The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Homeless coder’ saga shows connections matter more than coding skills


This summer, Patrick McConlogue, a New York programmer who passes the same homeless man on the street every day, hit upon a plan: Offer the man a choice between $100 in cash or programming lessons.

The story of the "homeless coder" was exquisitely crafted linkbait. It appealed to nerds who believe in the transformative power of programming ability. And it confirmed the prejudices of people who see the technology sector as arrogant and self-absorbed.

But the homeless guy, whose name is Leo Grand, isn't just a symbol of programmers' myopia. He's an actual human being, and he took McConlogue's offer to teach him programming by developing an app. Over the next few months, Grand's quest would be covered by Business Insider, CNN and NPR. Grand appeared on NBC's "Today" show. Thousands of people followed his progress on Facebook. When New York City police  arrested Grand for trespassing in a park, online supporters mobilized to get him out quickly. One supporter even gave Grand a Chromebook to replace the one the police had confiscated.

Now the app is done, and supporters are rallying to buy it. In fact, they're urging each other to buy the app whether or not they have a use for it, just to make sure that Grand's first app, called Trees for Cars, is a hit.

And that's the problem. McConlogue was trying to prove that learning to program can change your life. But what has helped Grand the most isn't the programming skills, it's the existence of thousands of people who are invested in his success. Each time he failed, there were people willing to step up and help.

An,d ultimately, that's what separates homeless guys like Grand from white-collar professionals like McConlogue. Yes, McConlogue knows how to code and Grand only recently learned. But computer programming isn't that difficult to learn. The larger problem was that Grand didn't have the kind of robust professional and personal network that others take for granted.

Grand became homeless after he lost his job at MetLife in 2011 and was unable to pay his rent. Losing a job is hard for anyone, but for most white-collar professionals it doesn't lead to living on the streets. They can draw on their friends, family and professional contacts to find a place to live while they get back on their feet and find a new job. Grand, evidently, didn't have allies like that. At least, he didn't until McConlogue turned him into an Internet microcelebrity.

Even if McConlogue's intervention works for Grand, it won't scale. Grand's success so far hasn't relied only on McConlogue's programming tutorials. It has also benefited from the support of numerous strangers on the Internet. The next homeless person who gets offered the opportunity to learn programming probably won't get on the "Today" show and won't develop the thousands of supporters that come with that publicity. And without a broad support network, it's not realistic for someone to go from living on the street to getting hired as a computer programmer.

So, if your goal is to actually help people, rather than prove a point about the value of programming skills, the best way to do that is through conventional charity efforts. Homeless people don't need programming lessons -- they need help finding food, shelter, transportation and work. So volunteer at a homeless shelter or food bank. Get to know the people there, and look for opportunities to help them. That won't get you an interview on NBC, but it has a good chance of actually helping people in need.