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The Difference Engine and Kimberly Lowe-Williams Are Proving Everyone Can Learn to Code

What do struggling musicians, construction workers, attorneys and social workers have in common? Kimberly Lowe-Williams has helped them all pivot their careers and become developers. She's the CEO and Executive Director of The Difference Engine, a non-profit dedicated to helping those with non-traditional backgrounds -- women, minorities and older career changers -- take pre-existing tech skills and transform them into coding careers.

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“These are people that have been in a web development apprenticeship program, have already learned to code through a bootcamp, have some university experience or are self-taught, but have yet to secure a job,” she explained. “Often times there are a few barriers to employment when you have a non-traditional background," said Lowe-Williams, now a member of WiSTEM's fifth cohort.

The Difference Engine seeks to bridge the gap for these individuals, giving them real world work and clients that allows them to build a portfolio. Many times, she says, those who are pivoting careers or don’t have a traditional background working in tech find it difficult getting through interview processes and adjusting to the live of a developer. By pairing individuals in an apprenticeship program with a tech lead, the participants form teams and complete actual client projects, often times for non-profits seeking pro-bono development work.

The organization grew out of a semi-formal initiative with 1871 member Actualize, a coding bootcamp that started at 1871 in 2014 and has since scaled to multiple cities nationwide. A graduate of Actualize herself, Lowe-Willams established the program as a bona-fide non-profit, and is currently seeking capital to formally receive 501c3 status. The non-profit now operates in New York and San Francisco -- where Actualize also has a presence -- and in Lowe-Williams’ tenure, she’s seen lawyers, musicians and even a 50-year-old construction worker swap out their careers for a life in tech.

“We’re in to transform lives through technology, to change the stereotype of what a developer is and what they look like." 

For Lowe-Williams, the dream to work in tech goes back to 1980, when she took her first programming class. But she experienced fits and starts with her pursuit of an education and career in computer science, some of which she attributes to a lack of diversity in the field. In 1994, she enrolled in an information science program. When it came time to practice and work on collaborative projects, the mostly white male cohort of classmates that studied together was difficult to break into as an African American woman, causing her to drop out.

Her non-traditional background also caused difficulties finding employment once she went back and completed her degree. Out of 174 applications (she has a spreadsheet she tracked to prove the massive effort) she received one interview, which did not pan out.

She said her pursuit of creating opportunities for those with diverse and non-traditional backgrounds is personal.

“It’s a no brainer. We’re closing the doors to so much potential. It’s important because if we limit our ability to build things to a certain group of people, we limit what we can build.”  

Lowe-Williams said she’s excited to join the most recent WiSTEM cohort, particularly because of the leadership training and business development skills she is seeking to grow The Difference Engine.

“I know that WiSTEM can give me the tools and the network to allow me to be able to be a leader in this organization,” she said. “My brain has been on overload. I have come up with new revenue models that will be sustainable. I want this organization to be sustainable forever.”


Want to learn more? Lowe-Williams will be introducing the formal Difference Engine program to the world on August 24 at a launch party.

For a whole host of reasons, 1871 believes Chicago is the best place in the country for women entrepreneurs to start a business. Since its inception in September 2015, the WiSTEM program has helped more than 51 women-founded companies and 59 entrepreneurs through a 12-week, curriculum-based program that connects women to capital, community, and technology resources. Learn more

Topics: Community