As one of the few Black men in his industry, Brawnski Armstrong counts his rise to become a software engineer as lucky yet unlikely.
Armstrong came from meager beginnings, but he was one of those people who always knew what he wanted to do when he first touched a computer. He enrolled at the prestigious Cass Technical High School in Detroit, which has a computer curriculum, and he attended the University of Michigan on a golf caddie scholarship. His family was also supportive, he said. In summary, Armstrong found his life’s calling early and has been answering it more than 20 years later.
“I have never wondered about my career or what I would do with the rest of my life since that day,” said Armstrong in a published interview.
But it should be different for people of color who want to work in the tech industry but do not have the opportunity to gain meaningful experience or attend the right schools.
That’s why, for the last three years, he has helmed an innovative tech apprenticeship program at Chicago-based trading firm DRW, helping to create a more straightforward path for people of color who want to work in software engineering or development operations.
“We wanted to provide opportunities for underserved people and give them a better path forward that is sustainable. That lasts,” said Armstrong.
While Black people make up 12 percent of the overall workforce, only 8 percent of them are employed in tech, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association’s State of the Tech Workforce.
That disparity means that candidates from marginalized communities are denied access to higher-paying jobs in tech. According to Indeed.com, the average base salary for a software engineer is $114,214. For a devops engineer, that amount is $125,230.
“We can teach you the technology because we believe that we have the expertise to help anyone who has the grit, who has the communication, who has the perseverance,” said Brawnski Armstrong, Senior Software Engineer at DRW.
Diversity in Tech: Answering the Call
Armstrong said he answered a call to action by DRW Founder and CEO Don Wilson and created the technical apprenticeship program in 2020.
“There have been plenty of times I’ve walked into the office with my new employer, and I’ve been the only person of color in the office,” he said, explaining his motivation for launching the program.
The technical apprenticeship program aims to widen the talent pipeline for talented and diverse candidates to be mentored and trained for future employment at DRW or one of its organizational partners.
Thus far, the program is doing its part.
For instance, 62 percent of the current DRW apprenticeship class are people of color.
- 46 percent are women;
- 46 percent are people of color focusing on software development;
- 73 percent are women concentrating on software development;
- 83 percent are people of color focusing on DevOps (development operations)
But Armstrong insists that establishing this program wasn’t a philanthropic or charitable act.
“DRW gets an employee or the opportunity to train an employee for the benefit of themselves and their corporation for a very long time. It’s a win-win for everyone,” he said.
How the Apprenticeship Program Finds Candidates
The program doesn’t accept resumes. You have to take a test for consideration.
Besides your background and proficiency in math, science and problem solving, the screening process examines whether you have these core intangibles to succeed — grit, communications skills and perseverance.
“How do you stick through problems, how do you work your way through problems, and how do you navigate around constraints,” added Armstrong.
“Do you recognize the rock and the hard place, and how do you get around those things?”
Plus, you don’t have to have a technical background or computer science degree to be accepted into the program, which can last up to 18 months.
Candidates with liberal arts degrees have enrolled, as have those with science, technology, engineering and math backgrounds, said Armstrong.
It’s about something other than what school you attended. Having an Ivy League degree doesn’t guarantee a spot in the rigorous apprenticeship program.
“We can teach you the technology because we believe that we have the expertise to help anyone who has the grit, who has the communication, who has the perseverance,” said Armstrong.
A DRW Apprenticeship Success Story
Having a communications degree and not abundant experience won’t disqualify you either. That’s precisely the profile of Myron Castillo, an alum of the technical apprenticeship program.
When Castillo graduated from the University of Illinois with a communications degree, he wanted to learn software engineering and took classes on the side.
While working as an application developer for a company, Castillo was referred to the DRW technical apprenticeship program in 2021. Upon enrolling, he had to learn the fundamentals of finance and trading, which are core parts of DRW’s business.
It took him six months to complete the program, but he became a better software engineer from the experience.
“What would tie me down a lot was I would get focused on how I can do this as efficiently as possible on the first try,” he said. “Instead of just jumping right in, ‘here’s my bare bones solution.’ I can go back out and rework it if I need to.”
“It’s helped me work faster, and it’s helped me work a lot smarter,” he said.
When asked how the technical apprenticeship program has changed his life, Castillo, a software engineer at DRW, said, “It has really solidified that I have a career.”
“To come to this point in my career has been very inspirational for me,” he said. “It’s been very motivating so that I can continue to build up my software skills.”
He reflected on his journey of working various jobs, including selling health insurance.
“Compensation isn’t always the most remarkable thing to think about when it comes to career growth,” he said. “But it helps to reflect the journey that I have been on, to go from here to there…that it really helps drive that point home for me that I’ve come a long way.”
Castillo added, “Not only have I come a long way, but with DRW, it has shown me that there’s still much more to do. There’s still a longer way to go.”
To Learn More
For more information about the DRW Technical Apprenticeship Program, visit this link.
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