A former Times Square street vendor has helped 3,000 Black New Yorkers learn to code, changing their lives

A former Times Square street vendor has helped 3,000 Black New Yorkers learn to code, changing their lives
Devin Jackson started We Build Black to help Black folks land high-paying jobs in tech.Devin Jackson
  • Street-vendor-turned-software-engineer Devin Jackson used free resources to break into tech.
  • He started We Build Black to help Black New Yorkers transition into tech and land high-paying jobs.

Kris Lee, a network engineer at a law firm, learned how to transition into a software-engineer role for free. And he credits a community of Black tech workers in New York City with his success in making the switch.

Lee stumbled upon a warehouse meeting that Devin Jackson, a software engineer who taught others the basics of the coding language Python, led. Today, Lee works as a senior cybersecurity engineer for a software company.

"I experienced firsthand what having a community does for you," Lee said.

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Those small meetings were just the start of the workforce-development organization We Build Black's efforts to help people learn how to code. It stems from Jackson's belief that free career-development programs are more effective than informative events like diversity panels at breaking down institutional barriers that keep Black people out of tech, he said. His drive to enact socioeconomic change fueled his efforts to create an organization that aims to help Black people, especially at-risk youth and women, build community and land high-paying jobs in tech.

"I used to really feel annoyed about the fact that certain opportunities are not afforded to us," Jackson told Insider. "And I wanted to complain. But I also wanted to concretely do something."


After Jackson founded We Build Black in 2017, the Brooklyn-based nonprofit has evolved from a one-man operation into a volunteer-run group that has raised millions of dollars to support more than 3,000 members in their career advancement, Jackson said.

But before starting We Build Black, Jackson first broke into software engineering himself from a non-technical background.

Unlike most software engineers, Jackson never went to high school or college; he sold graffiti t-shirts and comedy tickets on the streets of Times Square. He left the streets to attend coding workshops, received scholarships to enroll in Python and data-analysis bootcamps, and studied for multiple professional IT-skill certifications.

He started his tech career in 2013 as an IT help-desk intern at the consulting firm Accenture, and about a year later, he got his first job as a full-stack developer at a boutique-software firm in Brooklyn, according to LinkedIn. Today, Jackson works as a technical-product manager at the cannabis-tech firm LeafLink.

"It was nuts," he said. "I was like 'I'm never doing anything else except for this.'"


We Build Black hosts coding meetups for Black tech workers to network and learn new skills

Similar to organizations like Black Women Talk Tech, Black Boys Code, and Black Tech Pipeline, We Build Black offers coding classes, mentorships, and networking events to Black workers looking to pursue tech careers. After all, less than 5% of the 3.2 million software engineers employed in the US are Black, according to data from the career-building platform Zippia.

But Jackson said We Build Black looks to differentiate itself by taking a community approach to its programming. A member comes in with a goal — for example, to fix a bug or to learn how to code with Python — and attendees with that skill can offer their help.

"Nine times out of ten, you talk to somebody in our community, they just say they don't have the money for that or they can't do it," Jackson said. "When you knock down those barriers and provide those resources, there's no excuse."

In the past, We Build Black has hosted hackathons, conferences, coding competitions, and even a recidivism program to help teens with criminal records learn web-development skills. Due to timing and financial constraints, these programs have ended indefinitely, according to Jackson.

The next step for We Build Black will be building out its job pipeline

We Build Black is now focused on building out its workforce-training programs, Jackson said.


The program chose ten Black students out of hundreds of applicants to learn user-experience design, data analytics, or Android-app building through its fast track program. The students are incentivized to complete the training with perks like computers, smart phones, and cash prizes, according to Jackson.

Once they finish the course, students work on a capstone-coding project for their portfolio and interview for internships at Shopify. Students that don't get the internship are matched with jobs at other tech companies, Jackson said.

New programs will continue to roll out. In 2023, We Build Black plans to launch Crowns and Code to match high-school seniors with mentors from Bungie, a game-developer firm, according to Jackson. And former students, like Lee, have stuck around to help the organization grow through partnerships, funding, and other efforts.

Jackson said he wants to ensure that people don't have to go through the same financial obstacles that he had to face.

"It sucks, but you gotta keep trying to find a way to break through that door if that's the door you want to walk through," he said.