Join us to learn about The Last Mile, a program that prepares incarcerated individuals for successful reentry through business and technology training, from Jen Browning, Technical Program Manager at Indiana Department of Correction and Jacob Briggs, The Last Mile Graduate & Apprentice Software Engineer at SEP.
Jen shares the origin story of the Last Mile, how they've grown from California across the US, and how they created web development curriculum that doesn't use the internet.
Jacob walks us through a day in the life of a Last Mile student. He shares the unique challenges The Last Mile students face both in the program and after being released and explains that those challenges have made him a better software engineer.
We wrap up the conversation by discussing the ways The Last Mile is healing returned citizens and their communities, the perseverance of the students, and the robustness of the program's curriculum.
You can find more information about this podcast at sep.com/podcast and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening!
Zac Darnell: Welcome to Behind The Product, a podcast by SEP, where we believe it takes more than a great idea to make a great product. We've been around for over 30 years, building software that matters more. And we've set out to explore the people, practices and philosophies to try and capture what's behind great software products. So join us on this journey of conversation with the folks that bring ideas to life. Hey everybody, welcome to the show. As always, I'm your host, Zac Darnell. Joining me as my co- host today is Jyotsna Raghuraman. How are you?
Jyotsna Raghuraman: I am doing well. Thank you.
Zac Darnell: Thank you so much for joining me as our cohost. I think we're going to have a fun combo today. We have Jen Browning with The Last Mile joining us. Jen, how are you?
Jen Browning: I'm good. Thank you for having me.
Zac Darnell: Thank you for being with us. Also with us is Jacob Briggs who's actually a graduate of The Last Mile. Jake, how are you?
Jacob Briggs: Excellent. Thank you.
Zac Darnell: I appreciate all of you for being a part of this conversation. I think this will be a fun, fun show. Jen, just to kind of kick us off a little bit, give us a little context. What's your role with The Last Mile, and kind of what are you up to kind of on a day- to- day basis?
Jen Browning: So I do everything Last Mile related in the state of Indiana. The program is out of California. So I think an easy way to explain it is I help all the participants who are actually in the program and learning software engineering. I work with them more now than before. It's more organized but for pre- release reentry transitional needs. There are a lot of collateral consequences from being incarcerated and sort of... The Department of Corrections in The Last Mile program are working really hard to find ways to open up the paths to a better life for us. And on a day-to-day basis, anything program related within a correctional facility, I also handle. And then I work for an in central office downtown for Department of Corrections. So all the projects that we're sort of thinking of and collaborating on for the re-entry process and tech companies. Connecting directly with tech companies. Helping employers walk the path of hiring the formerly incarcerated.
Zac Darnell: That'll be fun to get into in a little bit. That sounds like you've got a lot on your plate. Just a little bit.
Jen Browning: I have only 7, 000 emails. No, it's a lot, it's a lot.
Zac Darnell: Fair enough. Oh, man.
Jen Browning: I'm always behind.
Zac Darnell: Fair enough. Sounds like a busy schedule. So Jacob, kind of same question, a little bit about you and kind of what you're up to these days.
Jacob Briggs: Okay, so I'm currently a Software Engineering apprentice at SEP. Yeah.
Zac Darnell: Very cool.
Jacob Briggs: Wake up early and stay up all day and all night coding. Yeah. It's really what I've always wanted to do and I love it, man.
Zac Darnell: That's awesome. Jyotsna, I'm going to let you kick us off here.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: Okay. So this question is for Jen. How would you describe The Last Mile to our viewers? Can you tell us the story behind its origin?
Jen Browning: So The Last Mile is a web development program for the incarcerated in prisons. And I think they're in about 12 different States now. It began in California. The couple Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti... I believe Chris was mentoring at the men's facility in San Quentin entrepreneurship, but he was also in the tech world and he saw an opening. He thought, "Wow, what if I could create a way to teach these men software engineering?" Because the market was really dry for actual employees and coders. And so he did it. Security and safety is a huge issue and prisons. And so he had to figure out a way to create curriculum digitally without the internet. And they tested it, had the year program there. It went really well. They looked for a women's facility in the U. S. and connected with Indiana, the Governor Holcomb and Commissioner Rob Carter from DOC, and piloted a women's program here at the Indiana women's program on the West side of Indiana or Indianapolis. I actually was incarcerated in the program then. And so that's how I got involved, but TLM has just grown so much, just alone, what they've done throughout the U. S. but in Indiana, specifically. They saw the opening for the educational and the vocational opportunity for the incarcerated. And obviously employers need coders. But the re-entry and then the transitional need at that component is not there, the job's not going to work. And so recently they collaborate and work a lot with Google. And so they're now starting to scale out like a bigger re-entry program process, and they've hired advocates in that kind of thing. And Indiana, that's just been my job. I guess I've got Jen's re-entry transitional process. So, yeah. Well, I guess, I don't know. Being in the classroom and stuff when I was incarcerated, I was only there for about six months. So working with them now and a lot... I think Jacob might answer that better, because I don't really have that perspective. But TLM has just been great.
Zac Darnell: Yeah. So it sounds like there are some really unique constraints and restrictions for teaching people the art of software engineering. Can you tell us about some of that? You mentioned no internet?
Jen Browning: Yeah.
Zac Darnell: How does that work when you're walking through the program?
Jen Browning: So they built like a local... They bring in a server.
Zac Darnell: Like an intranet?
Jen Browning: Yes, exactly. Yeah. And so everything's fed through there, through the student computers do that. And then they created the curriculum and an LMS. Now they have sort of a pre- created get lab, and stack overflow, and clip art and stuff like that. And then as they walk through the program, there's presentations. So they can get somewhat of a DevOps experience, as much as you can in that situation.
Zac Darnell: I mean, that sounds simulated. Like basically they've simulated as much of what somebody would see in the real world as possible.
Jen Browning: Yes. For the prison environment, they've done a great job at providing as much as they can with security and safety for the students to help them.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: That's just so beautiful. I knew I had a chance to look at the resources that are available to the students. And it's just amazing. The infrastructure that has been created without the internet.
Jen Browning: Yeah. It's profound. Software engineering is not an easy... It's not easy to learn anyways. So to do it in that environment, with the stress and the schedule without the internet. And a lot of the participants in the program, some of them have never even had a computer.
Zac Darnell: Oh, wow.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: That's mind blowing.
Zac Darnell: Yeah.
Jen Browning: Yeah. Like you do have different perspectives and walks of life. And so it's a huge learning experience. And to see how the program just changes somebody's life is... it's the heart and love of my job.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: Oh, that's wonderful.
Zac Darnell: Jacob, tell me a little bit, you went through this program here not too long ago. Tell us about your experience through that, kind of within those constraints. And then I'm kind of curious also, as you got into your first role, what were some of the things that you kind of discovered in that transition?
Jacob Briggs: Yeah. So as Jen mentioned, I was in a class with about 10 or 12 people and some of the guys in my class had to learn how that type before they could even learn how to code. Like she mentioned, there were guys who have been incarcerated for 20 or 30 years already and have never had a smartphone, have never been on the internet, didn't know how to type. We all kind of works together to teach those guys what they had to learn and get all on the same page. And then we tried to learn everything together week by week, all the way up to... and including like web development and software engineering practices and all that stuff. Yeah. It was interesting learning all that stuff in that environment, right? It's a super stressful environment and it's not the ideal place to be learning something. But that coupled with no access to the internet, made for a very interesting learning experience. But overcoming the challenges of not being able to like Google your way out of a problem, right? Like thinking about out of the box solutions and having to discover ingenious solutions on your own that maybe you wouldn't have come up with if you could have just Googled something, it really taught me how to be a better coder. I think it did all of us. And later on down the road, when I got my job, as a software engineering apprentice, those skills of that different kind of insight, getting yourself out of a problem on your own without just relying so much on Stack Overflow or Google or something have really paid off. It gives me a different experience and some different insight when I'm helping out with a project.
Zac Darnell: That's really cool.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: So what does a typical day look like for you in the program? How do you develop those skills when you don't have anything, you start off with nothing? I mean, not even knowing how to use a smartphone or a computer. How do you do that?
Jacob Briggs: It was a slow process, right? So it's a 12 to 18 month program. And the first few weeks were just spent teaching us how to turn a computer on and very basic typing lessons and what a web browser was. I mean, we started at the very beginning, as if you were trying to teach somebody how to use a computer who had never been on a computer because some of them hadn't. And so we slowly progressed from that all the way into coding. And in the time constraints are what made it difficult. So we would have like three hours in the morning of solid computer time. And then we would have to go back to our dorm for lunch. And then we would have three hours in the afternoon of computer time. And so it's not a lot of time in the day when you're trying to like build a project, you know what I mean? Like to constantly be having to stop what you're doing and go back to the dorm and then be in that other environment where you have to really detach yourself from coding and focused on what's going on around you, right? Because you have to be paying attention to that. And then you have to go back to your project and try to pick back up from where you left off. So definitely interesting challenges.
Zac Darnell: I'm kind of curious about some of the... like the resources. Jen, you mentioned Google, are there other partners that works with The Last Mile? I'm thinking Microsoft, AWS, some of the bigger boys that maybe provide some specialized training or resources. Kind of in that simulated environment.
Jen Browning: I don't even know how to answer that. They have a major partnership with Google. As far as I know, other than that, the partnerships are created at the state level. So everything that The Last Mile is partnered with here, we've created. And they do have partnerships with... They do have a large one with Slack where they've kind of walk the path of having a company, hire an apprentice and pay them and provide them with housing and seeing what's needed and how that looks. Other than that, I don't know specifically for the organization exactly who'd they partner with.
Zac Darnell: Okay. That makes sense. I'm also curious on the volunteering side, I would imagine... Are you guys pretty reliant on volunteers? I mean, engineers like Jyotsna. Certainly not... You wouldn't want volunteers like me. I couldn't code my way out of a paper bag, but I don't know. Tell me about the volunteer roles and the kind of things that the organization needs.
Jen Browning: So when they created the program, they created it... Volunteers were part of the curriculum. They were going to teach, and the hope was that bringing in mentors and having volunteers would provide sort of a social aspect, and participants of the program could get real feedback, like live feedback about what being in the tech industry in Indiana is like. But, then COVID happened. So now everything's done digitally, but things are about to open again. The mentorship and volunteer part, what I've learned is one of the most important for the program participants while they're in the facility learning, and even... It's priceless once they're released. I think when you're incarcerated, there's loss at so many different levels, but the loneliness and the fear and social isolation, sort of the affiliation of being formerly incarcerated, you create sort of... You adapt to distrusting everyone and you begin distancing yourself. And for volunteers and mentorships, whether it's just one person who wants to help, whether it's an organization or an entity, a nonprofit that wants to help or employers. It's unbelievably impactful. There's a fundamental need for it.
Jacob Briggs: Yeah. I agree. The one of the most impactful things that happened to me during my course through the program was when SEP came to visit us, Jyotsna was actually there, right? I got to meet her while I was going through the program. And I was about halfway through and we were learning all this stuff, but like many of us in the class, I was unsure if it was actually something that I wanted to do with my life, right. I mean, we didn't have any insight into like what a day in the life of a software engineer even looked like. And SEP came in and visited us for a day. They brought us some supplies, like sticky notes and some books on like user story mapping. And they just talked to us about what the life of a software engineer is all about, right. And at that point, that's when I really decided that that's what I wanted to do, right. That I wanted to pursue this when I got out. And I think for several of us, that was the point when we really started to buckle down and take it seriously. And it gave us more drive. There's so many ways that companies like SEP or any company can get involved with The Last Mile or help out that. They can send people in to visit, right? Just like Jyotsna came in. They can donate money. They could set up an apprenticeship or get interested hiring graduates. Like there's just so many different ways to volunteer and help out. And all of them are so appreciated.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: That's great to hear.
Jacob Briggs: Yeah.
Jen Browning: Yeah. I mean, I like to think of it as a social enterprise. The goal is to create innovative and collaborative solutions that'll change sort of the current approach to justice system and transform individual lives, build their character, create skill acquisition, give them resources and how to equip them. And kind of with everything that's happened with in our world in the past year to knack structural change and address and repair collateral harm and encourage full and active community and participation, regardless of their justice involvement is so important. It's really, really important. And it's community healing.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: That's great to hear. Jen, I had one question related to that. How many of the students that have been released recently have actually been reintegrated into the workforce? I know you're working on that now.
Jen Browning: Wow. So I would say about 20. We're at 20 right now where they have been employed or they're continuing their education, or they're not ready yet, but they're still working with me and we're walking through the re- entry and the transitional process. Yeah, 20 is a good number.
Zac Darnell: That's awesome. I would imagine there are some unique challenges in walking somebody through that re- entry process into the workforce. I mean, can you share a little bit about that, what that looks like, and maybe some of the things that you've experienced or helped people through?
Jen Browning: Sure. I mean, as I stated before, the collateral consequences and effects, unintended or unknown or intended and known are profound. It's traumatic. So right from the gate, if they're in the program, the only thing I really request of the students in the program is just to call me. I want to know that they want this. If they want this, then I can help them. And so for the most part everybody has. But for me specifically, I take a case by case. I create my own sort of action plan. I find out before they're released what they need. And Department of Corrections is working really hard on helping with that part, because you're released from prison and you get out, you don't have a house. More than likely you're going to a transitional home. Probably don't have a driver's license. You probably have thousands of dollars in courts fines, and restitution. Now you've learned how to code, but if you have children and if you're continuing because most... I mean, in Indiana, most people don't release from prison and not have some kind of monitoring through the county that they live in. So you're going to have to continue with that and home detention and work release and probation and follow all their rules. And then there's mental health, which is also something I'm really passionate about and how you ended up there and the changes that you need to make in order to stay on a different path. Addiction's huge. It's a huge percentage of the prison population right now. So recovery, resources and help, and just... I'm a recovering addict, so it's not going to go away. That's for sure. It's a lifelong disease. And Department of Corrections does have substance abuse. They have a program inside the facilities, but it's nothing like what real treatment would be like on the outside. And so for me, we just kind of start. Like with Jacob is a great example. He's one of my favorite to talk about because he got out and he had nothing. And he had to do it all. He had to pay everything off, get his license, get a car, find a quick job. Because if you're on probation or home detention, they're going to want their first payment in two weeks after your release. And so we had a lot of conversations to... That first couple months, I'm on the phone a lot with each person and there's crying and there's frustration and there's anger and there's," I want to give up, I'm tired of this. Why isn't this working out and all that." And I kept telling him too, I was like," Just trust me and listen, just trust me and listen. Take it one day at a time. We're going to get through this." And so he did a great job. Jacob did a great job on his end. He he just powered through when... Because it's hard and every day you're going to have one to 20 excuses to stop. And you just can't. You have to keep going and keep trying. It doesn't matter how many nos you get. So yeah, Jacob was... He was great. Yeah.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: That's great to hear. So, Jacob, what did you learn? What else did you learn at The Last MiLe that helped you besides coding and possibly entrepreneurship? So can you tell us a little bit about that?
Jacob Briggs: Sure. Some of the extra things that they taught ended up being important. They did a thing on elevator speeches, just how to pitch yourself, right, in like 30 seconds or 60 seconds. If you meet somebody at a function and you really don't have a bunch of time to kind of pitch yourself. Just how to do that really quickly, that came in handy. Stuff like how to write a resume. Right. Because a lot of people have never done that. They had some really cool talks where, like a guy who had worked for the Obama administration called in, live on the video screen and talked to us about how to frame your story, right. Like how to tell your story and describe your experience and describe yourself to potential employers, to anybody. Like how to frame your story in the way that you want it told. Right. And try to get people to not just view you as a criminal or an addict or a convict or how to frame it in a way that you want it to be heard. And that ended up being really powerful for a lot of us. So it wasn't just coding. Like there were a lot of extra things that they taught us that were instrumental in me going on and being successful.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: That is so neat to hear.
Zac Darnell: Yeah. And also I think definitely things that I know I would take for granted. I'm glad somebody has figured out that people need these other elements of support. That's really cool. Jacob, I'm curious, can you tell us a little bit about maybe your favorite or most memorable? I don't know if it was a lot of project work or not, but maybe the thing that you worked on in the middle of the... like during the program.
Jacob Briggs: Sure. So I have finished some of my project work early and just had a few weeks of free time to kind of code whatever I wanted. And I teamed up with the guy who was next to me, and we decided to build a Risk, the board game. I don't know if you've ever played the board game Risk.
Zac Darnell: I have.
Jacob Briggs: We recreated like a digital version on the computer from scratch, just using...
Zac Darnell: Oh, that's cool.
Zac Darnell: Yeah. It's great when you can blame a loss on a bug, right?
Jacob Briggs: Right. Yeah.
Jen Browning: Yeah.
Jacob Briggs: Exactly.
Zac Darnell: Oh, that's really cool. That's funny. My freshman year in college, I took a Computer Science class and we had to build... I want to say Pac- Man and I don't even remember what it was, but that was the moment I realized that, yeah, I don't want to be an engineer. I am not suited for this. Love technology, but I'm going to go study something else. My brain is not wired for this. So that's really cool.
Jacob Briggs: Yeah. Yeah, it was neat, man. That's probably the favorite thing that I built. I mean, TLM really... their curriculum and how it starts out, like with the basics and then gradually gets more complicated. They do a really good job on pacing things really well. And inaudible of the projects that they have picked out for students to build and learn with are just really great, man. Like they've gone to a lot of trouble to nail like teaching people how to code. And when I look back on some of the things that I learned along the way and how much I use them now, like I'm amazed. Like how great of a job they really did.
Zac Darnell: Well, what's interesting to me, one of the questions that I had coming into this was what kind of prerequisites to somebody's need. And from just hearing some of it, like really none. An interest, a desire to learn this is really the only thing it sounds like.
Jen Browning: Yeah. Pretty much. You are required like your GED, right?
Jacob Briggs: Yeah.
Zac Darnell: Okay.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: And what does the selection process look like? I mean, if they don't have any prerequisites.
Jen Browning: Yeah. The willingness to learn, they do have to have a high school diploma or GED and there are certain sentencing that will kind of tap them out of the applicant pool. So there's a logical test. You guys took a logical test, right Jacob?
Jacob Briggs: Yeah.
Jen Browning: And then there is a pretty thorough interview process and application process. And it's really up to the specific correctional facility, the instructor in the room, and then they choose... I help if they need it, how to actually be accepted into the program. But the willingness to learn and just want to change your life is needed. And that's really what everyone is looking for when they're interviewing applicants. Because coding is not easy. It's not an easy subject.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: It's not.
Jen Browning: Yeah, you got to have the perseverance and you got to want to show up every day and work hard.
Zac Darnell: Yeah, that's great. Jacob, our last question, before we wrap up here, what's one thing that you... anybody listening, do you feel like they should know about The Last Mile program?
Jacob Briggs: Yeah, that's a pretty easy one. I mean that graduates coming out are prepared for jobs in tech, right? And that all of them have worked super hard to get through that program and to get to where they are and all of them deserve a chance, right? They would all make great employees. Like the things that they had to do to graduate that program. Man, they would all make great employees. And so if you're listening to this and you're thinking about getting involved or thinking about hiring A Last Mile graduate, take it from me that it would be a good decision. Yeah, they're all going to make great employees.
Zac Darnell: That's great. I appreciate you being willing to just kind of share your story. Both of you. Jen, I know that you had your own journey through this and are now supporting the organization itself. It's been great to learn a ton about the organization. I didn't know any of this ahead of time, which was super fun. I could genuinely be curious. So I appreciate your time and willingness. You guys have been wonderful. Thank you so much.
Jen Browning: Thank you Zac for the opportunity.
Jacob Briggs: Yeah, thank you for doing this.
Zac Darnell: Hey man, Jyotsna. That was a fun conversation we just had with Jacob and Jen. What did you think about that?
Jyotsna Raghuraman: Yeah, that was great. What TLM is doing is so close to my heart. I just love the personal stories that they had to tell about how The Last Mile has helped them get back when their feet and how it continues to do so from all those as well. So I loved it.
Zac Darnell: I share that sentiment. I didn't know as much about The Last Mile coming into this conversation. A little bit of research for the show. I also didn't know that that you and Jacob had actually met before. And you were kind of a mentor for him through one of the days that we went to visit. I had no idea. That's really cool.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: Yeah, it was. That was one of the things that really stucked with me. The class that he attended, all the students. They were just so engaged. It was an amazing experience.
Zac Darnell: That's awesome. So give me one or two other things from the conversation that you feel like listeners should walk away with.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: I think they should realize that the challenges that The Last Mile faced were just huge. It's like a pioneering organization getting into a space where nobody has gotten and that they have succeeded in reintegrating so many of the released prisoners. It's just heartening. It's just a great story on its own. Yeah. And another thing is that big companies are helping build a kinder and more empathetic world is so good. They're going in the right direction.
Zac Darnell: That's awesome. I really thought that Jacob's experience through the program and his point around being forced to learn without Google, without some of the things that we take for granted when we're learning new things in our normal day- to- day lives. Forced him to think outside the box and kind of gave him kind of a different skill than some of us may not necessarily develop so easily. I never thought about that angle before. Just being able to work within that constraint and develop it into a skill rather than the thing that inhibits you. It was just really, really cool. So thoroughly enjoyed learning about his journey, the organization of TLM, Jen's role within that, and kind of how people can get involved. So I appreciate you so much for being my co- host on the show and for joining to this conversation. So I appreciate you.
Jyotsna Raghuraman: Thank you so much Zac. Thank you for having me.