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We Can Code IT CEO Mel McGee Wants To Diversify The Columbus Tech Scene And Bolster Innovation

This software training company is bent on completely changing the landscape of computer programming.

Columbus is a city that prides itself on innovation and technology. It’s also a city staring into the barrel of a pretty dramatic population boom in the next 20 years.

Over 500,000 more people will call Central Ohio home, people who are going to need jobs and roles and the training to fill them. Already tech positions go vacant. The U.S. workforce is desperate for skilled employees in a field that is steadily expanding every day.

One company seeks to not only ready Columbus’ technology labor force but to completely alter the workplace, dismantling any preconceived notions of what we think a computer programmer should look like.

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We got to pick the brain of Mel McGee. She’s the CEO of We Can Code IT, a training and educational company dedicated to diversifying the tech field and furnishing graduates and preparing them to take on the corporate world.

“Just to give you some numbers, less than 18 percent of the tech industry consists of women or underrepresented groups,”

She scoffed, genuinely irked by the reality of a field allegedly driven by progress, “It’s really pathetic and the sad thing about it is that it used to not be this way.”

She recalls a time when women helped to create software development. “This is more of a social phenomenon than anything else. Women used to be very well represented in tech and were some of the original software engineers.”

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McGee has nearly 20 years experience in the field of software engineering. She remembers what it was like going to school in a field generally occupied mostly by men. “If you could close your eyes and imagine what a computer science classroom at a college might look like. Yeah, that was me, that one girl.” She laughs, “It was pretty much me and a bunch of other guys.”

She was eventually recruited by a company and quickly made it into a successful career. After some time with the company, she left to start her own software development firm. The business not only thrived, it flourished, pulling clients like Xerox and Tyco International.

Shortly after having a child of her own, she decided to slow things down with her software company to focus on family. The decision was always meant to be temporary and soon she was ready to step back into her business role and get involved in the field again. She started attending community events and giving talks on augmented and virtual reality. But by now, things were different.

“I found people coming up to me afterward and they were women,” She explained, “They were asking me to teach them how to code. They had entrepreneurial mindsets, typically, and they wanted to get something done.”

So she started a meetup, originally for women only, where she taught coding every other week. Eventually, she started to include kids programs, teaching them to code using Minecraft.

After a while, her sessions and meetups turned into coding boot camps and that’s when she started We Can Code IT in earnest. It didn’t take long after that for her to realize that a necessity for diversity wasn’t just limited to women. She knew that inclusion was meant for everyone, not just some, and she began focusing her efforts on diversifying the field of technology. Not just by gender, but by race and economic background as well.

“We just calculated, this year alone we’ve given $296,000 from our own pockets in grants and scholarships.”

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The grants help to enroll underrepresented groups in her training programs, which in turn prepares them to take on a job in the tech field upon finishing. “It helps folks who typically don’t have the opportunity to be in tech or haven’t felt invited to the table. We try to invite folks to the table, that’s really what we’re all about.”

The designation for underrepresented people is based on a report by the U.S. Census in 2010.

These groups of people include women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. All of which continue to be severely underrepresented in the industry.

But it doesn’t stop there. We Can Code IT makes a point to include those from backgrounds of economic difficulty as well. “Another one of our grants is the economic need grant. That’s a thousand dollar grant that students get when they fall into guidelines by the government for economic need. We want to help that as well.”

McGee insists that diversifying the tech field isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s actually beneficial and profitable for companies.

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“From a company’s perspective, it actually increases profitability. And this isn’t just some fuzzy made up statistic. It’s based on research from MIT, from McKinsey. The idea that companies can reach new markets are more likely when there’s more diversity in the company.”

“We all grow up with a lens on the world, and different experiences help change this lens. To have people looking at one problem, if they’re all coming from the same background, it’s pretty obvious that they’re probably going to see the same issues, the same solutions. There won’t be the greater collective intelligence of having lots of different perspectives on it.”

When asked how she sees the future of the tech field she seemed not only optimistic about its future but the role that her company would play in changing it.

“I see more companies embracing this [diversity]. Columbus is growing like crazy. Tech wise, they’re way above the national average of tech jobs and it continues to grow. I hope that we are able to help make an impact in changing the image of what a technologist is, what a programmer is.”

If Columbus wants to embrace its persona of progress and modernization it will have to fill its technology roles with the faces of women and people of color. Not just for the sake of cultural advancement or liberal perception, but out of a vital need to grow and prosper. We Can Code IT’s CEO, Mel McGee, perhaps says it best, “We’re going to need more people fill technology roles. Diversity does lead to innovation.”

For more information on We Can Code IT and their enrollment, visit their website at wecancodeit.org.

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