By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Over the glow of computer screens and boxes of McKenzie River Pizza, the latest students to embark on a computer coding bootcamp gathered in a swanky downtown Missoula club to demonstrate their latest skills.
Projects under development in the Montana Code School’s second cohort include a website to help forage wild foods and a gauge to estimate a river trip based upon real-time water flows.
Whatever the project, nearly each of the class’s 13 students will graduate into a junior-level programming job, where the starting pay in Montana ranges from from $40,000 to $60,000 a year.
“We’ve got tech businesses here to see what kind of skills they’re learning, what kind of languages they’re learning, and just how they’re developing,” said Paul Gladen, director of Blackstone LaunchPad. “A big part of our commitment isn’t to just train them as programmers, but to help them get jobs.”
For each of the past four years, the Kauffman Foundation has ranked Montana as the top state for startup activity. Missoula, a community once largely dependent on the timber industry, has pivoted 180 degrees to become one of the region’s hottest new tech hubs.
Recent local startups include Submittable, onXmaps, Agile Data Solutions and The Audience Awards, among many others. The new firms have enjoyed robust growth, adding new jobs and landing respectable sums of venture capital along the way.
But despite their success, economic leaders have long feared that a lack of skilled programmers in Montana could limit the industry’s growth. Without the workforce needed to fill the jobs, upstart tech firms face difficult choices, like moving to another city or passing on growth opportunities.
“This was something I was hearing regularly on the Internet, and something I was hearing at Hellgate Venture Network meetings,” said Gladen. “Lots of conversations came together in May of last year. We knew there wasn’t a lot of tech talent here. The Montana High Tech Business Alliance has told us that as well.”
Facing a skill shortage, Blackstone – an entrepreneurial incubator based at the University of Montana – teamed up with the Bozeman tech firm Wisetail to launch the Montana Code School.
“I really believe that anyone who is competent and motivated can learn development,” said Doug Walter, an instructor at the Montana Code School in Missoula. “The hard challenge is psychological. It’s hard the first four weeks, and it’s stressful.”
The program’s first cohort saw 11 students complete the class. The latest class has 13 students. Walter, who learned his own programming skills during a similar bootcamp in San Francisco, said many students have left their jobs to take a chance on a new career, one that’s in high demand and offers pay beyond the state’s median income.
“Anything that’s worth doing is going to be tough,” said Walter. “The hardest part is managing that psychological situation. If I can get them through those first four weeks, they start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and it becomes a lot of fun.”
During a demonstration day at The Loft in downtown Missoula, the program’s past and current students gathered around computer monitors to show off their latest projects.
Among them stood Kelly Nash, who graduated from the program’s first class in Missoula. She now serves as the school’s director and says the program’s broad curriculum prepares students for jobs in emerging fields.
“One of the things we emphasis is becoming a ‘T-shaped developer,’ meaning you’re broad,” said Nash. “You understand the front end, the back end, and you understand everything in between. People want to see what you can do.”
Nash described her experience as a student in the school’s first class as intense. The program was new to both the students and instructors, and it has evolved based upon feedback from students.
She believes the program’s ability to adjust to ever-changing technology needs serves as one of its greatest strengths.
“We want to be responsive to what people need,” she said. “We see a huge disparity in skills, the types of people and their ages. This is a fast on-ramp and that’s really what we’re doing, trying to meet a need on both ends, from the people who want to switch careers to the people who have startups and are hungry for talent.”
While the school doesn’t yet have statistics on job placement, placing its students is one of its top endeavors. A number of Montana businesses – many present at this particular demonstration day – are currently recruiting junior-level developers directly from the school’s classes.
At last count, 10 tech firms within Montana were actively recruiting Code School graduates.
“They’re getting placed – there’s a need for this,” said Nash. “This gets them into the tech community, meeting with people and employers. We make sure they go to networking events, we make sure they polish their LinkedIn profiles. This is all part of their resume.”