(Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Nafis Bey didn’t want to go to college.
Instead, the soft-spoken West Philadelphia native decided to become an IT apprentice at the School District, where he learned how to fix computers and became one of Science Leadership Academy’s resident tech specialists.
During his apprenticeship, his mentor also taught him how to code. Two years later, at 20-years-old, he had a full-time job as an engineer at his mentor’s web development firm.
Bey, now 22, is one of two Philadelphia public school graduates who work at the eleven-person Northern Liberties dev shop Jarvus Innovations. Both of those Jarvus employees graduated from the School District’s Urban Technology Project apprenticeship program.
At a time when tech companies are scrambling for talent and experimenting with innovative ways to hire, Jarvus took a route that is less than common: they formed a connection with a local apprenticeship program and first trained, then hired, a pair of Philly public school students who hadn’t finished college.
Bey was his high school’s first technology manager.
During his senior year at West Philadelphia’s Parkway West, he realized that there was no technology staff at his school. So he created a position for himself as part of a school internship. As the school’s tech manager, he took inventory of the school’s tech equipment and kept track of what worked and what didn’t.
Bey cared about his school, but he wasn’t that invested in schoolwork itself.
“I wasn’t the most interested student,” he said. “But I was very much interested in technology.”
That’s why the Urban Technology Project felt right for him, he said. The program looks for recent high school graduates who are both interested in tech and not interested in immediately going to college. The program trains participants, known as Digital Service Fellows, as IT technicians, who are then assigned to public schools, where they help the school’s computer support specialists. The fellows can apply to become computer support specialists once they finish the one-year program.
Bey was placed at Science Leadership Academy, the Center City magnet school renowned for its STEM and project-based focus. That was where he met Chris Alfano. Alfano, cofounder of web dev firm Jarvus, and a Drexel dropout himself, was SLA’s computer support specialist. It was Alfano, Bey’s assigned mentor, who introduced Bey to software development.
A few months into Bey’s fellowship, Alfano challenged Bey to build a program that could make his job easier. He built an asset manager — software that could automate the process of keeping track of every student’s laptop and what parts needed to be fixed and ordered. It wasn’t sexy, but it did the job.
After that, Bey was hooked.
“I felt that development was the perfect challenge,” he said.
The following year, Bey got the job of part-time computer support specialist at SLA. Alfano left SLA but kept working with Bey, hiring him as a contractor for projects that Jarvus did for the school. The year after that, in 2012, Jarvus offered Bey a full-time position.
Bey is now an engineer at Jarvus who works on Slate, Jarvus’s edtech software, as well as client projects.
Alfano’s philosophy when it comes to recruiting talent: the sooner, the better. College, he believes, isn’t necessary if you’re looking to work in technology.
“This isn’t an industry that you can hide from for four years and come out prepared for,” said Alfano, 27.
Alfano left Drexel after two years, when he was 21, to cofound the group of freelancer developers that would eventually become Jarvus. His cofounder, John Fazio, also dropped out of Drexel. They’re not alone: check out our list of nearly 10 college dropouts who are running Philadelphia technology companies.
“I think you should just dive into it,” he said. “Short-circuit the college process.”
That ethos is what drove him to recruit and train two Digital Service Fellows (Bey and another Fellow named Jessie Cunningham, who currently works at Jarvus), as well as two other Philly public school students, Jonathan Sample and Anthony Harley, who started at Jarvus when they were both students at SLA. (Sample now works works as a developer at Haddonfield, N.J.-based Dorado Systems, while Harley works as a developer at Newtown, Pa.-based Aegis Communications.)
Alfano also makes a business case for recruiting and training young technologists: starting salaries for high school graduates are lower than those for college graduates, and it can be expensive to recruit college grads, too.
“I know that sounds like exploitation,” he said, “but I think the real exploitation is the massive college loans that students are tied to paying off.”
There’s also the community engagement aspect of training public school students. It’s one way that tech companies can support the underfunded School District, Alfano said.
His advice to tech companies looking to get involved? Connect with organizations like the Urban Technology Project, which has a pipeline of talented students who are interested in technology. Lend some of your developer time without any expectation of getting something in return.
“It’s important you don’t put your own work on their plates,” Alfano said. “If they’re just getting started, then they shouldn’t have that pressure on them while they’re learning.”
He suggests working with students to find a project that can make their own job easier, like how he worked with Bey to build an asset manager, and then build up responsibilities after that. Start with contract work before offering a full-time job.
Before Jessie Cunningham, 23, became Jarvus’s project manager, she would stay late at the company’s Northern Liberties office, working on side projects and coding well into the night.
Cunningham, a Northeast Philly native who became a Digital Service Fellow one year after Bey, was one of the four fellows who participated in Jarvus’s software development workshops. By day, she helped run IT at Frankford High School, by night, she practiced coding at Jarvus a few times a week.
That was how Alfano noticed Cunningham’s knack for project management.
As a way to test her abilities, he gave her a client project focused on building an app for a week-long conference. Here’s your budget, he said. Here’s the cut that Jarvus is going to take. You can code it all yourself, he told her, or you can hire someone to help (she did), and you can hire me for consultation hours (she did).
The company was impressed with her performance and took her on part-time after she completed her fellowship. That eventually turned into a full-time position.
A graduate of South Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Cunningham applied to the Urban Technology Project after spending two years at Kutztown University. Leaving college was both a financial decision and a personal one. (“It wasn’t suiting me,” she said.) But it was also one of the best decisions for her career, she said. Today, Cunningham is Jarvus’s project manager, where her job is to make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to.
Compared to the other Digital Service Fellows alumni, what’s unique about Bey and Cunningham’s stories is that they ended up at a web development firm run by an Urban Technology Project mentor, said the program’s development coordinator Jacob Feinberg.
About 40 percent of the roughly 50 Digital Service Fellows who completed the program in the last three years are still working in technology, said Urban Technology Project founder Edison Freire. Some work in tech support, while others work as webmasters or digital media specialists at Philly public schools or local universities. Those that don’t go into tech have started their own businesses or gone back to school. Still, Freire hopes to emphasize web development more, though he said that budget cuts have made it hard to expand the program.