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Banking on KC – Tammy Buckner of WeCode KC


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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Tammy Buckner, the co-founder of WeCode KC, which helps young people learn technology concepts and leadership skills. Welcome, Tammy.

Tammy Buckner:

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about what you're trying to achieve at WeCode KC and more about the population that you serve.

Tammy Buckner:

Absolutely. Thank you so much. Yeah, WeCode KC is a nonprofit organization where we teach kids technology skills as well as cybersecurity skills. When I say "technology skills," I am meaning skills that would allow them to go into career paths. We're teaching everything from JavaScript to Python to HTML and CSS. Some people may not know what those are, but those are programming languages that allow you to build out applications such as websites and mobile apps, and that's what we teach our population. We start kids at the age of seven and we go up to 17. Very young. I mean, these kids are super smart. It's amazing because you would think, "Seven years old. Wow. What could they learn about technology?" But you would be surprised that these kids would come, in the majority of these kids, I mean, they're bored with device in their hand, so they already know the industry, they already know the technology. It's about formulating and showing them how to utilize that to build out skills and to build out what they're already continuing to know as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

Your intention is to put them on a career path. Obviously, at the age of seven, they're not going to go out and get a job, but they're going to continue to build on it. But on the older end of the population you serve, your goal would be that they have an employable skill.

Tammy Buckner:

Absolutely. 17, 18 years old, these kids are in high school, so we are teaching them skills that they can actually do work for our business partners, our corporations that we work with, and they actually do those skills and we're able to pay them a stipend. When I say "high school years," we have a school that we work with that we start them at the freshman grade and we build up. Imagine being taught skills for four years and what you can learn and within that four-year timeframe. Our freshmen start out getting those skill sets. Once they become juniors, they're now able to start working on projects. They become mentors for the freshmen that are coming in, and then senior level, again, they become senior-level developers as well as mentorships, and now they're earning wages to do projects, everything from websites, mobile apps, social media management.

Kelly Scanlon:

Now, are the WeCode KC activities and programs outside of their regular school curriculum?

Tammy Buckner:

Yes and no because we do have an afterschool program that starts in the evening. Last year, we initially started at DeLaSalle and they were during classroom hours. This year, we went to starting it after school because it seemed like it was a little bit better for everyone more as the scheduling to have the afterschool session.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about, is there an app application process? How does a student get involved in this? You talked about a seven-to-17 age group. If I'm in that age group, is it open to me as long as I fall within that cohort? Or are there other requirements as well?

Tammy Buckner:

Nope, it is open. Right now, we have it open. Going to our website, if they log in to wecodekc.org, there is a link that says Enroll Now. We have classes on the first and third Saturdays for our seven-year-olds or from seven-to-17-year-olds, those are just pretty much open classes. They teach, again, Scratch, JavaScript, HTML, game development. When we get to the high school level as well as the adult learner programs and cybersecurity, we do have those programs through the week on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the evening. Those classes we are asking, we're starting a program now where we do take assessments because we do want to know where you fall in line with those skill set, just in case we want to make sure you start on the right path and not lead you down a path that may be too difficult or you've already taken classes and we want to just gauge where you are.

Tammy Buckner:

We don't turn anyone away. We have kids from Olathe to Lee's Summit to Blue Springs. We don't turn anyone away. We do like to focus on the urban core because that is the marginalized areas that most kids do not get exposed to technology, but we've never and will never turn anyone away because you live in a different zip code.

Kelly Scanlon:

I understand that you do have a couple of different programs, so talk to us about what those entail.

Tammy Buckner:

Okay, so our Saturday program would be our program that it's pretty much open to the public. You log into wecodekc.org, you sign up, you see different classes that are available: Scratch, JavaScript, HTML, Python. You sign up for one of those classes or a parent will sign a child up for one of those classes. We have the classes online as well as in-person. I say that because right before COVID hit, we were in-person on 1508 Prospect. When COVID hit, we had to quickly pivot to online classes, and we did not want to lose the large demographic of kids that we picked up during COVID, so we decide to do a hybrid.

Tammy Buckner:

On the first and third Saturdays of a month, we have hybrid classes that our instructors are teaching on-site as well as online when you select a class that you would like to be involved with, you either come online or in-person, and you have an instructor available there with you. We keep the classes pretty small, so there are normally only 10 students in a class. Try to make them as small as possible so that our students can get a one-on-one interaction. We normally have an instructor as well as a mentor in-class with the students and they normally have a curriculum that they follow to go through that period, learning different concepts of that particular programming language.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us the difference between the instructor and the mentor.

Tammy Buckner:

The instructor is likely someone that is already a professional industry-led instructor, so it may be a CTO from an organization that volunteers their time or a senior-level developer. A mentor may be someone that may not have either any technical skills, but want to be involved, want to assist and be available for students. They may be just getting into technology and want to learn from that instructor as well, but still know that their focus is there to be an assistant to the instructor and help students. Sometimes students may fall behind and instead of the instructor completely stopping, that mentor can take those kids aside, get them caught back up, and then proceed to get them back into the class.

Tammy Buckner:

The second program, those are Tuesdays and Thursday classes. With that class, we have recently started has been a collaboration with KC Scholars and some of our high schoolers. These are high school students and adult learners that are looking to assist them with tech skills. Again, these are students that are recipients of KC Scholars, if the program is familiar to you, that's been funded by the Kauffman Foundation. They realized they had quite a few students that were interested in technology and didn't have anyone or a way to help them prior to them getting into college. They access to be the conduit, so on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we work with them in regards to those skill sets. The difference with that group, that we are allowed or able to give them a stipend to work with us and work on projects for our business partners.

Kelly Scanlon:

Your business partners, are the businesses within the community, and what's their involvement like?

Tammy Buckner:

Yeah, they are businesses within the community. I do express that we are working with students, so they are not senior-level developers, they may be junior-level developers that are provided a senior-level developer to work alongside with them, not saying that they will get any less quality of work, but do understand that you are providing a service to students and they're working on your projects. Normally, they are okay with that because they are excited that they are contributing to the program and they are assisting that the students will follow up with them, so it's also teaching them soft skills. It helps them to learn about project management. It helps them to learn that they are doing everything from building out the websites or building out the digital collateral and working with our business partners directly.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, so some really great real-world, hands-on experience there. Teaching tech skills and building this pipeline of future-ready tech professionals is one thing, but you're going one step further. You are combining that with leadership skills training. What's your thinking behind that?

Tammy Buckner:

My thinking behind that is that a lot of times, students don't understand what it really takes to be in the workforce and into the real world. We want to make sure number one, they understand the industry they're getting into because sometimes students come in and they change their mind. They're looking like, "Wow, this is definitely not the industry that I want to be in. That does two things. It saves not only themselves and their parent's money, because now they're not going to go to college for technology and lose out on money, but now, they can decide what that they actually want to go into.

Tammy Buckner:

But following up with the leadership skills, they're learning how to do public speaking, they're learning about project management, and then they're also learning about other skills or other career paths in technology. Someone may say, "I want to be in technology, but I don't know what I want to do." You don't have to be a software developer. There are all other skills: project management, graphic design, UX/UI engineering, data analytics. This allows them to find what path they actually want to take.

Kelly Scanlon:

You're not just only the CEO of WeCode KC, you're the co-founder. What inspired you to launch this organization?

Tammy Buckner:

Kelly, I've been in technology most of my career. I taught myself coding probably before the word "coding" was a buzzword. I did teach myself before, like I said, all the Internet. My parents brought me a computer when I was younger. I took it apart. I probably wasn't supposed to do that, but I took it part, put it back together, and it actually worked, and just started figuring out what those technology skills were about at that time.

Tammy Buckner:

As I started getting into college and getting into the workforce, I realized there still weren't a lot of people that look like me. I didn't find a lot of minorities in technology. I didn't find, specifically, a lot of women in technology. It's definitely a white male-dominated industry. However, I wanted to make sure students and kids that look like me realize that this is a very lucrative career path and it can be for them as well, which is why and my business partner, Dr. Philip Hickman, decided we wanted to start this program. We started one back in Mississippi, a coding boot camp, and I helped him with that, and I really wanted to bring that to Kansas City. I started doing small popups in about 2016 and actually formulated the nonprofit in 2018.

Kelly Scanlon:

In that short amount of time, you've had a great deal of impact. Can you share with us some of the accomplishments so far?

Tammy Buckner:

Absolutely. The accomplishments have been amazing because as we continue to grow our very first class back in, I said 2018, excuse me, I meant to say 2019. November 2019, we finally opened our doors, and the impact that it had in the inner city was amazing. I mean, we started out with probably about 25 to 30 kids and it's grown every single month from there. We have international right now. We have kids from Canada that log in on our Saturday classes, as well as New York and Virginia as well. Then as we're continuing to grow now, partnering with organizations, such as KC Scholars and allowing us to go into different high schools as well, so we're building out the platform so that we can package it up and start working with various schools.

Kelly Scanlon:

Since this is a voluntary program for students to join, it's not a requirement for graduation, so to speak, so when they're signing up for this, they're interested. I'm curious, has that helped them with their other schoolwork? Have they become better students in other areas because of this? Have you gotten any feedback from the schools on that?

Tammy Buckner:

Kelly, I get that all the time. I've gotten emails, phone calls, contact, people in my inbox. Parents are saying that their student may have started out, been troubled in math, have been difficult taking tests, and since they started with WeCode, they have been more focused in school. Their grades have gone up. Even their reading has gone up because now it allows them to really focus. That's what technology does, it helps with critical thinking, it helps with problem-solving, most importantly, because now you're doing things in sequence and it helps trigger their mind and their brain functionalities to work a little bit smarter. I have definitely gotten quite a bit of feedback and testimonies that their students have tested much better since they've started coding with WeCode.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's fantastic. Let's talk a little bit about your funding. You're a nonprofit. How are you funded?

Tammy Buckner:

We actually are diversified. We are a nonprofit, so we do accept donations from businesses, from individuals. We've been getting funded from different philanthropy organizations. One thing that's important that we have been monetizing our services, so again, when students are able to work on our projects for our business partners, they're getting paid. This is an income, a revenue stream for WeCode, so we're excited that we do get a chance to diversify our funds with a lot of nonprofits. Haven't done that, but we wanted to make sure that this was a business model that youth can understand that they can definitely earn a living off of these skills.

Kelly Scanlon:

I understand that you have recently acquired a building. What are your plans for that?

Tammy Buckner:

Our goal is to create a maker space, which is a collaborative space that allows students, young adults to explore and to learn about high tech and different technical skills and tools and we're building this in the urban core on 25th and Prospect. We're working on funding right now to get that renovated, so hopefully, first of the year, we'll have an amazing space where students can come and explore high-tech and innovative ideas. The building is amazing and we're hoping that we get some donors and funders that are just as exciting about putting this type of space in our urban core and they would love to be a part of this goal and vision and help us get this done.

Kelly Scanlon:

If our listeners would want to find out more about we WeCode KC and if they'd like to get involved, what's the best way to do that?

Tammy Buckner:

They can contact us on any social media at @WeCodeKC. Wecodekc.org is our website. Again, we are volunteer-based. What some of our instructors that we have been working with, such as our senior-level instructors, which is why we're looking to build this infrastructure, it's great to volunteer and we appreciate our team so very much, but what we are looking to do is to hire on a staff which would mean those are consistent instructors that are with us 100% full-time. That's what we're looking for as we're continuing to build out this structure.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tammy, I want to ask you about your long-term vision. Obviously, your own interest in coding, and then seeing that others like you really were not well-represented in the industry-led you to found it. But now that you're here and you're working with these students, what is your long-term vision? What would you like to see more of? Or just take that wherever you want to.

Tammy Buckner:

The long-term goal is obviously to change not only the trajectory of people's lives when they're getting into these career paths, but most importantly, diversify technology. If I'm not mistaken right now, about 4% of blacks are in technology or software developers, 5% Hispanic and Latino. I want to change those numbers. It is a must that we change the numbers in technology. It is a great career path. I've said that over and over again because I'm so adamant about that. I mean, trust me, you talk to any of my friends, I try to get everybody in technology I possibly can. It's just the love of it for me. It's the love of it and because it allows you to be able to live a life that's deserving. Then at the same time, it helps other people. When you're creating different ideas, you bring their ideas to life. That's the most thrilling part and that's the most passionate part that I can sit, I can talk to someone, and they have this great idea, and we know that technology can allow them to get that done.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, Tammy, you are doing amazing work. Thank you so much for your dedication to this. We wish you all the luck in the world and we appreciate you being on the show today.

Tammy Buckner:

Thank you so much, Kelly. I really appreciate this opportunity. Again, if anyone wants to volunteer their time, you don't have to be a certified CTO or anything like that. If you are just interested in working with kids, you're interested in being a part of a great organization, feel free to email us. You can email us at learntech@wecodekc.org and we'd be glad to work with you and get you on track with working with our kids. Thank you.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, the president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Tammy Buckner for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. It's always satisfying when people find a way to combine unrelated ideas to create a solution that addresses multiple challenges. That's exactly what Tammy and her team have accomplished at WeCode KC. After spending years in technology jobs and observing that few people of color made their careers in the tech industry, Tammy decided to do something to change that by tapping into young people's innate ability to grasp technology concepts.

Joe Close:

WeCode KC leverages young people's natural curiosity about technology and teaches them, especially those in underserved communities, technical skills that offer a career pathway leading to a prosperous economic future. The influx of talent also helps alleviate the talent scarcity many businesses face when they recruit for positions requiring technical skills. We often hear that technology is the wave of the future. We also hear that young people are our key to a better future. When we combine the two, Country Club Bank forecasts a very bright future. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City.

Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

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