Incarcerated people learn to code: How one community organizer is changing lives

JUL 26, 2021

Posted by Kubra Zengin, North America Regional Lead, Google Developer Groups

When asked to speak to a room full of incarcerated individuals about becoming developers, Danny Thompson didn’t bat an eye. Danny is an experienced software engineer and community organizer for Google Developer Groups Memphis.

But for the first ten years of his professional career, he worked in a gas station frying chicken. If anyone knows how to beat the odds and choose a different path in life, it’s him.

(Left) Danny Thompson working in a gas station (Right) At work in the tech industry

Danny Thompson is a big believer in the power of community. Over the years, he’s grown a vast network of thousands of aspiring developers, tech industry professionals, and career development experts through the Google Developer Group community and across social media. So it was no surprise when Danny was contacted to speak at an event hosted by Persevere, a non-profit that teaches justice-involved individuals how to code and helps them find careers as developers. By teaching skills like programming, Persevere has seen a decrease in recidivism rates. Through their job placement efforts, they are helping those that get out, stay out.

For Danny, signing up to help out was an easy decision. His biggest motivator in life is helping others succeed, no matter their hardships or where they come from.

“If someone wants to learn, that’s someone I want to help. Simple as that.”

In March of last year, Danny spoke to a room full of incarcerated people at the non-profit’s secure facility in Memphis, Tennessee. Incarcerated individuals from Tennessee prisons are brought to this offsite location for hands-on training with coding instructors. For hours, Danny taught Javascript concepts, gave career guidance, and shared his best tips for growing in the tech industry with program participants.

Thanks to Danny’s role as community organizer for GDG Memphis, he was able to share many learning materials that came directly from Google Developer Group events. Those enrolled in the program were also given access to Google Developer Group events online to help them learn new concepts and network with other developers.

Danny recognizes how difficult it can be for incarcerated individuals to reenter society without a helping hand and the skills they need to attain a well-paying job. As a result, many previously incarcerated people return to prison because they are unable to find employment and have higher chances of falling back into bad habits. But when they learn to code, recidivism rates drop dramatically.

Program participants continue learning at a transition center in Memphis, Tennessee

Anyone can be a developer

Danny knows what it’s like to not fit the mold of a typical developer. After working ten years as a fry cook at a gas station, he never considered that transitioning to a career in technology was even possible. However, everything changed for Danny when he began attending Google Developer Group meetups.

“There are zero chances I would have made it in this industry if it wasn’t for meetups.“

By networking with other developers, Danny gained the skills he needed to grow his early interest in coding into actual opportunity. Fast forward to today, and Danny is using his connection to Google Developer Groups to break barriers for anyone and everyone interested in pursuing a career in the tech industry. As an organizer for GDG Memphis, Danny designs mentorship opportunities with experts in the tech industry and hosts meetups that connect aspiring developers to hiring managers. Through opportunities just like these, Danny has helped over 600 people land jobs in tech, and he’s not stopping anytime soon.

GDG Memphis meetup event

“Your beginning doesn’t have to be your end. You do not have to be defined by the set of circumstances you’ve walked into.”

It’s never too late to join your local Google Developer Group. Learn new skills, advance your career, and meet other developers who share your interests. Anyone interested in tech is welcome, and joining is completely free.

To find your local chapter, click here.