Ascend Project Kickoff

Last year I approached Debbie Cohen, our C-level People person, and made a proposal.  With all these Hacker School/Dev Boot Camp/Hackbright accelerator programs popping up, I had an idea to create an open source version and specifically target participants who come from underemployed, LGBTQ, Latin@, and African American populations – aka: people who are terribly underrepresented in tech but also very much more so in Open Source. The idea was that instead of people paying to come learn to become developers in the capitalist, Startup-focused, feeding-frenzy the Silicon Valley promotes we could instead seed other towns, other communities with open source and create an in-depth technical contribution training program that more mirrored the experience I had with Dave Humphrey at Seneca College. Imagine my surprise when Debbie clearly, and without hesitation said to me “Great idea! Do it!”.  I’ve been building up to something that is more sizeable through running local events, hack meetups, participating in community building in several ways so I saw this proposal as the next step for me, as an organizer.  This time I’m going to do something that is bigger than what I could do alone. I will have Christie Koehler working with me as well as several community building team members in advising and mentoring roles.

The populations I want us to reach out to have resulted in certain adjustments to the typical setup of those for-profit accelerators which I see as being key to the potential success of our cohorts. Attendees in the Ascend Project will benefit from taking this course in the following ways, which are intended to remove many barriers to participation in Open Source:

  •  a $50 per day honorarium will be provided to encourage regular attendance and help ensure participants can afford to focus on being present to learn & develop
  • laptops will be provided to use during the course and upon completion, graduates will get to keep theirs
  • food (breakfast and lunch) will be provided every day
  • where needed, childcare stipends are available to participants who need additional care in order to put in the time this course will request of them
  • transit passes for the whole 6 weeks

The purpose here is to not only acknowledge that we know we’re missing people in our open source communities but that we’re willing to put our money and time where our mouths are to go and explicitly invite people who like to solve problems to come and see what it is like to get to just focus on learning, developing, fixing a bug, getting hooked, being a part of a bigger community with a mission for global good.  I see this as a solid way to counter the manner in which many of these populations are pushed away from participation in computer science and open source contributions.

We can’t expect every person who might be a strong, longtime, and impactful contributor to Open Source to find us based on passion alone.  That leaves all the systemic issues in society to decide for us who gets here.  If we can remove some barriers and provide an environment where participants in a program get a chance to feel confident, trusted, strong, and *wanted* then we can see how that might blossom their abilities to learn and contribute to an open source project that has a ton of pathways for potential input and impact.

The project is currently still in the kickoff phase so this is the first public post.  Mostly I’m braindumping, trying to work backwards from September when the course will start, and getting my head around who will do what so we get everything ready in time.  I’ve got a budget for the first pilot, which will take place in Portland, OR in the Fall of 2014, and it’s almost approved.  Next up I will be designing the curriculum while Christie works on partnerships locally in preparation for our call for applications.  We’ll be doing our best to reach far outside the typical degrees of separation to get word out and to attract applicants.  I’ll be in Portland next week to meet with local orgs and gather information on where we can promote the project.

Applicants will go through several steps before we whittle down to our final 20.  There will be an expectation that they can complete the highest level of a free, online Javascript course and the Mozilla PDX office will hold drop ins with computers available to help applicants have the time to do this with the right equipment and a mentor or two nearby.  Following that stage, we’ll ask for an essay or video that briefly describes a ‘hard’ problem the person had to solve, if they were successful what worked and if not what didn’t.  Staying away from specific, alienating technology language seems key here. We need problem solvers and self-starters, not people who know syntax (yet).  That group will then be the pool from which the final participants will be selected from, with specific ratio targets for populations that I mentioned earlier.

The first session, as a pilot, will have certain ‘training wheels’ on it. Mozilla has a great space in Portland.  Portland has a wonderfully large open source community I fully expect to tap into for networking and partnerships.  We’ll be using this first pilot as a way to test the participant selection process and the curriculum itself.  I really want to be setting people up for success.  This is measured by committing at least one patch to production code (in any area of Firefox) before the end of the course.  Our first course will focus on Mozmill automated testing because we can get our participants to that level of success with independently-written JS tests for several of the Firefox products.

Following Portland we’ll be reviewing, updating, improving, and then taking the next pilot to New Orleans in January of 2015 where we can test “what happens if we don’t have an office, a large community already in place?” with our tightened up selection process and curriculum.  The two pilots should give us lots to go on for how to scale up an initiative like this going forward and hopefully it can become something that happens more frequently, with more teachers, and in many more places (like in some of our Firefox OS launch markets).

That’s the gist for now.  I’ll be posting more frequently as we hit milestones in the project and also am happy to take people up on offers to review curriculum.

63 thoughts on “Ascend Project Kickoff

  1. Lukas, this is amazing!!!! When I read this, tears of joy fell down my face 🙂 Please let me know if I can help in any way.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful opportunity for a lot of people. I’ll be spreading the word on this.

  3. Lukas, this is an incredible project. I look forward to your results, because I think it could be really interesting to export this idea to other countries

  4. This is awesome. Let me know if I can help.

    I’ve run coding tutorials and new hire programs before, and would be happy to look at curriculum. I also manage engineering at a good-sized startup in Portland. We have space/subject matter experts/hardware/etc.

    I’m @rcoder on Twitter, same username @gmail, or my first name


  5. Are women one of the groups under consideration? This is at the forefront of my mind because I’m currently at a Mozilla work week with 38 attendees, all male…

  6. Hey there, I’ve spent the past 5+ years teaching beginning to advanced technical, and business, topics to various types of adult students and have experienced every issue in the book of student motivation, grokking technical topics, habits, keeping up the new behaviors after class, etc. And: I’m a serious nerd who’s read all the research and practical information out there about helping students learn. I would be happy to share what I’ve learned, to help you & your students succeed! Please just drop me a line.

  7. This is awesome. I’d love to help. I was just on the Twitters looking for a place to route funds that would help the underrepresented populations you’re serving, but it doesn’t sound like you need it — yet.

  8. Sounds like something every city should have in place. I’m currently in Queens, New York. Lots of smart people, but the digital divide is alive and well. This project will make definite steps to bridge that gap. If you bring it here, you can count me in.

  9. Any reason why this isn’t piloting somewhere with a larger minority population than Portland? Atlanta, DC, New York, Chicago…lots of places where this program could really do good for the populations you’re trying to serve since there are more of them there. Just a thought.

    Nick Alexander: You should check out places like Black Girls Code, Model View Culture, Revision Path, etc. They could all use more exposure and help!

  10. A few years ago now I had four ‘software technicians’ working for me who came out of a programme set up by the (female) Technical Director at my then employer to open up training and employment opportunities for women who had been failed by the educational system. They were all excellent, though my own feeling was that they were capable of a lot more than we were asking of them, or that they thought they were capable of. So an area to look at may be expectations and instilling confidence to reach beyond the immediate opportunities.

    I’d echo njn’s point on women, at the point the software techs came to work for us we had 3 or 4 female engineers in a team of 130 and it never really got better (in fact it got worse). Another clearly disadvantaged group is disabled people, and disabled members of other minority groups are doubly disadvantaged – so think about accessibility of venues!

  11. Edwina these are great questions and I can’t wait until the pilot is run (twice, once in Portland and once in New Orleans) so that we can take stock and look at how to turn this into a cloneable, scalable opportunity to bring to even more cities both in North American and outside of it. I certainly can’t be the bottleneck here so there will be train-the-trainers and other things built in to ensure that there are pathways to leadership and to exploring more communities that want to work with Open Source to help build technical skills for local impact. Specifically regarding Portland – we have office space there and a huge open source community already in place so the pilot taking place there is going to benefit from that even if the selection process will require a lot more attention and effort to ensure we find people from the groups we mean to engage. In New Orleans we will probably have an easier time finding POC to participate but will have to learn how to partner with others to get space, food, and find community to tap into so that the 6 weeks don’t end and leave people stranded with no “what’s next?”. This is all great stuff to keep in mind and to question regularly as we build it up.

  12. Will applicants have to be from Portland? I am an HIV positive Latino from Miami who has spent the last few months saving every cent I can for a boot camp program. While I understand that the payoff for these programs is great, it will take over a year before I have the funds together. I’ve definitely got enough saved for a few months of rent in another city, though, and am extremely interested in applying for this. I think this is a fantastic idea and thank you so much for starting something like this!

  13. Hi Walter – thanks for getting in touch. I definitely have Miami on the list of where we could grow to next. I’d love to talk with you more about what you’re looking to get out of a “boot camp program” so we can see if the curriculum plans for this match up with what you’re wanting. Let’s talk more and see what’s possible.

  14. I’m so excited Portland’s the first MozSpace to host this! Really looking forward to it.

  15. This sounds fantastic! I am currently considering doing something similar in Iowa with a focus on low-income single parents. I’m very early (all in my head at this point) in the the process, but would love to hear more about the progress of this project.

  16. Please consider making your next foray in the North Bronx.
    Rents are comparatively low.
    It’s accessible to the population you are aiming at, without a hugely long commute, there are the kind of hard-working, intelligent people who just need –and will make the most of!– an opportunity, and it’s an area that’s completely overlooked, development-wise.
    Thanks, and Best of Luck!

  17. Lukas, this sounds really amazing. HUGE kudos to you and Christie and everyone else involved in getting this off the ground. If there’s any way I can help, just let me know.

  18. While you are in Portland, you should contact someone in the Lents area, where there is a large low-income minority population. I sent your info to these two people:,, but you might want to get in touch with them as well. Lents has been targeted for revitalization, and your project would be of great interest to them. I hope that you will follow up.

  19. Dear Lukas,

    I would love to do whatever I can to help. In am currently employed in Portland as a team lead for Web development but there is a strong possibility I would move to New Orleans this summer for grad school at Tulane. I am ramping up my open source work.this summer and would love to help in whatever way I can where ever I am.

  20. This sounds great! It will help deflect attention from the board for hiring an opponent of gay marriages in California.

  21. I am interested in participating in your bootcamp. Do you have one or are you planning on having one in the Bay Area?

  22. Nothing in the Bay Area at present. We’re doing two pilots: Portland and New Orleans and then evaluating the selection process, curriculum, methodology, success metrics, and then figuring out how to move forward from there to scale up.

  23. Thrilled that Mozilla is going to give some of the most vulnerable people in society an opportunity to whitewash Brendan’s history. Looking forward to hearing more about this project and his lack of remorse!

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