Tech & Work

New experiment in tech retraining blends online learning with in-person mentors

By marrying online tech classes with local volunteer mentors, a new program in Louisville, Kentucky is reshaping the way professionals can get retrained for the next tech jobs.

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Left to right: David Shapero, Reggie Evans, and Eric Rowan
 Image: Sam Borstadt

Rider Rodriguez Jr. knows it's a cliche, but he'll say it anyway: In the 21st century, if you want to thrive, software development is the skillset that you really need to have. As both the job market and the IT industry rapidly shift, making the match between employers and employees with the latest development skills can prove difficult.

To start to solve this problem, Rodriguez and members of the local tech community are taking a grassroots educational approach through a program called Code Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky.

Code Louisville is a free 12-week course in which students can learn development skills with the aid of volunteer industry mentors, and an online learning system called Treehouse, available through the local library system. The program is also partnered with KentuckianaWorks, a local workforce development agency where Rodriguez serves as the deputy director. Rodriguez said Code Louisville is essentially a brand underneath KentuckianaWorks. The agency pays for the website, the library pays for the licenses for Treehouse, and the mentors volunteer their time for free. At this point, the operation is very shoestring.

The program isn't necessarily a straight shot into a development job, but as mastering any skill takes time, those involved with Code Louisville hope the program will be effective in setting students with the desire to learn, on a path that will benefit them, and grow the Louisville tech community as well.

"Community" is an operative word here. Rodriguez is addressing multiple needs with the program. There are the students with varying backgrounds and experience looking to get into development, there are local professionals looking to share what they know and what they do, and there are area businesses looking to hire web developers.

Not all of these needs get met with one go-around in the Code Louisville. The program is a work in progress, but it is, as mentor Eric Rowan put it, a stepping stone.

To start, there's Rowan, currently a front end developer at Indatus, a local technology company that specializes in telecommunications. Before talking with Rodriguez at a local meet up, he'd been considering ways of helping those interested in pursuing careers in web development.

"This is a great career." he said. "You have to one up yourself from a few months ago." Given the chance to teach a class of fewer than 10 students, Rowan took an approach built off his own educational and professional experiences. For example, he favors a less academic feel, leaning more toward demos than lectures.

The program is structured so that students work through the modules on Treehouse, which are technically available to anyone with a Louisville Free Public Library card, and then bring questions and hangups to class.

Rowan also helped determine that teaching students how to use a collaborative tool like GitHub, was as important as topics like HTML and CSS because it's something they're likely to encounter in the field.

Beyond teaching class, Rowan wound up serving as a link between Code Louisville and his employer, Indatus.

"Indatus took an interest in what I was doing," Rowan said.

Cultivating developers

In the past five years, Indatus has experienced significant growth. According to Chief Product Officer Todd Pritts, recruiting is a large piece of what they do. Like other companies in the area looking for web developers, Indatus is interested in the local talent pool.

"There's a lot of talent if you're looking in the right places and doing the right things," he said. It's more difficult to find folks with the most up-to-date skills. What Code Louisville can offer a company like Indatus, is the chance to be involved in cultivating the kind of talent they'd be looking to hire. It's a long-range move. Twelve weeks won't land a student with a basic background in coding a job at Indatus, but if Indatus can help mold up-and-comers through customizing course tracks or even hosting Code Louisville onsite, both student and company benefit.

"Louisville is not the hotbed for programming activity," Pritts said, but as a company, "we have the choice to either complain about it or help find a solution."

After week 12

This solution is already working for some students. The first 12-week session started in November, 2013 and wrapped up this March. Aaron Wyatt came into the program with a background as a software support specialist. He'd started work on a bachelor's in information technology, and had spent more than 10 years working in a call center.

"I've always wanted to work with code but the university wasn't giving me the knowledge I wanted fast enough, so I started looking for training problems to supplement my education," he said. When given the choice between Code Louisville and a 6-month program in San Francisco that would have cost him $18,000, the former sounded like a better option, especially for someone wanting to be marketable in Louisville, not San Francisco.

Wyatt's mentor passed along his resume to a client. "That client was looking for QA Analyst who could transition to a developer role. One thing led to another and now I'm actually working with code," Wyatt said.

Another Code Louisville student, Don Cox, is hoping for a similar turn of events. Cox has worked in IT for 38 years, mostly in COBOL. He was looking to retrain in order to find a job as a front end Web developer. The value of COBOL skills, being high specialty, is an average salary of around $90,000. A junior Web developer salary, on the other hand, is on average in the $40,000 range.

"I have taken several free online courses since being laid off, and this one by far was the best," Cox said. "The class meeting with the mentor was very beneficial in that you were able to ask questions and get a perspective from someone who actually works as a front-end Web developer."

So far, he hasn't been able to find a job, but he said he's not giving up.

Kentuckiana Works does provide career counselling for the Greater Louisville region, but Rodriguez would like to add more specialized support for students looking for IT jobs. Rowan remains a resource for his students.

The next round of Code Louisville will start after the Kentucky Derby, which is how Louisville traditionally marks the arrival of spring. So far, Rodriguez says roughly 40 students have signed up, which is double from last time. These 40 will complete a pre-requisite module that "would be enough to scare you off or have you fall in love if you haven't done it before," Rodriguez said.

Code Louisville will add more front end classes, Ruby classes, and potentially in the summer, mobile classes. Eventually Rodriguez wants to pass 100s of students through the program each year.

"We want this really thriving community. Again, we've got great developers, we just wish there were more, and there's no reason why there couldn't be more," he said. Both Rowan and Indatus want to stay on board as well.

"When Eric interacts with students, I see they appreciate what he's brought to the table," Pritts said."

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About

Erin Carson is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the impact of social media in business and the ways technology is transforming the future of work.

3 comments
JasmineSwalek
JasmineSwalek

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