In recent years, there’s been a near-constant call for building and diversifying pipelines into tech jobs. More often than not, commentators (ourselves included!) point to the disruptive potential of bootcamps and other short-course training programs emerging to meet the overwhelming demand for tech talent.
But a new program called Mentors in Tech (MinT) is looking to bolster outcomes for a different but equally important population of prospective tech professionals: computer science graduates from less selective institutions, often dubbed “non-target” schools in the technology industry. According to founder and entrepreneur Kevin Wang, these students are too often overlooked—and under networked. “Companies overlook half of 4-year computer science (CS) graduates every year. They are from small, local, accessible, affordable, and less well-known CS programs,” said Kevin, who spent a decade building Microsoft Philanthropies’ TEALS program before launching Mentors in Tech last year.
I sat down with Kevin to learn more about what he’s building and why mentors are a critical asset for this subset of computer science students trying to convert their hard-earned degrees into high-paying jobs.
Julia: Like a number of emerging platforms in the career navigation and development space, you’re connecting people who might otherwise never meet. But you’re also doing that in a way that includes a fair amount of support and a curriculum. If I’m a student, what is the Mentors in Tech experience? If I’m a mentor, what’s the experience like?
Kevin: We believe that a mentoring program that builds long-term professional relationships needs structure, and both mentors and mentees have to be trained and supported throughout the process to be successful.
If you’re a student at one of our partner colleges, your administrator or professor can nominate you to be a mentee. You then fill out a form about yourself, your background, and your career aspirations. Next, you go through a “live” training session with fellow students about how the program works, how mentoring works in this specific context, and receive an introduction to the monthly curriculum that you and your mentor will go through for the rest of the year.
Our students have the agency to submit a mentor preference form where they can indicate preferences from a list of mentors whom we suggest based on a number of factors, including their own background, the mentors’ background, and type of roles and companies they are interested in, and the mentors’ interests as well.
Each student is assigned two mentors, and they meet with each mentor once a month. We intentionally have two mentors so that students can get different points of view from different mentors with different backgrounds and experiences. Topics that mentors and mentees cover include everything from tech lay of the land to resume review and technical interview, to understanding offers and how to function as a tech professional.
In addition, students have access to our closed discussion group—to share experiences and ask questions that their mentors may not be able to answer—and monthly industry panels, as well as opportunities to work with tech companies as part of their school capstone projects.
The mentors have a mirror process: they are interviewed and trained before being matched to up to four students, which adds up to four hours of meetings per month per mentor. Mentors and mentees use the same curriculum. Both mentors and mentees write a reflection after their meetings (both to process and absorb what they’ve learned), and the mentee’s reflections are used by some schools to give credit for certain classes.
The training and curriculum were developed with our partner colleges and informed by research. 2,000 1:1 mentoring sessions will take place by the end of the current school year.
Julia: You’re partnering with small and mid-sized colleges that don’t have the same on-campus recruiting or employer relationships that larger R1 [research-intensive] schools do. Is Mentors in Tech really a career services innovation for colleges that are trying to increase employment rates and compete on return on investment (ROI) for their students?
Kevin: Yes, these smaller colleges usually don’t have the resources or expertise to build a mentoring and career office for the two dozen CS students they graduate each year. So having an external all-in-one alumni / mentoring program, student career office, and industry outreach helps them in what they do. Many have tried but found it difficult to navigate, build, and maintain relationships with individual mentors, and corporate partners; keep track of technology hiring trends and the tech ecosystem; and help their tech students make that transition. Whereas large, well-known R1 programs have an expansive, well-connected alumni base and on-campus recruiters from numerous companies, that is simply not the case at smaller CS programs.
Smaller colleges also serve a much more diverse population of nontraditional students. Our cohorts’ average age ranges from 26 to 31. Many don’t have the financial resources to go to school full time, had a different academic starting point, were veterans, could not go to a school far from their families, or are making a career change from food service or another job situation. These schools are now the only 4-year colleges in the US that cost under $10,000 per year. When we talk about education and economic mobility, this is it. If you can have a career in tech, you and your family’s trajectory changes and could be immediately catapulted to the middle-class bracket. If a student is on a Pell grant, and they are successful in this, their kids will not be eligible for a Pell grant.
MinT is also a great way for companies to be exposed to a new talent pool that they may not have known existed or perhaps were hesitant to consider due to the lack of a school brand name. We understand that it is hard for companies to recruit students from small graduating classes, and that’s why having many partner colleges means MinT can offer companies the same number of students at scale that the larger schools do when it comes to recruiting and connecting with students. Through our industry capstone program, companies now have a low-cost, low-risk way to get to know the strengths of these students first hand.
Julia: Prior to Mentors in Tech you founded and led the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program at Microsoft Philanthropies. The program had an impressive track record, partnering with over 1,000 high schools across the US and bringing together tech industry volunteers and teachers to team-teach computer science courses. How is what you’re building now informed by what you learned in that work? What did TEALS teach you when it comes to supporting connections between students and employers in an online environment?
Kevin: After founding and leading TEALS for 11 years, I realized that many of our volunteers and teachers would tell me about a couple of their CS students that got into CMU, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, UW, and other top CS programs, but seldom about the other 28 students in the class. We know that many of our TEALS students enroll at these smaller, less well-known colleges and have a much more difficult time breaking into tech.
Both TEALS and MinT are about building bridges between education and tech, and understanding the ecosystem, assumptions, and pain points of both ecosystems to successfully build a scalable and sustainable program that schools and institutions could understand and would want. Programs that serve many different partners have to be sensitive and sympathetic to the needs of the students, volunteers, colleges, and partners we serve.
Harnessing that passion both for our profession and to help others is common to volunteers in TEALS and MinT. The passion of our volunteers is also just an incredible asset for our partner colleges and students. Our volunteers’ industry experience combines for over 2,200 years, with the majority having worked for companies that are household names in a huge variety of roles and verticals within tech. Making sure our mentors get the most out of the valuable time they spend with mentees, and that they are making the impact they intended by joining the program, makes it worthwhile for them. This is a big departure from the stereotype of engineers in tech, in that the program is able to tap into their passion in the right way with the respect and support they deserve.
By being online, our students actually have a wider pool of mentors to choose from with different backgrounds, experiences, and career tracks than if we were restricted by a particular geography. For us, it is very much a net positive.
Julia: The word “mentor” can mean many things…especially when it comes to how long or deep a relationship runs. Do you have a hypothesis about the extent or duration of the relationship you’re hoping mentors and mentees build with one another in order to propel graduates into good jobs? Is there anything you’re doing to increase the likelihood that the mentor-mentee relationship outlasts the program?
Kevin: We’re very careful to not overload the students. They have a full course load in addition to other commitments so we designed it to be no more than four hours per month where they are either meeting with their two mentors, or attending an industry talk, or engaging with our online community. Through our program, we believe our students will get a start in their tech careers that all the research says mentoring and industry exposure would offer.
Longer-term, what mentors and mentees learn will be how to be a good mentor and mentee outside of the MinT context. We want our mentors to mentor others at their company or elsewhere using the tools that we have given them. We want the students who have never had a connection with an industry professional before to be able to find other meaningful mentoring relationships on their own in the future. That’s an evergreen skill set that will serve them well their entire careers. Giving them the training, structure, curriculum, and support all work to increase the likelihood of their success.