A few weeks ago, we welcomed a group of 50 high school students into our Flatiron NYC headquarters. They all participated in a day of learning and fun, coming away with exposure into what a day in the life is at Yext and a glimpse into the technology industry as whole!

Students in elevator

(Let’s call that under 2000lbs, 🤞)

Students in Yext lobby

The students were from two high schools, namely Cristo Rey and Manhattan International (MIHS), and were all enrolled in a class called Foundations, put on through Code Nation. Meeting twice a week, this class is a partnership between the education and technology industry, bringing together one credentialed educator supported by technology industry professionals, to teach students the basics of webdev through instruction and projects in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

In addition, in an effort to impart to them that programming is not merely some esoteric pass-time, baked into the Code Nation program are opportunities for students to get a real-world glimpse into the workings of the technology industry. This is further made significant by the fact that Code Nation specifically operates at under-resourced high schools1 and many of the students come from backgrounds and demographics that are severely under-represented in the technology community.

“For the current 2018-19 school year, 77% of Code Nation students identify as Black or LatinX [and] 45% of students identify as female” (Code Nation, Inclusion).

1 “Code Nation partners with schools where 75% or more of the student population qualifies for free or reduced price lunch” (Code Nation, Equity).

The Day

As hosting 50 high school students in a working office is no walk in the park, there was much planning to be done prior to the students’ day at Yext. Myself and another engineer, Sharang Chakraborty, the respective volunteers at MIHS and Cristo Rey, along with the amazing Executive Assistant to the Office of the CTO/CIO, Susannah Saunders, sat together to put together the students’ day.

It was going to be a packed day, but also a packed office! We wanted to make sure that all the kids got the opportunity to tour – while keeping disruption to a minimum – and wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to work on the project we had made for them – but had limited extra laptops for them to work on. Scarce resources, yet the need to solve a tangible problem… seemed like an optimization ready to be solved by a couple Yext engineers! Employing some good old threading, here is what we came up with:

Time Activity
9:30 - 10:00 Breakfast
10:00 - 11:00 MIHS Project
10:00 - 10:30 Cristo Rey Tour
10:30 - 11:30 Cristo Rey Project
11:00 - 11:30 MIHS Tour
11:30 - 12:00 Panel
12:00 - 12:30 Lunch

The Survey

Before arriving at Yext, however, the students were asked to take a short survey. Below are some of our favorites.

What are your dreams?

For this question we got answers all over the board. We weren’t looking for the kids to limit their answers to technology, and they sure did deliver!

“To be an engineer.”

Makes us so proud ☺️

“I’m not sure yet, but technology really interests me, so I’m leaning towards a tech job (not sure what yet, though).”

A lot of students voiced the desire for financial freedom (aka making that money!)…

“My dreams is to be the best at what I want to do, and make lots of money from it.”

“I have a dream that one day I will be able to provide for my whole family without them working ever again.”

“To provide for my people and family and to help people.”

Yet others had dreams of civil service,

“I want to become either an FBI or a teacher, I just want others to benefit from whatever my job is. I want to be helpful.”

“I want to be a detective and help my community strive for the best.”

What is your favorite thing about coding?

Now we are getting into the meat of it! After just two semesters of coding, here’s what we got:

“My favorite part is when you get to see all of your code come together to create whatever you want.”

“Coding is a written language just like English and Spanish, but it is not commonly known (among commoners, that is), and it is also unique; you don’t write code like you write English or Spanish., It’s awesome how I’m able to communicate to others through such a unique language. I just love it.”

“The CSS part, in other words, ‘decorating’ the page.”

Yet, not all of the students are the biggest fans (and that’s okay!).

“I don’t like it, but it’s good to learn something new”

And, finally, my personal favorite,

“I love it’s complexity.”

What do you want to make with code?

For many, they wanted to create video games. Yet others had dreams of starting their own businesses or sharing their creativity in a personal blog.

What is Yext? What do they do?

This was a fun one. We gave the respective classes an elevator pitch a few days before the trip and the responses mostly boiled down to 😕 – though a few of the more enterprising students copied the Wikipedia summary.

In our defense, it’s hard to explain a B2B business to a demographic that has never interacted with such! Hopefully, though, after the trip, they were pitching everyone else 😉.

Do you have any dietary restrictions?

No peanuts! Also, if anyone is using this as a guide to host their own event, this is here for posterity - a very important question!

Breakfast

Yum, yum, are those New York bagels!?!?

Breakfast served

The Project - 404 Page

For the project, the students were tasked with the goal to make Yext’s 404 page (😴😴😴) more interesting…

Yext's current 404 page

Working in groups of two or three, and given an hour to brainstorm and implement their ideas, the students quickly let their imaginations fly.

Students asking question during development

MIHS students posing during development

Cristo students posing during development

In addition to the extraordinary teachers and volunteers who work with the kids every week, we had additional Yext engineers volunteer to help out during the project. Bringing both their technical expertise and endless care to engage with and answer any questions the kids had.

Tom Elliot helpings kids

Jane, the teacher, helpings kids

At the end of the hour, we had a number of new 404 page candidates. The spectrum went from really cute

Panda Project

To super interactive

Dragon Project

To plain hilarious! 😂

Yext time

There were actually so many good submissions that we decided to not just choose one but make a carousel of some of their work for our actual 404 page (TBD when I get the time to compile that!).

All pose with projects

Fast forwarding to the end of the day, and incentivized with the promise of Yext swag, the students had a chance to show off their hard work:

Students presenting

3 students posing with bottles

2 students posing with bottles

The Tour

Taking the students around the office and introducing them to the various departments was a lot of fun! Though, giving them access to “inifinite” MnMs™ and Skittles might not have been the best idea. Thankfully, their stomachs held it together.

They got a chance to see our view of Madison Square Park.

Viewing the park

View of park

And were treated to the history of the first Shake Shack.

Explaining the park

Then a quick snack,

Snack in Madison

Power nap,

In the nap room

And the tour was over!

The Panel

The last part of their day consisted of a combined lunch and Q&A panel. Sitting in the hotseats were me, two other Yext Code Nation volunteers, one of our Directors of Engineering, Fahrim Rahman, and our Chief Information Officer, Sean MacIsaac - a collective powerhouse of Yext Engineering!

Student raising hand

The hotseats

The students did not hold back. They presented themselves as sharp and respectful, asking us hard hitting yet insightful questions. Right out of the bat, Kelly Wilson, the only woman on the panel, was asked how it was to be a female in a male dominated industry. Our CIO, Sean, was asked how it feels to have witnessed people leave since he has been at Yext since its beginning. We all answered what had gotten us into and if we had ever thought of quiting coding. And we touched on what it means to learn and the mindset of constantly confronting the unknown unknowns.

The panelists

In all, we, the panelists, had a great time fielding the students’ questions and were excited to impart what we could. We hope that they took away all that they could as well!

The Farewell

It was time for the students to leave. Other than a Yext swag free-for-all, it ended without incident. It was a success! We all took a breather.

However, even though I would see them in class the following week, it was hard to say goodbye to the students that day. I had spent almost an entire academic year with them, always coming to their classroom, their turf. Yet, here I was, having just let them into my space, the place that I am able to learn, and show them the part of me that lives outside of their view of me as solely their instructor. It was a touching moment that I won’t soon forget. And, just maybe, neither will they.

A Word

I thank everyone that has made that possible. From the amazing people at Code Nation who facilitate this program, the other volunteers who selflessly give their time, and to Yext who supports my involvement in it. This is something that is very important. To me, yes, but also to the wider engineering community. There is no doubt that the technology industry has skews in its demographics. If we are to confront that, we need to start by at least giving exposure to those who may not have had the chance otherwise. Consider getting involved, and, at the risk of sounding cliché, pay it forward.

FTK, always.