The WBL Chronicles: November 2021
A FEEL-GOOD, FEEL-BAD,
Who says the tech world doesn’t have heart?
Work-Based Learning Manager
and Senior Talent Recruiter, ACDS
IT’S ALL ABOUT the attitude. The nuts and bolts of being a recruiter of talent can be eye-glazingly tedious if you let it—all those resumes washing across the desk! Or it can be like mining for gold, sluicing that steady stream until you single out just the nugget you’ve been hoping for. In other words, those resumes are either just words in a file or they’re clues to the spark and sparkle of a living, breathing talent—it all depends on your perspective.
I was perfectly happy as a recruiter of IT talent for ACDS, placing apprentices with Arkansas employers. But then, last summer, we started a new program called Work-Based Learning (WBL). Some employers were reluctant to take on apprentices who had no actual work experience. Other employers needed tech talent but were too small to afford the cost of a Registered Apprenticeship. Our solution? ACDS would pay the potential apprentice to work as an intern for three months, at no cost to the employer. During this period both intern and employer could get to know each other and decide if a more permanent arrangement made sense. I was lucky enough to be asked to spearhead the WBL program, and guess what? Working with a candidate who needed work plus an employer who needed help, I doubled the rewards from my job.
Let me tell you a story, and you’ll understand. Back in the winter of 2021, we at ACDS met J. Foster Davis, a young Arkansan who had grown up in Hillcrest and gone off to the Naval Academy. During his military service, he and a colleague came up with a business idea. “My business partner, John Lundgren, and I were both on active-duty Naval Service,” says Foster. “Half my career I was out on ships. The other half I was working for the NSA doing satellite intelligence. The third half, I was teaching cybersecurity at the Naval Academy and practicing it out in the fleet. And one of the things I was doing late in my career was a security practice that we call red teaming. It's where in order to catch a thief, you hire a thief. I would go around the Navy ‘red-teaming’ ourselves—trying to hack ourselves in order to make us stronger.
“Around that time, I met John through a mutual friend. When you leave the Navy, you don't give them two weeks' notice. You have to give them six months' notice. John and I were both in that stage when we met at a party and engaged in that ‘I'm-leaving-you're-leaving-what-are-you-doing?’ conversation. ‘Well,’ John said, ‘I'm building this idea of red teaming, but instead of having humans do it, having automation, artificial intelligence, do it.’ And I said, ‘Dude, where have you been all this time?’ John was a hacker who had been on the frontlines of the cyber war his whole 13-year Navy career, both hacking other nations and protecting us from getting hacked. It was a perfect fit. One of my projects had been to serve on a task force for the Secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon, looking at patterns in best and worst organizations. At some companies, people think that cybersecurity is too complicated, and other people don't want to talk about it because they don't want to expose their shortcomings. What our task force found was that the best organizations had a culture that supported productive discussions about security. John and I both have a deep belief that if you can align the incentives in the industry so that it’s beneficial to the individual company to stress themselves in a productive way—to find bad things before real actors do, to get into a good scrimmaging practice just like any good football team—we know that it will result in great security.”
The company that John and Foster co-founded is called BreachBits, which will offer clients continuous AI cyber probing for a fraction of the cost of a security breach. John is CEO, and Foster is COO. “What John and I saw from a national security perspective is that there is a true danger in our country,” says Foster. “Our adversaries want to hurt us, and the way they're doing it is through small mom-and-pop and medium-sized businesses. That's why we started the company. We just have to figure out the best way to fit into people's business practices.
“Our motto is, ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ If I’m talking to somebody who needs our service, I would say, ‘Well, you know what a credit score is. We do cyber credit scores.’ But the other X factor is that a lot of people want, and need, to know even more about other people's risk. There are people needing money, and there are people lending money. The people lending the money are the people who have supply chains, and one of the easiest ways to get hacked is through a relationship that you have. Walmart's got a thousand suppliers. One of Walmart's biggest risks is that one of those suppliers gets hacked and they violate the trust they have with Walmart. So now there are two types of people interested in a company’s cyber credit score. We help both of them stay safe, and we do it in a way that is productive.”
ENTER SARAH POULTON, college English and Creative Writing major, roller derby enthusiast, substitute teacher, restaurant server and bartender, Oxford American editing intern, “director of chocolate experience” for Markham & Fitz, single mother of a young daughter...and graduate of LaunchCode’s full-stack Web developer boot camp. “I'm still working on this narrative of how I ended up where I am,” Sarah says. “I still try to piece together the story for myself.”
It is, in short, one of those feel-good, feel-bad, feel-great stories, the kind we love to root for in the movies. We at ACDS are lucky we crossed paths with Sarah; it could just as easily never have happened. “I went to college at Hendrix,” says Sarah. “I studied English and creative writing—reading and writing have been like the great loves of my life. I was in a unique position at Hendrix because I also worked full time while I was a student, which isn’t typical there. I worked in restaurants, first as a server, and then when I got older I worked in bartending, in catering, things like that. I’ve done that at pretty much every stage of my life since then, even up until last year. But at Hendrix I got to be part of a lot of things that I was really proud of. I had the opportunity to study abroad, at the University of Oxford. I was also part of a roller derby league during my time in Conway, and we did a lot of fundraising for women's issues, particularly the domestic violence shelter there.
“After graduating in 2009, I went into an internship with the Oxford American, in Little Rock, which was a really great experience. That was what I thought I was going to do—take this love of English, of literature, of reading and writing, and go be an editor at a magazine. But while I was working that 40-hour-a-week job, I was also working 20, 25 hours a week as a bartender, because the Oxford American internship is unpaid. I think the idea is, you put that experience on your resume, and then you go off to one of those places with lots of publishing opportunities and use those connections to get a job there.
“When I finished with the internship, I was exhausted. But I also realized I didn’t really want to leave Arkansas, which was a shock to me. I had grown up in small-town Arkansas, Atkins, and when I was younger, leaving was always the plan. But I’m one of six kids. My brothers and sisters were having children, my nieces and nephews. There were all these people in my life that I was having a really hard time picturing life without. But also, I had come to realize that I love Arkansas. I got really into hiking in college, and I worked in food service for a really long time. Arkansas’ food scene is amazing, and more of that stuff was coming. I wanted to be a part of this shift in Arkansas getting all the things that I had always wanted to see.”
Though she had decided to stay in Arkansas, Sarah still struggled to find a direction. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities that I could see for myself at that time,” she says. “So I moved to Fayetteville and ended up working three jobs while trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I worked at a brewery, I worked as a waitress, and I was working as a substitute teacher. I liked teaching and wondered if I wanted to get my MFA and teach. But I also needed to make money. I ended up doing really well in the craft beer scene, working in a brewery there. My position as a bartender turned into a brand ambassador position with a different brewery, so I started following this different path, doing a lot of events.
“Ultimately, I transitioned into a different field, working with the Markham & Fitz craft chocolate company up there. They were brand new, and I was their second fulltime employee. I did pretty much every position imaginable—I made chocolate, worked production, worked shipping. I helped them start their bar program and did a lot of their training. I’m a person who dives deep. I did all this research into chocolate, and eventually I was named Director of Chocolate Experience. I have business cards to that effect. I worked with marketing, did a lot of events, a lot of tastings, a lot of consumer education. And I concentrated really hard on our sustainability efforts as we worked toward becoming a zero-waste company, something I'm still very passionate about. What I was doing was building a narrative. It had all these elements that weren’t like a normal job, but it felt really satisfying to me. I believed in the company, and we were seeing a lot of growth. And I did not think I was going to leave that position anytime soon.
“And then 2020 came, bringing COVID. They kept me around for a little while, but it quickly became apparent that this main revenue-generating portion of my job, these events, weren't coming back anytime soon. I think the only word that really describes how I felt in May of 2020 is devastated. I had a young daughter. She had just turned a year old. And I was looking at the future with really no idea of what I was going to do next.”
FOSTER DAVIS COULD’VE gone anywhere with his credentials. “My workforce is full remote by design,” he says. “We have to be able to cultivate and attract talent from anywhere, because we need hackers and programmers and people who understand business risk. Our headquarters is in D.C., where my partner, John, is based. Besides having people there, we have them in New York, in Minneapolis, and I have a young intern from Massachusetts. Plus there are three of us now in Arkansas.”
Before deciding to establish his office in Little Rock, Foster brought his family back for “sort of an interview of Arkansas,” as he calls it. “We were here for about nine weeks. I hadn't been back in 20 years, and I was trying to learn the place as an adult. I had suspected that I would find a great place where people understand both technology and business, but I was honestly surprised to find that it was that and more. I needed to know if those things were happening here, because the next revolution in cybersecurity isn’t happening in the server room. It’s happening in the boardroom. If you want incredible tech people, they’re everywhere. But now the limiting factor is the culture of an organization.”
When we at ACDS first met with Foster, he was very interested in bringing on a couple of apprentices, one in security and another in development. So we started looking for candidates, but when we got back to him, he wasn’t ready. He still had to get an Arkansas business license, but the main problem was that he didn’t yet have the customer base to be able to afford the cost of the apprentices. He didn’t give up, though; he stayed in touch. Finally, several of us met with him downtown in ACDS’ old office. That’s when we told him about the Work-Based Learning program, and it was just what he needed. He figured that by the end of the three-month internship, he would have the cash flow to take on a fulltime person.
After that, Foster and I started talking online, and I loved what he said about the kind of person he was looking for. This is from my notes: “More interested in the attitude, that they have an innovative way of thinking, want to solve a problem that no one else has solved....technical skills not a hard requirement... ideal candidate is someone familiar with front end development, particularly React…but if no tech experience, maybe they come from an industry related to customers we're targeting, so can help in that area.” In other words, he was wide open to people with a lot of different backgrounds. We sent him four candidates, and the only one he interviewed was Sarah Poulton.
AND HOW, YOU may be asking, did ACDS know about Sarah? “After I lost the chocolate job, I took some time off and tried to enjoy being with my daughter, as much as I could in the circumstances,” says Sarah. “Of course, I was looking at all the job boards, along with thousands of other people. One day I saw an ad for a boot camp called LaunchCode that was going to start in Northwest Arkansas. A friend of mine had posted it on her Instagram page. Without any thought at all, I applied for it. Then I Googled what a full-stack Web developer did, because that’s what the boot camp was for. Luckily, I got into the program, which was free, thanks to the Walton Family Foundation. It was also intense. And what I found out when I got into it was that I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed coding, I enjoyed development. It was like building 3D puzzles, just like how that felt when I was kid. It was super satisfying for that very critical, analytical part of my brain, while also feeding a lot of my creativity. So it kind of checked all these boxes for me. I think my background has a lot to do with my being successful in that program—that sort of nonlinear thinking, that ability to do certain things that maybe aren't straightforward.”
The LaunchCode boot camp was six months long, and after that, Sarah had to go back to work. “I had a daughter and unemployment was ending, so I was working as a bartender again, raising my daughter, juggling,” says Sarah. “Eventually, I made the hard decision to move back to Atkins to live with my parents. And that’s where ACDS comes in. After finishing the boot camp, I had actually gone to work for LaunchCode for a couple of months, teaching the course that I’d just completed. LaunchCode usually does their own job placement, but because they aren't actually based in Arkansas and didn't have their usual network, this was outsourced to ACDS. I remember that ACDS’ Lonnie Emard had met with the group virtually a few times, and had brought in some employer speakers. So when I moved back to Central Arkansas, I reached out to ACDS. I did their application, did their profile, and I told them I was ready to start looking for something. That was in February of this year. And it was in the middle of July when Kristen, who is my recruiter, gave me a call.
“So I met with Foster in his office in Little Rock. We mostly talked about what his company does, which I really didn't understand and still don't fully understand, but I think that’s fine. I'm learning. We also talked about where I came from and what interested me in developing and why I was pursuing it. He said they were looking to get someone in front-end development and that they already had a training program in mind, which I would start at the beginning of my internship. For me, that was a sure sign that they really wanted to set me up for success. They weren’t expecting me to come in already knowing that framework. It went really quickly from there. I was offered the intern position and started about two weeks later. And it's been such a tremendous experience for me.”
“When Sarah was suggested to me and I read her resume, I saw that she had a technical foundation,” says Foster. “But the fact that she came from another industry was especially attractive to me, because I'm in the business of trying to bring technology to other places that need to speak those languages. Then when we talked, she immediately struck me as somebody who had initiative, saw the potential of what we're doing, and was okay taking a little bit of a leap of faith on a venture-capital startup. Of course, I was taking a leap of faith too, and honestly, it's ACDS’ three months of work-based learning that allowed this to happen. In the Navy, I benefited from work-based learning myself, and I’ve administered it. I am a huge believer in experiential learning.”
THE STORY GETS even better. At the end of the three-month internship, Foster offered Sarah a fulltime job. “This program helped me prove to my company, Hey, look what’s here,” Foster says. “Look at this rich soil here in Arkansas.” As for Sarah, if you look at her LinkedIn profile, she’s now a UI/UX Developer apprentice at BreachBits. In her “About” section, she writes: “Reformed Luddite and pandemic-induced career changer, I'm taking a diverse background…into tech….Currently growing my front-end skills and putting my people-focused experience to use learning React and helping build software that makes the daunting world of cybersecurity everyone's business….Hoping to make the world a better place one seamless refresh at a time.”
But Foster and Sarah are only two of the winners here. At ACDS, we’ve proved that work-based learning is a potent tool for helping Arkansas companies mine and refine the extraordinary tech talent that exists in our state, and we’re looking forward to writing many more such success stories. At the end of the day, however, this is the broader narrative of a brilliant young tech entrepreneur choosing to come home to launch his career, instead of taking his vision elsewhere, and a talented young Arkansan choosing, finally, not to leave home, but to stay here and help create her state’s bright future. Maybe the biggest winner in this story is Arkansas itself.