On Oct. 21, 2015, Facebook launched a website called TechPrep to “help parents, guardians and learners explore programming, the jobs available to programmers and the skills required to become one.” With support from research group McKinsey & Co., this rich resource hub serves up reference materials, tutorials, videos, games, and apps targeted to audiences of varying ages and programming experience.
TechPrep was developed primarily to spur interest in programming careers among underrepresented minorities—specifically blacks and Hispanics—who, according to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), a Congressional Black Caucus member, “by 2050 will comprise more than 50 percent of our population, [but] are disproportionately lost at every transition point in their STEM studies and research careers.”
Johnson and co-sponsors of legislation aimed at increasing STEM studies in all sectors (such as the STEM Opportunities Act of 2015) are united in calling for unconditional support for such career-inducing projects as TechPrep. She says, “As a nation, we cannot afford to continue hemorrhaging so much talent.” J. Robert Sims, president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), adds, “By improving the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in the STEM workforce, the U.S. can leverage the diversity of these individuals to fuel the innovation necessary for our global competitiveness, as well as meet the challenges of a changing world.”
Proving the Need for a STEM-Learning Resource
This underrepresentation by minorities in the technology industry was borne out in a research study commissioned by Facebook and conducted by McKinsey & Co. According to Facebook, the following results of this research validated the need to introduce TechPrep as a new initiative:
- The majority (77%) of parents and guardians surveyed stated that they did not know how to assist their children in pursuing a career in computer science. This figure increases to about 83% for parents or guardians with lower incomes and who did not graduate college.
- There was a lower awareness of computer science programs among blacks and Hispanics. This is driven by lower access to people in the computer science field as well as to computer science programs when compared to whites and Asians. It is a major factor in high rates of black and Hispanic drop-off when pursuing programming as a career path.
On the surface, TechPrep addresses two major challenges highlighted in the study. For potential learners in underrepresented groups, the program solves the issue of lack of awareness of authoritative resources required to jump-start fledging careers in computer science and programming. For parents and guardians searching for resources to assist their charges in pursuing these careers, TechPrep functions as a top online gateway to facilitate swift access to trustworthy information.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, acknowledges that this was in fact Facebook’s goal in developing the website: “Learning to code opens up amazing opportunities in an industry that’s only getting more important. Yet research shows 77% of parents don’t know how to help their child get started in computer science. … [W]e’re launching TechPrep … to help people start programming careers.”
Potential learners searching the TechPrep website will readily discern that this resource, which was designed and developed for both English and Spanish speakers, can provide immediate assistance in understanding what programming is, identifying the different types of jobs that programmers can have, and gaining the skills required to become a successful programmer. Two portals on the website—for parents or guardians and for learners themselves—serve as guided pathways, prompting users to select age- and skill-appropriate resources and services.
For example, children age 8–11 with no prior programming experience will be guided to a list of reputable learning platforms such as Codecademy and Khan Academy. They will also have access to preselected curated resources classified in easily decipherable categories such as Tinker & Toys (real-world toys that reinforce fundamental concepts in programming), Games (which teach programming concepts and practical skills), and Reference Materials (quick access to online books, apps, and reference works). If searching for tutoring opportunities to develop programming skills, these early learners have access to online/on-site and self-paced instruction programs, sources for receiving financial aid, and regular updates on technology-related events in their communities.
For programming experts who are 18–25 and older (designated on the site as “Hacker for life”), massive open online course (MOOC) providers such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity are presented as recommended resources for advancing a programming career. Arduino and Texas Instruments’ LaunchPads are promoted as go-to platforms for improving skill sets as developers. Cargo-Bot and picoCTF are listed as advanced games that are useful for reinforcing programming concepts. Parents and guardians searching for resources are guided to webpages organized in a similar fashion. All resources listed on the TechPrep website are available offline as a downloadable annotated PDF document.
To help bring credence to the project, TechPrep also features real-life stories of workers from underrepresented groups who have tech careers. The website profiles the types of jobs available (e.g., software engineer, solutions engineer, data analyst, developer advocate, and technical art director), includes the average annual starting salary for a programmer ($62,000, a sum touted as $8,000 higher than the annual median U.S. household income), and provides an estimate of the number of jobs (1 million) forecasted for the tech industry in 2020.
Advancing Facebook’s Mission of an Open and Connected World
Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global director of diversity, notes that exposure to computer science and programming for learners, parents, and guardians in underrepresented groups is central to Facebook’s mission of creating a more open and connected world and building an inclusive culture. “Cognitive diversity matters because bringing together people of different characteristics enables us to build better products that serve nearly 1.5 billion people around the world,” she says in the announcement launching TechPrep.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s post about the initiative underscores the issue of diversity—or the lack thereof—within the tech industry. “Improving diversity in the tech industry is an important challenge, and something we’re deeply committed to at Facebook,” he writes. “Everyone should be able to take advantage of the opportunities created by the internet. Giving everyone the opportunity to learn to code will create even more valuable tools to serve society. … We hope this is a valuable resource for people in our community, and that it helps makes a small contribution towards making our industry more diverse.”
TechPrep has an immediate marketing appeal to Facebook’s 1 billion users as the social network’s philanthropic, practical, and timely solution to increasing diversity in a high-stakes industry, and yet, one can safely say that there is plenty of added value for users. For learners, parents, and guardians, TechPrep’s curation and collation functions are enabling factors in assembling disparate and authoritative resources on the web. Those resources can kick-start an early interest in learning to code or empower mentors and role models to give advice and support for those wishing to pursue careers in computer science and programming.