Washtenaw County tech leaders advocate for their industry to define "talent" by more than a degree

For many jobs in the technology sector, a college degree is the price of admission – and for many who may wish to pursue those jobs, that price is prohibitively high.
This article is part of a series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

For many jobs in the technology sector, a college degree is the price of admission – and for many who may wish to pursue those jobs, that price is prohibitively high. As conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in tech evolve, some local employers are expanding their mindsets to rethink how they define, recruit, and develop talent.

One of them is Ylondia Portis, principal partner in Brandhrt Evolution. Portis started the Ypsilanti-based strategic communications company in 2016 after a 25-year career in the advertising industry. 
Brandhrt Evolution principal partner Ylondia Portis at SPARK East in Ypsilanti.
"People's talents are not limited to what they learn in college," she says. 

Portis recalls one particularly poignant work experience that unfolded in her last position in the advertising industry several years ago. Portis was managing a 14-person team and needed to make an additional hire. She interviewed a man in his 50s who didn't have a college degree. He did, however, have several certifications in Adobe Marketing Cloud (now Adobe Experience Cloud). 

When Portis asked him about not having a college degree, his answer gave her pause. 

"He asked if, for that position, it would make more sense to hire someone with a 20-year-old college degree or hire someone certified in what's next in the industry," she says. "He was absolutely right. Adobe Marketing Cloud was the next stage for us, and we needed talent in that space."

Portis moved quickly to secure special permission to offer the candidate the six-figure salaried position. But he had already been snatched up by another company. 

Portis' inclination to consider job candidates from non-traditional educational backgrounds has only grown. Since she started Brandhrt, she's also hired young people through Michigan Works! Southeast and Eastern Michigan University's Upward Bound program. Some were high school students or graduates, but none were attending college when she hired them. In addition to paying them modestly, Portis trained them whenever the opportunity arose. 

"Once we paid for some people to attend a five-day conference in Chicago. They were blown away. I told them to bring back the information and show us how to apply it," she says. "I saw smart, sharp people with raw talent and creativity, and worked with them."

A mutual investment

Portis' experiences have underscored an idea that transcends business sectors.

"If you invest in people, they will invest in you," she says. 

This has also been the experience of Patton Doyle, co-founder of the Ypsilanti-based escape room company Decode Detroit. Since the business' launch in 2016, he's employed several young team members who didn't have college degrees.
Decode Detroit co-founder Patton Doyle outside of Decode Ypsilanti.
"There's certainly a high level of community and loyalty that we feel for our teammates and that they feel for us," he says. "This is important because employee turnover is a real issue, especially in technology, where you're expected to work at a company for only about two years."

Katy Ross, 22, is a longtime member of the Decode team. When she joined Doyle's company, Ross was 19 and had only a year of computer science studies under her belt. She had recently moved back to Ann Arbor and paused her studies in the midst of some pressing events in her personal life. She was working in a bakery when she found out about a job opportunity at Decode.

Ross started out small at Decode, running games and attending to customers. Then she started to learn about the interface the company used to run its games behind the scenes. Sometimes, while Doyle was fixing hardware during breaks, he'd teach her what he was doing.
Decode Detroit team member Katy Ross.
"The first thing that he threw at me was a coding project. I was stunned. It was in a coding language I'd never studied before," Ross recalls. "I told him he had too much confidence in me and he just said I'd figure it out."

Doyle, who is a University of Michigan alum and has a master's degree in transportation engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, firmly believes that a degree is not needed to enter the technology sector.

"My own experience in the tech world has been mostly self-taught," he says. "The result is that I very much believe in that method of learning where you start with something, make mistakes, and then try again." 

Doyle says investing in skill development and training for his younger team members makes good business sense.

"Sure, it's much easier to come in with someone who already knows what they're doing and then set them on a project and walk away," he says. "But I think we tend to overestimate how much time it will take someone to jump into a job."

He references his brother Peter, who co-founded Decode and who was hired by a Fortune 500 company in August. According to Doyle, his brother didn't start writing any code until December, after months of onboarding lessons.

"And he's a skilled software developer," Doyle says. "So when we're hiring, we can't always estimate how much we have to train someone, even when they already know what they're supposed to be doing."

As Doyle predicted, Ross did succeed at her first coding task. She also went on to design a small circuit board for Decode. Ross is currently back in school, studying electrical engineering at Western Michigan University. She says she'd work for Doyle again in a heartbeat. 

"This sounds dramatic, but the opportunity that Patton gave me has shaped every aspect of my life," Ross says. "I wish more companies would follow the Doyle family's lead and help those who need it get a leg up."

Improving access to resources

Doyle and Portis agree that local companies need not only to shift their mindsets, but also take action to change the nature of their field and nurture diverse talent from a young age.

"There are a number of steps in the food chain where we as a community need to improve access to opportunities and improve DEI efforts," Doyle says.

Fostering access and opportunities both in local schools and also in less formal settings is an area that he and Portis agree needs more attention. Michael Ploof, founder of Ypsilanti-based makerspace TinkerTech, agrees. Ploof launched the business in 2018, but recently had to close shop due to financial concerns. 

His experience exposed him to a major barrier that he feels needs more attention: transportation for local school-aged children.

"We've got kids who might live out in [Ypsilanti Township's] West Willow [neighborhood] and maybe they have transportation to school, but to get downtown they have to walk or catch an AAATA [bus], which is not convenient," Ploof says. "When they want to go home afterward there's not really good access to transportation for them."

Ploof adds that it's frustrating that so many conversations about DEI in the local technology industry seem to circle back to what financial gains may result.

"Maybe making more money should be incidental to the motivation," he says. "Resources and opportunities need to be made accessible to all sorts of people for the sake of our community."

Ploof says "the playing field is definitely not even," and he's not the only one with that concern. For too many years, "we've had people in our community who have butted up against barriers to basic things like transportation and education," says Bilal Saeed, chair of the AFC Ann Arbor soccer club. 

"You can't have a conversation about DEI in any sector of our community and not talk about access and opportunity," he says. 
AFC Ann Arbor soccer club chair Bilal Saeed.
Saeed's background is primarily in sports and entertainment marketing, but he wears many hats. His role as a community organizer and experience working with young men of color via Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper have given him numerous opportunities to foster DEI dialogue, and to develop what he describes as "some unique insights into a broken system." 

He recounts conversations that he's had with his friend Abbas Alwishah, who runs Michigan FC, a minority-owned youth club. The FC stands for 3 things: Football Club, Farming Community, and FIRST Competition. The FIRST Competition program is about introducing children to robotics. 
 
"They see a robot and get intimidated, but then you show them one individual circuit and how they can easily build that, and you've just planted 1,000 seeds of possibility," he says. "So before we even look at access, we have to introduce concepts that spark curiosity through possibility." 

Saeed says local technology companies can help build a tangible bridge of accessibility for non-degreed community members and for the younger minds setting their sights on a related career. 

"If you say your company is interested in DEI, then reach out to people and meet them where they are. There are so many people who have never even set foot in Ypsi," he says. "We have so many young people who are hungry for opportunity and want better jobs. It's so much easier for companies and people with privilege to come into marginalized communities to offer training, mentorship, and resources. It shouldn't be the other way around."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe except Katy Ross photos courtesy of Katy Ross.