architects for students to spend time with one another and interact with Google coaches, as well as wall designs celebrating local engineers and inventors of color.


'One of the most valuable experiences'

Mary Jo Madda, senior program manager, growth and engagement at Code Next, said going virtual allowed them to engage with students everywhere, including in Detroit. Their enthusiasm and engagement caught Google's attention.

"It's the first time that we've opened up in a city where we have some existing alumni who are then going to be able to come into the lab and do work with the students and sort of help with that long-term pathway development," Madda said. 

"Because as much as we can provide some amazing things for the students, there's really nothing quite like having a student like Joshua Wallington, who's a freshman at Howard University, come home to Detroit over the summer and work with the kids in the physical Detroit lab. …He grew up in the city, he knows the city, he loves the city and he loves to code. So that's an additional element of why Detroit as a site is just so exciting."

Wallington participated in Code Next Connect, the virtual program. 

"I was able to interact with kids that look like me in the STEM field, which was, I think, one of the most valuable experiences ever," Wallington told Detroit's WXYZ-TV

Code Next, he said, is "something that most people will enjoy, especially being able to create something of your own — is something that everyone should do. So whether that's computer science, engineering, working with drones — technology is everywhere. Technology is cool. People should go for it."

A passport to opportunity

The Code Next lab in Detroit will open in a temporary space this summer.

"There is a space that's called the Book Depository that's adjacent to Michigan Central and that's where we'll spend the first couple of months of our existence in Detroit," Ali said. "Our hope is that we'll be ready to move into our permanent space in the spring of 2023, once the building is fully open and functional."

Applications for Code Next — both the in-person and online programs — are open now through August 5. The program is focused on recruiting 9th graders, who are typically first-year high school students.

"We tend to have a programming track where they're learning about Javascript, Python, HTML, but then we also have making," Madda said. Making involves 3D printing and laser cutting. 

"We're going to have an intro to graphic design club in the fall, which I'm really excited about." 

She also noted that during some introductory workshops at Detroit public schools, students had a strong interest in art. 

At one of those workshops, "there were these two young girls sitting there, and both of them were a little resistant to the idea of going into computer science. We asked who might want to go and become a computer scientist? And neither of them raised their hand."

"But during the workshop," Madda continued, "which is our introduction to computational artwork, where students learn how to use basic P5 processing to create emojis, and the two of them started creating Kirby — Kirby is that character I think from Super Mario Bros. 

"And the two of them were getting so excited about being able to use basic knowledge of P5 processing software to produce these small images of Kirby and the connectivity that was happening in their minds turned it from 'I don't think computing is relevant to my life' to 'Wow, this is amazing I can use computational thinking and processing to produce pieces of art that are really exciting to me.'"

Student engagement spikes when they realize coding can bring their creative ideas to life.

"And we see coding as a very similar pathway as writing or creating music, or any of the other ways that people might fuel their creative expression and bring their ideas to the fore," Ali said.

Close-up of a student wearing a black shirt and holding a closed laptop. The shirt has "Google Code Next" printed on its sleeve.

According to Google, all students at Code Next have access to technology and the latest hardware, including 3-D printers and laptops.


How do I get involved?

The application for the current cohort is available here. Google also published an FAQ.

Madda encouraged anyone interested to apply to Code Next. If you're accepted, it's free.

"You don't have to have any computer science experience. That's not what we're looking for. We're just looking for interest and excitement about the program," she said. 

Ali agreed:

For our students and for many students. I think there is the tendency to think of coding or programming as highly technical. And there are technical aspects to it, but everything begins with an idea. The proximity that we have to our students in the lab allows us to understand what their ambitions are, what they're interested in, and what they want to learn more about.

And then we present coding as a way for them to take those ideas and those ambitions and turn them into something that can have utility for them, utility for their community and hopefully, if we do this correctly, utility for the world.

Learning to code, Ali continued, is one of the key ways to open doors to opportunities in tech.

"The access, the pathway, the passport to being able to get to those opportunities runs through coding," Ali said. "And so we make sure that our students know how to code."

 But he added that Code Next programs focus on other skills too.

"When we look at the research around retention in computer science programs — when we look at the research around retention within technology companies — we know that it doesn't always come down to technical skill or technical acumen," Ali said. "It comes down to networks, it comes down to a sense of belonging.

"It comes down to confidence in your ability to make an impact and the opportunity that you've been extended," he continued. "And so the way that we approach it, how we approach it through the labs, through the relationship building, through the constant affirmation that these students are worthy and deserving. We think that that is equally — and in some situations, even more — important than what we can provide from a coding and a skill-based standpoint."

To create a sense of community, students can visit the coding lab anytime it's open. If they're not there learning, they might just want to grab some food and hang out with friends. 

"And that is absolutely fine," Ali said. "In fact, it's encouraged." 

Madda echoed that sentiment.

"One of the things I think Code Next really embodies is the reality that knowing how to actually code something is just one part of having a successful career in the tech field," Madda said. 

"A lot of times, there's a lot of soft skill development — collaboration, creativity, presentation skills – that play into success as well as your networks — the social community you engage with."

Google is also ready to engage a new community with the Code Next program. But they aren't ready to say where. Ali confirmed that they plan to open another lab in 2023. 

"We're not in the position right now to share exactly where that lab is going to be. But hopefully, we will be soon and we can keep you posted on that," he told ZDNet.

Editorial standards