Gareth Small’s path from prison to Google
When Gareth Small’s recruiter called to tell him he’d gotten the web developer job he’d applied for at Google, his excitement quickly turned to anxiety. “Can we meet up? There’s something I need to tell you,” he remembers saying. Gareth and his recruiter met at a cafe in Fremont, near where he lives in Seattle, Washington. “I said, Hey, look, I know this is a lot and I’m sorry to spring this on you…”
What Gareth had to tell his recruiter was that he’d recently gotten out of prison after being incarcerated for four years. But while Gareth was nervous about what his time served meant for his future at Google, he also knew that it was the only reason he had even applied in the first place. “I don’t think I would be alive today if I hadn’t gone to prison. I thought I would be dead before I’d be where I’m at now.”
Today, Gareth is a software engineer who works on the Google Cloud platform. He lives in Seattle with his partner, Liz; they moved to the area in 2018. As a teenager living in Stow, Ohio, Gareth struggled. “I was really heavily into drugs, and I never really did well in school,” Gareth says. “It just got worse and worse.” After high school, he was involved in a robbery, which led to his prison sentence. But before being incarcerated, he was placed on house arrest in his parents’ home, and it was during those six months that he started coding again.
“As a kid, I was always really into computers. My mom worked in computer science—she even introduced me to Google when I was, like, nine,” he says. “We always had computers around the house and I loved tinkering with them, learning how they worked.” In middle school, he told his mom he wanted to build his own game. “She just looked at me and handed me this big Java book,” he remembers. “I was 12 or 13, I had no idea what to do with it!” But with a little internet research, Gareth was able to scrap together his own game. “It was brutal, but I loved it! I would stay up until three or four in the morning when I had to go to school at 8 a.m., trying to fix a problem,” he says. “But you know, I loved the learning process around it.”
Years later while Gareth was stuck at home awaiting his prison sentence, he decided he may as well refresh his coding skills and look for a job. “I had a lot of time on my hands, I liked coding, and I wanted to make some extra money.” He sent in the game he’d programmed in middle school along with his resumé, and landed work as a web developer for the few months before he went to prison. “I was kind of bummed when I was going to prison. I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to code anymore.’”
“But I got to prison and...there was coding,” he laughs.
The prison where Gareth was incarcerated had a program to teach inmates computer and coding skills. The only hiccup was that in order to graduate into more technical work, he would have to start out learning the very basics...again. “You had to go through an introductory course that taught Microsoft Office, which was a little frustrating,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘why do I need this? I just want to write code!’” But soon he was moving along into web development, Java and digital arts programs.
Gareth did whatever he could to get more time in the computer lab. He started off with two hours a couple of times a week, which he found wasn’t enough time for him once he was working on web development. “I wanted to be in there longer, so any opportunity I had to volunteer, I took.” Eventually he became the program aide and helped teach other inmates how to code while also taking classes himself. “I just studied as much as I could there, it was such an awesome opportunity to learn and grow.”
He wasn’t only working on his coding skills. During his incarceration, he focused on figuring out who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. “I spent a lot of time just looking back at who I was. I think close to about a year and a half in, I was like, ‘OK, what happens when I get out?’ So I started making plans.” One night in his cell he watched the movie “The Internship.” Working at Google “sounded pretty cool. But I never thought I would get there.”
Still, the idea stuck with him. After being released in 2016, he spent hours a day studying computer science, while also working as a software engineer. Eventually, he started prepping his resume to apply to Google. He was surprised when he was eventually offered a job. And of course, nervous: He still had to tell his future employer about his time in prison.
“I finally heard back, and I heard that it was OK,” he says. “I was shocked. I don’t think I totally comprehended it.” Only three years had elapsed from the time he left prison to the time he started at Google.
Gareth knows the negative stigma associated with people who have served time, but he’s kept his attention and energy razor-focused on his ambitions. During his Google orientation, Gareth even shared his story with other new employees, and was relieved to find only support, and even admiration from his colleagues. He’s also spent time working with a program in Seattle called Unloop that offers office space to recently released prisoners where they can take coding classes and continue the education they started while incarcerated.
When asked what advice he would give to others, Gareth says to take feedback, adapt quickly and really examine yourself. “Understand what you want out of life, and look at your failures as opportunities to change and grow. As long as you’re always able to adapt, you’re going to find a way to reach your goals.”