Announcer: This episode of SolarWinds TechPod is brought to you by THWACKcamp, a free, annual, two-day virtual IT learning event. Over 45 sessions from the 2020 event are now available on demand. Visit thwackcamp.com.
Liz: Hey everyone, I’m Liz Beavers, Head Geek at SolarWinds. And on this episode of TechPod, you are in for a real treat. I have been amazed at the resilience of the IT community throughout 2020. I’ve always been so proud to be a part of this community. But IT pros have really been so triumphant during this roller coaster year. Organizations couldn’t have been successful or maintained their high operational efficiency without IT. Having witnessed all IT pros have contributed to those around them, 2020’s IT Pro Day was particularly special. This year’s theme was, You Were Built for This. As a judge a part of the inaugural SolarWinds IT Pro Day Awards, we saw the stories of individuals and teams stepping up to the challenges and delivering because that’s who they are and that’s how they’re wired. While IT Pro Day has come and gone, there is no shortage of appreciation for IT pros.
Liz: We briefly introduced our recipients on the holiday, but with the stories as special as theirs we wanted to take some time for you to really get to know them, who they are, and how they’ve been charging forward despite the unforeseen circumstances of 2020. I am elated to be joined by one of our IT Pro Day Award winners, Meka Egwuekwe, a recipient of our IT Mentor of the Year Award. Meka, welcome.
Meka: Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here.
Liz: We are so thrilled to have you join our podcast. And I know we have a lot of ground to cover today. I know in particular you’ve had a pretty incredible journey and I know that you are very passionate about IT mentorship, but I’ve loved seeing that passion translate to empowering other communities in technology. Tell us a little bit about your background and how that really helped to pave the way for what you’ve created at CodeCrew.
Meka: Sure, sure. So I am a former software engineer, but I got my start as a 10-year-old boy with a Texas Instruments home computer. And as you know, I’ve got an unusual name Meka Egwuekwe, is not a name that you see on television at all. And so as a kid, when you plugged your home computer into the television, I said… When I figured out how to program my name to move across the screen, I said, “Mom, my name is on TV.” So I’ve been hooked as a software engineer ever since. In fact, that was the seed and then I had the opportunity in school to take some programming classes in junior high school and then in high school and then I knew by then that I wanted to major in computer science in college. And so I went on to Morehouse College and got a bachelor’s in that and went straight to Duke University and got a master’s in computer science there and then entered the working world. And I was fortunate while at Morehouse and at Duke to have internships at Morehouse with NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Meka: And then while in graduate school, in California with HP in Palo Alto. So, HP actually turned into my first full-time job, I worked in internet security for a group in Atlanta in the late ’90s and then moved to Memphis in 2001 to work for a startup here, and I have just been passionate about growing my career as a software engineer and a software architect and ultimately, I was director of software development for a company called Lokion Interactive based in Memphis. And at the same time, I’ve always had this passion for kids and development for youth. Doors were opened for me and I always had this sense of responsibility to do my best to whatever I can to have access-
Liz: Do unto others-
Meka: Exactly. For others. And so, one of those doors was opened for me for example, high school was actually boarding school at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. And I’ve volunteered for Andover over these years since I’ve graduated. And then when I came home, I started working with youth in different ways. For 15 years now, I’ve been taking kids on college tours to visit schools, so they can see schools and choose the right college for them. And so, ultimately, I’ve got two daughters, my wife and I, we’ve been married 22 years now. But back in 2012, my daughters were eight and 11 years old and I saw this great program on CNN called Black Girls Code and the founder of that program, Kimberly Bryant, I reached out to her on Twitter, really just trying to see how I can sign my two daughters up with this great program. They have a model that has chapters in different cities and they didn’t have a chapter in Memphis, but it turns out Kimberly was from Memphis, and so-
Liz: Oh, how funny.
Meka: Yeah. And so I said, “Well, let me be the one to bring a chapter to your hometown.” And myself, we partnered with Indie Memphis, the film festival here in Memphis to bring Kimberly here to speak on a panel and that was when she saw the enthusiasm here. She allowed us to go out and start a chapter in Memphis. And I ran that for a couple of years, which was my first foray into allowing me to bridge my passion for youth with my passion for tech. But I sit on the board of the National Civil Rights Museum with Elliot Perry, and he and I were speaking after a board meeting once and Elliot Perry played in the NBA, he also played at the University of Memphis, he played basketball. And so he said, “Well…” He also sits on the board of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation.
Meka: And he said, “It’s great what you’re doing for the girls, what about something for boys and girls?” And I said, “Well, I love the idea.” And we sat down on a Starbucks one day and then December of 2014, this idea that was discussed there eventually evolved into what is CodeCrew today. And so in May of 2015, myself and two others, Petya Grady and Audrey Willis, we came together to launch CodeCrew with some support from the Memphis Grizzlies to teach kids at our community center how to make mobile apps. And so that’s the long story of this 10-year-old kid who just wanted to get his name on the screen, now trying to make a new generation of 10-year-old kids doing their 21st-century names on their 21st-century screens.
Liz: Yeah. No kidding. Gosh, that is just such a cool story. And I think more than one of our listeners can likely relate to having that passion, starting so early. But I think it’s truly amazing seeing that translated in giving back to others, particularly with your work when you first started with the Memphis chapter of Black Girls Code in 2012. When I see those stories with STEM, especially for the community of females, I think that’s huge. It’s a huge topic of discussion because there are so many opportunities for untapped individuals to get involved in what typically is a male-dominated field. So I think that that’s really, really interesting hearing about giving that opportunity. But then the challenge that you accepted so gracefully, of bringing that to girls and boys.
Liz: I’d love to hear a little more too, as this kind of snowball effects into the CodeCrew, in terms of some of your other drives. I know in an earlier conversation that you and I had and in interviews that you’ve done in the past, you’ve seen that Memphis and the Mid-South, have been on the wrong side of the digital skills gap. So really, what for you is another driver to make that another tech hub and another space for opportunity in the tech community?
Meka: Great, great, great point. And that is absolutely a driver for me. You look at the fact that in Memphis, our largest demographics are the ones that are most underrepresented in computer science. So, African-American women make up the largest group followed by African-American men. Caucasian women are the next largest group, the Latinx community is the fastest-growing group and all of them are woefully underrepresented in computer science. And in other cities, the prosperous cities of the day and tomorrow are going to be the ones who have these tech producers, these creatives, these innovation economies based on access to becoming tech producers. And our largest and fastest-growing demographics are the ones that are most underrepresented. Well, we’ll never achieve the prosperity that we want to. Memphis, any given year, when you look at the metro area, it’s either number one or number two in the country as the poorest metro area in the country.
Meka: And I’m tired of us being on that list, but we’ll forever be on that list if we don’t convince more young people and give access to more young people from these groups. In particular, to these 21st-century opportunities. But that’s okay. That’s the demographic reality that we’re in today. But it’s also an opportunity for us in Memphis to show the rest of the country what it means to bring diversity to tech. And so you look at our friends at Apple, or Google, or Facebook, or Twitter, or Amazon, Microsoft, I can name all the major companies. They all have dismal numbers with respect to diversity, whether it’s race and ethnicity, or whether it’s gender. But because Memphis must solve that problem to become a prosperous area, that’s our gift to these companies into the country. Is we are gifting you with a model on how to bring diversity to the tech space.
Liz: And I think that’s such a great goal to continue to strive for. And just as you mentioned, opportunity, it’s huge. And for some kids, they never would have known that they even have that exposure in their backyard. I can say for me personally growing up, I don’t think STEM was really a big discussion, where I grew up in the South in Virginia. And I think that it’s monumental for especially young adults, no matter what walk of life they come from, to know that this is a channel that they could be pursuing and putting other creative efforts toward and really make a career out of it.
Meka: Absolutely. That’s one of the first lessons whether you’re a child or an adult engaged with CodeCrew, is actually a mental shift that for too long in this country, the assumption has been that this is a space for white and Asian males. And that assumption is made by white and Asian males and the assumption is made by those who are not white and Asian males. Right?
Meka: And so, again, those target demographics for us in terms of recruitment, we’re open to all kids and all adults. We have kids and adults of all persuasions, including white and Asian males participate. But our recruitment focus is on those largest demographics and fastest-growing demographics. And that’s the first lesson, it is to see that you can do this, that it’s not rocket science. Most of the kids that we work with, at least in community centers and schools and libraries, we introduce them to how to make mobile apps using MIT’s App Inventor, for example. And the very first app that they do is a very simple app that has a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, they put it on a button and that button is pressed, it says part of one of his speeches. But in 90 minutes though, they’ve got an app that they can show people. And so-
Liz: That’s amazing.
Meka: … it is something that, again, just to convince them mentally that, “Hey, maybe this is something I can do.” And we’re pleased with the now thousands of kids and dozens and dozens of adults that we’ve engaged with, to see that legacy continue forth. I’m always proud when I see one of our kids go from high school into college and now they’re with us as a teaching assistant for the younger kids.
Liz: So cool.
Meka: A couple of my adult CodeCrew graduates, we’ve actually hired to be full-time instructors at CodeCrew. And so they’re multiplying themselves in that way. And so that’s… Yeah, but it is definitely important for us to get everyone convinced that this is something that they can do.
Liz: Absolutely. And I think part of that too, is not only is it the mindset shift, but it’s simply having the conversation. While it’s not the typical person that you’ve seen and that you always know, it doesn’t mean that it’s out of reach or that it isn’t possible.
Meka: There’s another victory too, that even for those who decide that this is not something that they want to do. As much as I love software development and computational thinking and those things. I know that not everyone wants to do that for a career, at least. But at least they’re making an informed decision now. They’ve been exposed to it and they say, “No, for real. I know that this is not something I want to do.”
Liz: It seemed nice, but yeah.
Meka: Right. Right, instead of just assuming it’s for someone else. And so for us, that’s a victory also. Right?
Meka: That kids at least have been given the access to make the decision themselves, as opposed to making that decision in an uninformed way.
Liz: Right. Absolutely. So with that as well Meka, I know that you’ve spoken a little bit about some of the initial things that the team works through on CodeCrew, what are some of the other outlets that you guys offer? I know you’ve got a pretty sizable footprint in the community in Memphis, but I know that you guys have some in-school events, some extracurricular, walk us through some of the different offerings at CodeCrew.
Meka: Sure, sure. And we do a lot of things. And I say it that way because at Morehouse College, which is an all-male, historically black college, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King. In that first week in orientation, you hear a lot of important phrases that they direct you that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. And one of those things that I heard time and again, was that he who was behind in the race of life must run twice as fast as the ones in front. And we look at our market as, Memphis is a little under a million and a half people. So we’re a relatively small market. And like I said, on the poverty angle, we’re always on that wrong list. And we’ve not been thought of as a tech hub in the past, we’ve got a lot to catch up on. So we’re going to run twice as fast as the ones in front. And so we actually have about six different layers of different engagements that we do.
Meka: I mentioned, we started as a single summer camp at the Leicester Community Center in the middle of Memphis. And that has turned into after-school programs that we regularly do. So we have these summer camps and after-school programs that we’ve done now since our inception in 2015. Those grew into in-school elective classes that allow us to go. We now have full-time K12 computer science instructors that we send out into schools. And we have a model where there’s not enough teachers teaching computer science and not enough prepared to do it. And in part, because teachers don’t get paid what software engineers get paid. Right?
Liz: This is true.
Meka: And so, how can we pay former software engineers or those with computer science degrees who may want to do something different than being a software engineer? How can we pay them market rate and then maybe sell a slice of them to different schools, such that schools can be in a position to offer computer science to their students. And so we do a model like that. And so we’re a 501C3 nonprofit, but as a business, we charge schools for our instructors to be there. And so that allows them to offer computer science to their students without paying the full cost of a teacher. And then, so we have these… So I mentioned after-school and summer programs, in-school elective classes. At the same time, we recognize that at CodeCrew we’re working with five to 600 kids a week in the Memphis area, but there are 165,000 kids in public, private, and charter schools in Memphis, in Shelby County. And so, how do we reach all of those kids?
Liz: All of them.
Meka: Well, we’re not going to do it directly ourselves, we need to train up teachers to teach computer science in schools. And so we do that. We work with Shelby County Schools and work with some individual charter schools to train their teachers to teach computer science in schools. And so that teacher training is another layer. In addition to that, we recognize that even then, a lot needs to happen on the policy front, that computer science education is foundational to education in the 21st century. I ask kids all the time, “Is the amount of technology increasing or decreasing in your lives?” And they all get it 100% correct. It’s absolutely increasing. They know it.
Meka: My little Toyota Prius has more than 30 computers in it, I understand. So, that’s the world that they live in. And so they need to know how to think computationally and approach solving problems in that way because jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities are increasingly based on tech and skills. In fact, the tech sector is our largest sector of our economy now. And so on the policy front, we have been successful partnering with a great group here in Memphis called Seeding Success that has a public policy committee. We partner with them to make a lot of trips to Nashville to get our first bill passed at the state legislature for computer science education plan statewide. And that was passed last year and was written and drafted and released this year. We’ll be back in Nashville in the next legislative session to work on the next items. In fact, a number of items that came out of that statewide plan. And so that’s another front for us.
Meka: And then certainly for adults… In fact, we have an adult coding boot camp now. It’s a six-month coding boot camp that trains adults in six months to become entry-level software engineers and we try to target them getting into jobs that pay at least $50,000 a year. And that was born out of a couple of fronts. One, we had an employer partner, FedEx in this case, which has its headquarters here in Memphis. They’re like, “Well, there’s great programs we’re seeing in other states, but this full-time coding boot camp in Memphis, is that something you guys might be willing to consider.” And at the same time that we were having that conversation, we had a high school kid actually a graduate from one of our high school programs and move to another city to do the coding boot camp, because there wasn’t a full-time coding boot camp in Memphis.
Liz: That’s cool.
Meka: And that young man was 19 years old and moved to another city and landed a job making $57,000 a year as a software engineer, after a six-month boot camp. We’re like, “No more kids moving to other cities.”
Liz: Stay here.
Meka: We have a capacity to do that. And so we launched our full-time coding boot camp for young adults at first and then we made it open to any adult of any age that wants to become an entry-level software engineer. And so that’s… So when I mention we’re doing a lot of things at once, we are doing them.
Liz: It’s a lot of things.
Meka: We’re doing a lot of things at once. We’re running twice as fast as the ones in front. I dare say that we’re probably the single most comprehensive tech education program in the country and especially with a strong focus on underrepresented groups. So you hear me preach the gospel of computer science education a lot. But that is the multi-level or multi-layered story of CodeCrew, that allows us from kindergarten through adulthood to bring access to college career and entrepreneurship and computer science.
Liz: I think that’s pivotal again, really helping shape the mentality around possibilities, whatever those might be. And just as you said, not only does it help them make an informed decision, rather than an assumption, but it also is just sheer exposure. You might have crossed that path when you were in first grade, but it’s hard when you’re six years old to wrap your head around what you’re truly passionate about. But having had that exposure at six, come your sophomore year of high school, you might find a space to really channel and pursue that. So I think that that’s just incredible.
Meka: Yeah. Exposure is absolutely critical. And so we have the largest hackathon for youth in the Memphis area. We do the Hour Of Code a couple of times a year, celebrating Grace Hopper’s birthday and inviting kids to jump in and code.
Meka: It allows us to also experiment with different curriculum ideas. And so that’s a great format. We’re launching an interesting, international kind of hackathon around sports tech with kids in Memphis and kids in Tel Aviv, Israel, that’ll be coming soon. But in all of those cases, exposure is definitely critically important.
Liz: With all of this, especially with the exposure and the introduction of actually having this as a class, which I think is a huge pillar for accessibility, it doesn’t make it challenging for someone who is interested in it, they don’t have to have an after-school program. And then they have the consideration of figuring out travel accommodations, they have that class during the day. But to that end and switching gears a little bit Meka, what was it like for your team and given your heavy presence in education when the pandemic hit? How did you guys handle all of those different hurdles that came with COVID-19 having to rapidly realign? What did that look like for you and your team?
Meka: Sure, sure. So like everyone we’ve had to pivot, we had to think quickly, we had to move quickly. And it was about March of 2020 when that was just… I think that week, everything was crashing for everyone that week.
Liz: It was like dominoes. Yeah.
Meka: Exactly. And so that week actually happened to coincide timing wise, the next week happened to be spring break for our schools. That was already scheduled. And so that actually gave us a little more breathing room of a week or so to figure something out. And we were able to relatively quickly convert all of our in-school elective classes to Zoom-based classes. And in addition to that, most of our after-school programs were able to continue as Zoom-based after-school programs.
Meka: Even an after-school program like robotics, we switched from, in the past we’ve had the LEGO Mindstorm Robots for mostly middle school kids, but LEGO Mindstorm Robots or the Sphero Robots in person, we found a great platform called CoderZ that allows us to do the LEGO Mindstorm Robots virtually.
Liz: Oh, wow!
Meka: So the kids were still even learning about robotics without actual physical robots. And so Jean Francois Mahoro, he’s our curriculum instruction manager, he took the lead on that partner with Pamela and all the instructors. Pamela is the K12 program manager and then the four K12 instructors were able to quickly make that pivot and that turned into all of our summer camps being converted to Zoom-based programming. And now in the fall, all of our offerings are still Zoom-based. Our adult program also made that shift pretty quickly. Thankfully, all of our current students at that time happened to have internet access at home, but even if a student didn’t have internet access at home, we would get it for them. And that’s been an online expression as well too. And that’s been a partnership with Southwest Tennessee Community College. So those who go to our adult program actually can earn credit at the community college as well.
Meka: Which we’re thankful for that relationship. And so that relationship continues as well through the online expression. And then a couple of other things come to mind with respect to COVID. We did have some teachers with a little more time and one of those teachers actually launched what we call CodeCrew TV. So we started doing… We partnered with the local school district, Shelby County Schools and they have a cable channel. And so on Friday mornings, we actually did a one-hour coding television show. So even if you didn’t have a computer, if you had a television, then you could still get a computer science lesson with both plugged and unplugged activities in that lesson.
Liz: Wow! That is incredible. And I think it’s also… I know it’s the biggest subject of conversation and everybody is following along with what you hear unprecedented, challenging, but I really think it’s so impressive to hear what you guys were capable of doing and you made it seem pretty seamless for the experience for those that you interact with. So to have that constant, I think is also huge in keeping the momentum going for those that you are helping throughout Memphis’s community.
Meka: Oh, thank you. Thank you. And it’s not without its challenges, of course.
Liz: Yeah, sure.
Meka: When we first made that pivot to Zoom-based classes, when it was clear to some of the kids that the classes weren’t really going to count and they weren’t going be penalized because they didn’t even all have internet access at home, the school couldn’t assume that right then. And so some kids just didn’t show up for class. Some kids can be kids, right?
Liz: It’s true.
Meka: But now that Shelby County Schools, has actually established one-to-one connected devices for every child. And so-
Liz: That’s incredible.
Meka: Yeah. And so now we can make that assumption now that every child has internet access and they can’t assume that this is something they can skip now.
Liz: Well, that’s what I was going to ask as well. So I know I’ve spoken with a lot of different IT members that specifically work in education. So as you guys and I know everybody, including ourselves, we’re on virtual meetings today’s, but aside from that being the primary space that learning is taking place based on some of the initiatives that you guys are looking to achieve and how you’re looking to grow the users, both the children and the adults that you all work with, how did you guys aside from just Zoom pivots, what were some of the other things that were at the forefront of your thoughts and your conversations to maintain that working dynamic, despite being remote?
Meka: That working dynamic both in terms of us as a team as well as those whom we serve. As a team, I want all of my team members to know that they are loved and valued and that we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that they are safe. And so we’re thankful that the districts have opted to all virtual learning but we were going to go that way anyway, in terms of our offering, and work out with a school if they were going to insist the kids to be there that we can get kids in the computer lab at the library, school library or something, but figure out a way to do that. But we did not want to put any of our teachers in any sort of harm’s way.
Meka: And then also I’ve given quite a few more surprise holidays, if you will into the team. Days off, just because I know how stressful it is, we’re all dealing with the stress of change here. And so those have been some ways too. And then also just make it clear to everyone that we can talk about the things going on with you. Be it COVID-19 or a lot feel personally touched by the social justice issues that are evident of this year in particular. And so as a team, we’ve coped in that way together. And then in terms of those we serve, it is trying to look at how we can constantly improve or continuously improve and how can we ensure that we’re being effective, such that kids are still learning or adults are still learning. Right?
Meka: And how do we do this and make sure we still have a good balance of adults and kids together? Because we we are still a mentoring organization. And mentoring 101 is learning about the kids, learning their names early, these kinds of things, but also healthy relationships between adults and kids. And so how do we make that happen? How do we employ the right technology to ensure that still happens and those relationships still happen such that kids are more likely to stay in the field if they have these mentors that they can go to? So a lot of thought has gone into that and I can’t claim credit for all of those things, I’ve got a great, great team, Pamela, Jean Francois, Aaron for the adults and all the instructors, too many to name. Well, a good number to name. And then all of the teaching assistants that we have, college students too, especially any code school graduates who are teaching assistants. So lots of people go in together, not to mention the administrative team and all that they’re doing to make sure that we can keep the ship running.
Liz: Well, and I think that those are such important points, having empathetic, transparent, honest, and ongoing communications, no matter what is happening in your environment, is a huge component to any adjustment that has to be made. But I think just as you mentioned, Meka, given what’s been happening with the pandemic, what’s been happening with social justice issues, it’s really important to have that transparency and keep it as an open and ongoing dialogue. We’re better when we talk about it than when you keep things behind closed doors. And I think that also speaks to your initiatives at CodeCrew for exposure and making sure that there is a space for anything.
Meka: Well, thank you. And these things are important and they’re critical and they’re on everyone’s minds. And it’s a trying moment in our history as a country right now on multiple fronts. And so we’re not… I’m a software developer, I’m not a psychologist or sociologist, there are definitely people who are smarter than me when it comes to those concepts and topics, but as best as we can try to listen, try to be responsive to our team as well as the students that we serve and the community that we serve.
Liz: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I think to that end, as well and I loved that you brought up the 101 for mentorship, which brings me to how you and I got to meet, which was being the recipient of the IT Mentor of the Year Award, which was so amazing. It’s landmark for everyone involved, it was SolarWinds first step into having awards for IT Pro Day, which I think is such a wonderful way to recognize such a special and creative community. But what does the award mean to you and the work that you are doing with mentorship?
Meka: Well, first of all, I’m tremendously proud and honored to have been selected. And I’m thankful to a former TA of ours Herve Aniglo, for nominating me as a matter of fact. And so, yeah, it was a very pleasant surprise and I’m tremendously honored as I mentioned. It’s wonderful that you guys at SolarWinds have established this, I think it’s great and important to bring attention to this important need for mentorship. So it means to me… It’s so important to me because it’s not just recognition or appreciation, but it’s also bringing attention to the importance of mentorship. And that’s where we were very much founded on from that very first summer camp with the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation. They only fund mentor-based programs.
Meka: And so in our case, we were new in that they’ve never done a tech mentoring program before.
Liz: And we got too, Meka. So I love hearing and I love learning about mentorship. And again, I think it’s one of those… I think about myself and my career and my journey through all the different nuances of what I’ve done, who I’ve seen. And I think to your point, mentorship really helps mold growing minds no matter where you are on your journey in your career and in life. What do you see as being some of those key aspects to effective mentorship?
Meka: Fundamental is training. We… Even though I mentioned with the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, that was a tech mentoring arrangement from the beginning, we liked the model so much that we required every adult that was engaged with kids to go undergo mentor training.
Liz: That’s awesome.
Meka: And then we’ve also joined the National Mentor Network and attend the National Mentor Summit every year in DC in January, I guess it’ll be virtual this time. But we do that because we not only believe in mentorship, but we want to learn and grow how to be more effective mentors. And one of the frameworks that they have is something called EEP or Elements of Effective Practice. And so Pamela, on our team actually takes the lead on our growth in that regard and then disseminates that to our team through additional trainings or maybe selective trainings that we have our members go to, that the Memphis Grizzlies does, which they are the Tennessee affiliate for the National Mentor Network. So, yeah.
Meka: So I would say fundamental there is training and recognizing that you want to be as… First of all, mentors are not perfect. But you want to be a good mentor, you need to be present as I mentioned. You need to know the kids, you need to listen. Those things are foundational. But there’s actually research out there to show that someone who’s a mentor who’s not regularly present, who’s… Basically a lackluster mentor actually does more harm than having no mentor at all. And so we want to avoid that. We reinforce how important it is. And that’s why training is important for you to understand that early. So, hopefully that answers your question.
Meka: But that’s our perspective. It’s training, it’s being present, it is knowing and listening, getting to know the young people that you’re mentoring.
Liz: And I think that certainly gives me a lot to think about as well. I’ve always enjoyed being able to volunteer, I particularly and personally, I love volunteering with kids, I have always been wired that way. It’s such a mothering instinct, probably because I’m an older sibling. But I think in hearing that, that’s helpful for somebody like me or some of our listeners who are interested, but not exactly sure where to start. I think just like you mentioned, listening is big. And for some people listening is a great innate skill. But there has to be ways that you can fine tune that, so that you can apply appropriately and have that journey of continuous growth and continuous education. So I think that’s a great resource in terms of there being training available. I was going to ask too, Meka, so who are some of the people who really made an impact in terms of your journey from a mentorship perspective? Who really brought you full circle to who we’ve all gotten to know?
Meka: That’s a great question. I’ve been blessed with a lot of positive people in my life. Anyone who knows me knows my mother raised my brother and I as a single mom. My father wasn’t there and I didn’t meet him until I was 23 years old. And since then, he and I’ve formed a good relationship. But certainly my mother, she did not have to get me that home computer I begged her for as a 10 year old, for example. And even though we were in an economically challenged neighborhood and an economically challenged family, she made that miracle happen for me and so I’m forever grateful for her always making room to plant seeds and give them an opportunity to grow. One of my favorite mentors is my high school chemistry teacher. His name is Temba Maqubela, except he’s from South Africa. And so I’m going to try to pronounce his name correctly. Maqubela. I think that’s how he says it right. But he was a huge influence on me. First of all, he convinced me to take two years of chemistry in high school.
Liz: That is no small feat.
Meka: Yeah. And I took the AP chemistry exam and did well enough on it to earn credit in college, which was helpful.
Liz: That’s excellent.
Meka: It helped me finish college a year early actually. And then… But to this very day, he is a valued mentor to me in terms of life, showing me excellence, especially in the sciences, which I loved, but just excellence as a person as well. And particularly around social justice in addition to science. And now he’s the head of school at Groton School outside of Boston, Massachusetts, where were my youngest daughter attends and where my older daughter graduated from.
Liz: Full circle.
Meka: Absolutely. So he was a huge influence on me. Certainly my church at home in Memphis, my pastor, Reverend Calvin Mims then and now Pastor Randolph Meade Walker, have been great influences on me and the men in the church who showed me models of fatherhood when I didn’t have that at home. I think about people in tech, who were mentors for me, when that first job, I worked full-time at HP in internet security in Atlanta. People like Joe Vossen and others were great mentors to me too. There’re some who say that you can’t be what you can’t see and apply that to… Well, how do you expect black men to become software engineers if you don’t see any?
Meka: But I didn’t see any. And yet I became one. And it’s because of the investments of all those people that I mentioned and others in me, that you can be what you can’t see. Someone’s got to be amongst the first. I won’t say I was the first, but they helped put me in a position to where I can be what others can see now. And so I can go on and on about those parts of influences on my life, I don’t want to leave some people out, but those are some important ones certainly.
Liz: I think that it is so cool hearing about from your journey and how far you’ve come and what you are continuing to put into the universe for so many just to create those opportunities. It’s really important hearing and seeing the impact that one and many can have on one person’s life. And I really think that it is so crucial for everyone’s growth to have that one person who was instrumental and sparking the fire that leads to whatever your charge, whatever your path might be moving forward. And that’s where I think it’s really important, just from our conversation about what you do, what you’ve done, what CodeCrew stands for, to really help lift others up, but also for them to see, again, do unto others as was done unto you and keep that journey moving for everybody who’s been in the same position where you are or once were.
Meka: Well, thank you. Thank you. And not only do unto others as they were done to you, but love thy neighbor as thyself. Somewhere I read. And so-
Liz: Yes. A golden rule of some sort.
Meka: Yes, indeed. That is so foundational. I think if more of us understood that in our beliefs, in our interactions in life, it would be a much better place for everyone. And so from… I jokingly say that I have this very short list of talents. But I do believe that software development is on that list of talents and so a good friend of mine here said to me, “Meka, you figured out a way to multiply yourself.” I said that earlier about multiplying yourself in that. That’s what we can and should be doing if we’re so called to do. And so I say that that’s my calling in computer science is multiply myself.
Liz: I love that.
Meka: Even our in-school electives program, is a multiplication of my experience in junior high school of being able to take coding classes in school and in over 30 years since then, computer class went from how to program it to how to use Microsoft Office and Word and Excel. Those things are important. How to use the internet and web browser, those things are important, but you’re not going to get software engineers or entrepreneurs from those things. How do we get computational thinking back into classroom as it was for me 30 years ago back when there was no Word or Excel and you took a computer class, you had to program the thing because that’s all you could do with it. And so our in-school elective classes to this day are inspired by that experience back in the mid- to late ’80s that I had at East High School in Memphis.
Liz: That’s so cool. So with that, I know that we’re coming close on time. So I am going to ask you a one more Pandora’s Box ask question that I’m sure you have lots to say. So one of the first pieces is, again, from not only your experiences in growing CodeCrew to what it is today, but also from what happened through this year and how you guys navigated the hurdles that a pandemic threw at you. What is some of your advice? Or what are some lessons that you will take forward in this virtual and remote space that we’re taking up now to keep 2021 and beyond a success?
Meka: That’s a great question. Well, one lesson is virtual learning is going to be here.
Meka: And we’re not using any technology we didn’t have before COVID. This opportunity has been here, but it’s now left its fingerprints in an irreversible way, I think. And so, one lesson for us was how to do that well, that we’re still continuously improving upon. But I think there’s a legacy that comes from this that virtual learning will enable us to expand well beyond our core focus in Memphis, for example. Though we expanded statewide for our statewide legislation of course, but our summer camps, this summer had kids from California and Florida, New York and Illinois.
Liz: How cool.
Meka: Texas and DC, they were engaged in it too. And so how do we begin to share this? What I think we’re doing well in Memphis. Share this movement towards diversity in tech more broadly. And I think virtual platforms have clearly shown us that that’s a major foundational element to that. Other lessons, I guess, because the year is more than just COVID. Like I said, there’s been a lot of attention to a lot of important issues. And so, certainly, I’m hopeful that with a new awareness around issues that uniquely affect African-Americans especially, but uniquely affect individual groups in this country, that we have more room in our hearts to understand what others are going through and then more room to make more room for positive outcomes in their lives through better policies and better better support for those individuals and families. And then looking at the reality, so many people are out of work. One clear lesson that’s going to happen for all of us is that a lot of jobs aren’t coming back.
Meka: We already knew that the handwriting on the wall that eventually a lot of jobs are going to be automated out of existence even. And so how are we as a society going to adapt to the fact that jobs are increasingly requiring more and more skills, yet our educational systems are failing to provide them? That’s unsustainable.
Meka: And so, we’ve got to make the investments in technology and education such that people have access to the real 21st century that we all are smacked awake to see this year.
Liz: Absolutely. And I think to that end too, one of the last things that I am curious to get your input on as well, is for those who are looking to make their impact as I like to think at my end of the river and lead somebody to that positive outcome again, even if it is just one to one. Where do you suggest that people can begin becoming a mentor or taking on that valued partnership to empower somebody else, especially in the tech space?
Meka: Sure, sure. There I’ll say that there isn’t a city in the country that doesn’t have mentoring opportunities for people in general. And so it’s a matter of you committing your time, being willing to be committed that once you sign on for this, that you take it seriously, just because you’re not getting paid doesn’t mean that you should treat it differently, you should treat it as seriously because the impact on the person and the potential damage on the person if you fail to do that it can be significant. But don’t let that chase you away. Show up and just do… Bring the consistency that it needs and deserves. In the tech space, there are growing opportunities there at least in city by city and in town by town. And so people are at different levels with respect to tech in terms of how they can mentor but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a tech mentor for someone who is not where you are yet. And so if there are existing programs out there, volunteer for those things. And there are different ways you can do that.
Meka: You can volunteer on a regular basis that you’re engaged with a kid every week or every month, or you can volunteer for special events like our hackathons for example, that I mentioned earlier. So there are… And if there aren’t things in your community, you can start things. One of the things I love that’s happening here in Memphis, is organizations like Start CO, which is a business technology accelerator here, as well as Code Connector, which is an advocacy group that brings together people interested in tech that are at all levels. They’re hosting events. And so if those things aren’t happening in your community, maybe start something like that.
Liz: Start them.
Meka: Yeah, exactly. So there are so many different ways to plug in. But being a part of an ecosystem, I think is a critical part of that. So don’t… Well, I guess you have to do it from home right now, but when COVID releases us from these shackles, we will… These kinds of in-person events, organizations just coming together building a community, I think fosters, builds that flywheel effect, if you will, of more and more mentorship and tech opportunities and entrepreneurship, a lot of great things come out of that. So, those would be some things I would suggest as starting places.
Liz: I love it. Those are great pages from your book that I will definitely be keeping on my end. But with that, Meka, that’s all we have time for today. But I am so thrilled that we had the opportunity to sit down with you, our IT Mentor recipient of this year and learning more about all of the work you have done and continue to do. Thank you so much for sitting down with me.
Meka: Thank you, Liz as well, thank you for the invitation. Thank you for listening to me preach this gospel of computer science all this time and thank you, SolarWinds for honoring me in this tremendous way as the 2020 IT Mentor of the Year. And if I could just leave with one point, if those who are interested in learning more about CodeCrew, I certainly invite them to visit our website at code-crew.org. And certainly follow us on all the major social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok and learn more about us. And so we are always having lots of things going on. And so we certainly appreciate you not only learning about us, but we are a nonprofit organization. So if the spirit moves you to donate, we won’t turn you away because it’s important work, and you can rest assured that your support for us is manifesting in positive impacts on kids’ and adults’ lives.
Liz: Yeah. And just like Meka said, everyone again, if you are interested in learning more you can visit code-crew.org, there are a host of opportunities to volunteer and donate to the organization. If you’d like to hear more podcasts like this, take a moment to subscribe. Thanks for listening.