Entrepreneur Hopes The Secret To Diversity Lies In The Code

By Thomas Lee
San Francisco Chronicle.

When Steve Newcomb sat down to write a souped-up version of JavaScript a couple of years ago, he may have inadvertently blazed a path for more women and minorities to pursue careers in the tech industry.

Newcomb created, an open source framework that lets users create sophisticated mobile apps from JavaScript, the flexible but decidedly unsophisticated programming language popular with Web browsers in the late 1990s.

But Newcomb didn’t just want developers to use it. He wanted everyone to use it: techies, non-techies, men, women, young, old, white and black.

So before generating one cent of revenue, Newcomb not only decided to give away but also to provide free online tutelage. And because JavaScript can work across any platform, a middle-school kid can learn how to code on a $200 Netbook at the library, Newcomb said.

“It’s the great leveler,” he said. “It changes the entire landscape of jobs.”

Newcomb is not a civil rights activist. Nor does he seem particularly interested in social causes.

A serial entrepreneur, Newcomb was a co-founder of Powerset, which Microsoft acquired for $100 million to incorporate its natural language technology into the Bing search engine.

He is a coder at heart and a capitalist by circumstance.

But could make him a pioneer.

In the tech industry — a field dominated by men, especially whites — diversity has always been a demand and supply issue.

Until recently, neither existed in Silicon Valley.

The demand emerged in recent months, as pressure mounted on the tech world to examine the makeup of its workforce.

Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Google have responded by issuing reports calling attention to the lack of women and minorities in their ranks.

Supply remains a problem. Or more specifically, how to expand the pool of talent to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Some people have called for public schools to start teaching coding.

Google recently said it will spend $50 million to encourage women to pursue such careers.

Coding academies such as General Assembly have sprung up, but their classes cost money — a barrier to entry.

Newcomb made as easy and intuitive as possible so people can learn to code on any device, even a library loaner.

The startup also established a “university” with online courses and is in talks for an outside party to provide users remote help from real human beings. Again, everything is free.
‘There are no barriers’

Because incorporates 3-D layout with a 3-D physics animation engine, users can create quality mobile apps that could look great on any device — iOS, Android and Windows — thanks to the versatility of JavaScript.

“When a 9-year-old kid decides to try coding for the first time, I want the dad to say, ‘Let’s go to University’ and the kid is within seconds amazed and hooked,” Newcomb said. “Or someone who wants to do a career change, ‘Hey, I want to code and get a job as an engineer.’ There are no barriers. They just go to and begin learning. They don’t need a fancy computer like a MacBook Pro.”

A user can learn the program in the privacy of home, which could be a more comfortable environment for a career changer, a minority or a woman wary of standing out in a class of young white men.

“If you want to learn, then learn,” Newcomb said. “As we release more of the platform, we are going to make it easier and easier to use. If you go into a physical school, engineering is male dominated. It’s a little intimidating. Any place you would have felt intimidated before, it’s erased online.”

There are two big “ifs” to Newcomb’s vision. First, as Newcomb already acknowledged, must be easy to learn.

It’s one thing for Newcomb, an experienced coder, to say anyone can learn using the platform. Quite a different thing for a tech newcomer.

There’s also the rather big question on how Newcomb plans to pay for all this free stuff.

After all, Samsung Ventures and Javelin Venture Partners have sunk $4.1 million into

They will expect a financial return of some sort, eventually.

Newcomb says he will use the platform to develop and sell tools like analytics, testing, payment services and Web hosting to other companies.

The business-to-business industry is a very crowded market, though. But Newcomb believes software will be superior to the competition.

That’s an awfully big assumption, but he’s willing to take a big risk to pursue his vision: providing coding to the masses at no cost.

As successful as could be, the service alone cannot solve Silicon Valley’s diversity problem. It certainly won’t immediately help a black engineer feel more accepted among colleagues.

Nor will the technology mean women other than Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg will occupy the C-suite anytime soon.

But over the long run, could help tech companies match demand with a more diverse supply of talent.

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