Nick Jordan spends as much time recruiting new employees as selling into clients of his fast-growing web development agency Smashing Boxes.
The company has grown to 38 employees over the last four years, and its greatest need is capable coders. But despite relationships with local universities and recruiters actively seeking workers around the nation, there never seems to be enough talent.
Jordan isn’t one to sit back and wait for a solution. Like much of his last eight years starting companies, when he has an idea, he launches it. And his new Durham coding school is no exception.
Coming June 1st is this region’s second full-time coding academy, a partnership between Greenville, S.C.-based The Iron Yard and Jordan’s firm. Called Iron Yard Academy powered by Smashing Boxes, the school will offer 40-hour-per-week, 12-week courses on a variety of web development topics. For $9,000 ($10K if you need a computer), students are guaranteed they’ll learn the skills to get a junior-level programming job within six months of graduation. If they don’t, they get their money back.
Coding skills are in demand throughout the world, at early stage companies, governments, nonprofits, hospitals and large corporations. In the U.S., proponents of immigration reform say a lack of coders is a key reason to loosen restrictions on visas for foreign engineers and computer scientists. Coding education has been heralded by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others as a way to better prepare kids for future careers. Others believe coding education can help lower national unemployment, especially among college graduates.
For Jordan, the school is a chance to prove Raleigh-Durham is on par with other entrepreneurial ecosystems forming in cities around the world.
“We want to be a legitimate tech hub and code schools are in Boston and Austin and NYC and San Francisco and Chicago,” he says. “We need to be pumping out talented people. If you don’t have these resources, then you can’t be that.”
Coding is cool everywhere.
Jordan isn’t alone in his quest. Square co-founder Jim McKelvey created Launch Code, pairing inexperienced coders with experienced ones at St. Louis tech companies. In Chicago, there’s The Starter League and in New York (and elsewhere), General Assembly, both schools that attract people from around the world to learn to code and design software. A French billionaire is training new coders for free at 42 in Paris.
In New York City, a pair of female developers launched Girl Develop It, to provide women (and men) a safe and unintimidating place to learn the field. Its Triangle chapter opened over a year ago, and regularly hosts programming language courses along with coding workshops.
A venture-backed San Francisco startup called Codecademy helps people learn to code for free online. And Tech Talent South formed in Atlanta and offers full and part-time code immersion programs, youth code camps and game development courses. It launches its first class at HQ Raleigh April 7.
How the deal went down.
Jordan had the same revelation as many listed above, that a person can learn all the necessary coding in a traditional classroom setting but in an accelerated way. Sporadic in-person classes and online training don’t have the same impact as a full-time and financial commitment, he thought.
He began to mull the decision to open the school a year ago. When he found nothing like it in the Triangle, he organized small coding workshops in his offices and weekend-long bootcamps.
“We knew there was something to it,” Jordan says. “It’s kind of a thought leadership and credibility thing for us, but a lot of people want it.”
The Iron Yard relationship only formed as Jordan began to make his plans known in the local tech community. The Greenville company, which operates an incubator and accelerators in addition to the academy, was already considering the region as it expanded to new cities.
Like Jordan, The Iron Yard created the Academy to scratch its own itch, says its co-founder Eric Dodds.
“Most tech companies coming out of an accelerator need to hire programmers to build and iterate on the product, and no one was available to hire,” he says.
The year-old program has earned acclaim for its fast results. Three classes in, it has graduated students now freelancing full-time and working at startups and high-profile established technology companies. Some are starting their own companies. New students are now applying from around the nation to spend three months in Greenville learning to code.
In coming weeks, Iron Yard academies launch in Charleston and Atlanta. Dodds and his team are now eyeing Texas.
“They have a proven track record that we can build upon. It eliminates uncertainty and risk for the students,” Jordan says. “And we have a partner-in-crime to think big picture for how to improve and collaborate.”
The courses, curriculum and guarantee of success
Smashing Boxes will offer courses in front end development and Ruby on Rails engineering at American Underground at the American Tobacco campus in Durham. The Iron Yard provides the curriculum and the administrative support to the school. Smashing Boxes will hire the instructors and teaching assistants and provide support from its staff and real-world projects for the students to complete.
Jordan’s goal is for the 15 students in each inaugural class to have a real portfolio by the end of the three months, and at least one project paid for by a client.
The curriculum accounts for different learning styles and pace, Dodds says. It has base level requirements for graduation, but many students advance beyond that to learn additional languages and skills before heading out to the real world.
To be sure the curriculum is always current, instructors get several weeks off in between each course. They can do freelance work, start a company, attend or speak at conferences. The key is that they stay on top of what’s current in the industry, so they can constantly update the curriculum to reflect the changes.
In Durham, Smashing Boxes will help with that. Because the firm is actively developing new technologies for clients, Academy students will be on the front lines, Dodds says. They’ll also have access to plenty of hiring companies.
“There are so many rich resources at a place like Smashing Boxes that when tied together with a school will create an experience for our students that is pretty unbelievable,” Dodds says.
Jordan expects the code school to help him train the next generation of Smashing Boxes employees, but his mission extends into the local community. He hopes to find Triangle companies willing to hire the Academy’s graduates and keep them in the region.
“I want to keep it local, but the need is everywhere,” he says. “I want the students to get the best job.”.