It was about 6:10 on a Wednesday night when brothers and instructors Jake and Matt Overall opened class at BoiseCodeWorks. The 21 students who make up the code school’s first cohort sat in rows, tapping away at laptops.
The day before, the students were assigned to program three frogs racing across their screens. Some students raised their hands to indicate they had completed the task. One volunteered to show his work. Like a woodpecker, Jake Overall tapped at that student’s keyboard, commanding the frogs across the screen in front of the class.
“This is good,” Jake Overall said. “The only problem is that I have to push this button a million times to make them move.”
“We give them a base,” he said. “They take it and make it dance.”
The Overalls and their students are the Treasure Valley’s answer to a chronic shortage of software developer talent in the Valley and elsewhere. BoiseCodeWorks, which opened in August on 50th Street north of Chinden Boulevard in Garden City, is one of dozens of coding schools to sprout around the country over the past four years.
These businesses offer coding boot camps, short but intensive alternatives to higher education. For $3,200, the Overalls promise graduates that they will be competent in coding skills that employers demand.
BoiseCodeWorks is the first such camp locally. Trailhead, the new Downtown space that provides mentoring and other support services for startups, announced in May its plans to open a code school. Those plans have not come to fruition, though representatives from both Trailhead and BoiseCodeWorks said there is enough demand to support two programs in Boise, especially if they focus on different programs.
RETURN TO ZORK
Student Marcus Lyons, 28, said his interest in coding started when he played computer games at age 5 or 6. He remembers playing “Zork,” the DOS-based game relying on text and player imagination. The text told players what was happening to their adventurer while navigating an underground dungeon. A player entered text commands to perform functions, such as to turn left or to pick up an item.
Now, text was the building code that pushed his frogs across the screen.
Lyons earned a health sciences degree at Boise State University as he worked toward becoming a physician assistant or a doctor. But he lost enthusiasm for his chosen career. The three-month coding class is a chance to return to his roots, he said.
Today, he works in Eagle as a support representative for timecard software company TSheets. He earns $14 an hour helping TSheets customers troubleshoot problems over the phone and online. He enrolled at BoiseCodeWorks with TSheets’ blessing as a steppingstone to becoming a junior developer at the company, which CEO Matt Rissell says will expand from 100 employees to 200 in the coming year.
Such a move would pay better. Developers earn an average of nearly $67,000 annually in the Treasure Valley, according to Idaho Department of Labor. Workers here classified specifically as “software developers” earn nearly $77,000 per year.
Lyons also would have more technology — and more potential employers — to choose from.
“That’s one thing that bothered me about the medicine route: being stuck in one thing,” he said. “I like the ability to work with different technologies and different languages. The flexibility to change what I’m doing is a definite plus for this career field.”
NEW TRAINING ROUTE
More vocational school than university in approach, code schools introduce students to a plethora of coding tools and languages that schools say make students instantly employable.
In May, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that about 6,000 students graduated from code schools in 2014, three times as many as the previous year.
Six months after finishing code school, 59 percent of graduates nationwide report an average salary increase of $23,000 annually, Bloomberg Businessweek said.
Like Lyons, about 70 percent of code school students already have college degrees. While code schools do not offer diplomas, most — including BoiseCodeWorks — send graduates into the job market with a portfolio to show off their skills.
Chief Operating Officer Chris Hoyd, who along with the Overalls make up the three-man brain trust of BoiseCodeWorks, said the team asked more than 30 Treasure Valley tech companies what skills they seek in applicants. He said many responded that coders are often self-taught, such as Jake Overall, who has a degree in nursing.
“Most employers care more about what you can do and whether you have the chops to prove you can actually do it,” Hoyd said.
Lyons’ class meets only in evenings, from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The first class registered to full capacity.
Come January, the code school plans to offer a full-time class eight hours a day for 12 weeks costing $7,800. The cost of the night class will increase to $3,600. Both courses offer discounts for early registration.
BoiseCodeWorks students range in age from 16 to 55. They include two high school students, four people attending either Boise State or Stevens-Henager College, and a chief financial officer at a local company.
Boisean Max Lee, 38, said he signed up to build skills that will let him find work outside of the hotel business, where he has worked for more than two decades.
River Merrill, a 16-year-old from Emmett who said he completed high school, said he hopes the course will expand options in information technology beyond graphic design jobs he’s taken.
“I signed up because I loved computers and wanted to find a passion for coding,” Merrill said. “Starting pay, from what I have researched, is at least four times what I was making at my last job.”
The only woman in the class, Katie Banbrook, studies information technology management as a Boise State senior. She worked as a graphic designer before taking IT support and analyst positions. She hopes to become a junior developer at a tech startup.
“I want to make stuff,” she said.
Kip Schossow, of Caldwell, said he wanted out of the real estate industry after being laid off from his previous job in May. Schossow, 51, hopes to find a job in database management.
“I knew that programmers were more secure with the positions they held and that salary increases were possible,” Schossow said.
Kenny Lee, 28, of Boise, said he hopes to start his own development business. “I’d like to build out some of my app ideas and get funded,” he said.
COLLEGE VS. BOOT CAMP
Lyons said he considered returning to BSU to earn a second bachelor’s degree, this time in computer science. But it wasn’t possible to juggle a full-time credit load with his TSheets job, serve as a reservist in the Army National Guard and spend time with his wife, Meggie Lyons, and their 1-year-old son, Max.
But a 12-week coding course in the evenings? He could fit that in, even as he enrolled in online courses through Western Governors University pursuing a bachelor’s in IT.
“This three-month course was about $300 less than one semester at BSU,” he said. “The cost-to-time ratio was definitely a factor in doing this.”
Often companies want their developers to have four-year degrees or a higher level of training or experience, Matt Overall said. But many also struggle to fill junior developer positions that don’t need the theory or higher-level skills taught at four-year programs, he said.
“Just yesterday, an employer drew this analogy: CS students are architects, and coders are draftsmen,” he said. “His particular company looks more for architects. But there’s jobs for both.”
J.D. Mullin, TSheets vice president of engineering, said code school graduates without additional experience likely wouldn’t have enough training to be considered for developer positions at TSheets. He encouraged Lyons to take the class because Lyons is also taking online classes and is learning some coding on the job.
“By no means do I want people to think TSheets is hiring developers with three months of experience,” Mullin said. “That’s not the case with Marcus. He’s augmenting another degree with that experience, and in conjunction that’s much more valuable to me.”
Mullin said code schools could be a viable alternative to four-year degrees if they offered a series of courses that took one or two years to complete. Short of that, Boise’s most successful startups will gravitate to applicants with four-year degrees, he said.
“I’m sure someone could take that three-month class and get a jump-start on creating websites for local, small businesses, but that’s not the level of experience that a Cradlepoint or TSheets or WhiteCloud (Analytics) is likely going to want,” he said.
Jake Overall, who taught at a similar coding school, DevMountain, in Salt Lake City, said most of his students there had no problem finding junior-level developer jobs. DevMountain courses are full time, and Hoyd said he expects the full-time class coming here in January will have similar success. Those courses, he said, will require precourse work or a higher level of coding experience.
“I’ve talked to TSheets and a couple of companies who say they want a CS degree or something higher than a three-month certification,” Hoyd said. “But by far what I’ve heard from companies is they are excited about our graduates. And, nationally speaking, the numbers have borne that out with high placement rates, usually at junior (developer) positions or higher.”