Gareth Small seems like any of the many thousands of people who have moved to Seattle in recent years to work in the tech industry. The software engineer puts in a full day at work and still likes to code from home at night. He enjoys hiking, reading, learning to snowboard and checking out the local restaurant scene.
But it’s Small’s journey — which included four years in prison — to his job as a new Google employee at offices in Kirkland, Wash., that differs from most other tech workers. He went viral with a LinkedIn post about his “surreal” good fortune last month, and GeekWire caught up with him last week.
“Growing up I was always around computers,” said Small, who is from outside Akron, Ohio. “My mom worked in IT and she always had computers all over the house.”
Small spent a lot of time on the machines and was a typical video-game-playing middle schooler. He was so into one game, he managed to build a version of it himself.
“It was a really cool experience, it made me feel really good,” he said. “Then I got into high school and I stopped being on the computer as much and coding, and I got into drugs and just went downhill from there.”
By 18, Small was addicted to drugs and the spiral led to a 2012 arrest on robbery and burglary charges. But something in the code that makes up the now 27-year-old makes this more than a short story of a life lost to drugs, crime and incarceration.
While on house arrest waiting to go to trial, Small was looking for work and came across a coding job. He submitted a resume, not imagining that he would have any success.
“I ended up getting it,” Small said. “I told them about what was happening and I said I probably wouldn’t be able to work too long. But I worked there for three months, and it sparked something in me. I was doing something and I kinda felt like I had a future. Before that I didn’t feel like that. I didn’t think I was gonna make it past 25.”
His career ended as soon as a it started, as Small received a 5-year sentence, and was sent to Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institution. On his first day in prison, he couldn’t shake the terrifying idea of being behind bars, likening it to what he’d seen in the film “Shawshank Redemption.”
“I remember walking down the hallway on my first day and it was like this huge factory. I was tall and lanky and didn’t have a pound of muscle on me,” Small said. “I just remember looking, and of all things, there was a computer lab. I definitely didn’t expect that. I got signed up as quick as I could.”
He started in the lab at two hours a day, twice a week. He had to graduate through a Microsoft Office program in order to move on to other concentrations, such as web design, digital arts or a Java program. After completing the web development program, his time in the lab was upped to three hours, three days a week.
Soon he was asked to be an assistant in the lab, which garnered him even more time.
“I just kept learning as much as I could,” Small said.
A lab aide who was set for release asked if Small would want to facilitate the program after he went home. By that time, Small was spending 12 to 15 hours a week in the lab — a vocation that got him away from dorm violence, drugs and other stuff he didn’t want to be around.
“I just remember that feeling when somebody got it,” he said of teaching computer skills to other inmates. “It was kind of like that moment of hope where they realize they were creating something and that’s what it felt like for me, too.”
Released a year early for good behavior in 2016, Small got in touch with one of the founders of the company where he did coding work before going to prison, and he went to work for another company. He then left Ohio with his partner, Liz Daly, after she got a job offer in Arkansas. As it does for tech workers across the country, Seattle eventually came into focus as a place that the couple might want to call home.
“Google has always been on my radar,” Small said about the tech giant with an ever-increasing presence in the Seattle region. “I don’t ever think I thought I would have the opportunity to work here. When I was younger, my mom showed me what Google was. I always thought that was cool.”
In his LinkedIn post last month, he wrote about lying on his bunk watching “The Internship” behind a double razor wire fence in prison, dreaming about what it would be like to work for Google.
He sent resumes for about a year before someone finally reached back to him. He didn’t believe it, and was still unconvinced even when asked to do a phone interview.
Being completely self taught, he was concerned that computer science was his weak spot. He didn’t expect to get further than the call.
And then he was offered a job.
“I actually broke down and cried,” Small said, crediting Daly for her patience throughout the six-month process. “I don’t think I was easy. I was stressed, I was anxious. It was a feeling like my life could change and I remember I didn’t believe it. There were nights where I couldn’t sleep.”
Small still felt like it could all be taken away at any minute. It finally hit him that it was all real when he was at “Noogler” orientation. Now, as a software engineer working on Google’s cloud platform in Kirkland, he credits his support system as a huge reason for his success.
“Many people I met in prison leave prison hopeful of a better future, but don’t have the tools necessary to find success,” he said. “They spent years in prison without developing any marketable skills and return home without a support system. It can be scary to give someone returning from prison a chance when we’ve been conditioned to think of prison as this scary place and those in it as terrible people.”
Justin Steele, Head of Americas at Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm, is the founder of the company’s justice initiative, addressing issues related to mass incarceration in the United States. With some 2.3 million Americans locked up, Small’s story hits home for the organization.
“We believe in expanding access to computer science education to ensure incarcerated individuals have a successful re-entry to the job market,” Steele said. “We are proud to bring Google’s resources, technology, and employees to bear against the challenges of over-incarceration and lack of opportunities for returning citizens. We’ve granted over $30 million to organizations like The Last Mile, which prepares incarcerated individuals for successful re-entry through computer coding training.
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“We are truly inspired by Gareth,” Steel added. “And we hope his story inspires others and demonstrates the need for strong educational programs in prisons.”
After more than a month at Google, Small is settling in. Working in a corporate environment requires communication skills he didn’t have to use in prison, so he’s been working on that. He never comprehended how big Google was, but he thinks it’s an awesome challenge. He wants to find a way to make a bigger impact and he said he’s excited to see where it goes.
“I love it,” Small said. “It took going to prison to see what hope really is. I served four years and spent the time focused on rebuilding. People can achieve great things with hope for a better future.”