October 28, 2016

Written by Debora Lima

Just as quickly as new businesses crop up across South Florida, so, too, are coding schools. At least that’s the impression, as new names in the nascent industry regularly surface across the region.

The institutions hold great promise as reservoirs of talent for local companies, which previously could turn only to expensive recruiting and inefficient outsourcing to meet their tech staffing needs.

Pasted image at 2016_10_24 10_18 AMWyncode Academy was founded by Johanna and Juha Mikkola.
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Wyncode Academy was founded by Johanna and Juha Mikkola.

Set to churn out 30,000 aspiring software engineers this year, the weeks-long, intensive programs have the potential to bridge the growing gap between labor demand and supply, an issue long bemoaned by local tech companies as the obstacle to a sustainable sector.

Ironically, the region consistently ranks high in business creation — landing at No. 2 on the Kauffman Index of Startup Activity for two consecutive years. The result is a smorgasbord of available tech jobs and no one to fill them.

“A lot of people like to tout the fact that we have a number of job openings as a sign of economic activity, but there’s no real activity if those jobs don’t get filled,” said Andrew Duffell, CEO of the Research Park at Florida Atlantic University, where companies including Modernizing Medicine and Dioxide Materials got their start.

Universities’ computer science degree programs make a dent in the labor shortage, but come up short themselves, unable to graduate enough students at a sufficient rate. To fill positions, tech companies routinely resort to recruiting from outside of the state and outsourcing labor to faraway contractors.

“It’s no secret that finding good talent in South Florida isn’t easy,” said Ricardo Morales, VP of engineering at Miami-based health care technology company CareCloud.

Both recruiting and outsourcing are rife with pitfalls.

Recruiting is time-consuming and expensive. Outsourcing is inefficient. (Sometimes it’s even rigged; contractors have been known to create bugs in their software to keep clients on the hook for future repairs and additional projects, industry insiders say.)

But with coding bootcamps in their backyard, tech firms big and small have a pool of talent to cull from — an essential resource to fostering a thriving technology industry.

Red tape

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.4 million positions in computing will exist by 2020. With only about 400,000 computer science graduates, 1 million jobs will go unfilled.

It isn’t for lack of trying.

Regionally, a majority of higher-education institutions — from Florida International University in Miami to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton — offer computer science degree programs. But for a variety of reasons, their supply of graduates can’t meet local demand.

It starts with the very nature of higher education: Obtaining a degree takes at least two years, usually four, and as many as 10, depending on the specialization.

Florida International University’s School of Computing and Information Systems graduates about 300 students each year across seven degree programs, three of which teach the fundamentals of computer science degrees. (The rest focus on IT.)

“We would love to be able to produce the talent that would satisfy and quench the desire of all companies out there,” said Steven Luis, director of technology and business relations for the school. “But we know there are substantially more jobs than what we’re able to produce. And we’re a fairly large program.”

Duration aside, employers say universities’ computer science programs sometimes leave something to be desired, from a hiring standpoint.

For example, coding languages taught to college students, such as Java, aren’t readily applicable to software development positions, CareCloud’s Morales said.

“We use very specific technologies, and universities are still teaching Java and [coding] languages that are more ‘academic.’” he said.

Coding languages are also frequently updated, theoretically requiring universities to update curriculum at the drop of a hat. A number of obstacles stand in the way, beginning with state universities’ chain of command. Course changes or additions must be discussed among a curriculum committee, followed by a larger, universitywide governing body, then the powers that be in the Florida Legislature.

“We execute on their wish; we’re held to state law,” Luis said.

But alongside bureaucracy is the issue of limited resources, he added. Universities have only so many faculty members whose knowledge extends only so far. The FIU School of Computing and Information Systems has about 40 instructors.

“And … there are only so many expertises one person can possess,” Luis said. “If we had unlimited resources, we could have all the faculty necessary. But we have to work within our resources.”

That’s where coding academies come in.

Running lean

South Florida is home to just under a dozen coding schools.

Programs vary in length (six weeks to nine months), price ($1,950 to nearly $15,000) and disciplines. Some, for example, focus on front-end web development — used to create mobile apps and websites — while others’ bread and butter is user-interface design, also a component of websites and apps. Many offer some form of financial aid.

All share a key advantage: They operate independently without bureaucratic hurdles.

Coding academies are nimble, able to jump on a software update soon after it is rolled out, scrap ineffective lesson plans at any point and modify best practices on a whim.

Many also maintain open lines of communication with South Florida tech companies’ hiring departments and decision-makers to gather intel and feedback.

Ivan Rapin-Smith has, on several occasions, been on the opposite end of these exchanges. As managing director of Watsco Ventures, the innovation arm of Miami-based HVAC distributor Watsco, Rapin-Smith regularly talks to the founders of Wyncode Academy, a Miami-based coding school that also operates a Fort Lauderdale outpost.

“They want to make sure they are actually filling a need. They hear from us on what they can provide and improve,” he said. “They have a healthy way of approaching things.”

Four of Watsco Ventures’ 15 employees are Wyncode grads, also known as Wyncoders.

CareCloud also regularly leans on Wyncode when hiring, having interviewed more than 100 of its students in past years.

“We do run into a lot of people with potential — diamonds in the rough, we call them — and it’s all about managing expectations,” Morales said. “We know they have the base skills and stamina to be in the tech world.”

To assess the potential of those base skills, CareCloud brings coding school grads onboard through three-month internships.

“As their skills progress, we push their limits. Then, after the internship, if it works out, we bring them on as full-time employees,” Morales said.

Seven out of nine Wyncoders that interned at CareCloud secured full-time gigs, just one instance of a win-win situation.

Junior software developers earn competitive salaries, ranging from $40,000 to $100,000, while companies slough off recruitment costs — a luxury barely within reach for young startups. (According to Morales, recruiters charge fees that amount to about 20 percent of a new employee’s first-year salary, plus relocation costs.)

On a more macro level, the regional economy also benefits. High-paying jobs are filled with homegrown talent, circulating wealth organically. It also tips the economic scales in favor of more high-skill jobs versus the low-skill, low-paying labor jobs that dominate South Florida due to its strong hospitality sector.

South Florida native Nick Leone illustrates that transition. Prior to attending and graduating from Wyncode’s 10-week software development course, Leone, 29, worked in the entertainment and hospitality industries, including a short stint as events coordinator at the former Thompson Hotel in Miami Beach.

“I wanted to make a change,” he said. “I was reading about how many jobs were in demand for computer programmers and tech in general. Having grown up in front of a computer my whole life, I thought that was something that was interesting to me and would give me job security.”

Today, he works remotely for a startup that creates radio-frequency technology, often used in automated concert-wristbands.

“There are, like, 20 other tech jobs that require that skill set, not just software engineering,” he said. “Like a data analyst. Maybe a hybrid role, like a product manager that requires speaking the language of the coders. It’s definitely opened a bunch of doors for me.”

Setting the standard

Though some coding schools are accredited by their respective state’s Department of Education, it isn’t expressly required.

That comes with its own challenges. How can a school guarantee results without decades, or even centuries, of reputation, like universities can?

Many tout lofty achievements through eye-popping statistics, ostensibly promising to turn the Average Joe into a coding expert in the blink of an eye. And without oversight, marketing can trump education.

“Oftentimes, boot camps will make these numbers up,” said Jonathan Lau, co-founder of SwitchUp, an independent directory of boot-camp reviews and rankings, in a February International Business Times article. “They’ll exclude students who they think were bad and mark them as a failed student, and do all sorts of weird things that bump up their numbers and make it look better.”

The White House set out to address the issue in 2015, soon after it hired Megan Smith, a former Google VP, as its first ever chief technology officer.

Members of the Obama administration met with founders of 10 U.S. coding schools, including Miami-based Wyncode and General Assembly, a New York City-based academy rumored to be setting up shop in South Florida within the next few years. Together, the schools pledged to reform and submit third-party verification of their enrollment numbers, graduation rates and job-placement rates.

So far, less than half have made good on their promise. Among them is Wyncode, founded by husband and wife Juha Mikkola and Johanna Mikkola.

In September, the coding school released an independently verified placement report, offering, for the first time, hard numbers that back up the glowing reviews it enjoys on CourseReport.com.

“It was about establishing transparency, because it’s a new type of education and the standards are still being established,” Johanna said.

According to the report, compiled by Miami-based accounting firm Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra, 97 percent of the 188 students Wyncode has enrolled since its 2014 inception graduated from the program. Of the 188 students, 168 were self-described as “job seeking.” Among that group, 43 percent accepted job offers within 30 days of graduation, 73 percent of which were full-time positions. More than one in 10 graduates snagged starting salaries above $60,000. One in 20 earned $80,000.

Anyone can comb through the full report through a web-based app created and launched by Wyncode as its founders work to make good on their commitment to help establish quality and verification standards industrywide.

Growing pains

In a presentation at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s annual Goals Conference in June, urban theorist Richard Florida laid out the hurdles lying ahead for South Florida’s economy.

A major obstacle, he said, is the region’s overabundance of low-skill, low-wage labor.

Encompassing more than 1.3 million jobs in Miami alone, the category dwarfs what Florida calls “the creative class” — workers with occupations in science, technology, engineering, architecture, media, arts, academia, finance and others. Across that variety of specializations there exist only 700,000 workers, which, Florida said, greatly impedes the region from establishing a diverse economic landscape.

The imbalance is one many stakeholders are desperate to overcome, especially as the internet and innovation further penetrate even the most traditional industries and pump up demand for tech talent.

“Every company needs to become a technology company … to survive and stay competitive,” said Kirill Tatarinov, the newly appointed CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Citrix Systems, while speaking at a Q&A hosted by Leadership Broward in September. “If you’re not thinking of yourself as a technology company, you’re bound to get passed over by a company that is thinking of themselves as a technology company.”

Coding schools could prove to be just the resource these companies need to remain competitive and thrive in an increasingly modernized world.

At a glance: South Florida Coding Schools

4Geeks Academy
Location: Miami
Program length: 6 to 12 weeks
Cost: $1,950-$6,000
Financial aid available: Yes

Black Belt Coding
Location: Miami
Program length: 12 weeks
Cost: $6,000 + $250 registration fee
Financial aid available: Yes

Code Fever
Location: Miami
Program length: 6 to 8 weeks
Cost: Free

Florida Vocational Institute
Location: Miami
Program length: 9 months
Cost: $14,975
Financial aid available: Yes

Location: Miami
Program length: 8 weeks to 6 months
Cost: $2,500 to $10,000
Financial aid available: Yes

Launch Code
Location: Miami
Program length: 20 weeks
Cost: Free

Palm Beach Code School
Location: Palm Beach Gardens
Program length: 16 weeks
Cost: $3,850
Financial aid available: No

UCF Coding Boot Camp
Location: Fort Lauderdale
Program length: 24 weeks
Cost: $9,500
Financial aid available: Yes

Wyncode Academy
Locations: Fort Lauderdale and Miami
Program length: 10 weeks
Cost: $10,000
Financial aid available: Yes

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