Keith Klain didn’t set out to improve employee diversity in the tech sector, and he wasn’t looking in the South Bronx.
His IT consulting firm, Doran Jones, used to call the Financial District home. Now its unassuming glass door faces a hot dog factory and a reliable rumble of trucks over the Bruckner Expressway.
“If you told someone you were going to build a software testing company in the poorest congressional district in America and it would work with Tier 1 banks, a health dose of skepticism is probably warranted,” Klain said.
But Doran Jones, staffed by more than 80 percent non-white software testers, is doing just that.
Klain spent more than 20 years in IT consulting at big banks, directing the Barclays Global Test Center from Singapore. By 2012, he was sick of living abroad and wanted to move work back to the States. He decided that in order to do that, he’d have to create cost-competitive, American-based software testing jobs.
A serendipitous connection through a colleague brought him to Per Scholas, a non-profit technology training center in the Bronx. After one visit, Klain knew he had found a robust talent pool.
“I spent four hours with the students there and was blown away,” he said. “They were the ones grilling me!”
Over the next couple years, Klain developed an IT testing curriculum with Per Scholas, quit his job at Barclays and joined Doran Jones, a technology consulting firm willing to partner with Per Scholas to create a site for Bronx-based software testing.
Per Scholas raised the more than $1.7 million needed to construct the site, a neon-accented, 15,000-square-foot space on 138th Street called the Urban Development Center. The Urban Development Center currently employs 52 software testers but has the capacity for 150. With more funding, Klain hopes to eventually expand to the third floor of the building, which would add another 300 jobs.
Per Scholas receives 25 percent of Doran Jones’ profits from the Urban Development Center. Klain hopes that the profit share forges a stronger training-to-career pipeline between the two organizations.
“This is a paradigm that breaks a lot of the old ideas of how to get money to people,” Klain said.
Per Scholas and Doran Jones faced some skepticism from funders and potential clients throughout the process of building the Urban Development Center. Some foundations were wary of the commercial end of the partnership. Clients in the private sector wanted to be sure that the business was truly offering competitive services.
“This is a classic example of build it and we’ll believe it,” said Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas.
Per Scholas graduates will make up 80 percent of hires at the Urban Development Center. After they complete two 8-week courses, graduates who began with a high school diploma or GED can qualify for a starting salary of $35,000. After one year, they will make $45,000. After two, they earn $55,000. The median household income in the Bronx is $34,388, and two-thirds of Per Scholas students start the program with a yearly income of $5,000 or less.
“We want to make sure Bronx residents have their fair share of tech jobs,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz said at the Urban Development Center’s grand opening in mid-September. “The thirst from Bronxites is there. We want this to be the next tech hub.”
For Klain, that includes defining tech jobs more broadly. He pointed to a 2014 study by the HR&A Advisors, which stated that 52 percent of New York City tech employment exists in non-tech industries—such as software testing for a bank like Barclays. While working on a startup mobile app or at a tech giant like Google may seem sexier, Klain believes the focus should shift to the 150,000 tech jobs in non-tech industries.
“We’re training people for the wrong things,” Klain said. “The careers are here.”
Not everyone agrees on the same definition of tech jobs, however. While the HR&A Advisors study includes tech careers in non-tech industries and estimates the total number of tech jobs to be 291,000, a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York puts that number at 113,000.
For Ayala, it’s about shifting the narrative of empowerment through tech. Suggesting that everyone can succeed by learning to code is unrealistic, he said.
“Software development has been adopted as the end-all and cure-all for poverty,” Ayala said. “But it’s not the magic bullet.”