Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

Chicago Codes Reboots Diversity In Tech Industry

Karin M. Norington-Reaves — Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership
Image of a group of individuals holding their graduation certificates
Photo of the graduating first cohort of Chicago Codes, August 2019. Courtesy of Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership.

It is a great time to launch a career in technology. The tech sector is one of the fastest-growing in the country, with nearly 450,000 annual openings and average salaries exceeding $90,000. However, these opportunities are not experienced equally by all segments of the population. In Chicago and across the country, employers see a lack of racial and gender diversity in tech roles. Currently, only 30% of employees in tech roles are women, and 15% are Black or Latinx.

The national challenges around attracting and retaining diverse IT professionals are acutely present throughout the Chicagoland region. A recent poll by a technology staffing company ranked Chicago the #1 emerging tech hub in the nation1 and a 2019 report from KPMG places Chicago among the top 20 tech innovation hubs in the world.2 More than 90,000 residents of Chicago and throughout Cook County hold information technology jobs, and roughly 7,200 yearly openings are projected. IT jobs are consistently the most advertised positions by Chicago employers and are expected to grow more rapidly than nearly every other occupational category by the year.

At the request of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership set out to develop a solution to address the lack of diversity in Chicago’s tech sector while simultaneously developing a pool of this untapped talent in some of our city’s underserved communities. The research concluded that software development is an area ripe for investment. Online job postings for developers in Chicago and Cook County far outpace postings for other tech positions. More than 3,000 annual software development openings are projected for Cook County over the next ten years, and the average starting salary is between $61,000 and $83,000. At the same time, these positions are even less diverse than the tech sector at large; locally, 20% of developers are women, and fewer than 10% are Black or Latinx. And the industry is eager for a solution: the Illinois Technology Association, an industry association representing 500 growth-stage IT companies, reports that their members are concerned with a lack of diversity in the software development field.

Coding bootcamps, the prevailing training model for new entrants into this field, provide immersive learning experiences that generally consist of 10-20 weeks of full-time study. Worthwhile coding bootcamps cost more than $12,000. In Chicago, the vast majority of these are located downtown. These require commitments of time, tuition, and transportation that many are unable to make; particularly individuals with low or limited income working parents, and people looking to transition into a new career who have not been in an educational setting for many years. Underserved Chicago communities are home to a pool of talented workers whose skills are often overlooked and who could greatly benefit from local world-class, growth-sector training.

The Rockefeller Foundation generously joined The Partnership’s efforts to address this need and invested resources vital to launch the Chicago Codes program in June 2018, with additional support from the City of Chicago, Facebook, and Microsoft. Chicago Codes is a full time, 11-week coding bootcamp located in the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. Chicago Codes is tuition-free, provides laptops to students who need them, and offers a $265/week training stipend to participants. Chicago Codes staff includes not only instructors but also a Student Success Manager and a Career Services Manager.

The demand for such a program was extremely high as evidenced by the more than 900 applicants for a total of 60 spots. The first class of 20 students began their coursework in June 2019. Half of this cohort were women, and nearly all were people of color from distressed communities. Retention has exceeded expectations. Nineteen of the 20 students in the first cohort completed the program and the capstone project and graduated in September. They are currently working in internships, interviewing, or evaluating offers for full-time positions. The second class of 20 students has begun and will graduate in November 2019, and a third cohort will launch in January 2021.

Cities looking to replicate this model should consider incorporating the key features of Chicago Codes, which include:

  • Targeting underserved neighborhoods
  • Fundraising to allow for a tuition-free experience
  • Providing training stipends and computers
  • Inviting tech employers to weigh in on program and curriculum design, host field trips, deliver “tech talks”, and host interns
  • Utilizing a strong training partner

Chicago Codes offers a model that can be replicated in other cities and is leading the charge to provide a reboot for employers who are looking to address the lack of diversity in tech, and high barriers to entry for people who are often overlooked for opportunities in a fast-growing field.

1 2017 Survey by Modis. Source:


3 2011-2015 American Community Survey

Leave a comment