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Ep 451: Building Communities Of Talent

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Diversity and Inclusion strategies are often just about moving existing talent between organisations rather than growing talent pools and giving more opportunities to more people. So how should employers be thinking about diversity hiring, and what kind of organisations should they partner with to increase the spread of opportunity?

My guest this week is Linc Kroeger, President of Knight Moves. Knight Moves is a limiting profit company helping to create the next generation of technology professionals by offering training with an intentional focus on Native American, rural and urban underserved communities.

In the interview, we discuss:

• What can change diversity outcomes in the technology space

• Building physical communities of technology talent in rural areas

• Inspiring teenagers

• Teaching instantly usable skills

• Longer-term transformational impacts

• What value are employers getting?

• The importance of remote working

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Clevry (0s):
Support for this podcast comes from Clevry, the leading soft skills platform for matching and recruiting. Backed by 30 years of scientific research and assessment development, Clevry helps you to predict job performance and hire the right talent to build a winning team, grow faster by focusing on what matters most, soft skills. Visit www.clevry.com to discover how companies like British Gas, Asda, and Mark and Spencer hire better with Clevry, and schedule your demo today.

Recruiting Future (43s):
There’s been more of scientific discovery, more of technical advancement, and material progress in your lifetime and mine in all the ages of history.

Matt Alder (58s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to episode 451 of the Recruiting Future podcast. All too often, diversity and inclusion strategies are just about moving existing talent between organizations, rather than growing talent pools and giving more opportunities to more people. How should employers be thinking about diversity hiring and what kind of organizations should they be partnering with to increase the spread of opportunity? My guest this week is Link Kroger, president of Knight Moves. Knight Moves is a limiting profit company, helping to create the next generation of technology professionals by offering training with an intentional focus on native American, rural, and urban underserved communities.

Matt Alder (1m 50s):
Hi, Link, and welcome to the podcast.

Linc Kroeger (1m 53s):
Hi Matt. Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Matt Alder (1m 54s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please, could you introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Linc Kroeger (1m 60s):
Yeah, so my name’s Link Kroger, 54 years old. When I grew up, it was back in the old Atari and Commodore days, and I knew my career was gonna be technology centric. I’ve spent the last 35 years building on that enterprise technology working in fortune 500, fortune 50, consulting Seattle-based software company, department of defense. Over 35 years, I’ve had a pretty good run in the enterprise technology space and learned a great deal, have a passion for diversity and inclusion, and have taken everything I’ve learned over those 35 years and said, “Okay, what are businesses, government, and education not doing that if we did do would change our outcomes in both relevance of the amount of talent we need in the computer science space and advancing our underserved populations that we’re not seeing happening today in communities, I should say, not just populations.”

Matt Alder (3m 1s):
Fascinating stuff. I really want to dig into the work that you do because it’s so interesting and so valuable. Perhaps, the best way to start is tell us about your organization and what it does.

Linc Kroeger (3m 12s):
Yeah, so we’re Knight Moves and it’s knight like the chess piece, not like the Bob Seager song. What we do there’s four pillars of our organization. The first is we have a computer science program that trains up individuals and our graduates rival a four year computer science degree graduate. When I say rival, employers hiring our graduates will tell you hiring our graduate will save them 25 to $35,000 over hiring a public four-year degree, computer science graduate. The second thing we do is we’re exclusively focused on native American, rural, and urban underserved communities.

Linc Kroeger (3m 58s):
The third thing we do is think of the Silicon valley, but for social benefiting causes. Whether it’s hunger or human trafficking, you name the cause, green energy, the environment equity, we create solutions for those spaces. Instead of pouring money into solutions like for Uber and Airbnb, which are great, but they’re for the private industry and to generate high volumes of wealth, the technology we create is to advance society, enrich other people’s life. The fourth thing we do is we create technology for companies is business services. That’s the way we fund our philanthropic mission, so we’re a limiting profit company where our goal isn’t to make hoards of money.

Linc Kroeger (4m 43s):
Our goal is to fund our philanthropic purpose through doing legitimate business services with companies. That’s an easy pitch to companies. You’re gonna buy your services from someone, why not create the tech talent you need in the industry and actually make a difference in diversity inclusion? Most company diversity and inclusion programs are really focused on moving the existing talent between companies, and percentage-wise, not making a lot of meaningful impact on getting new minority and new inclusion into the talent pool.

Matt Alder (5m 17s):
Talk us through your story a bit. How did you go from working for fortune 500 tech sector companies to creating this organization?

Linc Kroeger (5m 26s):
My last company, I was at Pillar technology. I was the COO and we did business consulting services. Think of a company needing a new mobile app or some enterprise platform software product, and our primary competitor. We were a roughly 50 million company a year in revenue, but very elite in the premium services, team-based services for software products that we built. Our primary competitor was Offshore, right? People going for cheap labor, usually in India, but other places in the world. I grew up in a little town of 6,000 people. I said, “Someday, we’re gonna be able to do these services out of rural communities.”

Linc Kroeger (6m 10s):
The first Lego to fall, if you will, or domino to fall was having to get enterprise class fiber to these rural communities, at least to main street. I followed all these organizations that were trying this and frankly, these rural technology hubs see an 85 to 95% failure rate. I go interview them and say, “Hey, why didn’t this work?” I did that for about five years, and then I had the opportunity in the company I worked at to actually go try it and experiment. It was a great success, and then we got bought by a major fortune 50 company. At that point, I was like, “Okay, it’s time to spin this off as a purely social benefiting mission and include the three demographics of people groups in rural native American and urban underserved.”

Linc Kroeger (7m 4s):
We really wanna make a difference with this program. Why are we shipping all these jobs in mass hoards offshore and we’re not even having a focus on our people that need the help the most in this country? We’re still, roughly, a million to a million and a half short of computer science talent in the industry. We’re just not getting it done, either with the amount of talent we need or in inclusion of these more underserved and left behind populations.

Matt Alder (7m 35s):
Tell us a little bit more about the communities that you work with.

Linc Kroeger (7m 39s):
Yeah. In Iowa, if you think of urban underserved, it’s inner city, minority, mostly low income immigrants, and we’ll work with other non-profit organizations that are already focused on those relationships, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit more the detail of what we actually do in our training program. Ideally, we’re gonna be expanding outside of Iowa this year, to really from Minneapolis to Chicago, Oklahoma City, really want to go to any city. Every big city has underserved populations, but we have a really special emphasis with native Americans.

Linc Kreoger (8m 21s):
Something that people don’t really realize is that people recognize generally the situation Native Americans in, but think of these are people that have been put out in remote areas of the country that aren’t near commerce centers. I’ll have tribal leaders share with me to go link. You need to understand why we discourage our high school graduates from going to college is if they leave and go to college, they don’t come back, and then our whole people group will die, right? Our language, our spirituality, our past, our future. With our program, we bring the education to the community and then we literally bring the jobs to the community.

Linc Kroeger (9m 4s):
It’s not just training them and going, “Good luck.” We line up employers, or actually, they line up for us because our talent is so much better prepared in the industries and there’s a great desire for companies to do something in diversity inclusion and do something with Native Americans. They just really don’t know how to do something more and that’s the gaps that we fill. Then we’ll also focus on just a real community that might be 4,000, 15,000 people that when the young people graduate high school, they leave and they don’t come back. How do we turn and pivot here? I have a meeting this afternoon with the West Virginia community, whole town, where they know that eventually, that’s gonna dry up and their economies based on coal.

Linc Kreoger (9m 57s):
How do we transform those communities to leverage all those generations of knowledge in that industry and apply them with new skills and technology?

Matt Alder (10m 7s):
Absolutely. It just makes perfect sense. It sounds like some amazing work that you’re doing. Talk us through the mechanics of the training program. What do you offer, why is it so good, and how do you decide who gets to come on the program?

Linc Kroeger (10m 24s):
Yeah. First is the jelly in the donut of what we go after. It’s if you’re gonna solve the talent problem and you’re gonna solve diversity inclusion, you have to start younger. That doesn’t mean we don’t focus on mid-career adult learners, but we’re out there. In Iowa, the average age of someone starting a code camp is 36 years old. In our program, it’s 16 years old. We will go out, we’ll work, and part of our community. If you go to our website, knightmoves.org, you’ll see what our requirements are for a good community that matches up. One of them is we can actually talk to the students, starting typically their sophomore year in high school.

Linc Kroeger (11m 6s):
What we are exceptionally good at is going in and sharing the opportunity of what a career in technology would be for them and getting them inspired to take a software movement class, a computer science course, right? That’s actually extremely hard for most organizations to do, and we’re extremely good at it. If we go in and talk to a hundred students, we’re gonna literally get 30 to 40% of those students to go, “Wow. I had no idea that a career in technology would be interesting to me. I just had no idea. Didn’t even know what it was. Yes, I’ll sign up for that course next semester.” In the native American community, now we’ve only had one tribe we’ve worked with, but they had 58% of their population in eight through 11th grade say, “If I had this opportunity, I would take that computer science course,”

Linc Kroeger (11m 55s):
with 48% of them being younger women in high school. Tremendous response because of the way we present it. Our whole goal is just to get them to sign up initially for one software development course to see if they like it. If they don’t, then they understand, “Hey, geez, I had a software development course. No matter if I’m a doctor, an architect, or whatever I do, I’ll have had that now. I’ll know how it works.” We’re not asking them to make a career decision, just sign up for a course, see if you like it. If you do, here’s the next six courses you take. We have a program that’s seven prerequisite computer science courses that they take. Once they complete those, they can apply for our core training program.

Linc Kroeger (12m 35s):
It really gets young people excited because they’re like, “Well, you’re just asking me to take one course, right?” There’s so much work with young people to try to get them to make whole decisions on their career path. That’s scary when you’re 15, 16 years old having to make, “I’m gonna be a plumber,” or “I’m gonna be this.” Well, just experiment. See if you like it. They really respond to that. Then the way we do our whole training program is very unique for us. After they get through the prerequisites, our program, there’s no classroom based. There’s no testing. It’s not grade based. You only graduate our core training program, you demonstrate you can do the job. Matt, you join our team. You’ve completed these seven prerequisite courses. Now, you’re part of a team building real world software and using.

Linc Kroeger (13m 19s):
Whether it’s Google, Microsoft, a John Deere, or Hy-Vee, you name the company, we’re building technology the way that modern companies build it so when you graduate our program, you literally can walk, day one, into one of these companies and be productive writing software, which hiring a four year computer science graduate, it takes some work to get someone to just come off of the assembly line of the four year college computer science system and actually get them to be productive. That’s where we’ll actually save them that money. That was a long answer. Sorry about going into that much detail, but there’s so many moving pieces in this. Getting it concise is not an easy thing to do.

Matt Alder (13m 59s):
No, it’s fascinating and so useful to have that level of detail. I was gonna ask you about the employers that you work with, that you partner with. What’s their reaction, how successful is this, and really, what’s been in it for them in terms of the value that they get?

Linc Kroeger (14m 19s):
For employers, they’re getting top technology talent. I’ll say entry level because it’s competing with four year degree graduates. We don’t really compete with code camps because if you look at most code camps, they’re four to six months in duration. They’re good for what they are, but our program is gonna take you two years minimum, three years to get through it. It’s pure computer science related. There’s not a whole other set. You’re not taking History and English. These things are valuable, but they’re gonna get that in high school. They’re gonna get all of our core computer science aspects through our program. They’re getting top talent and we’re actually really good at getting minority, diverse, and immigrant populations into the program.

Linc Kroeger (15m 6s):
That’s our focus so it’s an opportunity for companies to both get the tech talent they need, to get the diversity that they need, that they’re seeking that. Today, companies really, if you look at entry level talent, for the vast majority of it, they just count on the college system to do that. If the college system isn’t producing enough talent in a certain area for entry level talent, and they’re not recruiting enough minority talent, then companies don’t have that pipeline unless they do a very expensive approach like apprenticeships, which I’m a big fan of apprenticeships, but the challenge with it is they’re very expensive. There’s a lot of risk to the companies, but they’re the next best thing out there.

Linc Kroeger (15m 49s):
If you didn’t know this minority populations and rural populations equally, having much significantly lower attendance to four year college programs. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of speakers talk about shifting from four year degree requirements to skills based requirements, right? That’s really what we’re mastering. The difference with our program is you’re gonna save money hiring our graduates over a four year computer science graduate. If we can’t produce a better prepared individual for your workforce, then pivot another direction because this isn’t just something you do as a social benefiting mission, as a company to hire our graduates.

Linc Kroeger (16m 29s):
You’re gonna get the top talent so that’s very attractive because we’re looking at this from why is this valuable to them, not just society.

Matt Alder (16m 36s):
I suppose to dig into that a little bit deeper because so many employers pay lip service all the time to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s the number one talking point, but not the number one doing point. I still find many organizations just not taking the steps they need to move, to shift their mindset, to embrace new ways of thinking about talent. What advice would you give to the talent acquisition professionals who are listening, who are dealing with some fixed mindsets around things like college degrees or location within their organization?

Linc Kroeger (17m 14s):
Well, I’m gonna make a little statement that might twerk some people in the HR space too. You’re seeing this shift where DEI is moving out of HR. I feel like that’s accelerating from the companies I work with. Part of that is DEI is not getting solved so people are trying a different approach, right? Having the chief officer or the person leading DEI actually report up through the CEO or something like that. Diversity inclusion can’t be about marketing. It can’t be short term. If you’re not working with programs like Knight Moves, our approach is three to four years. If your approach on getting your talent, your entry level talent, when I say entry level again, the four year degree equivalent, and you’re not looking at programs of support in three to four years out, you’re probably not gonna impact it.

Linc Kroeger (18m 7s):
That’s hard for companies to do, right? Companies are so quarter driven and annual driven that to say, “Geez, I’ve gotta work with programs,” or “I’m not gonna see the talent for two, three, or four years,” but that’s what we have to do and that’s not what companies are strong at, right? Companies aren’t strong at going out and inspiring 15, 16 year old, especially minorities to get into it. If you look at what we’re doing, we’re keeping kids out of gangs. We’re giving them a future. By the time individuals graduate our program, they have no debt. Imagine that, starting your career and really launching it without any debt assembled to it.

Linc Kroeger (18m 47s):
My advice would be have an outcome of true diversity inclusion of how do you really fill your talent and partner with organizations that are having a longer term transformative impact versus who can get me what I need this year. Again, that’s hard because companies are not real good at saying, “What’s my forecast at 2, 3, 4, 5 years out for talent.” It’s shorter term because so much can change in the industry so I understand that.

Matt Alder (19m 13s):
You mentioned earlier in the conversation that a lot of the work that you do is based around really empowering people to be able to stay in their communities, to not have to leave and not come back to look for opportunity. I’m presuming that remote work is a big part of this. Is that something that the pandemic has really helped you with?

Linc Kroeger (19m 34s):
Starting this, really kicking out off about five years ago, that was the biggest challenge of this initiative. I really didn’t know how I was gonna solve that because, initially, my company that I worked for, when we opened up our pilot location, we said, “We’re gonna hire 30 people.” We’ll take care of that because that’s what we do. Being from an innovation background, if you’re familiar with a lean startup and you know how Silicon valley companies work and lean companies, it’s called pivot, persevere or kill. Meaning you start something, you don’t really know how you’re gonna do it. If it’s working, you persevere. If it’s not working, you either kill it or you pivot. Going into this, really didn’t know how we’re gonna get that remote work, which has now worked from anywhere.

Linc Kroeger (20m 15s):
COVID solved that problem, because now, I would still say roughly 75% of companies that I work with have no problem having a portion of their workforce remote, especially when they get to support native American inclusion and these underserved communities and they’re getting the talent they need. Frankly, the tech workforce is the one that’s pushing back harder than anybody. There’s just such a shortage that if companies are flipping to a return to office, even a couple days a week. They’re seeing instant resignations and because of COVID, and I would say the other reason, because there’s such a massive shortage of qualified talent in the tech space.

Linc Kroeger (20m 56s):
It’s given companies really not a choice that they can do work from anywhere anyway. Frankly, the last year two years, anybody who doesn’t support work from anywhere in the computer science space, it’s really just discriminatory, right? We just proved this works exceptionally well. In fact, most consulting companies I work with, they plan to just continue doing this forever. “Why would we spend all this money traveling?” Anyway, that was a long answer there too.

Matt Alder (21m 20s):
That’s absolutely fine. Final question, how can people find you? How can they connect with you? How can they find out more about your organization?

Linc Kroeger (21m 28s):
Yeah. If they go to Knightmoves.org, there’s a contact us. You can find out a lot more of information about our organization, our mission. We’d love to hear from communities. If you look at your match and you think, “Hey, we think we’d be good,” we’re always looking at education partners in the communities. Our primary partner is the community college system because we look for communities that can provide those seven core courses that are our prerequisites. In most states, it’s free for high school students to take dual enrollment courses while you’re in high school so it’s this good match, but that’s actually our biggest challenge right now. COVID open the door for us to do work from anywhere and make that a norm.

Linc Kroeger (22m 10s):
The challenge is all these recruiters have gone after all these community college instructors who teach computer science and it’s extraordinarily difficult to find community college. They may have the curriculum, but they don’t have the instructors. That’s where we’ll actually work to potentially provide an adjunct instructor for them in the community. If we have the business support, then we don’t actually even charge the community for that. Go to knightmoves.org, click contact us, and especially if you know larger companies that need software development services and any company greater than 300 million a year in revenue is buying these services, why not buy them and make the world a better place at the same time?

Linc Kroeger (22m 51s):
Any connections you make there is fantastic, too.

Matt Alder (22m 52s):
Link, thank you very much for talking to me.

Linc Kroeger (22m 55s):
Thanks, Matt. It was just a pleasure being on. Thank you so much.

Matt Alder (22m 58s):
My thanks to link. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at recruitingfuture.com. On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list to get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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