Can software testing help break the cycle of poverty? Per Scholas and Doran Jones aim to find out


When most people think of the technology industry in New York City, they probably think of Silicon Alley, whose genesis was in the Flatiron district, at the juncture of Midtown and Lower Manhattan.

The Bronx ,on the other hand, probably doesn’t come to mind. This Q&A is a little different than most we’ve had on, but we thought the program and issue were cool enough to warrant the attention on our site.

The subject is a non-profit and a software consulting company that is teaming up to help challenge old perceptions in their particular corner of the South Bronx, in one of the country’s poorest Congressional districts. And they’re using software testing to prove their point.

In short, they’re using software testing as a means to break through the cycle of poverty.

The non-profit, Per Scholas, and its corporate partner, Doran Jones, recently opened a $1 million, 90,000 square foot “Urban Development Center” in the Port Morris area.

That software testing facility will serve two purposes. Per Scholas, whose mission includes providing technology training in underserved areas, will put unemployed and under-employed adults through an eight-week education program in software testing.

Roughly 80 percent of the graduates of the Per Scholas training will get jobs with Doran Jones. Within 18 months of the facility’s opening, it will create 150 jobs in the area, each paying $35,000 annually with benefits. Other Per Scholas operations are in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Washington, D.C., and, soon, Dallas.

I chatted with Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas, and Keith Klain, the co-CEO of Doran Jones, about the initiative. What follow are excerpts of my interviews with both men.

I started by asking why they chose to do this whole thing in the first place.

What was the genesis of the South Bronx project?

Keith Klain: The idea for the Urban Development Center came from my work at Barclays running their Global Test Center. I was building test centers in India and Eastern Europe and traveling a lot to maintain those facilities and train the local people there.

When I moved back to New York, our chief information officer introduced me to Per Scholas. After doing a tech talk there, I was so impressed with the students I pitched the idea of a software testing training program to Plinio Ayala. The Software Testing Education Program (STEP) was born.

After the success of the first couple cohorts, I was shown the raw space on the second floor of the Per Scholas building in the Bronx. I said to myself, “We should build a testing center here,” as it looked exactly like the buildings I was fitting out for tech in India. After running the idea past the Per Scholas board of directors and getting their agreement, I left my job at Barclays and joined Doran Jones to build the testing practice utilizing the graduates of STEP as our entry level test analysts. The UDC was born.

Plinio Ayala: The decisions around placing the UDC in the South Bronx were not based on altruism, but on good economics. That will make this project sustainable.

Talent could be identified and trained by an experienced and successful non-profit, reducing talent acquisition costs of the for-profit partner. Also space costs are extremely favorable, which significantly reduces the overall operational expenses for the for-profit.

The non-profit and the community benefit from the creation of the jobs and the positive economic impact the infusion of the well-paying salaries will have on the immediate and surrounding communities.

What challenges do people who live in this particular congressional district — the South Bronx — face in seeking and keeping jobs?

Ayala: It has never been a question of capacity. There are many talented individuals that reside in disadvantaged communities like the South Bronx.

It is an issue of opportunity, or lack thereof.  Some very well paying IT jobs don’t require college graduates with advanced degrees. With proper training, individuals from the South Bronx who did not have college as an option can successfully obtain careers as IT professionals.

As the skills divide continues to plague our nation, tapping into talent from marginalized communities will bridge that talent gap, making it attractive for companies to keep jobs in America and consider housing businesses in communities that were not viewed as options in the past.

Klain: The students are as smart and capable as anyone I have met in technology.  But for whatever reason, they have been overlooked for their potential.

Overcoming that stigma — that they will never work in tech or that they can’t possibly learn what they need to know — seems to be a similar challenge with people.

One of the things that makes STEP work is that they get hands on, real time experience with industry experts and real projects. Then it clicks with them that they can do this, and it’s just a body of knowledge that is possible to learn.

How can communities like Port Morris help technology companies find more of the talent they need in this country?

Ayala: Part of my desire to see this (South Bronx project) work is the possibility of this being an on-shoring movement.

The fact that we can find and produce talent locally and product that companies can use can create a perfect storm for these jobs to come back.

Programs like ours debunk the perception that talent doesn’t exist in communities like these. The large investment in effective workforce programs that view the employer as the primary customer is necessary and the way to go.

So how is this program different?

Ayala: Both entities see a win-win, and there’s a real value proposition to keeping the partnership going.

Doran Jones is a relatively young company that sees software testing as an opportunity for expansion and growth. They’re not in the human capital development business.  They were having a tough time finding software testing talent.

Most of the people we identify meet the qualifications they send. We’re creating jobs in the one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country. The cost of talent acquisition is low.

What challenges do you face operating in this particular Congressional district?

Klain: My experience is primarily working for multinational investment banks, so the community aspects of this to me are a new challenge, but one that is very important.

There has been great reception to the (new facility.) What I have tried to do is be very inclusive and open about what we are trying to accomplish and stay out of any local politics.

There has been a warranted skepticism about people coming in and trying to “fix” the Bronx. I have been very (determined) that this stigma not be attached to our plans — that this is a real business that is choosing to relocate to their neighborhood with no incentives.

Additionally, as the press has been increasing around the (new facility), we have been approached by several start-ups about using our space. I am hoping we kick start a new South Bronx tech alley.

Do you plan to open more facilities like your South Bronx operation at some point?

Klain: Yes. We are talking to multiple cities across the United States. We have also been asked to participate in a couple of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy pilots for accelerated learning programs and diversity in tech.

I strongly feel that once we are up and running in the Bronx, the natural tendency of people to see if something actually works and then learn from our experience will draw us to other locations.

I have been in lots of discussions with economic development people from several large cities that are interested in how this turns out. I don’t really blame them.

If you told someone a year ago, “We are building a technology outsourcing center in the poorest congressional district in the country, and we will staff it with local students,” they probably would have said, “You’re crazy.”