Emerging from the 21st century’s tech boom is a generation of device-native children and adults facing a post-recession job market fueled by computer scientists and innovators.
But tech skills don’t come easy. They’re no longer add-ons to a resume; they’re necessities.
To meet this need among job seekers, a new genre of schooling has formed. It’s one that fits snug between creativity and productivity, a way of adding to people’s existing tech skills, while advancing them enough to impress hiring managers.
Code schools and bootcamps have created a new wealth of resources for both established and aspiring coders. And North Carolina is one of the top five U.S. states for its number of coding programs—11 to be exact (here’s a list + some more traditional education options).
They’ve trained thousands of students with an accelerated, personalized type of education in contrast to that of universities and community colleges. Courses cover in-demand tech skills like mobile app development, front and back-end engineering and web design.
Though these schools don’t claim to replace university-administered coding education, they offer a more immediate alternative for students who want to enter the job market and apply their skills quickly.
They also help to sell companies on moving and adding tech jobs to the region, and people on working for them.
According to Derrick Minor, the city of Raleigh’s innovation and entrepreneurship manager, code schools are doing a good job of supporting local workforce development needs, especially for software engineering.
“As local companies start up or continue to expand and as new companies move into the market, it is imperative that we have the training necessary to support the skill needs of those companies,” he says.
Supply and demand of code skills
Code education is in such high demand in part because of the strength of our state’s job market.
Statistics show that North Carolina recovered well from the recession that so crippled the nation nearly a decade ago.
The state’s job growth for 2016 outperformed national averages, as well as southern state averages. And data from The New York Times says Raleigh has the second greatest percentage increase (behind San Francisco) in technology jobs from 2010 to 2015, at 38.5 percent.
As such, North Carolina is clearly on the hunt for workforce-ready computer science professionals with 4.4 times the state’s average demand rate, according to Code.org.
Students are responding by spending up to $14,000 on a three-month code program, or at least enough time and money to be marketable to hiring companies.
The code schools are offering more than just education. With scholarship opportunities, job interviews, demo days in front of potential employers or projects with local nonprofits, students’ time at these code schools pays off.
Justin Thomas, CEO of local software studio CrossComm, hired two graduates from Triangle code academy The Iron Yard.
When the school expanded to Raleigh in 2015, Thomas told ExitEvent he appreciates that candidates have “demonstrated with their wallet that this is a serious profession” and that they graduate and are ready to be mentored.
These code schools are propelling skilled graduates into local jobs. And they’re doing so in ways that acknowledge and encourage inclusion, making classes appealing and available for people of all ages, experience, color, gender and income.
Durham-based Code the Dream, for example, operates around a mission to make sure everyone gets the chance to have a career in tech. The program aims to open opportunity for people with immigrant backgrounds, teaching them how to create real-world solutions through computer programming.
Code the Dream’s director notes that a system where all programmers have a similar background is limiting, because they’re attacking world problems through a similar filter. It doesn’t leave room for contribution from people who have direct knowledge about an issue.
That’s why programs like Code the Dream are so dedicated to addressing gaps in equal opportunity among the tech community.
Offering students more options, larger course catalogues
A recognized name in local code education is The Iron Yard, a Greenville, SC-based company with three NC campuses in Durham, Raleigh and Charlotte.
When the Durham campus opened up in 2014, it was the first time the city had been exposed to the type of accelerated coding education that had become prevalent in major tech markets.
In its first year, The Iron Yard held 12-week courses on front-end development and Ruby on Rails engineering at American Underground, attracting local companies like Spoonflower and Validic to hire its graduates and even put their own employees through the program.
The school then received an investment in 2015 from Apollo Education Group, which let it expand even faster.
Campuses have since opened in Raleigh, Charlotte and 21 other U.S. cities.
In 2016, The Iron Yard graduated over 90 students from its Triangle campuses. When combined with previous graduates, that’s 250 men and women who have completed programs and moved into the local workforce.
Over the years, The Iron Yard as adapted to the needs of employers by offering classes in back and front-end engineering and design.
Dana Calder, campus director at The Iron Yard Durham, says the school has progressed because its leaders have figured out what works for students, fine-tuning the catalogue for folks who want to dabble in coding and get a sense what it’s like before completely signing on.
The school recently started offering mini courses for anyone who wants to dabble in the topic and get a sense of what it’s like. There’s a new evening course starting in February at both the Raleigh and Durham locations (earlier for Charlotte) teaching the fundamentals of web development.
It also opens its doors for kids who want to learn coding, with a free program called CoderDojoDurham.
The school is known for its high-ranked, full-time intensive program for software developers, as well as additional variety of courses for both enterprise and startup companies.
The Iron Yard’s graduates tend to fall into certain industry clusters, but these vary across the program’s different NC campuses.
Calder says that in Charlotte, a lot of graduates enter into financial institutions, whereas Raleigh-Durham tends to foster more variety in graduates. Some go into the medtech sector, some into startups, some enter contractor client work, education or other areas of tech.
Helping students find jobs is key to the Iron Yard’s mission, reinforced through its career support program offered in every city campus.
Throughout the semester, enrolled students are taught how to put together portfolio content and cover letters, how to prepare for interviews and the hiring processes specific to the tech industry. They also learn soft skills like communication and project management.
The Iron Yard’s advisors and company connections guest lecture, conduct mock interviews, host hackathons and advise on final projects.
The school’s campuses also hold showcases called “Demo Days,” where graduates and current students join to present their projects and accomplishments before an audience of potential employers.
“We understand that learning how to code is extremely difficult,” says Calder. “But with wide levels of exposure, practical processes are how you learn—having that collaborative experience with peers is encouraged in getting projects completed.”
Part-time code learning, reining in on specific markets
Tech Talent South has a similar mission to The Iron Yard, but offers more flexible options for code learners.
The school has several part-time coding classes within its “Code Immersion” program. And instead of offering courses in one place, TTS locations span across the Triangle, at HQ Raleigh, The Nest, Launch Chapel Hill and The Frontier at RTP.
“We like to say that we’re the mom and pop coffee shop answer to the Starbucks model in the tech education sphere,” says Melissa Nemec, TTS’ chief marketing officer.
Over 650 students have graduated from TTS in North Carolina. In addition to its headquarters in Charlotte, TTS also has campuses established in Raleigh, Asheville, Wilmington, Winston-Salem, and in several cities outside of North Carolina—all with 1,527 total students enrolled to date.
Since its founding in 2013, TTS has added more advanced coding courses, as well as mobile app development with iOS coding language Swift, digital marketing, data analytics and more conceptual courses like Introduction to IoT and Startup Primer.
Although the courses primarily take place in-house, TTS recently launched an online shop where students can schedule remote, one-on-one tutoring sessions. They don’t have to be enrolled in TTS’ classes to qualify, and the sessions are customized to the individual’s specific wants and needs. Tutoring sessions start at $105.
The e-shop also offers monthly mentorship plans starting at $75.
Nemec says the school’s alumni have gone on to acquire entry-level developer jobs, start freelance careers, or even switch to new roles within organizations they were working in.
TTS has a page on Tumblr purely dedicated to telling the stories of graduates. Some of which belong to the Triangle’s startup community, including Raymahl Sutton, the founder of anonymous/nonbias hiring platform BlindedHR.
As a graduate in polymer and color chemistry at NC State University, web development was far from natural to him. But in the beginning stages of forming the BlindedHR platform, Sutton was determined to give it a try anyway.
He tried learning on his own through YouTube videos and blogs, but eventually found the process to be frustrating without people to consult with on what he was learning.
So Sutton enrolled in TTS’ part-time Code Immersion program, where he was able to fill in some of the blanks he’d encountered without the course. That gave him the skills to start building BlindedHR.
The platform will go live in March after Sutton adjusts its functions based on feedback from the companies and recruiters testing the platform.
“I’m forever grateful for the opportunity,” Sutton says. “I would tell anyone to explore TTS if they’re looking to become more technical.”
Empowering more women and girls to join tech
In contrast with the programs outlined above, some code education organizations have more specific audiences.
Data shows a recent uptick in gender inclusion among North Carolina’s tech community, with 36.4 percent of the tech workforce now made up by women. This beats corresponding rankings among the rest of the states, as well as the national average of 32.2 percent.
This is good news for budding tech professionals, as well as those already employed in the space who exist outside of the typical mold of tech employees, traditionally male.
A lot of this success can be in response to the growth of programs like Girl Develop It RDU, which is part of a national organization that operates around an all-inclusive, all-welcoming mantra of “Don’t be shy, develop it.”
The idea is to give women a comfortable place to ask questions without fear of scrutiny from their male counterparts—who account for 91 percent of today’s developer community.
Girl Develop It offers part-time sprint courses that cover several coding topics, as well as subjects like website design and development.
The RDU arm, which reached 2,300 members in December, is sponsored by a few big names in the local startup community, such as American Underground, Spoonflower and Smashing Boxes.
Additionally, Triangle TechGirlz offers a platform for agency among young girls interested in STEM. The national organization’s Triangle chapter is led by a team of volunteers, and serves students in and around Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
Recent sessions covered topics like cybersecurity, Raspberry Pi, open-source gaming, podcasting and mobile app development.
It also gets girls involved in the local tech community, which could lead to mentors and jobs later down the road. The group attends events like the open source/open tech conference All Things Open back in October.
Chapel Hill-based Youth Digital also offers several code courses to kids (not just girls) in the form of after-school programs, summer camps and online classes. It’s a 2016 Inc. 5000 company, with three-year revenue growth of 3,622 percent.
Efforts to boost diversity in the tech industry
Though inclusivity among genders is on the rise in NC’s tech world, there’s plenty room for improvement when it comes to giving access to minorities.
Industry reports for 2016 say NC’s tech community has a diversity index of .71, a number that indicates that the tech sector is less diverse than the state’s general population—below the national average and ranked 23rd across all states.
Within the Triangle’s code education scene, a nonprofit located in American Underground is aggressively tackling the lack of diversity in tech fields.
Code the Dream, which began in 2015, is geared toward a demographic of people who haven’t had easy access to code learning programs. Most are immigrants and minorities, and many come from low-income backgrounds. Some students are still in high school or are taking community college courses at the same time.
The courses are designed to contradict the typical code school setup premised on the idea that people can afford to pay $14,000 for a 12-week bootcamp or that they have the time for a full-time, scholarship-funded program while still having to provide for themselves and their families simultaneously.
Code the Dream leaves room for academic advancement, as some students take beginner classes and then use those as an on-ramp into other programs like The Iron Yard later.
In order to ensure that more advanced coding students have the ability to apply the skills they’ve learned after they graduate to possible jobs, the program offers them the opportunity to work on real-world applications for local nonprofits in different fields.
Its next-level program just started last year. Called Code the Dream Labs, has students working with organizations like Student Action with Farmworkers, which helps migrant youth in North Carolina find education and work, and Raleigh nonprofit Families Together, which pairs homeless families with short and long-term housing, as well as living resources.
Students also work with Preservation Durham, building an online platform to help preserve older homes and buildings in the city so its history can be remembered even if the buildings are torn down.
A couple of students are working with Kidznotes, a nationally-known nonprofit in Durham that provides orchestral training to underserved children. Code the Dream students are developing an app that offers practice feedback from teachers to make it easier for Kidznotes students to learn music.
“Once they work on those apps, we think they’re better prepared because they’ve worked on real-world projects from start to finish, as well as talked to clients and find the needs to work, as well as worked with professional mentors,” says Dan Rearick, Code the Dream’s executive director.
There are about 40 total students in the program’s code-learning courses.
Ten students have gone on to paid employment or contract work as software developers. And eight students have earned scholarships to community colleges and or received full-rides to four-year universities.
The big picture for CTD is a motivation toward equal opportunity in tech. Rearick says the youngest CTD student is 15 and the oldest is in their 50s.
The program emphasizes the importance of giving folks from low-income and diverse backgrounds a chance to create solutions for problems the world faces.
“Diverse teams create better outcomes,” he adds. “As we get better technology to solve more world problems, it becomes even more true that we need diverse teams for solutions.”
Next steps for code education in NC
Researchers expect NC’s tech sector to expand 7.9 percent by 2020, affirming there will a need for skills training for years to come.
Although there’s no real statistical prognosis assuring future jobs for minority tech professionals, there’s promise in the increasingly popular programs that are working to provide equal access to 21st century skills training.
Minor says accelerated code education will remain appealing because it can be applied to multiple skill levels, “whether it’s a non-technical founder looking to learn the basics of code to be a better leader or a senior developer looking to refresh a skill set with a new code language, or an entry-level employee looking to start a new career in software development.”
And that, says leaders of the code school movement locally, makes it a key contributor to North Carolina’s tech talent pipeline.