Written by Michael Peck
Kenyatta Leal’s objective for Next Chapter is simple.
“We want to transform the tech sector and create a future of work that is equitable for everyone,” the Executive Director said of his organization, which was created to help train formerly incarcerated individuals to transition to careers in software engineering.
While the objective may be simple, the challenge is formidable. The stigma associated with incarceration perpetuates systemic barriers to housing and employment. As a result, people returning to their communities after incarceration are five times more likely to be unemployed than the general public. And not being able to find a job makes a return to prison more likely.
Meanwhile, the tech sector needs help. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be nearly 163,000 openings per year, on average, for software developers, quality assurance analysts, and testers from now through 2031. That’s an opportunity for the formerly incarcerated.
How Next Chapter works (and how we work with them)
The Next Chapter program launched in 2018, co-created by Slack, The Last Mile, W.K. Kellogg, and FREEAMERICA. It consists of an eight-month apprenticeship for formerly incarcerated individuals who are pursuing careers in tech. Next Chapter works with community partners such as The Last Mile and Persevere to source, vet, and select candidates for the program.
With Galvanize as an education partner, those who are selected start with three months of training in our Intermediate Coding Bootcamp. (We are currently in the process of developing a pilot program so Next Chapter apprentices can enroll in our Beginner Coding Bootcamp, as well.)
“Sparked by a project with The Last Mile, we’ve been partnering with Next Chapter since 2019. We train their students to become software engineers and to have the skills needed to contribute during their apprenticeships upon graduation,” said Jaime Matyas, Galvanize CEO. “Galvanize is empowering the workforce of the future by broadening access to education and equipping learners to make a positive impact, including those who were formerly incarcerated. We look forward to training even more Next Chapter apprentices in the coming years.”
After completing our coding bootcamp, apprentices transition to one of 14 Next Chapter hiring partners, where they have five months to work with the company’s engineering team. If their performance meets or exceeds expectations, the apprentices can earn full-time offers. As of today, 31 people who’ve completed the program are now full-time software engineers.
A program inspired by first-hand experience
It’s a labor of love for Leal, who came to this work through his own incarceration.
“After serving 19 years, I returned to a broken system of support for people reentering society after prison and a laundry list of far-reaching collateral consequences,” said Leal. “I know firsthand how incredibly bad it feels to be denied housing and employment because of my background. But I also know that when we invest in people and provide access to opportunity, we can create outcomes that are good for business and benefit society as a whole.”
Next Chapter Technical Director Rodney Urquhart helped set up the original Next Chapter partnership while working at Slack. His involvement included everything from interviewing trainees in order to assess their progress to working with Slack’s engineering team to address any skill gaps they identified.
“It wasn’t just about technical training,” said Urquhart. “It was also about teaching social skills and investing in soft skills. There’s training that has to be done in the organizations where people are placed, too, because there’s a stigma around who comes out of incarceration and what their desires and intentions are. Speaking as a privileged person who makes a good amount of money and has a stable job, how do I help folks who might share my background but didn’t get the same shot that I got?”
Helping others get that shot, and seeing them succeed in a new career, is a huge reward for Leal, whose lived experience helps him understand the level of commitment required.
“Through my incarceration at San Quentin and my work with The Last Mile, I got to see how these men were working to change their lives and create a better future for themselves and their families,” he said. “I knew how smart they were. These guys were in prison learning how to write code without internet access. I knew if they had a clear path to post-incarceration education, and training, and a fair chance with a company, that they would be able to succeed.”
During their time with Next Chapter hiring partners, apprentices use their new skills while learning even more on the job, all the while being supported by Next Chapter.
“We help them navigate where they’re staying, how they’re getting to work. These are things that I, probably like most, often take for granted,” said Urquhart.
This is yet another area where Leal and his background make a huge difference. Apprentices relate to someone who knows what they’re going through because he’s been through it himself.
“The lived experience counts,” said Leal. “People like myself have unique insight into the needs of those leaving incarceration and the many challenges they face returning to our communities. This proximity allows me and our organization to serve from a place of empathy and respect that I think resonates with folks.”
A message for those interested in Next Chapter
For anyone who’s currently incarcerated and might be intimidated by the prospect of the work and commitment required, Leal has the following to say about Next Chapter.
“It can’t hurt you. It can only help you,” he said. “If you are formerly incarcerated and interested in pursuing a career as a software engineer, please reach out to us at email@example.com. We can help answer any questions you might have and help you make an informed decision.”
And that decision doesn’t need to be about incoming knowledge or perceived intelligence, according to Urquhart. A successful journey with Next Chapter has more to do with a willingness to put in the work.
“It’s not about how smart you think you are right now. It’s really about if you’re determined and willing to learn whatever it is that you need to learn so you can continue to grow and become capable of contributing to a team,” said Urquhart. “You don’t have to be a genius to work in tech. You just have to be willing to work hard.”