One of the biggest problems facing the tech industry right now has nothing to do with money. It’s finding people. It’s an industry that is moving so fast, and in such high demand, that there are simply not enough qualified workers to fill the empty slots.
Everyone is trying to catch up. Universities are looking into expanding their computer science fields. Programs like Girl Develop It and others encourage women and minorities, people they see as underrepresented in the tech world, to learn coding. Boot camps that offer a fast track courses in programming have sprung up around the country.
Some companies took matters into their own hands – and then found it was actually the hands of everyone. Such is the story of The Nerdery, a custom software design company based in Minneapolis. For years the leadership team wrestled with the talent crunch problem. How could they compete as a company? How could they sow seeds and hold on to talented engineers?
A code school seemed to be the answer to the solution, they said. But it was another four years before they had a breakthrough on how to make that happen.
“We were stuck on this idea of how does this program fit into the Nerdery,” said Mark Hurlburt, then the Chief Strategy Officer at The Nerdery and current President of Prime Digital Academy.
“It was summer of 2014 when we cracked the code. We said, ‘Maybe this isn’t something that belongs inside a company. Maybe this is a program that needs to support the entire community that it will be a part of.’”
From there, everything snapped into place, he said. They formed a small team – key among them a former computer science professor to design programming for students, and an instructional designer to dig into the social structure of the school.
Their first step was to meet with hundreds of tech companies in the region and determine what the industry is looking for in entry level employees.
“How can we produce people who are employable?” Hurlburt asked them.
What they found was markedly different form the focus of most code school boot camps, he said.
“Only 15% of the responses form the hiring network were about technology,” he said. “Most emphasis was placed on soft skills. Communication and collaboration. Ability to work in a team.”
These responses formed the backbone of what is now the curriculum for Prime Digital Academy. Hurlburt and his team, with the help of investors who liked the idea, boostrapped the code school and launched it in the fall of 2014.
The 18-week program is designed to teach basics of coding as well as the soft skills of being a good team player, Hurlburt said. One prominent way they do so is by putting students into what they call “cohorts”, teams of 18-20 students that study, eat, breathe and live together. Projects are done in pairs that are continuously changing, and speeches are given in front of the class on a weekly basis.
“They need to be able to read and write software, but also speak software and teach people about things they know,” he said.
Today, Prime Digital Academy has been operating for almost a year, and has graduated nearly 100 students – around 40% being women. The results have been a huge success, Hurlburt said. About 50% of their grads are hired within 4-6 weeks of graduation, and 92% currently have secured placement on the field, he said. The average annual salary of the first cohort is now $57,000, Hurlburt said – a collective 250% increase from their salaries before.
But the biggest success for Hurlburt and his team, he said, is the social structure of each cohort and the relationships that have emerged as a result.
“We are floored every single time by how strong the bonds are between individuals in the cohort,” he said.
Here’s what the first cohort of students had to say:
A recent Prime Digital Academy grad who now works at Myriad Mobile, Dave Hoverson, echoed the sentiment when speaking of his experience at the code school.
“The camaraderie that developed between myself and the others within my specific cohort was something that you rarely experience in today’s corporate world,” he said “I miss them all very much.”
Nowhere was this more evident than at their first graduation ceremony last summer, Hurlburt said. In fact a reporter from MPR who came to cover the event was shocked at what he saw. Everyone was crying, and teachers were getting choked. The reporter turned and asked, ‘Where did you find all these weepie people?’
“I told him, ‘You don’t understand,’” Hulrburt said. “This is summer camp. These students are here 65 hours a week. We’re surprised at how consistently people leave the program and feel earnestly like they’ve made 17-21 lifelong friends.”
This, the heart of the program, ties directly to the “why” behind Prime Digital Academy, Hurlburt said. Beyond getting more employees, or competing as a company, he sees profound value in equipping generations for the fastest growing industry of this century.
“We see software having a profound impact on the world. It’s changing art, history, commerce… every industry is being really impacted by software,” he said. “Our core belief is that something as important as the future of everything demands a group of people who can do more than code. We need people who have empathy.”
Now, Prime Digital Academy is looking to expand. Hurlburt and his team are scoping out areas where a similar program could be implemented. He recognizes, however, that what works in Minneapolis may not work somewhere else. Instead he hopes to see similar programs tailor-made for their own communities.
“There’s a need to address and focus on the solution,” he said. “It makes for our approach to be less empire building and less rapid growth, but it’s the more sustainable approach.”
Online applications for Prime are now available. Tuition is $12,500, which includes a $500 prepayment discount. Scholarships are also available.
Come meet Mark Hurlburt and his team tomorrow at 1 Million Cups Fargo, 9:15 AM at Barry Hall, NDSU.
Photos courtesy of Prime Digital Academy