Home Podcasts Episode 5

Podcast Episode 5

The Power Of Low-Code to Enable Digital Equity

with Carlos Balam-Kuk Solis, Associate Vice President for the Technology Innovation Office at Texas State University

One of the biggest barriers to going digital is intimidation with coding. Associate VP for the Tech Innovation Office of Texas State University, Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis, aims to break this barrier by empowering people early on to get into the digital space without having to be code savvy. Hear how they developed this unique program that enables people to be digitally empowered through low-code methods.

Full Transcript

Dayle Hall:  

Hi, you’re listening to our podcast, Automating the Enterprise. I’m your host, Dayle Hall. This podcast is designed to give organizations insights and best practices on integrating, automating, and transforming their enterprise. Today’s guest is a biologist turned technologist with 20 years of experience in instructional technology. He is a digital equity and inclusion evangelist focused on creating new onramps to digital and technology success. His passion is for applying technology to empower disadvantaged groups, which has led him to initiate a unique university program for low-income and first-gen students at Texas State University. We’re very fortunate to have Carlos, and I will not butcher his name, but I will ask him to introduce himself in a second, who is the Associate Vice President for the Technology Innovation Office at Texas State University, on our podcast today. Carlos, welcome to the show.

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Dayle, it’s a pleasure to be here. And yeah, so I’ll give you my full name. Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis. Balam and Kuk are Mayan names honoring my ancestry as a Guatemalan immigrant to the United States.

Dayle Hall:

Well, it’s actually slightly easier than I thought it was going to be. But I still appreciate you sharing that. Well, look, it’s, it’s great to have you on the show.

First and foremost, we love that you’re passionate about empowering these groups for local technology for people that typically may not have access to that or see them operating in that kind of digital space. So we’ll get into that. But why don’t we just kick off? Why don’t you give us your story, going from being a biologist to getting into this area, becoming focused on digital equity and your inclusion, evangelism work?

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Sure. I’m going to try to make it succinct since I know we have other things to talk about. I was born in Guatemala. And from a very early age, I wanted to be a biologist, but I also had a passion for computers. When I was a sophomore in college, I was fortunate enough to have somebody who really saw the potential in me as somebody who could do a lot of other things and assign me one of his staff members to mentor me on programming. Contrary to what was the standard narrative back then, as a biologist, I was top of the class calculus students. My calculus professor started figuring out that there was a lot of stuff we could do with biology and computer. So you know, he got somebody to mentor me and give me access to what were mainframes back then.

So I started modeling ecological processes and whatnot back in Guatemala when I was a student using computers. I came to the United States to Houston to get a Doctorate in Biology from Rice University. And during my doctorate period, I got more and more exposed to technology. I developed a lot of hardware/software integrations that allowed me to do my work as a biologist, not just in data analytics per se, but also in image processing. I was working both with lipid biochemistry but also with DNA sequencing. And so I started applying a lot of those things.

At some point, somebody introduced me to what were back then the first forays of the internet from Switzerland and showing me all sorts of plant illustrations from plant catalogs that were kept in Switzerland. And I started getting fascinated with the idea that technology could be really powerfully leveraged in education in ways we hadn’t thought about before. And so I started investing more and more into that space. My family has always had this passion for helping others. At that time, I had the opportunity to start working with a school in the Rio Grande Valley that did not have access to a lot of biology resources.

So in collaboration between Rice University, the Houston ISD district and the Rio Grande Valley, we started bringing together biology teaching resources from real biologists from a top-notch research university to underserved populations. It became pretty clear to me at that point that I had a lot more passion for technology than I had for spending my days in a lab, tracking radioactive materials and toxic chemicals. So I made the jump after 15 years of as a biologist. From there on, it was a series of, you know, moves in my career. I worked on a National Science Foundation-funded collaboration between Rice and the Houston ISD, which is our Houston Independent School District, which is the fourth largest district in the nation. I started with a team of people training teachers on how to integrate science, teaching, and technology. I trained over a period of time over 2,000 teachers in that space.

Lastly, life evolves. And I ended up here in San Marcos, Texas, between Austin and San Antonio. The events of this summer of 2020 with the murder of George Floyd and all the Black Lives Matter movement. I started thinking, again, probably reinvention, eight point x of my life, on how I could empower people to do more than just lift their voices in protest and really become active participants in the world’s economy. And started focusing my efforts on how my specific areas of expertise could be applied to start empowering people to find their true potential.

Dayle Hall:  

Well, that is- first of all, I love hearing about other people’s journeys, particularly the things that you’re working on now around these kinds of initiatives. You mentioned a few things there that resonate with me. You talked about mentoring and finding mentors and being able to help you talk about having the opportunity to learn from that experience and helping others. And then you talk an unbelievable movement around a terrible incident that helped to accelerate things like the Black Lives Matter movement. I love the story that that provided you the inspiration because a lot of people get the ideas, but you’re definitely following through. Was there something specific? Those are all, you know, interesting, but what specifically around those areas did you say I think I can help these underrepresented groups in technology? Like, what was that? You know, those are all interesting areas. What was that spike that said, now is the right time?

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Sometimes you just wake up and you have to do it. But I recall a couple of things. The whole idea of lowering barriers was sparked probably two or three years earlier, during a late night read of a young woman who wanted to start a business. I had no technology background, but no funding on how to start putting together all the technology tools that she would need to run her business. But she was able to start with some of the early no code applications, creating her own integrations, to start doing some rudimentary bookkeeping and personnel management and inventory management and so forth. And that [seed? 0:09:23] remained in my head for a long time.

But then the thing that in particular got me, got my fire going was witnessing on TV a person, a black gentleman who had just left a Gucci store and immediately was assumed that there was no way he could have paid for that, that he had stolen it. That really got me going. But lastly, and probably the most important, there is a documentary that is currently out on Netflix. Its first year anniversary of its release is going to be celebrated in a couple of days. It’s called coded bias. And that documentary starts peeling the layers of the importance of artificial intelligence and technologies like face recognition, and how those technologies are being created primarily by a white male minority with very little understanding of a more global, societal context, and the implications of those technologies.

That really drove the point for me that we, each of us had to work specifically on helping shape what are poised to be probably the most influential societal and economical tool sets to be released into the world if we don’t have the proper people sitting at the table at every level and aspect of the development and deployment of these tools, as well as the auditing processes.

Dayle Hall:  

Yeah, so I’ve heard of it, that documentary. I’ve never seen it, but I’m definitely going to go watch it. Two other examples there. But let’s go to the woman you were talking about trying to, you know, obviously try and be an entrepreneur and maybe now hasn’t got the right kind of access that she needs. Are there common problems? Is that it? Is it just not access to the technology? What are the common problems that some of these groups face to, you know, to try and get access to the right technology? Or the right people to help them at the time? Is that unique? Or is that something that you see across multiple groups,  multiple people?

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Yes, it’s great question. So it’s like everything else these days, it’s a multifaceted problem, and therefore multifaceted set of answers. One of the things that people have talked about typically in terms of addressing capacity and skill development and participation in the digital economy is that we need to teach people how to code. The whole coding concept, while great and there are numerous exemplary programs out there such as code.org that are doing an amazing job with all sorts of kids, it’s also the code is the solution to the issue is- but one solution in my mind, and it seems for many, in my conversations with students and other people, as a high barrier to cross to become a digital, what I call digital producers, instead of digital consumers and also digital influencers. Not in the social media context of an influencer, but rather people who can influence the digital space through their presence and their work.

Having people who can see themselves as digital producers and digital influencers without having to be coders is one of those obstacles that we need to address. Amazingly, when I started in this field, access to broadband was considered also one of those big obstacles. And that was over 20 years ago. And here we are, 20 years later, still struggling with access to broadband. And I think the pandemic did an amazing job of surfacing those inequities. Lastly, I was having a conversation with a group of colleagues at Texas State, because of one of the programs we’re trying to put together. The typical view of what it means learning online from this K-12 level, in general, has been one computer, broadband, one screen.

If you realize that if you’re trying to learn a number of skills by following somebody doing something for you, that package is no longer enough. You might need a minimum of two screens where you can follow the instructor and whatever he’s doing on his screen. And you try to replicate that on your side. So how many families have the luxury of having broadband, having a computer with two screens, having the time? So complicated process on top of cultural and economic layers where even gender and color of skin influence access to resources because of the way resources are allocated at schools, and how different school systems and the difference between private and public schools influence exposure through these kinds of opportunities.

Dayle Hall:  

It’s a good point around access to technology and people is one thing, then being able to actually learn how to do that coding aspect which obviously, you know, if you don’t have access to the people, you don’t have access to the tool, it’s really hard to get that in depth. So this is becoming a more industry-recognized term, low-code/no-code, that allows people that maybe don’t have that kind of coding expertise. I know you’re a fan of this, but how did you first get involved in that and what do you think the opportunities are for- not just for you and the people that are going to learn, but you know, for vendors like us, like, where could we be helping? Where could we be focusing on this kind of technology to, you know, yes, we want to make profits. But there’s so much more we could do. How can we take more advantage of that?

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

So that’s- you have a lot of questions packaged into one. So let’s talk-

Dayle Hall:  

 I allow you to expand. So to go in any direction you like,

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Yeah. Let’s try a couple of things. So why was this so inspirational for me? In whatever way my mind is shaped, I am somebody who wants to be able to try something, figure out if it works, and get some quick results out of that. And then to be able to iterate in development and so forth. The last time I coded, because I’m not going to call from my perspective, HTML a coding tool, was probably sometime back in the ‘80s. I was doing Pascal on a mainframe. And I had not touched through code since for a variety of reasons. And yet, when I came across no code, I saw how quickly I could start building business level applications within sometimes a couple of hours. To me, that was a big aha moment. It became clear to me that if I wanted to allow people who normally don’t see themselves as application developers, because the perception that you have to be a coder to do that, that all of a sudden, we had an opportunity to create a new on ramp onto digital that we were not exploring before.

And from there, it was a question of where is the best place to start demonstrating this idea. And I’m not going to lie to you, it took me about a year and a half of constantly pitching the concept to different people who thought it was a great concept. But look, because I was operating mainly in the academic space, we’re already teaching 20 different things. This sounds great. But is this another fad? Why is this important? It was not until some friendly voice indicated that I should approach the director of what is called TRIO, T-R-I-O program at Texas State, a gentleman called Ray Cordero. And let me tell you a little bit about TRIO. It’s a national-level program that started at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, by LBJ, Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who himself was a graduate from Texas State. And it focuses on that bridge that exists or should exist between high school or K-12, and university and how do we serve people and support them in crossing that space.

Because of the nature of our population, most of the people that need those services are on free and reduced lunch categories in K-12. And also a lot of them are first-gen students. Ray- so immediately the potential of a program like this and how it could do a number of things. One of them, help us attract students to Texas State, and at the same time, allow them to build a vision for themselves that would normally not been available to them as a source of inspiration because of the spaces that they’ve moved through. And this is one of the things I need to be clear about. It is not my intent to convert every student into a computer science major, but rather to see, to allow themselves to see themselves in whatever space they are going to be professionals and as empowered to apply digital technology to its biggest impact in their careers.

Then we go to the question of what could industry be doing in the space to favor, to support these issues? I am fortunate enough in that on one hand, Texas State is a Microsoft 365 school. As a result, we have access to the Microsoft Power platform. Every single individual at the university has access to this tool set. From the financial perspective at the institutional level, at the enterprise level, this is a package we have subscribed to but we, as a whole, are not taking advantage of, [inaudible 0:19:44] platform layer. So even from the financial strategy perspective, it makes sense for us to be able to leverage all these different tools to advance the university and advance its mission and advance education for our students.

I also have been fortunate enough to have members from Microsoft come alongside, understand the vision, be excited for the vision. And we are starting to work together on how we can make this program grow. Our goal is to make it grow outside of Texas State. So addressing the whole digital equity and digital inclusion component will require a multitude of technology players that each of them can help support one of the number of pillars that are currently needed to create that equity moment. A very long answer to your question.

Dayle Hall:  

I am completely fine with that. I know it was an expensive question. But again, a couple of things that I heard that I think are relevant, not just for what you’re doing, but I always try and think of these podcasts as, you know, what is someone going to take away? But there are a couple of things you mentioned there. You mentioned mentorship against someone else that advised you what to do or how to how to move this forward. I think that’s critical. You know, you partnered with Microsoft. Other people will partner with other organizations. But I think that is also a good- you know, little lesson to take is something you don’t have to do all this yourself and push the boulder uphill yourself. Find some good partnerships. Find some people that have the same kind of passion. And at the same time, you know, you were able to position that with your own organization, with your own school, that they were able to get behind it.

So those are three- if anyone stops after this podcast, they’re like, they’re going to take at least three things away, which is find a good mentor, find a good partner, and make sure we position this further with our organization that we can get support and show value. The goal was still to get more people to come to the school. But those are the things, those are the values in school. And I think that’s critical. So let’s move forward a little bit and talk about the boot camp, the vision, the overview. Give us a little bit of a synopsis of what it entails and the benefits that you give not just to your organization, but you know, beyond that to the students that are part of the boot camp.

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Sure, I will clarify that I offer the same bootcamp that I offer to students also to faculty and staff.

Dayle Hall:  

Do they take you up on the offer?

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Yes. So I’ve completed two of these boot camps in the last three months. And I’m offering three more boot camps coming up in the summer. In general, I frame the boot camps in a larger context than just this is how you develop an app. I look at it as being beneficial for people to understand what product life cycles actually look like.  We always start the boot camps more with a fictional customer, with a fictional problem. And the participants then start proposing different solutions that are typically geared towards we need to develop an app that does this. There is a lot of conversation around design, and you know, customer journeys, user personas, wireframes interface design. So it’s really a holistic approach to it. We then go to- given that this is what you want your app to do, what’s the proper data structure that you have to build to support the activities you want the app to, to serve?

And then finally, that, and this comes probably about in the third session, we actually started building the app. Everybody builds their own app. And then we share- you know, we share different builds. There is a review process. We start by building the app, and then we circle back in on to, you know, what does this look like in terms of user experience, aesthetics? We even cover accessibility. All of these things are covered obviously, in I don’t want to say shallow yet, but obviously, we cannot go in depth in into UX/UI and accessibility. That would kill the whole thing. But they become cognizant of all these different pieces. We get into publishing apps, iterating on the apps, and we even build some RPA behind the app.

Dayle Hall:  

That was going to be one of my questions. Are you looking at like that whole integration automation piece as part of the development, these apps?

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

So we look at different means in which you distributed apps in the power platform universe and then we have components built into the process that look both at user experience, just you know, if this is five-star experience with the app, there is other components that allow the users to submit improvements or ideas. And then there is a bug report component associated with that. And all of those bring RPA components to bear on the back end.

Dayle Hall:  

Yeah, well, I, you know, again, I think it’s an incredible program. Personally, if I’m ever interviewing someone or we’re talking to a new vendor, I always ask, what are some of the things that they stumbled into, some of the learnings, some of the things that maybe didn’t go right at the start of this that you like, we need to fix that. Because, again, when I think about people listening to this podcast, they may be going through maybe not exactly the same, but maybe similar thinking, how do they get started? And I think hearing from people like you of we ran into this challenge may spark some ideas for them. So you have a couple of examples of maybe things that didn’t immediately go right. And you know, your how you’re refining the boot camp, the things you’ve learned, like what are those key things that you’ve learned along the way?

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

So I think that I must start with one of the things that pushed me to do this. And this was the whole, everybody can find everything on YouTube. That’s why I did it. The problem with that is that a lot of these things tend to concentrate on the quick and easy wins. So assuming that you will find enough information on LinkedIn Learning, or YouTube or even the vendor platforms is probably not the way to go.

Secondly, and this has been demonstrated by research, it’s just a general strategy thing. People, people’s most inefficient learning is learning by yourself. Having colleagues teach you or come along with you is a lot more effective than trying to just record a few videos. A lot of what I done, I actually did as a video series for our blog, our institutional blog. Almost got no traction. And a year later, I’m teaching these things that require people to show up someplace, and they are actually working.

Other things that I’ve learned along the way is to really approach this as in a way as a university course. And I’ll give you an example. The thing that I started pretty soon realizing for myself was that I needed some kind of notebook to sort of cheat sheet the most commonly used functions that I would implement in apps, rather than having to constantly Google something. So I actually created a no code app to store notes and links to tutorials, and no code snippets to help me in my teaching. So that’s deployed inside the course.

And I guess finally, another sample of things I did, I iterated, and that’s in prototype very, very often. So as a matter of fact, one of my friend’s daughter was my first prototype course. I went to their house in Houston for a weekend and I said, hey, Elizabeth, do you want to learn this? And one of the things that we failed to recognize as people who work in technology is how intuitively we move through things, and how not intuitively things are for other people, how things like two factor authentication, that you know we do with our eyes closed are things that, for people who don’t know these things, and yet are used to access a platform, it’ll take them 10 minutes, 20 minutes to stumble or to wade through authenticating into a system. But really approaching this from a from a teaching side. And I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit about mentors, but there’s something else I want to talk about in that space.

Dayle Hall:  

Sure, sure. We can do that.

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

So there are two aspects of mentorship that have been great for me. On one hand has been my personal contact with the Microsoft staff and their real willingness and generosity in making their time available to me and to my students. I’ve had this lady from Microsoft, Karuana Gatimu, who by all stretches over the imagination should be extremely busy. And I asked her to speak to my students. And I thought she was going to give me 10 minutes. She gave the students two hours. And then we stay in touch constantly. And she’s always giving me advice. So she’s my mentor in that space. At the same time, I am developing a mentor cohort as part of my program, so that the mentors are almost the same age as the students, but they are empowered at the same level to operate with them.

Dayle Hall:  

That’s good. I think I actually- I think that’s a great additional piece is that not just what you’ve talked about with the training and the getting connected with it, but the ongoing mentorship I think will keep people engaged. And hear that expression, pay it forward. Maybe they’ll get involved in that in the future. So if you look at this program and how you’re executing, like, which way do you want it to grow? Do you think other universities, should they invest in these kinds of things? Or what’s your vision for this over the next three to five years,

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Multiple levels. On one hand, within Texas State, we are having the conversation with the TRIO team of making this a national level program. Just that component itself would serve around 900,000 students. I am also thinking of different kinds of populations we can serve. Texas State, for example, is a veterans-serving organization. I think this would be a great opportunity for veterans who are looking at upscaling or reskilling to find new opportunities on how to incorporate into the workforce. But I think my golden dream, and I’ve started to lay smaller seeds around that is to really create a no code coalition, where really different kinds of high level no code providers come together and start being really intentional about how they can bring the power of no code tools to bear beyond business and for a greater good.

Dayle Hall:  

I love that answer. Because I think you talked about- imagine 900,000 students all getting access to this kind of program nationally would be incredible. And I have some family members who are veterans. And this kind of program could really help them with new opportunities as well. So I love that. Just kind of staying on that point, just focusing on going back to what we talked about before, which is certain groups that don’t have access. Let’s say some of them exploring your program, maybe hear about this kind of thing but maybe a bit reticent to engage. They’re nervous, or they don’t feel like they’re the right people or they don’t have access. What’s the message for them? And how can they get motivated to actually follow through and be part of programs like this?

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

I think, first of all, is that the fact that somebody like me could do it. And the fact that my students are creating amazing applications on their own with never having done anything like this is absolutely inspirational. I think that more than anything is really to allow ourselves to dream and to believe in ourselves. Our biggest obstacle, oftentimes, it’s our own belief system. And we need to get over it. I oftentimes ask myself when I am considering something to be too risky to just say, you know, what’s the worst that could happen? Even if I cared if somebody knew really, are they ever going to find out? And so I think that part of that component is for them to- for people to be allowed to try. Of course, the bigger question for them is, how and where can they try when they don’t know where to begin.

Dayle Hall:  

Right. Now, I think what’s the worst that could happen is definitely words to live by, I hope in some small way, maybe this podcast, and as your search show success for the people that go through the program, I hope it gets to the right people, we will do what we can to help to promote what you’re working on. You know, you use the term earlier, a digital influencer. I think you are that. I think you’re also a digital visionary. I think you do- I think just saying influencer is hiding some of your light under a bushel,  Carlos. I wanted to thank you for joining us on this podcast. I know we could go on for hours and hours. I’d love to hear more about anything that SnapLogic can do to even be part of this and how we could work together. But I will leave this podcast. I always make sure you have the last word. Anything you’d like to say around your program, your university, I will leave you with our last word.

Carlos Balam Kuk-Solis:

Thank you, Dayle. I think there are a couple of things I would like to leave people with. First and foremost, just two days ago, I started a LinkedIn page, no-code.Power. Slowly, but surely, I will be sharing more content through that page regarding the kinds of things we have done and are continuing to do. I must say that also I am tremendously thankful to the number of people that are coming to the table, including you to really help with this vision. I wouldn’t be here without the help of others. And so it is this for me just an honor to be able to do the kind of work I’m doing. It‘s what gets me out of bed every single day. My mantra is engage, empower, and transform. And all of that runs on a framework of trust. So my call for people is to get out there and engage others, empower them, and help them transform. Just show yourself to be trustworthy and committed.

Dayle Hall:  

That is a brilliant way to end. Thank you, Carlos, for your time. Thank you everyone for listening to this latest podcast, Automating the Enterprise. We will see you on the next one.

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