New Orleans non-profit attends first White House Tech Meetup _lowres

Advocate Photo by GREGORY ROBERTS -- Melvin Miller, 20, of New Orleans, a graduate of the Operation Spark IT training program. He is preparing to start a new job as a software developer May 1. Seated to his right is Tung Ly, also of New Orleans, of VAYLA, an organization that seeks to develop youthful community organizers. Both are in the audience in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the first White House Tech Meetup, which drew more than 150 community organizers, local elected officials, artists, business and civic leaders, coders, designers, entrepreneurs, funders, and more from across the nation.

Not long ago, Melvin Miller was “in a shell,” depressed by the deaths of several family members and out of school after one semester of college.

That was then.

“I’m pretty amped, man,” Miller, 20, said Friday at the first White House Tech Meetup, a gathering of more than 150 community organizers, local elected officials, artists, business and civic leaders, coders, designers, entrepreneurs, funders and more in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

Miller falls into the “and more” category, the prize pupil of Operation Spark, a New Orleans nonprofit dedicated to training at-risk teens and young adults for careers in technology. He’s getting ready to start a full-time job next month as a Web developer for FSC Interactive in New Orleans.

“It’s exciting,” Miller said. “I’ve got a bright future ahead of me.”

Miller traveled to Washington with John Fraboni, who was invited to the meeting as CEO of Operation Spark.

The event, sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, brought together participants from 40 states to share experiences and exchange ideas about promoting entrepreneurship, economic development and innovation. The session was aimed at furthering President Barack Obama’s TechHire Initiative, an undertaking launched this year to find and train workers for 500,000 open jobs in technology.

“There are IT jobs in every corner of America, from big cities to small towns, in every sector of the economy,” U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith said in opening the event. Other attendees from New Orleans included Tung Ly, of VAYLA, an organization that seeks to develop youthful community organizers, and Harvey Sanders, of the Youth Empowerment Project, which provides mentoring and training for at-risk youth.

Fraboni started Operation Spark in 2013 after quitting his job in video gaming in Montreal and moving to New Orleans. He had previously lived in the city, and on a later visit, he was troubled by signs of struggling neighborhoods, with many young people out of work.

“I truly know that there’s a job for everyone in software development,” he said.

After beginning as a pilot project in community centers, Operation Spark conducted its first summer “boot camp” in 2014, training students for three hours a day for five weeks. The organization has continued with boot camps for students and added teacher training as well, collaborating with schools and with workforce agencies such as the Youth Empowerment Project. Its annual budget has grown to $450,000, Chief Operating Officer Max Gaudin said.

He and Fraboni are the only paid employees, with boot-camp instruction provided free to students by volunteers.

“By the end of boot camp, these young people really know if software is for them or not — and we know if it’s for them or not,” Fraboni said.

Top boot-camp performers may be invited to Operation Spark’s studio on Magazine Street in the Central Business District, where they can work on real-world projects for paying clients and earn money. The hope is that some, like Miller, will migrate into the full-time workforce.

Miller was directed to Operation Spark by a teacher from his old school, Sarah T. Reed High in eastern New Orleans.

“It’s changed my life,” he said. “It’s given me a whole bunch of opportunities. It’s opened doors for me.”

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