Nov 13, 2020 - Christina Hupy    

Inside the collaboration between GitLab and The Last Mile

GitLab teamed up with The Last Mile to bring open source DevOps and tech mentorship to incarcerated populations across the United States.

The Last Mile (TLM), an organization focused on changing lives through technology, is tackling the daunting problem of mass incarceration in the United States by providing education and career training opportunities to incarcerated individuals to help break the generational cycle of incarceration. GitLab team members with similar passions and ideas connected with The Last Mile team and built a partnership to help bring the tech industry and mentorship directly to incarcerated individuals.

AMA to Coffee Chat to Partnership

The idea for TLM partnership originated during an AMA (or "Ask Me Anything" session) between GitLab CEO, Sid Sijbrandij, and GitLab team members. In one of these AMAs, Tucker Logan, a federal solutions architect at GitLab, asked Sid about the inspiration behind his tweet about mass incarceration. In a follow-up question, Morgen Smith, a sales development representative (SDR) for the Americas, asked Sid if GitLab would consider creating initiatives to help combat the school-to-prison pipeline.

As a former educator, Morgen has witnessed first-hand the national trend of disadvantaged youth being agressively disciplined in schools, which can then lead to juvenile offenses and later to formal charges. During the AMA, Morgen asked Sid: "What do you think GitLab could do to encourage minority youth in this situation to be inspired by opportunities in tech?" Sid shared his support and passion for the topic, and invited Morgen and Tyler to host an open coffee chat on the topic to brainstorm ideas and next steps.

During the coffee chat, Sid decided to take the smallest step, first. He visited San Quentin State Prison in San Rafael, Calif., and organized a call with Chris Redlitz, a co-founder of TLM. It turns out that TLM was using GitLab internally and also using the GitLab Community Edition to train nearly 300 students participating in their programs about how to use DevOps.

TLM is a nonprofit program that started at San Quentin. TLM works with the incarcerated populations at men’s, women’s, and young adult correctional facilities to help them build relevant skills in technology with the goal of preparing individuals for successful reentry and building careers in business and technology. Today, TLM is in 23 classrooms across six states and has served 622 students since its inception.

TLM students learn DevOps with GitLab

Participants in TLM use the self-hosted, free open core version of GitLab in their courses on Web Development. Each of the twenty individual classrooms have their own self-hosted instance which around 20 students use to create and host their own private repositories. The sandbox environments are deployed centrally via Google Cloud. The core curriculum includes HTML/CSS and JavaScript, Node.js, Express.js, React.js, and Mongodb. GitLab is used primarily as a source code management tool for the students. Students write and commit code to personal repositories during course assignments. TLM Remote Instruction team also manages student-facing GitLab repositories to demonstrate industry best practices in merging, code collaboration, and version control platforms. Additionally, TLM leverages GitLab by providing students access to their repositories after they are released from prison, preserving commit history and all version control for the aspiring coders.

"By utilizing GitLab, The Last Mile students become comfortable using a best-in-class open source DevOps tool," says Tulio Cardozo, IT Manager, TLM. "This experience empowers our students as aspiring software engineers, enabling them to enter the workforce with the collaboration and communication framework skills employers demand."

The GitLab team is partnering with the TLM Programs department to organize a series of webinars and workshops for the students. The first webinar kicked off in June of 2020 and was broadcast to 27 students (men, women, and youth programs), across four classrooms in several states. The topic was an introduction to GitLab and DevOps. Sid joined and shared the story of founding GitLab and his journey in tech. Brendan O’Leary, a senior developer evangelist at GitLab, provided an overview of DevOps and explained how GitLab is the first single application for the entire DevOps lifecycle.

"The students appreciated the information on how to get started as new developers. Sid and Brendan helped the students believe they could accomplish anything with enough hard work," says a classroom facilitator from the Pendleton Youth Correctional Facility in Indiana.

The TLM team added that the webinar exposed students to a large company that works remotely and introduced them to an industry-recognized brand that the students use. In addition to the value of the content itself, there was a Q&A portion of the session where the studetns asked questions about the technology itself, such as how to start an open-source project and protecting intellectual property in open source, and about the facilitators' personal journey into tech.

Watch the webinar with GitLab and TLM below.

In addition to the general workshop, the teams also collaborated on more technical content. The students at the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility had a very special guest visit their Web Development Fundamentals Course, Natalia Tepluhina. Natalia, who currently lives in the Ukraine, is a frontend engineer at GitLab and also serves as a core Vue.js team member and core team member of GitLab itself. Natalia answered a variety of questions about how to approach learning Javascript and provided a few demos related to specific questions from the students.

Mentorship for a career in DevOps

GitLab and TLM also partnered on a series of Technical Recruiting workshops with the classrooms. These have definitely been one of the highlights of the partnership thus far. In these workshops, a GitLab recruiter gave a presentation on the technical recruiting processes at GitLab, best practices during the application process and interview process, as well as an overview of what to expect during an interview. During each of the four sessions, the recruiters directly engaged with the participants, who asked a variety of questions, including:

  • How do I address incarceration on my resume?
  • What about background checks?
  • How do I gain professional experience while incarcerated?

The GitLab recruiting team was very sensitive to the participants' concerns and provided honest, clear answers, and great suggestions. The recruiters shared that during the process candidates should think of their recruiter as a resource, and they can always ask to speak to the People team at GitLab in confidence if it would help reassure them with any concerns they have regarding their criminal records. The recruiters encouraged the students to highlight their work in TLM courses on their resume and think about whether they can use course projects to start to build a portfolio. In addition, the facilitators encouraged participants to think about contributing to open source projects as a way to build technical skills, increase their network and mentorship opportunities.

How can open source help incarcerated populations gain experience in tech?

The discussion around contributing to open source projects as a way to build technical skills sparked a few different exciting ideas with the teams. One of these ideas was to hold a first time contributor workshop with alumni from TLM. The workshop was held in September 2020 had 16 alumni participants, four GitLab team members, including Sid, and five TLM team members. The workshop covered the basics on how to contribute to GitLab and demonstrated the step-by-step process. Participants were provided an issue with a list of simple fixes with the label "good-for-new-contributors" in the GitLab docs or handbook with typos or other minor changes. We had a few merge requests after just a few hours of the workshop! Participants were encouraged to tag GitLab team members for recognition and to win a pair of tanuki socks – by the end of the week we had given away six pairs of socks.

Participants and instructors appreciated the opportunity to learn in a hands-on way during the workshop:

"Thank you for the opportunity to participate in the GitLab workshop. I am so grateful to the GitLab staff for taking the time to introduce those of us who are new to GitLab to the history and functionality of the company. I learned so much, not just about how I can utilize GitLab to accomplish personal tasks more efficiently, but also how I can contribute and collaborate more with others and contribute to my local and global communities." - TLM staff and alumna.

The GitLab team found the experience equally rewarding. "Working with The Last Mile was such a rewarding experience! When I think about how our product takes in contributions from all over the world and knowing it is also leveraged by those currently and or previously incarcerated really shows how truly 'inclusive' Git can be. Additionally, the empowerment it offers and the gift of knowledge and skill that can't be taken away is invaluable," says Candace Brydsong Williams, manage of the Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging program at GitLab.

How TLM uses GitLab technology

GitLab also provides free licenses of our top-tier hosted application for the TLM team, who use our DevOps technology in nearly every aspect of their operations.

TLM transitioned from GitHub to GitLab in 2019 after we provided the licenses. Initially, GitLab was used primarily in TLM's engineering department to track all internal processes with issues and Wikis. Infrastructure as code data and internal information is stored in repositories. Soon, TLM adopted GitLab technology in their education and programs departments, where it is now being used for project management. TLM now uses sprint planning, milestones, issues, priority levels, burndown charts, and issues boards to streamline project management across their departments.

The Last Mile has introduced numerous new and distinct use cases for GitLab. These include:

  • Issues are used to manage classroom facilities including to keep track of the impacts of COVID-19 on each classroom. For example, status updates are recorded on the issue and in the comments.
  • The Last Mile’s reentry program uses GitLab to track returned citizen onboarding and service delivery process as well as tracking internal workloads, task efforts, and collaboration across teams. To-do lists are used to manage actions and labels are used to view the status of various efforts.

"The GitLab platform provides The Last Mile with a remarkable range of solutions – from our application of GitOps workflows for managing our hybrid infrastructure, to our org-wide application of issues across teams," says Mike Bowie, Director of Engineering, The Last Mile. "By solving such a broad range of our needs, GitLab enables us to focus on delivering value into our programs, instead of administering and maintaining a plethora of disparate tools."

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