Next Chapter: Two formerly incarcerated grads on their fresh start in tech

Written by Michael Peck

Ask James Anderson and Sumit Lal about their experiences as Next Chapter apprentices and you’ll hear one simple message: If we can do it, so can you.

Launched in 2018, Next Chapter is a paid, eight-month apprenticeship program specifically designed to support people leaving incarcerated settings as they pursue careers in the tech industry. With us as an education partner, those who are selected start with three months of training in our Intermediate Coding Bootcamp.

James Anderson, a graduate who’s about to start an apprenticeship with a fintech company, encourages others to apply for Next Chapter, even if they don’t feel confident just yet – in large part because of the support provided during the program.

“You’re more than capable. You’re worthy of this opportunity,” he said. “You’re a valuable asset, and as long as you stay focused, curious, and engaged with the community, you’re going to have all the support you need in order to succeed in this industry.”

Sumit Lal is now an Associate Software Engineer at Slack, and he agrees with Anderson, encouraging others to apply even if they feel like they’re taking an intimidating leap.

“You never know where it might take you. It’s a life-changing program,” he said.

What you need to get started (no need to be a math or computer whiz)

The belief that certain skills – like advanced math or high-level computer mastery – are critical to beginning your journey toward software engineering stops too many people from exploring this career path. To begin, you don’t have to be an ace at math, and you can start without having spent a lot of time with your fingers on a keyboard.

“I had zero coding experience and zero experience with computers,” Lal said of his pre-Next Chapter tech knowledge. “The most I could do before I was incarcerated was log in to Facebook, maybe.”

He became interested in coding while incarcerated because others were doing it, and their passion piqued his interest.

“Everyone was talking about coding, and [Next Chapter] was the hot new program,” he said. “I was in one of the first few cohorts because I wanted to experience what all the hype was about.”

Anderson was initially intimidated by software engineering because he didn’t think of himself as a “math person.” But his brother had some important insight for him, which helped encourage him to pursue Next Chapter.

“My brother, who’s incredibly good at math, talked to me when I was considering taking this leap, and he pointed out that [software engineering] isn’t about mathematical capabilities. This is about problem-solving capabilities,” he said. “The most successful engineers I know do not come from math backgrounds. They come from very non-traditional backgrounds.”

What you need to find lasting success

If math and computer skills aren’t critical to pursuing a career in software engineering, what is? First and foremost, you need a desire to learn and an understanding of why you’re pursuing this new career, according to Anderson.

“You need a vision for where you want this to lead you,” he said. “This program will challenge you and, sometimes, leave you questioning why you’re taking it on, because it’s so intense. I had a vision for the life and career path I wanted to provide myself. I needed to keep that at the forefront of my mind to get through it and stay focused.”

You’ll also need the humility to ask for help – because you’ll certainly need some help along the way. Knowing when you can’t do it alone is an indispensable trait.

“One thing I learned from Next Chapter is to ask for help when you need it,” said Lal. “Don’t just expect things to come to you naturally. Utilize your resources. When I first started, I was struggling because they were moving at a very fast pace. I reached out and asked for a mentor to talk with me about my coding challenges. I had someone to meet with me regularly, and that was a big help.”

Patience is another useful tool that’s sure to help you through challenging times during the program.

“Both Next Chapter and the Hack Reactor [bootcamp] taught me to sit with the problem. If you spend enough time with it and ask the right questions, the solution will present itself,” said Lal.

Challenging, but well worth it, with new careers in motion

According to Lal, his Next Chapter experiences helped him transition from inside to outside. The Hack Reactor portion of the program was challenging, but the structure and curriculum prepared him for his new career.

“It taught me to learn from scratch and structure my questions in a very specific way so that I’m not wasting my time or others’ time,” said Lal. “It taught me how to learn, how to be a good student, and how to think like an engineer.”

That “think like an engineer” piece is important. Anderson echoed it when talking about his experiences, touching again on the importance of learning how to problem-solve, no matter how stumped you are by a problem at the start.

“The bootcamp gave me a very strong foundation in understanding the basics I needed in computer science and the fundamentals to use those tools,” he said. “But more important was the knowledge of how to tackle problems where I had no idea where to start.”

Having the opportunity to learn how to problem-solve is important to Tosin Awofeso, a Galvanize and Hack Reactor Technical Mentor who helped James through his coding bootcamp experience.

“I have family members who’ve experienced so much difficulty being able to find careers after incarceration, and a majority of them were just victims of a system that’s unfair to people of color,” he said. “It’s so delightful to be part of a company giving opportunities to students in that situation, especially students like James, who is a perfect example of what can happen when you give people a fair shot.”

In terms of software engineering, a fair shot includes access to this knowledge – this solid foundation of knowing how to address a challenge. In large part, this is what will help graduates succeed over time, long into their new careers, even as the industry and tools and programming languages change.

“Five years from now, many of the specifics I was taught could be obsolete because everything’s moving so fast,” said James. “But because I’ve learned how to come up with new solutions, I’ll always be in a good position.”


Learn more about Next Chapter. We’re currently in the process of developing a pilot program so Next Chapter apprentices can enroll in our Beginner Coding Bootcamp, as well as our Intermediate Coding Bootcamp. More to come!

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