By Brandi Hunter, High Ground News
A St. Louis-based nonprofit has entered the Memphis market to offer free coding classes and job readiness support with the aim of increasing diversity in the technology field. Memphis is the fifth city expansion for LaunchCode, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square.
One hundred sixty-one students attended the first LaunchCode class held in Memphis at Southwest Tennessee Community College. The free classes kicked off on February 4.
Memphis the latest city to host LC101, a 20-week computer programming course that prepares students for jobs in technology. LaunchCode chose Memphis students from a pool of 894 applicants, which was the largest group of candidates to apply compared to the other classes in St. Louis, Kansas City, Tampa and Miami.
Dinesh Sharma, a 32-year-old student with LC101, had already been thinking about transitioning out of his career in electrical power engineering when he learned about the free class from a Facebook ad. “I started reading books on coding,” he said. “I was having this inclination since quite some time, but I started working on it actively in the last eight months.”
Launch Tennessee, a statewide business startup initiative, and the Tennessee Board of Regents, the governing body for 40 community and technical colleges in the state recruited LaunchCode to Memphis. Southwest said that the the new class, held at the STCC Nursing, Natural Sciences and Biotechnology Building across from Sun Studios on Union Avenue, supports the college’s mission to assist non-traditional students.
“We are very hopeful to see [LaunchCode] continue. This program we will look at, that could count towards credit at Southwest and one of our IT programs,” said Anita Brackin, associate vice president of Workforce and Economic Development and Continuing Education.
“We’re always looking for a way to reward an individual for life experiences and out-of-classroom training so that if they did decide to come to Southwest, we could certainly pull this in for some partial college credit.”
Brackin’s office is a liaison between the Memphis workforce and education programs at Southwest.
“We are what I call the entrepreneurial side of the college,” she said. “We look at what can we offer in Memphis that addresses our workforce needs. So that could be anything from GED classes to a very advanced technical skill class for one of our major manufacturers. I call it ‘on demand.’ Companies, individuals come to us with the need and then we’re the solutions provider.”
LaunchCode’s goal is to fill tech employment gaps by providing career-specific education and job readiness training to people not traditionally considered for technology careers, according to LaunchCode Executive Director Jeff Mazur.
The inaugural Memphis class is 62 percent people of color and 44 percent women. Forty-four percent of the students make less than $30,000 a year. Thirty-six percent do not have a degree from a four-year higher education institution.
“One of the core premises of LaunchCode is providing free, accessible, job-focused education in computer programming,” Mazur said. “There’s this profound need for people to move into high skill tech professions like software development and not nearly enough people coming through the ordinary channels to fill those jobs.”
The classes run on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. LC101 students learn the fundamentals of computer science and programming languages such as HTML, CSS and .QL. With adequate funding, the course could renew for a spring semester.
While Mazur acknowledges that learning to write code can be hard, he said LaunchCode is working to dispel the misconception that a narrow margin of people can succeed.
“Coding is a skill that you learn like any other skill,” he said. “I think there’s been a mythologizing of software development and coding. There is this long-standing belief that people are born to code and it’s only certain people who come from certain education backgrounds or certain cultural backgrounds that can do this work.
I think that’s done a disservice to the industry, and I think it’s done a disservice to people out there because we know that people from all backgrounds can actually do this work.”
Leigh Jeffrey, a 51-year-old abstract painter, was drawn to the LC101 class as a way to achieve financial security and support their art career.
“I’ve always had different service industry type jobs that have by and large been less than rewarding, and I’ve always thought about working with computers. But I was under the impression that you had to have very high-level mathematics skills.”
Ninety-nine percent of the LaunchCode Memphis students do not have a computer science degree, which Mazur says is a good thing.
“We want people to come to this without having experienced coding before. We know you need foundational skills. You have to be able to do college-level algebra or 10th-grade level algebra, and you have to have logical reasoning, problem-solving skills.
You have to be ready, able and willing to work hard, but you don’t have to have any magic in order to do this. You’ve got to be willing to commit to it and put the time in and it’ll come.”
LaunchCode has placed 1,200 students in jobs since its was founded in 2014, but the nonprofit does not guarantee job placement. The organization is in the process of connecting with Memphis employers in order to start funneling students who complete LC101 into an apprenticeship program.