Ismael Lopez was working at a restaurant in Chicago when he was laid off due to the pandemic. He moved home to Milwaukee to find another job.
Lopez, 38, spent most of his career in the restaurant industry. He also had a talent for solving issues on smart devices and decided to get serious about a career in IT and computer science.
While attending classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Lopez was approached by a recruiter from i.c.stars about joining its program in Milwaukee.
“I thought it was a scam,” Lopez said, adding after talking to a few graduates of the program he decided to apply and is now halfway through the program.
“It’s a very intense program and they introduce you to a lot of different coding languages. And they give you projects which help you learn the coding a lot quicker.”
The program was started in Chicago in 1999. In 2018, with the help of Milwaukee-based The Dohmen Company, a location was started in Milwaukee. The program is free to participants.
Blanca Gonzales, executive director of the Milwaukee i.c.stars location, said they aim to train people from underrepresented communities.
“Is there a thirst and hunger for talent in Milwaukee? Yes,” Gonzales said. “This just happens to be the area that many don’t look at.”
Since the program was started in Milwaukee, it has graduated 147 students Eighteen currently are in the program.
The program lasts 16 weeks. Days start at 8 a.m. and last until 8 p.m. Each cycle begins with roughly 20 participants or “interns” who are paid a stipend while they are in the program.
“We don’t just consider ourselves to be a coding program, we consider ourselves to be transformational also,” Gonzales said. “We want to give them a thousand hours of technology (training) and a thousand hours of professional development.”
The program also helps the interns with networking and learning how to work in a professional environment where there might be different management styles and people from different backgrounds.
Companies can donate to the program and be more involved with showing the interns the skills they’re looking for in potential applicants.
“Our sponsors are able to come in and provide technical workshops and share with them the coding that happens,” Gonzales said.
After the 16 weeks, the graduates have a “residency” with a company that lasts two years.
“Some of those interns will go on to another internship with the company and then that leads to another opportunity, which will then lead to full-time employment, which is the goal,” Gonzales said.
GE, MolsonCoors, Northwestern Mutual, Milwaukee County, American Family Insurance and senior living technology service company VCPI are taking residents from i.c.stars.
While the pandemic has caused learning to go virtual, Gonzales said i.c.stars was able adopt a hybrid in-person and online, experience.
“Our program never skipped a beat,” Gonzales said. “We supply our interns with a laptop,and we supply them with a headpiece.”
Currently, i.c.stars operates out of Schlitz Park in a shared space with VCPI as its new location in Walker’s Point gets completed. The firm plans to make the move in the spring.
Program participants generally range from 18 to 27 years old, but there have been students in their 40s and 50s, Gonzales said.
The program is going into “cycle 9,” its ninth cohort of students. Gonzales said cycle 7, which ended with 14 graduates has more than 90% of its students in a job. Cycle 8, which ended with 10 students has 80% placed in a job.
Sandy Kastrul, founder of i.c.stars, said the program hopes to address racial and ethnic disparities in the technology industry.
“We’re in IT and abysmal lack of diversity is hitting us in the face all the time,” Kastrul said.
“If i.c.stars can help people get in the door, are they going to be OK once they’re there? It’s really important that we establish relationships with our corporate partners, we know that they’re good companies, we really imbed ourselves deep in an organization, to make sure they have the cultural competency that our folks can grow within our organization.”
The program gives graduates continuous support by providing ongoing technical classes for them and mentorship.
“We try to see what we can to do try to continue that professional development,” Gonzales said.
Natalie Vargas was at a professional crossroads. She was studying computer engineering at Marquette University, but tuition costs caused her to drop out.
She was working different jobs, but “nothing I was really passionate towards.”
“I was looking for something to help me further my career without having to go back to school,” Vargas said.
Then she heard about i.c.stars from a graduate of the program.
“I didn’t have any expectations,” Vargas said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But going into the program, you see people’s success stories and I think that really inspired me and really pushed me to work hard.”
After graduating from i.c.stars, Vargas became a contractor working for MolsonCoors with its emerging tech team. There, she helps with its internal tech portal.
While she is grateful for the opportunity and the work, the experience has given her multiple people to connect with on a professional level.
“I now have this core network of people that I can take advantage of in anyway,” Vargas said. “Before going through the programming, I didn’t realize the value of networking and the value of knowing someone to get in (to a company). Not just knowing your skills.”