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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!