Pando

How do you make a developer in five months? Denver is about to find out

By Hamish McKenzie , written on October 17, 2012

From The News Desk

At the end of July, 24 newly minted developers graduated from Washington DC’s Hungry Academy and took up jobs at Living Social. Five months earlier, they could barely write a line of code.

The developers had taken part in an intensive education program run by JumpstartLab and Living Social, which used Hungry Academy as a talent recruitment initiative. Now JumpstartLab's Jeff Casimir is porting the model to Denver as part of a partnership with investment firm Galvanize. Called gSchool, the for-profit program will again give 24 students hands-on training over five months. The goal is that the students will learn skills to make them more employable and give them a chance to improve their pay grades. (Applications are now open.)

The program arrives at a time when the US labor market is seemingly more schizophrenic than ever. Even as the unemployment rate surged in the last couple of years -- before recently dropping below 8 percent for the first time since President Obama took office --  there has been an imbalance of skills for the jobs that are available.

In particular there is a a pressing need for developer talent, a point illustrated by the fact that the average for software developer salaries now register in six figures. That's especially in areas outside Silicon Valley, but even inside Silicon Valley there are more jobs than talent to man them. Finding talent is the single biggest gripe entrepreneurs have and a big reason that techies find the current restrictions around H-1B visas so galling.

Suggested solutions for how to solve the shortage have centered on improving education and encouraging fledgling institutions such as The Academy For Software Engineering. In San Francisco, a coalition of tech leaders called sf.citi is creating a database of jobs and putting the focus on training. Elsewhere the people who decry pricey college educations have suggested that vocational education needs to make a comeback.

Casimir’s gSchool also fits into a wider, and growing, movement of grassroots developer education. Online programs such as Codecademy and Programr have made the discipline accessible and affordable, and civic-minded programs such as Washington DC’s CodeNow are helping to empower underserved kids.

Casimir, who has worked in education through Teach for America and charter schools, started JumpstartLab in 2009 but was initially focused on private consulting. He had been doing programming classes for corporations and startups but ultimately found the job unfulfilling. He didn’t feel like he was having the same impact on people’s lives that he had experienced when teaching at middle schools.

He came up with the idea for Hungry Academy after brainstorming ways to help people change their lives through learning to code. He got together with Living Social’s then-VP of engineering, Chad Fowler, and the two discussed the importance of attitude and aptitude in a potential programmer. They wondered how long it would take to turn such a person into a capable developer. They figured six months. “We thought, ‘Let’s make magic here,’” Casimir recalls. Various budget and time restrictions whittled that period down to five months, but it worked nonetheless.

When they opened applications for Hungry Academy in 2011, they had 800 applications for 24 spots. Each applicant had to submit a resume, a code or writing sample, and an eight-minute video of them answering five short questions. That element rammed home the personal nature of the project, Casimir says. “It was great and, at the same time, heartbreaking. It was really hard to watch people and reject them. They weren’t just pieces of paper at that point.” The application process will be the same for gSchool.

The program costs $20,000 per person, but grants, scholarships, and loans will be available to, as gSchool’s website puts it, “people who diversify our community.” Living Social actually paid people to attend Hungry Academy, seeing it as an investment in the company. For the gSchool, Casimir is also trying to find more sponsorship. He already has commitments of $50,000, which will likely be distributed among several students. But that won't go far.

If Hungry Academy is going to help those who need it most, financial assistance will be a must. The reason the program so far has only existed at Living Social is that it is expensive to run. It's possible in Denver because of the support from Galvanize, which has promised to operate a loans system for students who want to pay off their debt when they assume jobs after the program.

Casimir picked Denver, because he's about to move there, but he also pegs it as an emerging tech city. The National Venture Capital Association recently ranked Boulder/Denver as one of the top 10 areas for startups in the US. But in many ways there's nothing special about Denver's needs. Dozens of cities in the US could benefit from something like this.

If public and private institutions and individuals are serious about addressing the labor gap, these are the sorts of initiatives that could use a hand. They're expensive to run but could have a meaningful impact on injecting more talent into the market at a time when the US could easily fill more jobs in an innovation economy, which both Republicans and Democrats like to say is the key to the country's future prosperity.

It's a natural fit for someone like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who has pledged some $350 million of his own money to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas. Among his goals is attracting more tech companies. But more than funding, they need talent. Diverting just a little of that money to mint a couple dozen developers every six months could pay huge dividends for the ecosystem.

For Casimir, the most important thing about such programs is seeing change in people’s lives. The demographic that took part in Hungry Academy skewed towards people in their early to mid 20s, most of whom were on track to earn between $40,000 and $65,000 a year in their previous jobs. Now they’ve moved into jobs that pay between $75,000 and $95,000 a year and will very likely see their salaries top $100,000 after a couple years of experience.

“I never really cared about the business. I really cared about the people,” Casimir says. “It’s more of a social change project than it is a business for me.”

The Hungry Academy graduates aren’t doing mere “intern” jobs, says Casimir. They’re doing important work. One woman, he says, used to work in Living Social’s customer service department, fielding angry phone calls on a daily basis. Since graduating from the program, she has been working on tools to streamline the customer service process. Another guy is working on a small team improving the company’s payment tools.

One change with gSchool, which starts in early January, is that graduates won’t be obliged to go into jobs with a particular company. Job placement fees are not built into the program’s model, he says, because he doesn’t want people to be constrained by that mindset. For him, it's more about empowerment and opening up career options. Says Casimir: “I think one of the best parts of being a developer is you don’t have to have a job.”

And who knows – maybe some of them will even start a company.