Behind The Tech with Kevin Scott - Irma Olguin: CEO & Co-Founder of Bitwise Industries

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IRMA OLGUIN: I know that technology generally has a bad rap for, like, gentrification and those types of things and the effect on neighborhoods. But when you literally skill the folks who are from those neighborhoods into these jobs, they get to turn around and give back to their neighborhoods.

KEVIN SCOTT: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m your host, Kevin Scott, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft.

In this podcast, we’re going to get behind the tech. We’ll talk with some of the people who have made our modern tech world possible and understand what motivated them to create what they did. So, join me to maybe learn a little bit about the history of computing and get a few behind-the-scenes insights into what’s happening today. Stick around.


CHRISTINA WARREN: Hello, and welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m Christina Warren, Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft.

KEVIN SCOTT: And I’m Kevin Scott.

CHRISTINA WARREN: And our guest today is Irma Olguin. In 2013, Irma started Bitwise Industries, a company that trains people in underserved communities for careers in tech. And she actually got started in her hometown of Fresno, California, where more than a quarter of the population is living below the poverty line. Bitwise has expanded its presence in several cities around the United States.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I really love what Bitwise is doing, and I love that it’s being led by someone like Irma. You know, I’ve spent a bunch of my time thinking about how we democratize technology, democratize the opportunities that technology can provide. I grew up in a small town, as well, just like Irma. I went to a small high school that it was, you know, super unlikely that I was going to get out and have a career in technology, so I’m always stoked to talk with folks like Irma, like especially ones who are so community-minded and trying to do good for other people.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Yeah, I think it’s a really important conversation, and I’m really excited to hear you two talk more, so let’s dive into your conversation with Irma.


KEVIN SCOTT: Irma Olguin is the CEO and Cofounder of Bitwise Industries, a company that provides tech training with the goal of building tech economies in underserved cities. At Bitwise she oversees the operations team, the company’s tech-focused training program and software development. In 2019 Bitwise secured one of the largest Series A rounds of funding, ever, for a female- Latinx-led company. Bitwise has now expanded from Fresno to several additional cities, including Bakersfield, Oakland and Merced, California, and Toledo, Ohio, where she went to college.

Olguin holds a BS in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Toledo. The work that you’re doing at Bitwise is super near and dear to me, welcome to the show, Irma.

IRMA OLGUIN: Yeah, thanks for having me, Kevin.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, before we get into all of the super cool stuff that you’re doing at Bitwise, I’d love to hear about how you got started. Where did you grow up? How did you get interested in technology? Tell us a little bit about that.

IRMA OLGUIN: That’s a good one, that’s a good place to start. It has a lot to do with the work that we’re doing today and why we do it.

So, I’m from a really small town called Caruthers, California. It’s right there in the heart of central California, an ag-based, miles and miles of vineyards and orchards, surrounding on all sides. Graduated in a class of, I think, 86 – 88 people, something like that. So it’s a town of about 2,000 folks. Not a lot of technology happening in that space. Lots and lots of ag – agriculture and that’s my background.

Like, I come from a family of, I’m the descendent of Mexican immigrants who became farm laborers, immigrant farm laborers in central California, following the work, finding the food, and that’s my start, my sort of illustrious beginning was there in the fields.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, yeah, you – it sounds like our starts were similar. Like, I grew up in a very small town in rural central Virginia. My – I think my graduating class in high school was 60.


KEVIN SCOTT: and so I have an appreciation for how unusual it is, I guess, is the best way to say it of someone from a community like that where your parents weren’t in tech, I’m presuming.


KEVIN SCOTT: How did you find your way to tech?

IRMA OLGUIN: So, it was sort of a – a zig and a zag, as many good life stories are, right? So, I was 15 years old. I was sitting in my high school class, and I heard over the PA speaker that the PSAT was being held in the cafeteria. And not being a college-bound student, again, a descendent of immigrant farm laborers, college was not going to be part of my life story. I didn’t know what the PSAT was. I didn’t know what the letters meant, but I was 15 years old, and I did understand that I could get out of class for half-a-day if I went to the cafeteria.

So I did what any 15-year-old would do, and I went to the cafeteria and ended up taking this test that would radically change my existence when marketing mail began to arrive at my house from different colleges around the country. And that was the first moment that I wondered to myself, you know, I wonder if higher education might be for people like me.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome, and did you have an immediate affinity to computer science or engineering, you know, given that you were going into all of this cold, so to speak?

IRMA OLGUIN: Right. No. So, my sort of disclaimer here is that this is not career advice to anybody that’s listening, but the way I chose my major – I got all the way across the country, which was a feat in itself. You know, I accept a scholarship, I go across the country, I don’t know anybody. I don’t know how college works, like as a system, and the woman who is taking my information to get me into the correct orientation says, “Okay, what’s your major?”

And I look back across the table at her, and I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “Oh, that’s – that’s where you’re going to spend your time.” And I said, “Well, give me that catalog back. Give me one second.”

And so, I’m flipping through the catalog, and I see this new building that was made out of glass. Seventeen years old, across the country, don’t know a soul, and I think to myself, wouldn’t it be neat to take classes in a glass building? And that turned out to be the College of Engineering, which is how I landed in technology, at all.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s super cool, and a hugely lucky break.

IRMA OLGUIN: I mean, couldn’t have planned it better, that’s for sure. Didn’t plan it at all, let’s be really honest (laughter)

KEVIN SCOTT: So, I don’t know if you’ve read Tara Westover’s book, Educated – she recently wrote a really great op-ed piece in the New York Times, and you know, I think she had a – you know, a similar path into education and a professional life, as well, like you know, maybe even more trying than most. And you know, the thing that she said in this op-ed piece, like the single word that described her first years in college was just exhausted, because she was working all of these jobs and like scheduling her classes around her jobs, and just sort of struggling to figure out, like “how am I just going to make all of this work?” and not knowing the answer to the question, and just being exhausted, not just from studying, but from the whole mechanism of figuring out how it was she was even going to support the act of studying. So, how was that for you?

IRMA OLGUIN: That’s a good word. That is an apt word. I would say that struggle would be where I would put my brain. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t a struggle, I think, in the similar story, as to Tara, in her wonderful book. I think, you know, you just don’t know what you’re doing at all. It’s like showing up to a country, you know, with your passport, not speaking the language, and you have to figure out how to get lunch, right, and how to pay for it, and all of these things, not to mention learning the system for the entire reason that you’re there.

And so, yeah, you’re just playing catchup the entire time. There were two things I remember about the orientation, so when I go to that glass building, right, and I sit in orientation. And I remember two things. I remember one was that they told us, roughly three out of four people in that room wouldn’t make it to graduation, that there would be that kind of attrition out of the engineering program, and – and I think the folks around me heard, “This is great, I’m going to be one of the four,” right?

And I thought, “what the hell am I doing here?” I had just wasted all of my family’s efforts to bring me to this moment, to not make it. And then the other thing that I remember was that they recommended, like adamantly recommended that you not work during college, because the program was that rigorous. And I thought to myself, I don’t have a choice. This is got to – a girl has got to eat; a fish has got to swim. That’s it. And so, you know, and that was super hard. I think, you know, again, it’s not just the studying and being behind the ball there also, but it’s you don’t have really time to think or wait. You’re just in survival mode.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I mean, did you feel like you had a reasonable support network there, because the other thing that I struggled a lot with at – like, neither of my parents went to college, and I was working a more or less full-time job, and you know, I was also doing – I think Tara did this as well, like I was trying to stuff as many credits as humanly possible into a semester because I wanted to figure out if I could graduate earlier because not having to pay that extra semester of tuition was going to be a big deal to me.


KEVIN SCOTT: And I just- you know, on top of all that, I felt like an imposter the whole damn time, like I just wasn’t meant to be there, and it wasn’t until I figured out how to, you know, get a support network and, you know, try to find some level of confidence in what I was – and like, my confidence was in computer programming. Like, I’d been lucky enough to get my first computer when I was 12, and I was a pretty good programmer, so that was my comfort zone. Everything else was like wildly uncomfortable.

IRMA OLGUIN: Yeah, I think it – well, I mean, there’s so many things that made the experience uncomfortable, but it’s nobody’s fault, right?


IRMA OLGUIN: I mean, I was introduced to email the day I arrived at that college, and so you – I remember taking this piece of paper that I had in my hand, and I leaned across to the person next to me, and I said, “What’s this?”

And they said, “Oh, that’s your email address.” And I said, “What are the letters underneath it,” and he said, “That’s your password. And that was my beginning in that space, and I was always that kid, right? Through all of school, it was, “What is this … and how do I work it,” right? How do I make this work for me?

But I think the other thing too, not to get too deep or personal, but there wasn’t anybody who looked like me or sounded like me. I was coming from across the country. I’m a five-foot tall queer Latino woman. There was only me that fit that description, and so in terms of support network and system, you first have to get over the idea that you’re the only one of you, and then you can start to understand what a network looks like or what support looks like for you, but I – it took me a little while to struggle with those things first.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and did you have a moment where things clicked, where you’re like, okay, like I’ve got this? Like, I – I know I’m going to be able to – to do this and make a career with this, and I’m going to like it?

IRMA OLGUIN: I wake up every single day asking myself if I can, still working on that confidence, Kevin. (laughter)

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome.

IRMA OLGUIN: No, I think – I’ll tell you what did feel familiar and comfortable wasn’t the idea that I was the new kid. It was the idea that I had – I have what it takes to struggle through it. I do remember those moments. I remember actually one of the, the school I went to, you do these three cooperative work experiences before you can be an engineer. You’ve actually got to do the job before you can have the degree and the job, which was a really wonderful experience for me.

In that very first work experience, being a computer engineer for somebody else, that check, I remember getting paid, and I thought to myself, whatever it takes, I’m going to make this work because this is community-changing money for me, and there was a moment – I like to tell the story of hanging out with my coworkers. We were working late at night, in this work experience program, and we ordered a pizza, and they asked me – you know, I gave them a twenty, and they go, and they pay for the pizza at the door, and they say, “Hey, Irma, how much do you want to tip?” And my automatic response was, “Tell them to keep the change.”

And it was in that moment, right, when you don’t calculate how much change there is, and whether you’re going to need a couple of those bucks for yourself, that I knew I could make this work. We were – I was going to muscle my way through – through it, if I – I was going to latch onto it with my teeth if I have to. This was going to work for me.

And so, that confidence I think actually supersedes the idea that I’ll succeed, so much as, like it’s more about I can hang.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s, that’s awesome – and so, I want to double-click on this thing that you said just a second ago. So, you said that it was community-changing money. So, like a lot of people would have said life-changing money, and so – like, that’s a very interesting and unique way of looking at the world and probably informed some of what you’re – or like all of what you’re doing with Bitwise.

So, like where – where does that come from, that this notion of community is so important to you, and like – you know, you’re – I mean, it sounds to me like you feel a sense of obligation towards that community.

IRMA OLGUIN: Absolutely, it’s a compulsion at this point. I can’t fathom a different way to exist anymore. Maybe there was a time when my life could have taken a turn at the fork, but it just didn’t. And I brought with me all of the culture and family and community mindedness to Ohio that I grew up with. And as I was growing up, it was always about the family. It was always about the community and what we were collectively doing, and you know, who was helping who out that week or that month, and that’s I think the fabric of what we do now.

We can see the threads of that woven in, is that this is not just about your personal success story. It’s about how you’re contributing to the success stories of the people around you and caring just as much about that as you do about yourself is how you must exist, or else we’re not going to make it as a group, and we’re going to continue to stay in the spot that we’ve always been, which is in struggle mode. So, the only way out is together.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s so awesome. So let’s talk about Bitwise Industries. So, at what point in your career do you decide to go do – well, first tell us what it is, and then – you know, what made you decide to do it?

IRMA OLGUIN: Bitwise Industries is an attempt to make what was serendipitous in my life, and in the life of my cofounder, whose story you don’t get to hear on this particular podcast, but who is just as interesting, but to take those things that were serendipitous in our lives and turn them into more intentional and meaningful systems, that people who grow up in this way have access to and feel a sense of belonging, once you see that it could be for you.

Because as we’ve just sort of described, there are multiple things that stand in the way of earning a high growth, high wage job and the technology industry. And it’s not about technology. None of the things that we just described were about technology, right? Community, culture, opportunity, the damn bus ticket to get from Fresno to Toledo, like those were the things that were really barriers to entry.

And so, how do you take that understanding that this could change the lives of the people that you grew up with, and turn that into a system? And for us, we began that work formally in 2013, believing that there were three things that we could focus on, that really if you listen to the bits and pieces of my story, they’re all reflected here.

The first of course, was technology education, how do you skill the son or daughter of a farm worker into the technology industry, not, very importantly, not how do you send more folks to MIT and Stanford, great schools, but it’s just not a reality for a lot of us that grow up in certain places.

So, how do we actually meet technology, education, where we are? And the second thing, of course, is the job itself, right, that first time I didn’t count the change for pizza radically transformed who I was going to be, forever and always. How do you create that moment again, and again, and again, for folks?

And then the third one was that community, how do you build a sense of belonging into a place and into an effort so that folks who are interested in it immediately can say, “I’m going to explore this because this is for people like me.”

If you can do all three of those things, those things become something of an ecosystem or a starter pack for igniting the technology industry, and what we call underestimated cities, so that more folks across the country can have this opportunity.

We started, like I said, in 2013, right, so almost a decade ago, with really wonderful outcomes since then. And we thought when we began, we were going to uplift Fresno, our hometown. And then we get, you know, six seven years into it and realize that this model applies in other places, and maybe we should put on our big boy pants and figure out if it scales to other cities.

And then we did in 2019, we decided that this model does matter to other places, other underestimated cities. It could impact lives, and we decided to grow across the nation.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I think this is one of the more important things that we as a society need to be doing. I wrote a whole book about this, and like I love so much what you’re doing. You know, we’re barreling into a future that is increasingly shaped by technology. You even look at, at the time we’re taping this, there’s a horrible war happening in Ukraine, and you know, a bunch of the instrumentality of that war is digital, you know, so people are using cryptocurrencies to try to figure out how to route around the – you know, the major disruption in financial systems.

They’re using social media to try to stay connected with friends and family and to, figure out how to resist, like there’s all of this stuff that’s happening, using technical tools that weren’t available, even 15 years ago. And I – like I had this thesis that you want as broad a spectrum of the population as humanly possible, and like I mean that in every way. Like, I love that you’re thinking so much about geography, and so, you know, diversity is about, you know, ethnicity and identity, and you know, a whole bunch of things about the individual, but it’s also about location and, you know, like a bunch of other stuff.

And like, you really do want people participating very broadly, not just in the opportunity part of it where, you know, they can afford to tell the pizza delivery person to keep the change, but you know, that they’re actually helping to make the future.

IRMA OLGUIN: That’s right.

KEVIN SCOTT: Do you – how much do you all think about that? Is it mostly about economic empowerment, or like you also, like trying to equip people with the skills that they need to build their communities?

IRMA OLGUIN: Absolutely, and there’s nobody, we don’t think, better equipped at solving real problems than the people who know and understand real problems, right? How do you modernize our digital infrastructure in the United States in in terms of our government systems, if you’ve never used a government system, right? Or if that’s not important to your survival, then maybe solving that problem is not going to exactly be top of mind for you.

So, that cross section of life experience and your ability to see a problem differently, we think is major. So yes, we lead with the economic opportunity in front of the human being because that’s what changes lives, but we’re not blind to the fact that once you do that, these folks are more informed and better equipped to now solve the problems that we struggle with in our day to day.

And then for us, I’ll even layer an additional piece on top of this, Kevin, is that once you are out of struggle mode or out of survival mode, you can begin to get back to your communities in ways you never thought about before. You could never concentrate on those things before. And that means voting differently. And that means participating in school boards. And so we genuinely believe that this is the way to diversify the body politic as well, and that’s important to us.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and I completely agree with that, and I think that as you have more folks who aren’t in struggle mode, like – I like that, like that’s now going to be part my vernacular, but like once you get out of struggle mode, you also, you know, can really sort of serve as a role model, like you can do a whole bunch of soft things that are hard to do, otherwise.

Like one of the things that we see in the work that we’re doing with our family foundation is that, in order to get out of struggle mode, like you are struggling against so much, and you know, I think the exceptional thing about your story is you just didn’t give up, but there’s so many opportunities to give up, over little stuff, like I don’t know how to sign up for this email. And like, I feel stupid that I don’t know this, so like I’m not even going to ask for help, and I’m done.

And like there are just hundreds or thousands of those things where you can just – like, I’m just tired of the struggle, I’m done, I’m going to go back to the thing I understand, and like you need a lot of helping hands to, you know, help support you when you’re in that moment.

IRMA OLGUIN: That’s absolutely right. I think about it, and one of the things that the technology industry does not do well is demystify the technology industry itself. We continue to allow people to believe that you had to have been good at math in the fifth grade if you’re ever going to make it here. And that’s just not true. It’s just not true.

Certainly, there are folks who should be able to do math. There are problems where that becomes really, really important, but if you want to build your standard website, it’s not about calculus, right? Maybe – not anymore, right, so we can do better at this. And one of the ways that we attack that problem, you know, if you’ve ever done something or wanted to learn something you’re like, I don’t think that this – you know, I don’t think that this will be for me, or that I’ll be good at this.

I think about things like, that people tend to like shy away from, like learning to play the guitar or learning to ride a motorcycle or public speaking. And you begin to believe that there are only certain people who have a brain for that. But the truth is, if you really take an objective look around you, they just didn’t stop trying to do those things, right? Like you just chip away and you chip away.

And the technology industry, literally is no different, so if you can put in front of folks, to your point, the representation that somebody who has a story similar to yours can do this, you’re going to have more people signing up to say, “I might be able to do this, maybe I just need to chip away at it.”

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Well, and it’s just sort of this – I mean, I don’t know whether you have kids or not. I’ve got two girls, so an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, and you know, it’s just sort of shocking to me. Like, my 13-year-old, a few years ago, like just keeps declaring to me that she’s not good at math, or she’s no good at math. I’m like, “Where on God’s earth are you getting this idea?”

“Well, it’s hard.” It’s like, “Great, it’s hard for everybody, sweetheart,” and you know, it’s just this gentle pushing and nudging, and it’s exactly what you said. It’s that, no, this is not impossible, like if you want to do it, you can do it. And like now she’s like at the top of her class in the advanced math class at her school, and yeah, I mean, I think it’s great, this push that you’re doing.

Like, I – so many people could be really great at so many things if they just didn’t give up, and like accept that, you know, hard things are hard, but like you can do it.

IRMA OLGUIN: That’s right. I love that, well, first of all, congrats to your daughter. These are things that the stories that we tell ourselves that are so damaging, right, and even simple statements like, “I’m not good at X,” maybe if we just modified it to, “I’m not good at X today,” right?

Right? I’m still not amazing at math. I mean, fast forward, we’re 20 years into my career. I’m still not amazing at math, today. I’ll be better at it tomorrow. And that’s really it. That’s all we’re trying to accomplish here is just, you know, one inch better, every single day.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s super awesome. So, I’m just sort of curious, you’ve been building Bitwise for a while now and like it’s a uniquely interesting experience. What are some of the surprises that you’ve found along the way, things that you weren’t expecting or that you think are interesting?

IRMA OLGUIN: Kevin, there’s literally nothing about my life that I was expecting, (laughter) and so let’s be really honest. Again, five-foot tall Latina – queer Latina from the middle of nowhere, running a technology company, skilling thousands of people into the industry, was really not what I thought I would be doing at this point in my life, or ever.

I’m surprised by all of it. I’m surprised that I keep getting to do this job. It’s the best job on the planet, there’s no question about that. I love the work. I love the people. I love that we’re now in a position where we get to do so much more of it. And I love that we’re growing in a way where the world is now recognizing the giant need to introduce untapped potential into the technology industry.

And so, we’re not even spending our time justifying what we’re doing any longer. We’re now saying, “How can we help you grow this initiative of yours,” with the system that we have proven works? That’s an exciting and really, like, surprising place to be. Talk about not being in struggle mode anymore.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, that – it’s, I mean, really amazing, and congratulations – it’s – it’s just really, really great to see that success. For the people that you’re serving, just so awesome.

IRMA OLGUIN: Thank you.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, let’s talk a little bit about the future. So, you know, it’s great that we now have this acceptance that we need to be finding technical talent from these untapped places. It’s great that you all are expanding out to like a bunch of places that aren’t traditional tech hubs.

So, what – what are some of the big challenges you think we’re going to face over the coming years? Like, what are you all focused on?

IRMA OLGUIN: I mean, I think we’re going to face a number of things that will make our work challenging that have nothing to do with us, right? We’re – I mean, we were just talking about a war, you know, halfway across the world that absolutely is going to affect what we are doing. You know, you think about climate change, you think about elections at the federal and local levels. You think about these things that actually aren’t directly related to whether or not a person can get good at JavaScript will still matter in terms of whether there’s a job for that person there at the other end, and what that will look like.

And so, we’re keeping a close eye on world events. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. We very, very much want to make it work for the communities that we serve. They’re being hit really hard. That doesn’t have anything to do, again, with whether or not you can become good at JavaScript. That has more to do with, are you protected and safe? Do you even know what being protected and safe looks like in this moment in time?

So, our work really does reach beyond the technical skill and the technical job. This is about removing barriers to entry to the technology industry for folks who don’t imagine themselves in it, so there’s a lot, a lot of work there to do, that is outside of teaching classes and building beautiful buildings. We’re going to keep chipping away. We’re going to not give up on that either.

KEVIN SCOTT: Has hybrid or like this push towards doing our work in a hybrid fashion with the pandemic, is that helping what you do, at all?

IRMA OLGUIN: It’s helping us from a number of viewpoints. I’ll give you both sides of it. It’s helping us from inbound interest. We have a lot more inbound interest than any point in our existence, folks from primary markets who are looking to set up satellite offices, folks who maybe want to break off a piece of their team and train them differently. Folks who want to diversify their hiring, folks who want a social justice oriented and diverse technology workforce to execute on the work that they have, right, software projects and call centers and on and on, that now are coming to us to deliver that solution for them, all exciting things.

The other side, though, where it gets really hard is that during the pandemic, when we all went to shelter in place, this remote hybrid work option didn’t work for people who don’t have broadband. And that is a great, you know, chunk of the population that we want to reach. We work really closely with the formerly incarcerated, not a great time for these folks, right?

So, are the real-world, real-life challenges that we’re up against. Business itself is booming. Life is not getting easier for folks who have been historically excluded from the most exciting segments of our economy.

KEVIN SCOTT: Well, let me just ask. For the folks who listen to this podcast or for me, like, what can we do more to help?

IRMA OLGUIN: So, there are a few things, I think. The first, I think, is if you’re – if Bitwise makes sense for your city, we want to hear about that, right? We are in the middle of this national expansion. We have some really exciting updates coming at us. Soon here, we’ll make a public announcement, all of that moving in the right direction.

But I think for those who are listening, yourself included, if you’ve got buying power, right, if you’ve got contracts, if you’ve got vendors, think about where those contracts and vendors are coming from or what they’re delivering for you. With – with a Bitwise-like system, you can have your technology solution delivered for you, and at the same time, skill the next generation of diverse technology workforce across the country, two birds with one stone.

And so, I would encourage folks who have that kind of authority or who maybe are adjacent to that kind of authority to begin speaking up about where those contracts are going. It could make a huge, huge difference in somebody’s hometown. And that’s really all we’re after, is one city at a time, we’re going to make this work.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and I think that’s an important thing for folks to understand, like, especially if you’re working at a, you know, a well-funded Silicon Valley tech company or like a big established tech company. Some of these communities, like 10 or 15 or 20 high-paying software engineering jobs in the community can have an enormous impact. So, it’s not just uplifting –

IRMA OLGUIN: A profound effect.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it just doesn’t uplift those families, but like, it has an effect in the – in the community that’s – that’s big.

IRMA OLGUIN: That’s exactly right.

KEVIN SCOTT: Do you have any examples of like what’s happened in these communities when the tech jobs come?

IRMA OLGUIN: Absolutely. I mean, I have thousands of examples. That’s the best part, is that this is not conjecture any longer. We’ve got literal proof. When a tech job – so, one of the neat things about the technology industry is that it has a high multiplier. And what that means is that for every technology job that’s created in a place, 4.3 additional local goods jobs are also created. We’re talking about the FedEx person, and the panini person, and the box builder, and on and on, and Joe’s automotive shop changes as a result of technology sort of coming into town.

And what that turns into over time is not just that you’ve got this human being or a dozen human beings who are earning high growth, high wage, community transformative money at this point, but those folks are spending that money at home. Ninety percent of the folks that we train stay in their hometowns. That’s tremendous. These folks are buying houses. They are buying cars, they are stabilizing the neighborhoods that they’re already in.

You know, I know that technology generally has a bad rap for, like, gentrification and those types of things and the effect on neighborhoods. But when you literally skill the folks who are from those neighborhoods into these jobs, they get to turn around and give back to their neighborhoods. And so, they get to rebuild them for themselves and for their communities. That’s what happens in these cities, and we’re most excited about that.

So yes, of course, we buy dilapidated buildings and we renovate them. We lease them back out to ourselves and others in this industry. But those folks who come and go from those buildings every day go to neighborhoods that they can change, and we see that effect over and over again.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s so awesome. I mean, having grown up in one of these places, like I can tell you, just by watching my friends and family, you know, being employed, like, what a big impact it has. And sort of it’s like this is the industry of the future, right? Like, it’s probably not going to be the case. Like where I grew up, it was tobacco farming, furniture manufacturing and textile manufacturing. And the jobs that those industries provided probably are not coming back to rural central Virginia.


KEVIN SCOTT: But tech jobs could come there –

IRMA OLGUIN: Absolutely could.

KEVIN SCOTT: And have a huge impact.

IRMA OLGUIN: Absolutely, that’s a hundred percent right, and same story where I grew up, right? And the job that my grandmother moved to California to take, right, to have in the fields doesn’t exist for me any longer, and it’s not going to exist in generations after me. So, what else are we going to do? We’re going to have to find something different to do with our hands.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and something different with their hands that will help build the community. I mean, it’s not… Like, I mean, I’ve said it a couple of times, I think it’s a really, you know, it’s an important thing to realize. Like, these are jobs that are helping build the future in the same way that the jobs that your grandmother and her friends and family had were helping to build the communities that they were in.

IRMA OLGUIN: That’s exactly right. Yes, that’s exactly right.

KEVIN SCOTT: So how have investors been reacting to what you’re doing? It seems like you have a bunch of recent fundraising success, but I’m guessing that has been a journey as well.

IRMA OLGUIN: (Laughter.) It was – it’s very similar to my college experience where you don’t understand it at all and you’re just absolutely going to be a failure at it until you’re not anymore. (Laughter.) And that’s what fundraising has been like.

When we went out to raise our Series A, my co-founder and I, Jake, we had some meetings with some investors. And we told them what we were up against and what we were trying to accomplish. And they said, “Oh, so it sounds like you’re raising a Series A.” And we looked back across the table at each other and we’re like, sounds right. “Yeah, we’re raising a Series A.” (Laughter.) Then we left the meeting and went to Google what that meant. (Laughter.) So, I mean, we started there. We started in the most humble of approaches to figuring out what will growth look like.

But we did figure it out and we were not good at it with the Series A. I mean, we raised a great deal. You mentioned before, largest – one of the largest Series A by a female Latinx company. That was wonderful, but it was a really long process, and thousands and thousands of doors were shut in our face because we weren’t any good at it.

We went out for a Series B last year and 2020, and we weren’t going to be at it twice, so we got better. And now, we’re definitely at this place where there’s more inbound interest than we know what to do with. Our – what we need to figure out for ourselves is what it looks like to grow responsibly. How do you not lose the magic that is Bitwise in the name of growth? And how do we do that, inviting the right partners to the table who sincerely believe in this work, because you can do both?

Ifthere’s any one thing that we’ve demonstrated is that you can produce these tremendous, impactful stories at scale, and you can also build a growing, thriving business at the same time that will sustain in places and cities long after we have started there. So, we can do both and investors are beginning to see that that’s exciting.

We’ve been so fortunate for the folks that are currently around the table, and believing in that Jake and I were the right folks to lead this for this season, and that the next stage of our growth is going to require something different, and that these people are worth believing in. All of those things, we could not have been more fortunate to land where we are today.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome. And you’ve now said another thing that I think I’m going to have to have printed on a tee-shirt. “We’re not going to be bad at this twice.” (Laughter.) Like, it’s – that’s just awesome.

So, I’d love to get your perspective on diversity. So, there does seem to be an obvious thing that companies can do to help diversify their workforce by, you know, partnering with companies like Bitwise to sort of think about where you can put jobs in communities that are, you know, geographically diverse and, like, maybe have a different sort of population distribution than these urban, coastal innovation centers are that, you know, house huge numbers of tech jobs. But, like, what else should we be thinking about as we try to diversify our technology workforce?

IRMA OLGUIN: We’ve seen two things over time, and this is one of those things where we actually do this ourselves. So, I want to be really clear I’m not proposing something we wouldn’t do ourselves. But degree requirements for technology jobs really shouldn’t be a part of the story. We call it resume hiring.

And that’s not to say that there aren’t good schools and that – there are absolutely some jobs that require a degree. I mean, I probably wouldn’t hire an attorney without a JD, right? (Laughter.) Let’s be really honest, there are absolutely professions where it is important. But honestly, for your next half a dozen QA testers, what are we doing? Let’s make sure that we’re inviting folks to the table who can give it a shot.

So, that’s one, is getting rid of degree requirements on the hiring front.

The other one is let’s stop looking so closely at backgrounds. I mean, a person’s background is almost never an indicator of whether or not they can have a meaningful contribution at your company. So maybe instead, let’s start looking at potential and body of work for whether or not that person can have a meaningful contribution to your company. Those two things alone, you would change the workforce nearly overnight. We’re talking about in a matter of years.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, just to get tactical, and since you’re doing this yourself, like how do you look at a candidate and try to assess potential?

IRMA OLGUIN: The first conversation that we have with candidates, we don’t even talk about skills. We talk about human beings. Does the life story of that person and its trajectory meet in a way with Bitwise and its trajectory in a way that’s going to be mutually beneficial to both, because ultimately, I think that’s what we’re talking about when it comes to employment and job opportunity, is does this work for you and does it work for me, because if it’s not an “and,” that logical expression doesn’t work? (Laughter.) We’re going to have a problem. Somebody is going to be off boarded, me or you, bro, right? Like, that’s where we’re going to run into issues.

So, that’s what we’re asking ourselves first, and then we look at things like potential and we try to assess potential in a conversation, talk about the distance traveled. Talk about the journey that you’ve been on. What did it feel like the first time you opened a book and you had no idea what the squiggles on the page were, right? I mean, can you describe that experience? Do you remember what it was like to not know?

And from there, now we can talk about what it looks like when you problem solve for that. What does it look like when you have that opportunity in your teeth and you’re not going to let it out? And those are the things that we really spend our time talking about before we get to, okay, now tell me whether or not you can, you know, write a while loop. (Laughter.) Like, we can get to that. We can figure that part out, but if that first part doesn’t pass muster, then the conversation is simply not going to get very far. And honestly, you’re not going to be happy at our company.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I could not more strongly agree with you about that. I mean, the thing that I always look for is, like, curiosity, flexibility and determination. I mean, these are sort of like the story that you’re telling about yourself. Like, you have all of these things. And so, if someone has these characteristics, like they can sort out the while loop or, you know, like whatever math they’re going to need to know in order to do the job. Like, they just have to be curious enough to want to learn, determined enough to stick through it when they’re hard and just sort of flexible so they can roll with the punches.

IRMA OLGUIN: Yeah, absolutely. I think the other thing that we see, too – I don’t know if this is your experience – we see a lot on the hiring side where folks who are doing the hiring want the job for the candidate more than the candidate wants it for themselves. That’s a mismatch. We are really careful not to do that, to begin to dream of a life they didn’t ask for.


IRMA OLGUIN: Because that’s when you end up with unhappy employees a year down the road, and nobody can figure out why they’re not doing the thing they wanted to do. It’s because a year ago, we made a mistake in sort of projecting onto them what we wanted for them. And so, we’re careful about that.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, that is super, super interesting. We do think about that in general. I mean, and it’s a different thing than what you’re describing, but one of the really great things that we’ve done in a few of our hiring programs is trying to change the dynamic in hiring from why not to why. So, like a typical screening process is all about, all right, well, I’ve got a thousand applicants for this job. Like, I’m just going to try to get down to the one. And so, it’s all about like, how quickly can I disqualify folks from the conversation?

And, like, the whole process is sort of – I mean, it’s cynical, honestly. It’s like this thing that your professor or admissions people said to you at the beginning. It’s like, you know, three quarters of you are going to be gone in a couple of years. Whereas if you sort of flip it around on the head and you say, like, all right, I’m going to try to hire these people, like I’m looking for the excuses to say yes, not the reasons to say no, it just makes everybody feel better about the whole process.

And I guess you do, if you’re in that mode, you do have to be careful about what you said, not to over project like your wishes for the job and the person in it onto someone where, you know, they’re going to be profoundly unhappy and not meet expectations in either direction. But I do think we need to, industrywide, have a real serious rethinking of how we do assessments for these roles that we’re hiring for.

IRMA OLGUIN: I think that’s right. And that’s not to say that assessments don’t have their place, but maybe we don’t lead that way. That has radically changed our company dynamic, and I’ll just add one more thing.

We ask ourselves during the hiring process, will Bitwise change this person’s life and will this person change Bitwise? And if we can’t answer yes to both of those questions, then they’ll probably want to take another job somewhere else in a pretty short period of time.


IRMA OLGUIN: Folks these days absolutely want to feel their value and what they’re contributing to a company, but they also want to do work, in many cases, that has meaning to them personally. And so, that is something that, you know, that is a hard thing to replace with dollars or perks or anything else. So, we just don’t try.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, and I completely agree with that as well - so, I’m sort of curious about how you get started when you go to a new city. So, you – like, you do this thing in Fresno – that’s your hometown – and then you decide, all right, we’re going to take this elsewhere. Like, what’s that look like? What’s hard about that process?

IRMA OLGUIN: We’ve been working on that process for a while and especially – you know, it started out with the question of, are we even going to be good at this outside of Fresno? (Laughter.) Like, will this all fall apart if it’s not our hometown? So, we had to answer that question first.

And now, we’re at a really different phase of expanding into other places where it’s about managing growth responsibly. What does that look like for us and how do we know that we have a high level of – a high degree of confidence that we’ll be successful in that place, that we can have an impact there?

So, we go through this whole process – we call it relational and commercial readiness – which is where we literally spend time getting to know stakeholders in the community at all levels. Like, of course, you start to think of folks like the mayor, and the chancellor at the school system, and the elected officials and those types. But really, it comes down to, yeah, but who’s running that little co-working space on the corner? And what about that coffee shop over there that flamed out? Can we meet those people and talk about what the city is really like to live and work there?

And so, we go through a whole process of developing relationships in those places, community foundations, community benefit organizations and on and on. I mean, the list is long and substantial for us. And then we ask ourselves, does a Bitwise make sense here, you know, from a relational perspective? Do they want a Bitwise?

That’s a super-important question for us because if they’ve already got something good going, last thing we need to do is ride in on our white horse and come and fix someone else. Like, that’s just never going to work. (Laughter.) We’re never going to – nobody’s ever going to feel good about that work in that place. And so, that’s a big part of it, is do they want a Bitwise, a local expression of Bitwise in that place?

And if we can get to yes across the board there, now we ask ourselves, is there enough commercial opportunity that we can aggregate here so that when we say we’re coming, we’re leaving at a sprint? We’re leaving the starting block at a sprint. And that commercial readiness side is critical to growth, and sustaining and the longevity of Bitwise in that place.

But once we press play, the next piece is to hire the local team. We don’t export our people out of California and into a new, underestimated city in some other state. We go and we find the human beings who are going to know and understand their communities the way we know and understand our hometown, who love that place, who want to see something different happen, and who can really sort of open doors at all of the levels that I just described to sustain the work, and invite folks in the front door who will then take advantage of the opportunity.

So, that’s the process for us, relational readiness, commercial readiness, local team. And it is a process, but we’re committed to it.

KEVIN SCOTT: And how long does that take, just to give people some sense of the magnitude of the investment required?

IRMA OLGUIN: Just to meet with as many people as we want to in a town or in a place, it can take between one and four months. And that’s before we ever begin to aggregate commercial opportunity. What does it look like? What’s the philanthropy scene like there? What’s the real estate scene there? What is technology consulting like in that place? Are we eating somebody’s lunch if we come? Like, what is all of those questions? And that can take another one to four months before we ever begin to hire.

KEVIN SCOTT: It’s so awesome you’re so thoughtful about that process, because, you know, I do think that one of the things that tech gets rightfully criticized about is, like, sometimes we’re a bit like a bull in a China shop. Like, we rush in with solutions before we really understand what the problems are. (Laughter.) So, it’s really great to hear how thoughtful you are about going into these communities.

IRMA OLGUIN: It’s a long term relationship. Let’s be really clear and honest about that from the jump, and then we can all set expectations together about whether we want to do this together for the long run.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, that’s super cool. All right. Well, we’re almost out of time and I’ve got two more questions. Like, one is sort of career advice and another is, you know, maybe more fun.

So first, with career advice, if you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

IRMA OLGUIN: (Laughter.) Career advice? You know what I would –

KEVIN SCOTT: Or life advice, honestly.

IRMA OLGUIN: (Laughter.) Life advice is maybe easier. Career advice? I would have told my younger self that it’s okay not to know what you want to do. I think we do put a lot of pressure on young people to decide, you know, in their early teens or even younger what they want to be when they grow up. And if I had set my sights on something in the distant future that way, I don’t think I would be doing this work today, and that would, I feel, would have been a miss. So, it’s okay not to know. It’s not okay to not try. That’s the big part. I think that’s the theme here, right, for this chat.

On the life side, I would have told my younger self to come out of the closet sooner. You don’t have to live in terror for a big chunk of your life. Just take the plunge.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. I think that’s great advice all the way around. All right. So, last question before we go: So, you are obviously super busy doing work that’s extremely meaningful, so you may not have much spare time, but, you know, if or when you do, what do you enjoy doing for fun?

IRMA OLGUIN: So, your earlier question, I don’t have kids, but I do have a small dog whose name is Bruce. And he and I love to spend time outside lizard-ing in the sun or going hiking or just hanging out together. So, that is my very, very favorite thing to do.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome. What kind of dog is Bruce?

IRMA OLGUIN: Oh, he’s a rescue. I have no idea. (Laughter.)

KEVIN SCOTT: Nice. Yeah, they – those are the only dogs I ever had. I had, when my wife and I lived in Manhattan, we adopted two Puerto Rican rescue dogs. So, it was literally like someone we knew who was from Puerto Rico. And every time she went back home, she would bring two strays back with her. (Laughter.) And she called my wife one night and said, “Hey, I’m bringing back two mutts from Puerto Rico. Can you help me foster them?” And we said yes. (Laughter.)

IRMA OLGUIN: And fell in love, I bet.

KEVIN SCOTT: And fell in love, and we had both of them for 15 years.

IRMA OLGUIN: I love that. I love that so much.

KEVIN SCOTT: They were the best dogs. (Laughter.)

IRMA OLGUIN: (Laughter.) Love it.

KEVIN SCOTT: It’s awesome. All right. Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast today, but more importantly, for all of this work that you’re doing. I think it is so important. Like, your story is so inspiring. You are such a great role model for entrepreneurs and folks thinking about careers in tech or people who just want to do right by the communities that they’re living in. So, thank you for all of that.

IRMA OLGUIN: Well, Kevin, I appreciate being here, but more importantly, I appreciate you amplifying the stories of the folks who are coming behind us.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome, the very least I can do, and happy to be able to do it and talk with folks like you. So, thank you so much.

IRMA OLGUIN: Appreciate you.


CHRISTINA WARREN: Well, that was Kevin’s interview with Irma Olguin. And okay, there were so many great things about that conversation. She’s fantastic, first of all, and I have to say I wasn’t familiar with Bitwise Industries before learning about her, you know, and hearing your interview. But I’m so impressed by what they do, but I’m so impressed by what she’s created.

But the – one of the standout, I guess, themes to me as part of your conversation was this idea of resiliency and – and not giving up, and continuing on and how important that is, I think, and something that we can all kind of relate to, right?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I mean, she she’s doing fantastic work, but I think she is a role model for a mindset that is so valuable when you’re trying to accomplish something hard. So, I mean, like, you nailed it, and it’s that resilience. She said a couple of things that I just think are fantastic. (Laughter.) You know, she’s going into fundraising cold and, you know, acknowledging that they weren’t good at it the first time, but like, they’re not going to be bad at it twice.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Yes, I loved that.

KEVIN SCOTT: Like, that is such a great mindset. Like, you can apply that to everything. And you can hold these two things in your head at the same time. It’s like, all right, I’m going to be bad the first time I try anything, but if you don’t commit yourself to getting better, you’re going to stay bad forever. (Laughter.)

CHRISTINA WARREN: What I like about it is that it’s so contrary, I think, to a lot of how a lot of us are kind of internalized and taught, which is that you feel like you have to be the best at everything and you have to be good at everything. And the problem with that is that you’re afraid to try because you’re afraid to fail, and you’re afraid to get better.

And so, when I hear stories like hers and when she says something like, you know, “We weren’t going to be bad at it twice,” I love that because, A, it acknowledges we didn’t know what we were doing the first time. We maybe made some mistakes, but we learn from it and we weren’t afraid to try it again. Whereas I think many of us, and I’ve certainly had this in my own life, are afraid to continue to go after things if it doesn’t immediately click, if it’s not immediately something that and I don’t even want to say easy, but just something where we don’t feel like we can be successful. You know, it just – we immediately don’t go forward. And I think that that’s such a missed opportunity for so many people.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I think it’s really great to hear you say that because I do think it is a crippling thing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. Like, I would jump into things that are just inherently hard, and like, I didn’t know they were hard and I thought it was just me. So, this is sort of imposter syndrome. It’s like, okay, well, you know, this complicated theoretical computer science paper was probably easy for the person who wrote it, and it’s easy for everybody else to understand other than me. And so, like, maybe something’s wrong with me, and, like, I give up.

And – being able to be vulnerable in a situation like that, to have that doubt, but, you know, have your impulse be, no, no, no, I’m going to figure this out, like, I don’t care whether I’m the stupidest person on the Earth, like, I’m going to get this. (Laughter.)

CHRISTINA WARREN: Yeah, I think it’s so important. And as you said, she’s a great role model. And kind of in a not dissimilar kind of vein, one of the things that I thought was also so interesting, and I, as you two were talking about how the industry can improve because it got me thinking about that, is kind of this idea of how we need to start changing how we do assessments in tech for the types of people that we hire, and how we gatekeep, frankly, who’s qualified for a position, who has that opportunity to try something out and learn better again, right?


CHRISTINA WARREN: Because I do wonder sometimes. I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing lately for various roles in my organization, and it’s been impressive because we’ve had a bunch of candidates come in with really different backgrounds. And I’m glad that I’m not the person who has to go through that, that kind of first, you know, assessment of who gets to the interview stage. And we’ve had so many good people, but they do have these really varied backgrounds.

And I can’t help but think about the fact that, even a couple of years ago, there are some of these candidates who are amazing and are more than qualified who we might not even let in the door, because they didn’t fit some sort of, you know, resume ideal that we had. What do you think we can do to not let that continue to be such a, I think, artificial barrier when it comes to technology and the tech industry, as a whole, I guess?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I think it’s a super-good question. And we do I believe, in our assessments, get confused by things. So, like, there’s this potential bit, which I do think is about a whole lot of things that Irma exhibits, and it sounds like what they’re looking for in people who come to work at Bitwise, which is, you know, how do you cope with hard problems. Like, do you give up or do you persevere? Like, what’s in your arsenal of tools for, like, learning new stuff? Do you really have that determination and stick-to-itiveness that it’s just sort of the hallmark of, like, anyone who gets to be expert at anything? And I think that’s more important than actually being an expert at the start of a journey.

And look, there are, she sort of said, you know, she wouldn’t hire a lawyer who didn’t have a JD. There are things in computer science, and software engineering and tech where, you know, they’re just complicated. And, you know, if you come in without the background, you will struggle longer than you should, you know, or where the struggle ought to, you know, happen someplace else, like graduate school, for instance.

You know, there are things like trying to correctly implement Paxos, which is like a distributed consensus algorithm, like, that’s really hard crap. Like, you probably don’t want to, you know, get into a system where you’re being asked to implement Paxos for a billion-transactions-per-second-data store, you know, from scratch. But we have to acknowledge that jobs in tech, like coding jobs in tech, are incredibly varied –


KEVIN SCOTT: And some of them need a lot of expertise, and some of them, like, need just skill and potential that you can learn pretty quickly.

CHRISTINA WARREN: No, absolutely. And I would even posit that when it does come to those jobs that need that high level expertise, a lot of that does kind of – I mean, not always, but there is a certain amount of self-selection there where someone who doesn’t have that expertise is not going to look at a job listing for that and say, oh, yes, this is what I want to do, you know?

So sometimes, I think about that too, about the fact that even though I totally agree with both what you and Irma are almost saying, there are some things where you do need that expertise. A lot of that takes care of itself, and I agree. I couldn’t agree more that I think it really is about potential, and are people willing to learn and what type of mindset they have rather than just saying, okay, well, do this person check these boxes, because you can miss out on so many great people that way?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and even the hard stuff where you need to go put in your 10,000 or your 5,000 of what else, like, you can still do that on the job. Like, I was a compiler, programming language and computer architecture person in graduate school. And, like, I learned to be a machine learning person through the course of a whole bunch of jobs I’ve done over the past 20 years, and it’s doable. You can figure these things out on the job if you are determined and, like, people will give you a chance.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Absolutely, absolutely. And so, I love that – that programs like Bitwise are out there and that they’re doing these things and we’re having these conversations.


Okay, well, that is all the time that we have for today. Thank you to Irma Olguin for spending her time with us. And if you have anything that you’d like to share with us, please e-mail us anytime at [email protected]. Thanks for listening.

KEVIN SCOTT: See you next time.