Mike Hess is the founder and Executive Director of the Blind Institute of Technology, a Colorado-based nonprofit transitioning to be a national outfit, whose goal is to find tech roles for the chronically underemployed visually impaired community. Hess, who runs the organization with 40+ volunteers, including eight C-level executives on his board of directors, recently outlined his goals for Network World Editor in Chief John Dix.
Why did you start this organization and what is it about?
I started in technology 18 years ago in the mid-90s and most of my career was in telecommunications. I started with US West as a mainframe developer and when US West Wireless started I thought that sounded fun so I moved over and that’s when I started expanding my technical skills. In the mid-2000s when VoIP became the latest craze I went and got Cisco certified and learned how to overcome those challenges, and then ultimately I ended up at Level 3 Communications.
Through all of that I noticed I was always the token blind guy in the organization, so I started doing some digging and came to realize the unemployment rate for the vision-impaired (VI) ranged from 70% to 80%. I found the numbers just staggering and I thought, I can make a difference by bringing awareness to executives here locally in Denver.
So I left a six-figure income to write a business plan and in 2013 I submitted the paperwork to become a nonprofit here in Colorado and the Blind Institute of Technology was born.
The first six to eight months was all about proof of concept. I kept knocking on doors, talking to executives, telling them about how I was able to overcome visual obstacles in environments just like theirs, so I was bringing credibility to the story. I was talking to them about the amazing candidates they were overlooking even as they were struggling to find talent. In Denver, unemployment within IT is less than two percent.
Was the focus to encourage employers to hire visually-impaired people or were you also out to encourage visually impaired people to pursue technology careers?
My initial focus was on awareness with a mission to impact unemployment. I didn’t start out to build a staffing or placement organization. That’s kind of evolved over the last two years.
Today BIT offers multiple programs designed to enable success in the workplace for both employers and the VI community. Our Education and Outreach Program (Art of Blinders) teaches organizations the true power of listening. These workshops help educate organizations about the innate assets a vision-impaired person brings to the workplace, and helps with organizational development by having participants practice listening skills while blind folded.
Our second program is Workplace Preparation. We provide technical assistance to organizations that are interested in learning how to make software accessible to consumers, or organizations that need technical assistance for a VI employee.
The third program is Certification and Training, so it is all about education. We have partnered with the Tuliva Academy in downtown Denver to offer technical certifications that are fully accessible in the classroom.
And the fourth program is Staffing and Placements. We have signed direct placement agreements and master service agreements with organizations for full-time employment, project and contract work.
Since we’re a 501C3 Nonprofit, organizations can donate to one of our programs to help us impact the unemployment within the vision-impaired community.
When you approach a large company, is it hard to get in the door or are they receptive to the idea and just haven’t thought it through?
When I talk to CIOs or CTOs I talk pure technology. I explain that bringing in technology to support visually impaired programmers adds less than one percent to software development lifecycle costs, and suddenly you have access to this large talent pool out there. Technically minded executives get this concept. Every organization is looking for scalability. When I explain how many millions of blind people there are, it’s kind of a no-brainer to start incorporating accessible technology in the workplace because it allows you to scale immediately.
Where I get more resistance is when I talk to HR types. Their goal is to mitigate risk, but I’ve found zero statistics that show that the visually impaired are any more problematic for organizations. As a matter of fact, all the testimonials and statistics I’ve found show that companies that have embraced the vision-impaired community have some of the lowest churn in the industry because, quite honestly, once I know my way to my office, I continue to walk that path. So I think the loyalty factor is a huge win for organizations.
So yeah, it’s kind of a mixed reaction, although the reason we’ve been able to grow is because when I talk to an executive I always ask if they can introduce me to two or three peers and they’re like, “Absolutely,” because what we’re selling is this amazing talent pool that they’re probably not tapping into.
How many people are visually impaired?
In Colorado alone there are 45,000 blind people between the ages of 18 and 64. And if 70%-80% are unemployed? Do the math. And the vision-impaired community has roughly the same level of higher education degrees as our sighted peers, which is about 20% percent of the population.
Then we look for the unemployed visually impaired that have what I call the AA standard. The first A is for attitude. Is your vision impairment an obstacle or is it a barrier, because if it’s a barrier, BIT is not the right organization for you. If it’s just an obstacle, and you’ve got the attitude that you can overcome whatever is in front of you, to me that is a great asset for any technical organization.
The second A is your aptitude. Do you have skills? We literally represent double master, double bachelor’s degree candidates that are just sitting on the sidelines right now chomping at the bit, waiting for a friendly organization to say, “You know what? I’m not worried about the accessible technology. I’m not worried about the perception. I’m just looking for a talented, loyal professional to help our group.”
What was it like for you to learn technology as a visually-impaired person? What kind of obstacles did you face as you pursued this career?
I think you’ll find a lot of vision impaired people can memorize copious amounts of information. When I was coding, my learning curve in the beginning was slower because I had to memorize large COBOL programs, although give me a couple of months and I was way more proficient because I knew exactly where to go to update my data division or go to my procedure division. I could do the correlating of data elements so much faster than my sighted peers because memorizing was secondary to them because they could just see what they were doing.
And because of my sight, I use a lot of tactile representations. For network topologies, for example, I would lay a document over a hard rubber mat and ask a coworker to use a pen to perforate around the shapes, giving me a tactical, three-dimensional layout.
So I leverage all my senses, I leverage every tool and technique I can. There’s actually a lot of science that quantifies how, if you use multiple senses during your transfer of information, your retention and recall go up exponentially. I’ve had high success of getting projects out on time and on budget and that is an anomaly within the IT network space.
When you were going to school for technology, was it hard to find adequate tools to help you learn?
In the early 90s IBM provided a grant to four community colleges and the program I attended was called Computer Training for People with Disabilities. It was designed to get people with physical challenges into technology organizations. There were screen reader and early speech-to-text software and other technologies, but when I first started the software that would help me had not yet arrived. However, there was another student there who had crippling carpal tunnel and so I said “I’ll be your hands, you be my eyes,” and for the first two months of the program that’s how we turned in our assignments. Today, 20 years later, the technology is so much better, thank goodness.
When you transitioned into the corporate world, did they have adequate tools for you?
Back then the technology was a lot more pricey than it is now, but organizations could write-off the investment and they were more than willing to do that because there was this boom in IT like we’re going through now.
Today the technology is so much better. One of the brilliant things Steve Jobs did with the i-devices, he went out and talked to the blindness community and made sure the very first i-device was completely accessible to the VI community. Now, for example, you have applications from companies like Salesforce that I can use to do everything a sighted person would do. The technology is 100% percent innate within iOS.
A lot of what we do now when we go in to talk to an organization is showcase the new capabilities. We say, “Here’s how the technology looks and feels, here’s some of the code you can implement, and here’s how our devices actually respond to that code.”
Are schools doing enough to prepare visually impaired people for tech roles?
In Colorado I’ve checked out all of the major universities, and the thing that saddens me is there’s not one program that actually offers an accessible technology class or tutorial. So BIT is going to be a game changer within the educational realm. We will challenge the IT programs to offer accessibility as a portion of its curriculum. Currently, Universities are not teaching anything about accessible technology. We believe that is important not just to have accessible technology available but teach students about using accessible technology. Therefore, graduates will know what it looks and feels like to code for accessibility.
We’re also partnering with a local technology school that has the curriculum for Cisco and Salesforce and Project Management certifications, and they’re going to be the first technical school in the country that is 100% percent accessible to the visually-impaired community.
So if we have a visually-impaired person reach out to us that has, say, a bachelor’s in English, we can say, “With that degree and with this certification, you’ll be able to line up for a project management role,” or something like that. So we can help them leverage their current skills, augment them with some additional certifications that are completely VI accessible, and then place them in an industry with the lowest unemployment rate out there.
Security is an interesting opportunity. A lot of healthcare organizations, for example, are building out security operation centers, and they’ve told us, “We just want the right personality. We’ll teach them the hard skills.”
Well, Mike, anything else that’s important to know about your organization that I haven’t thought to ask about?
I just want to reiterate that we have national reach. We’re completely connected with all of the blindness organizations nationwide, and this is of national importance and I know with community effort, with organizations who are just looking for talented, loyal people, BIT can absolutely be a brand name that they can come to depend on to help them get those resources out there nationwide.