Teaching Tech
Changing Lives

Breaking the cycle of crime by teaching prisoners coding

The Tees Tech Awards: and the winners are...

Code4000's Programmes Director, Jim Taylor, writes:

On the 20th of August, Code4000 were the winners of the Tech For Good category of the inaugural Tees Tech Awards for our work at HMP Holme House. Yesterday, my first task upon returning full time from furlough was to collect the rather stylish trophy from the Tees Business office in Middlesbrough. It‘s great to return to work after almost six months out, and collecting the trophy was as good a way as any to start back!

We were thrilled to win the award; it is always great to be recognised for the work we do, and I was proud to collect the accolade on behalf of the team. It also reflects equally well on our prison service partners at HMP Holme House, without whom none of the work we do would be possible. Since opening our academy, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of support from the team there, and the culture fostered by the prison, being one of support and rehabilitation, fits perfectly with our ethos as a charity committed to improving the life chances of people in custody. A particularly special mention should go to the Reducing Reoffending and Industries teams, as well as Stephen and Josh who deliver the Code4000 programme on site.

However, the award also represents a watershed moment in the development of our Holme House academy; a moment where we believe we take a big step in a transition from simply a charity working with offenders to a recognised tech training provider. As we continue to develop our curriculum and the offer of support to our students, we are keen to shift our narrative from one of being a prison workshop that happens to deliver coding training, to one of a coding bootcamp that just happens to be based in a prison.

Coding bootcamps (short, yet intense, training courses intended to rapidly develop a novice programmer to the level of a junior developer or further) are now established as a recognised route into software development. Some bootcamps even offer a guaranteed job upon completion, a testament, perhaps, to both the confidence of the training providers and the tech skills shortage within the UK. It is our aim that, when our graduates are asked where they learned to code, they reply “at a Code4000 bootcamp”, rather than “in prison”; we want to shift the emphasis away from the place our graduates were to the skills that they have learned.

And what’s the difference between Code4000 and community-based providers? Code4000 students are so very enthusiastic, they love coding and are desperately keen to learn (as any visitor to our academies will attest!). Given an opportunity to work in the tech sector, we are confident that our graduates will pay that trust back with interest to any employer who gives them the break they need. Regardless of the journey, we aim to provide the same outcome as our counterparts: enthusiastic, well trained, and skilled software developers ready to take up employment in the tech industry.

This is why the Tees Tech Award is so important to Code4000. The award bit we are genuinely chuffed about, but the tech bit is just as important. It provides us a platform on which to build our reputation within the Teesside tech community as a genuine developer of tech talent rather than simply a provider of prison training. Maybe the very platform on which we can, one day, like other bootcamps, include in our offer of support a guarantee that every graduate from Holme House is offered a job in the Teesside tech sector once released.

The cohort with whom we work will always need that little extra support, whether that is with finding work or training or just finding their feet upon release. Furthermore, we value the experience and knowledge of our experienced coders in the academies (putting them to good use as mentors to new students and delivering skills sessions) and have no desire to restrict the time a student can spend on the programme. However, it is our ambition for Code4000 to be seen in the same light as the many other great training providers that are helping people reach their goal of work in the tech sector and the Tees Tech Award is a huge step in that direction.

Finally, Code4000 would like to say a huge thanks to the organisers of the awards, Tees Business, and the sponsor of the Tech For Good category, Mike Racz and Domino’s Teesside. Thanks too, to the superb Teesside tech community who, whenever I have attended events or visited employers, colleges, or training providers, have always been welcoming and very supportive of Code4000 and our aims. There were two further nominees for the Tech For Good category, the ADEO Group and Itchy Robot UK, and Code4000 were in very good company given the great work that they both do. Thanks also go to our partners at the Ministry of Justice, New Futures Network, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, & Sport.

For more information about the award, or about Code4000 in general, please feel free to contact Jim at jim@code4000.org.

What we're all about

Code4000's Programmes Director, Jim Taylor, writes:

Earlier this month, Code4000’s Chief Operating Officer, Rod Anderson, and I travelled to London to update two of our key partners, The Ministry of Justice and The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, on our plans for 2020. The meetings were positive and our plans for the future of Code4000 were very well received; it was truly gratifying to have their continued support.

However, it isn’t just gaining that support that was gratifying, if I’m honest. It’s great, of course, that we enjoy the support of key partners such as the MoJ and DCMS, but it was also great to talk about the work we do and our plans for the future. And It’s when we talk to others about what we do and the impact we have on the lives of our cohort that we really visualise the importance of our work. It’s that visualisation of impact that made those meetings truly rewarding.

But what exactly is it that we do? I mean, yeah, Code4000 teach computer programming to people in prison but is that it? Of course, that training is at the heart of our provision, but there’s much more to it than that. The training is part of a larger offer, an offer that we were able to describe in those meetings and that I’d like to describe again today.

First of all, we achieve positive outcomes for our students. Not one of our graduates has returned to custody and all of our graduates are engaged in some form of positive activity, either in the community or open prison. At the time of writing, 24% of our graduates were supported into work in the tech-sector and 12% have started their own business in tech. 29% of our graduates are being supported to access further training and 12% are in further or higher education.

But one word I used a lot there was “supported”. Every Code4000 student is now interviewed by our regional manager upon joining the course as part of their Learner Journey planning. Every twelve weeks their progress is reviewed and, where appropriate, interventions are made to ensure they are making progress. Planning for release starts from the point the student joins the course and a discussion around their ambitions and aspirations forms a huge part of the initial interview. This year we will begin to roll out a package of soft and employability skills to run alongside our students’ technical training. We have begun to work with the Offender Management Units of our host prisons to share our planning and contribute to the multi-disciplinary approach to resettling our students on release. From the minute they join our course, Code4000 students are supported to achieve their learning and resettlement goals.

We recognise that not all of our students will leave prison as developers; some might even have more pressing priorities than employment such as recovery work or the rebuilding of family ties. Some may not be quite ready for that step and require further training. However, we have already begun to integrate continued Code4000 learning alongside other interventions in the community. Our support package is growing and driven by a determination to ensure that anyone can access our course regardless of complex or special needs. We continue to work with these students and do so in a way that fits with their broader plans. There is no one-size-fits-all approach; our support is bespoke, flexible and developed in collaboration with the student. Some students will leave ready for the tech-industry, others may need some extra help and support, but Code4000 work with all our cohort, beyond their release.

However, and perhaps most importantly (and certainly at the core of what we do), we teach people in prison how to code. But again, this core point becomes almost peripheral when you look at the impact our work has on the outlook of our students; being on the Code4000 course is so much more than computer programming training. Look at what our students say: “It’s not like prison”; “it’s opened up a whole new world for me”; “it’s a privilege to be on the course”; are just some of their remarks about the impact the Code4000 programme has had on their lives. They are evangelical about learning to code: they want to show you what they’ve created, talk to you about what they’ve learned, and share their knowledge with those new students who are just joining the course. I have worked in prisons for some years now and I have seen a lot of successful projects done extremely well but I have never quite seen men, some of whom who have been in and out of prison their whole lives and have little experience of formal training or education, get quite so excited about what it is they are learning.

Our students take their textbooks back to their cells; petition the governor to allow them to work through their dinner breaks; and one of the guys is even trying to persuade his parole board to visit the classroom to see the work that is being done! To be fair, Code4000 can’t take all the credit for the students getting the coding-bug (no pun intended!), as a hobbyist coder myself I understand the compulsion that comes with programming. The problem solving, the frustration of being stuck suddenly giving way to the elation of success when you finally figure out what you’ve got wrong (often something minor and trivial!). Coding can become and obsession regardless of context, but Code4000 provide the opportunity to learn coding to those who would otherwise not be able to experience it. Learning to code appears almost life-changing to our learners who are, let’s not forget, a cohort who have more need than most for life-changing experiences.

Amongst all this, it’s easy to forget that our graduates are actually leaving prison with one of the most sought-after skills in the country! Our curriculum has been a success, with more and more learners going through the Code4000 programme and leaving able to build websites and code in at least one, and often two or three different languages. We offer a curriculum that can guide a complete novice to become an advanced coder and is structured to support all learners to reach their full potential. If nothing else, Code4000 achieve that, but it doesn’t take much time in our classrooms and talking to our students to discover that it means much more to them than a sought-after skill.

And that is what Code4000 are all about. An accessible curriculum teaching up-to-date tech skills. A package of support to ensure that learners reach their potential and that no one falls behind. A learning and training environment that is welcoming and encourages learners to help their peers and improve their own knowledge and understanding in so doing. A through the gate service that begins at the point of joining the course and that ultimately guides learners into sustainable training or employment upon release. And all of this in the hope that learning to code, and the opportunities that learning provides, will guide our learners into a life free of crime and offending.

I suppose, in short, #teachingtechchanginglives

Reflections on 2019 from HMP Holme House

Stephen Allen is the Classroom Instructor at the Code4000 Academy at HMP Holme House and, with years of prison experience, a huge technical skillset, and a strong interest in computer programming, he is the perfect fit for the role! He's been on-board at the coding academy since it opened last year and has been a key-factor in the provision there going from strength-to-strength. He has wrote a series of articles for the Code4000 blog about his work at Holme House and published below is the first of these, a reflection on 2019.



As 2019 comes to a close, the Code4000 Academy at HMP Holme House reaches the end of its first year. Setting-up a new workshop in a prison is a sizeable undertaking ; add to that the rules and regulations around the use of the IT infrastructure and equipment required to making a coding workshop work and you have a challenging mix leading to many stress headaches and sleepless nights!

A year later though, and all that is a distant memory and I look out of my office window at the dozen coders in my workshop all busying through the sizeable quantity of learning material we have made available to them. This is the result of a very successful year and, of course, a successful 18 months prior to us getting it up and running in the first place!

It’s eerily calm compared to a typical prison workshop, even a typical prison education classroom doesn’t have this level of focus or dedication from all its learners. This is largely down to the support provided by the folks at Code4000. Prisoners can get promised all sorts in their time on the inside but many of these promises fall through or are forgotten about for a variety of reasons and it can leave them very sceptical of new ventures like ours.

When I induct a new prisoner to the workshop, I start off by stressing that this is like no other workshop they’ll have experienced. We’re linked to Code4000 who provide learning material, volunteers and who are ever present during their time in the workshop. They’re a non-profit company and their funding comes from their successes, so you put the effort in and make the most of what we’re offering and once released the folks at Code4000 will support you to further your education and / or find work in the tech sector.

This is the key difference. In any other prison workshop once a prisoner gets released that’s the end of our association with them. All these skills, certificates or qualifications they have can mean very little when tied to the stigma attached to having a criminal record. Code4000 however have already built relationships with local tech companies and education providers. The tech sector is uniquely open to people from any background, they’re not interested in your past – just whether or not you can do the job they’re offering.

Any scepticism a new coder might still have soon vanishes once they arrive in the workshop and meet the other coders. Soon they’ll meet the Code4000 team: Shauna, Jim, Rod and possibly even Michael if he’s in the country on one of his many visits to refresh and update the software that is vital to the workshop’s success! It doesn’t take long before they start imagining what their life could be like once released, all the new opportunities that will be open to them.

My coders are all at different levels, we purposely stagger recruitment to achieve this and it encourages peer support, all but the newest recruit will find they are able to offer some support to their neighbour and this helps to build relationships and team bonds. Each and every frustration experienced by a new coder has been experienced by his peers and they learn that failure and frustration is part of the learning experience, particularly when it comes to coding! As I like to remind them: “In the beginning you’ll spend 10% of your time writing code, and 90% of your time trying to figure out why it doesn’t work!”

Only bagged a Java Developer job at Metro Bank after prison

Josh, a Code4000 graduate writes:

Today I’m so unbelievably chuffed to finally be able to announce that on 29 July, one week after being released from prison I’ll be starting work at Metro Bank as a Junior Java Developer!!

It’s been a long old journey and it still baffles me to think that I’ve managed to bag a FinTech job at a high street bank before even getting out of prison. Needless to say, I’m absolutely delighted and cannot wait to join the team at Metro and give back to an employer who has given me an immense opportunity to redeem my working life after more than two years in prison.

How it all began

In June 2017, I put my name forward to express my interest in joining a new prison workshop; Code 4000. A few weeks later there was an introductory event in the prison’s chaplaincy, where I met Michael Taylor who had set up this pilot coding workshop to teach prisoners how to code, develop software and ultimately create new career pathways for convicts.

Michael has a lot of experience working with CoderDojos and was interested in teaching coding to marginalised groups. After hearing of the success of the Last Mile program in San Quentin prison in California, Michael took it upon himself to set up a similar program in the UK, the first of its kind in Europe.

On 2 August I entered the pilot workshop.

The Code 4000 workshop

I’d already done some web development work in my teens using PHP, HTML and CSS. The core Code 4000 curriculum at that time consisted of tutorial and information videos and books on HTML, CSS and Javascript, as well as the basics of computer science and networking.

After a few weeks of covering the fundamentals of HTML and CSS I moved on to learning Javascript, which I knew from my previous experience would be much more up my street. I spent the next 6 months building things in Javascript and JQuery and thoroughly enjoyed it. During this time I helped Neil, the workshop manager, develop the course’s curriculum. I also led phase one of a project building a new browser-based software system for the prison’s library.

Unfortunately at this time, due to the difficulties with replicating an online environment without the internet, we weren’t able to use any server side frameworks (although it was always Michael’s plan to introduce Ruby on Rails to the curriculum — which has since happened). Fortunately, a local server was installed in the workshop and me and a couple of others also started to develop PHP code.

On 2 March I moved to open prison.

Working at Yoomee

I was able to reach out to a Sheffield agency, Yoomee whilst still in my category C prison. Director Andy Mayer came to visit me and agreed he would take me on as a volunteer if the open prison would agree to give me a license to work outside of the establishment.

I started at Yoomee on 1 October. The process took a long time due to prison policies, many of which have since been revised for the better. When I started I knew I wanted to learn backend development. After talking to Andy he put me onto Ruby on Rails tutorials. Five weeks later I started on my first client project redeveloping charity Off Axis’ website (as detailed in my previous blog post). I’ve been developing in Rails ever since, working on Yoomee and Code 4000 projects. I’m hoping the front ends are soon finished so I can add them to my portfolio.

Joining Metro Bank

In December, Tariq Hassan, the recently appointed CEO of Code 4000, came to meet with Andy to discuss the possibility of a formal relationship between Yoomee and Code 4000 (now all Code 4000 students who progress to open prison have the opportunity to work at the Yoomee office). I also met with Tariq and we discussed my intentions for release. Tariq asked if I was open to moving to London as he had some exciting developments within the city.

In January I met with Paul Riseborough, Chief Commercial Officer at Metro Bank. Tariq and Paul had been working for the past few weeks on the possibility that Metro Bank might look to form a partnership with Code 4000 to take on graduates into their IT team. Fortunately for me, the timelines coincided with my release perfectly.

In February I met with some key players within Metro’s IT team. We had a great conversation about my plans and aspirations and I think they used the occasion to size me up in terms of technical abilities. After this I had a long wait, during which Metro looked into revising their recruitment policy, as it previously prohibited them from employing offenders.

During this time I kept my focus on potential employment with Metro Bank, hoping that things developed favourably and using the time to start learning Java, the ultimate FinTech programming language.

On 20 May (two days before the two year mark of my sentence) I was finally able to attend my final interview with Carly, Director of Recruitment and Haresh, Head of Digital Architecture. We had a really good conversation that reaffirmed to me that Metro was exactly where I needed to be. And thankfully the next day I received a call from Tariq saying that an email from Carly with a job offer was imminent.

Despite being very productive during my sentence, the three years since my arrest have been hard. The profound sense of relief at securing a job with genuine career prospects ahead of release is both immeasurable and surreal. Never mind the fact that it’s coding for a bank, which would be my first choice of job every time!

At this point I want to thank, with extreme sincerity; Michael Taylor for starting the program; Andy and Nicola Mayer for having me at Yoomee; my mentor and go-to genius Ryan Brooks; and Tariq Hassan, Paul Riseborough and Carly Perry for seeing this over the line. Finally and most importantly; all of my friends and family, in particular my amazing girlfriend Rachel King for keeping me sane and motivated for the past two years. It literally couldn’t have happened without any of you and I look forward to making you all proud over the next few years.

Takeaways from the GitHub Satellite Event, Berlin

Code4000 founder Michael Taylor discusses his recent trip to Berlin and what having GitHub as an official sponsor for Code4000 means.

So, Berlin. In the spring sunshine. For a launch event of GitHub's amazing new features at GitHub Satellite, housed at the amazing Kraftwerk - an old powerhouse in the trendy Kreuzberg district of Berlin. It's an easy invite to make space for in the calendar! :)

For those of you who have no idea what GitHub is or does: GitHub is basically a place where you store your software (code, pictures, and documentation) on the internet, and then keep track of all the changes made to that stuff by your developer teams. This means it's a very big player in terms of helping to ensure all the things that use software work as they should (which these days is more or less everything you own!).

The keynote at the launch event itself was given by GitHub CEO Nat Friedman himself, emphasising the importance of this new launch in Europe, which is a new addition to the normal GitHub Universe event back on the other side of the pond. 

The big news at this launch was the reveal of GitHub Sponsors, a means of rewarding contributers to open source software projects that otherwsie might get a lot of coding cred and thanks, but no actual money. This is significant as something like 90% of all software out there relies on an open source project of some kind or other, and it's great to now have a way of saying thanks via their bank balance rather than just a high-five on Twitter.

However for me the highlight of the event was a dial in by Katie Bouman and team (see above), creators of world's first image of a black hole, describing how they crunched petabytes of data to arrive at their (now iconic) picture, which she said was like trying to take a picture of a grain of sand lying in the middle of a football Stadium - from the moon!

It was also refreshing to hear later in the day from a politician that actually understands digital technology - former MEP Marietje Schaake spoke wisely about trying to get the digital and political communities to talk to each other using a common language that both sides can understand, and on trying to bring something like the rule of law to the internet.

All in all the GutHub event was a great space to finally meet one of our newest partners face to face. We are so happy to have such a major player onboard as a sponsor of what we do. But, even more importantly than that, getting their help in providing content for our curriculum will prove invaluable to our future graduates. 

Thanks a millon GitHub!