Are these Salinas Valley students exactly what Silicon Valley needs?

Jan 8, 2015

CSIT-in-3 students Daniel Diaz (left) and Brian De Anda map out options for reducing the size of a mobile app their team is building.
Credit Krista Almanzan

As most college kids are getting ready for their winter classes, students who want a career in tech are busy preparing for summer.  Right now they’re interviewing for internships. 

That’s where we find a unique class of college students we first met about a year ago.   They’re from the Salinas Valley, many the children of farm workers or immigrants themselves, who are working towards careers in Silicon Valley. 

In a classroom at Hartnell Community College in Salinas, Daniel Diaz and Brian De Anda stand at a whiteboard mapping out ideas on how to reduce the size of a mobile app their team is building.

This isn’t a class, and the app they’re building, an informational guide for a drug rehab center, isn’t even a school project.  But this is what it takes to stay competitive in the quest for a summer internship says Daniel Diaz.

“What you are taught at school is not enough, especially in today’s competitive society.  I think you need to do some more outside learning,” says student Daniel Diaz. 

So they’re also working on other apps, doing software coding competitions called hackathons and learning additional programming languages outside of class.  Because there’s thought, perhaps a reality, that hangs over them.  They’re underdogs.

“Given the region it is in, the area.  It’s majorly farm workers.  So given that, you don’t think that many bright students can come from here,” says student Elias Ramirez.

They’re all part of the inaugural class of CSIT-in-3. It’s an intensive, accelerated computer science degree program targeted at students from the agricultural Salinas Valley.

They’re about halfway through the three year program where they’ve done much of their course work at the community college, and will soon be doing the majority at Cal State Monterey Bay, KAZU’s parent institution, where they’ll ultimately earn their degree. 

“We’re going to bring a population that’s not fully represented in Silicon Valley right now,” says program co-founder Joe Welch.

He’s referring to diversity numbers that some major tech companies released last year that show when it comes to US based tech workers, the number of Hispanics or blacks doesn’t even come close to 5%.  Women fair better, but still less than 20%. 

In the CSIT-in-3 program, 90% of the students are Latino, and nearly half are women.

“If they don’t do anything to change the hiring processes that they’ve historically done, they’ll be very challenged to get those historic trend lines to change at all, whether for women or unrepresented minorities,” says Welch.

So he and program co-founder Sathya Narayanan have been pitching Silicon Valley companies on a partnership. 

“We want these companies to invest in our students and invest in our program.  We want them to let us pick the interns,” says Welch.    

It’s proving a hard sell to companies that have long standing relationships with top tier schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley, but they’ve made some inroads.

At a recent networking event at Cal State Monterey Bay, students mingle with representatives from local companies as well as a few from Silicon Valley including Google, Twitter and Salesforce.

“For them to come and see the students and be able to talk to them.  It’s going to be a lot easier to have the next conversation with them. It’s not just Power Points,” says Narayanan. 

About ten students gather around a table manned by Pat Patterson of Salesforce.  His interest in this program goes beyond this networking event, he also taught a course at the school this past semester. 

He says he’s optimistic about CSIT-in-3 both for its potential to quickly get graduates into the workforce and to diversify the industry.

“If your employees are almost a mono-culture.  They are going to be building products and taking into accounts the needs of almost that mono-culture. So by having more diversity in tech we can actually build better products that serve the need of the wider community,” says Patterson.

And as students like Elias Ramirez will tell you, they also bring grit.  When his parents first came to the US from Mexico they worked in the fields before moving on to better jobs.  And that hard work has inspired him.

The idea that there might be someone better than me is what actually might keep me competitive,” says Ramirez.

So far the CSIT-in-3 students are getting interviews with Silicon Valley companies, and one of the 28 has already secured an internship with Apple.