wark

A chat with Nashville Software School co-founder John Wark

In the process of working on a story about the broader jobs market here in Nashville, SouthernAlpha had a chance to briefly chat with John Wark, who helped to co-found the Nashville Software School earlier this summer. 

The school, which began in June, is designed to be an intensive, full-time program with the singular aim of preparing its students for work as professional software developers.

Below are just a few brief questions Wark answered for us.

With regard to the jobs market, is the talent problem people are trying to solve more rooted in a lack of overall talent knocking around Nashville or is it more that the talent we have here isn’t always suited to the sort of jobs we have for that talent to fill? Not enough or just mismatched?

As it relates to software developer talent, it’s mainly not enough available talent.  We see shortages in people with training and experience in the technologies used in IT shops as well as in the technologies used by technology product and service companies.  And with the explosion in the demand for mobile applications we’ve got an across-the-board shortage of people with training and experience in designing and building mobile applications for all types of devices.  The fact of the matter is that with software technology becoming both the enabler of new products and services in existing industries such as healthcare and music and publishing as well as the platform required to create next generation products/services in technology-based industry, we just haven’t been creating enough trained technology professionals. 

Our high schools are not training students in technology in any manner worth discussing and our colleges are cranking out large numbers of graduates with inadequate understanding of and experience with technology.  And frankly most large IT employers haven’t been making investments in training and development in order to grow new local talent.  There’s tremendous latent or potential talent in Nashville but we just haven’t got the programs in place to train people in the skills and technologies that are so needed by employers.  

Now – we shouldn’t feel like this a problem that only Nashville and Tennessee have – the reality is that most cities have similar shortfalls.  Even cities that we think of as being hotbeds of technology talent like San Francisco and New York and Boston have shortages of qualified, trained developers.  That’s why programs like Nashville Software School are starting up in those cities as well.

 
 
What sort of traction has the Nashville Software School gotten since it was initially founded?
Well, we started in June of this year with our first cohort of students, and we’re about halfway through training them, so it’s a bit hard to be definitive.  We very much view this first cohort of students as a trial run of the program and so far everything we’re seeing is quite positive.  In June we started what we call our Bootcamp program, which is a six-month combination of two training modules along with multiple apprenticeship periods where our students apply what they learned in training by working on real projects.  The bootcamp is a full-time program where our students spend five days a week learning and applying new skills and technologies. 

We generated over 40 applications for the 15 spots in the initial program in only about 3 weeks of strictly word-of-mouth advertising for the program that didn’t start until about six weeks before the program launched.  We got applications from as far away as Washington D.C. and North Carolina simply through word-of-mouth.   We picked our 15 applicants based on our assessment of their aptitude and based on their motivation to learn the skills required to start a career in software development.  None of these 15 students really had any prior technology training or experience – they ranged from about 22 years old up to 50ish with an average around 30.  We’ve got people changing careers, we’ve got people who just got their bachelor’s degree in May, we’ve got college dropouts and we’ve got people with Master’s degrees.  We’ve got several musician’s (Nashville’s secret untapped pool of high potential future software developers), an architect, a couple of ex-journalists, and a chemist. 

We just finished the first of two training modules that make up the program.  This summer we put our students through training in web development such that they now have experience in what it takes to build a website and the front-end of a web application.  They learned technologies like HTML, CSS and the Javascript programming language.  And for the last 3 weeks of August we worked on real projects, i.e. projects that resulted in websites that will actually be installed.  All of our training modules are designed to include work on real projects for partner companies – we think of this as allowing our students to serve an apprenticeship as software developers.  So we have taken our 15 students from having no prior exposure to programming or web development to the point where they actually helped build a real, working website. 

Now, starting on September 10 we start the second half of the bootcamp where we will teach our students about building the “back-end’ or the server side of web applications.  They’ll be learning another whole new set of technologies, methods, and skills.  There will be 12 weeks of training in this module and then another several weeks of working with our local partner companies on apprenticeship projects.  At the end of this period, roughly at the beginning of 2013, our students will be qualified to take on entry-level or junior software developer positions. 

Another bit of evidence of traction is that we’ve been able to engage 20 or 30 experienced local software professionals as instructors and mentors for our students.  Our program is very much a community-based effort by the Nashville tech community to invest in growing itself by developing new talent.  We’ve also gained commitments from many local companies to work with our students and provide apprenticeship projects and paid internships all with an eye towards recruiting our students at the end of the training. 

 
Could you tell me a little bit about the structure of the program?
The structure of the training program is outlined above.  I suppose one other aspect of our program that’s unique is the financial structure of the program.  Nashville Software School is set up as a non-profit whose entire purpose is providing vocational training to help people gain entry to a career in technology, specifically in software development.  We’re also structured such that our students only pay a single $1,000 payment at the beginning of the six months of bootcamp and apprenticeship.  Those students who successfully meet our assessment criteria after the first training module become apprentices in our program at which point we start paying our students a stipend. 

We get paid back at the end of the program in a couple of different ways.  First, our partner companies pay an hourly consulting fee for the project work that our apprentices perform.   Secondly, our partner companies will pay us a recruiting fee for those students that they hire at the end of the program.  The entire program is geared around training our students in the technologies and skills that local companies need and then helping pair up our students and partners through our mentor program and apprentice program.  We have already had multiple students receive job offers even though we’re only halfway through the program so we’re optimistic that in late 2012 and early 2013 we’ll have 15 new junior software developers working in Nashville, filling positions that a year ago probably wouldn’t have been filled locally but would have been outsourced to contractors elsewhere in the U.S. or overseas. 

 
How do you see NSS fitting into the jobs landscape? What else needs to happen for us to get over this problem? Seems like people have been kicking ideas around for a while… are we making progress?

Well, I think NSS is just one piece of the solution to the tech workforce development issue.   We’re focused on working closely with the tech community that’s already here and with the companies that are trying to fill their software developer needs in providing very vocationally-focused training.  We’re also focused on working with non-traditional students to provide them a pathway to a career in software development.  So we fill in a piece of the puzzle that nobody was really focusing on previously.  But there’s lot of other pieces to address.  There’s doing more at the high school and even middle school level to expose students to technology and introduce them to programming and other technology concepts.  There’s realigning and re-imagining today’s post-secondary options to provide more training in current technologies and more balance between academic and vocational needs.  There’s lots that can be done and that needs to be done. 

Frankly, those of us who started Nashville Software School basically said we could keep whining about the shortage of trained talent (as I had been doing for several years) or we could lean forward and take a bit of a risk and just start something to tackle one piece of the problem.  So that’s what we did.  And when I watched our students finishing up their first apprenticeship projects last week and I reflected back on the fact that in mid-June none of them knew how to code a lick I’m really excited about what we’ve started and its potential to change both our students’ lives as well as change the local tech workforce landscape. 

 

Do you have thoughts on the issue of technology talent in Music City?  Feel free to let us know what you think.