Cofounder Shawn Drost Discusses Initiative to Teach Prisoners to Code at Planet Labs Colloquium

Planet Labs, a company focused on high-resolution satellite imagery for environmental, humanitarian and business-related causes, invited Hack Reactor Cofounder Shawn Drost to give a colloquium on Code.7370, our program to teach inmates at San Quentin State Prison to code. Drost discussed how the initiative operates, some of the unique challenges of working in a prison, and how he hopes to see the program expand going forward.

After an introduction from Planet Labs Software Engineer and Hack Reactor alumna Katherine Gilhooley, Drost explained the workings of the unique and inspirational Code.7370 program. Created in concert with The Last Mile and the California Prison Industry Authority, Code.7370 seeks to reduce recidivism by training prisoners in marketable coding skills. The course prepares its students for entry-level developer work in six months, despite the fact that some of them have never used the internet before. The curriculum starts with basic computer literacy, then goes into a deep dive of software and web development, JavaScript, and an array of computer programming tools. Beyond programming skills, Code.7370 teaches a problem-solving mindset that helps students continue to grow and thrive past the duration of the course.

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Cofounder Shawn Drost explained how he helped start and operate a programming school inside San Quentin State Prison at a Planet Labs colloquium.

“I was told to drop my assumptions at the door before going in,” Drost recalled. “The classroom inside San Quentin was deeply motivated for success and ready to create positive change.”

Students were vetted, not by their skills or prior knowledge, but their attitude and willingness to learn (Hack Reactor places a similar emphasis on these “soft skills” in its admissions process).

The program represents a step forward in prisoner education in how it moves past general education and provides marketable, new economy skills that create a pathway to the middle class.

“You can get a high school degree and even an associate's degree while in there,” Drost explained. “But in terms of career training to get jobs, I'd say it's pretty thin on the ground."

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Drost reunited with Hack Reactor alumna Katherine Gilhooley at Planet Labs.

The Planet Labs team was very curious about how the program operates without access to the internet (which prisoners are forbidden to use), especially given that coders often rely on the myriad resources available online when tackling problems they haven’t previously encountered. Drost explained that Hack Reactor put 60 programming books and a slew of reference materials, and made them available to the Code.7370 class on an intranet. They also were able to arrange for access to the Hack Reactor help desk system, which provides additional mentorship.

"Thank you for doing what you're doing,” said a Planet Labs team member, “this is very inspiring work.”

Though the program has already received much praise from numerous media outlets, there are plans to expand Code.7370 to allow graduates to get real software engineering experience while still serving time.

“The long term vision is to create a dev shop in the prison for after they complete the program,” said Drost.

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