Breaking the mold of the traditional IT specialist

To understand more about the groups that are working together to spur digital literacy and tech knowledge in under-served communities, we spoke with Derrick Was...

When it comes to the proliferation of computers, the internet, and other technologies in recent decades, not knowing how to operate in the digital space can be a huge barrier to a living wage. To understand more about the groups that are working together to spur digital literacy and tech knowledge in under-served communities, we spoke with Derrick Washington, part of the leadership at educational nonprofit Byte Back.

ABERMAN: Tell us a bit about Byte Back. What does it do?

WASHINGTON: So, we’ve been around for 21 years. Byte Back’s mission is to provide a pathway of inclusive tech training that ultimately leads to living-wage careers. We have been offering this free training, again, for the past 21 years, primarily in the D.C. region. As recently as last year, we expanded into Prince George’s County, offering free training, and soon to be this year, the latter part of this year actually, we’ll be expanding into Baltimore.

And so, we teach about 700 adults per year. What we do is, we teach them a pathway. So, for individuals that have limited to no computer use experience, we teach them how to send an email, how to navigate the various components of a P.C., and ultimately, from that point, they’re able to move to what’s called our intermediate course. We call it an office track.

And so, we teach them a myriad of the office track suite, the Microsoft Office track suite, and then they’re able to matriculate at that point to a certification level class. We offer two tracks for our certification level classes: the I.T. pathway, which is geared towards individuals that have a particular interest in the Help Desk career, help desk or computer user support specialist role; and then for those that have a particular interest in more administrative type roles that use technology.

And so, those certification classes are all coupled with a career services component. And so, in addition to them receiving the industry recognized credential, they also have some assistance in job search. We place them into jobs, into internships, because a bulk of our students are new to the industry. They have limited work experience, and so forth, and so we want to adjust the system in their journey.

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ABERMAN: It’s interesting to me that, unless you have grown up in an environment without technology, you will take it for granted. And yet, if you grow up in an environment or a family where you don’t have access to technology, that’s not part of educational experience, I think these days it creates an enormous social and economic divide that it’s almost impossible to overcome.

WASHINGTON: Absolutely.

ABERMAN: Is digital literacy basically the 21st century equivalent of having to know how to read and write?

WASHINGTON: Absolutely. Everything is online, from completing an application to applying for a loan. All of these things are online, and so, for individuals that have no experience, no understanding of digital literacy, they are at a severe disadvantage. And so, what we’ve found is that D.C. is a great place to be, specifically for women in tech, and that’s absolutely amazing. But we want to push that farther, and look at who’s who’s being left out in the city.

And so, we serve 98 percent people of color, and a majority of them are women, and about a third of them struggle with homelessness. And so, our students, they don’t look like the average tech employee, and we really believe that they should. And so, we believe that we have a service to do for this community. We have to bring these these folks up to speed, so that they are able to move into some of these jobs.

ABERMAN: Because otherwise, it’s the same way that if somebody can’t read and they can’t write, they can’t function in society and participate in any significant way. It’s the same way now with tech. You know, when I was looking at your background, getting ready for the show, Derrick, I saw that you’ve been involved in many different activities around education and community development. I hear your passion. What is it about Byte Back? Give me an example of somebody that you’ve worked with that would help us see and experience the passion that clearly, you’re bringing to this.

WASHINGTON: Absolutely. You mentioned in my bio that I consider myself to be a people builder. I believe that it is important that we help people realize even some innate abilities and skill sets that they might have within them. And so, I can think of one example: a gentleman came to our organization a few years ago, received training here. He came in, he was working as a concierge, and was working long hours, was a single father, in this instance, trying to provide for his young daughter at the time, sleeping on family members’ couches.

So, practically he was homeless, but working as a concierge, again, these long hours, missing time with his daughter. He came to Byte Back, went through, actually, PC for Beginners, which is our first level course, moved to the office track, and then into a certification. And ultimately, into a job! And now, he’s making way more than he was making as a concierge, as an I.T. specialist. And this was, again, a couple of years ago, but he comes back to the organization and volunteers.

And so, we keep a good grip on him, but he’s still employed as an I.T. specialist, has actually been promoted several times within the company, and has his own apartment, has his daughter living there, and is able to to work Monday through Friday, have weekends off to spend time with his child. We pride ourselves in those types of stories, where people come to us with limited to no experience, but are able to move through the pathway into living wage employment, and have a sustainable livelihood, specifically here in D.C.

ABERMAN: Very expensive, and I’m sure that there are people listening to this who are in the I.T. industry, or are active in the region, who would love to be more involved. How would you like people to help Byte Back? How would you like them to get engaged?

WASHINGTON: We would love for them to volunteer. We’ve just launched this Tech D.C. initiative, bringing individuals that either want to hire, or provide internship opportunities, for our students, to volunteer with any organization. They may say, hey, we can’t necessarily hire, but we want to interview at some period or some point, or even contribute financially. So, Tech D.C. brings them all together, so they can visit our website to learn about those opportunities.

ABERMAN: Well again, Derrick, it’s been great having you. Byte Back clearly wins the award for this week’s show’s best name. That was Derrick Washington with Byte Back. Check them out.

WASHINGTON: Thanks, Jonathan.

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