In search of software developers, Omaha startup launches code school

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Posted: Sunday, December 22, 2013 12:00 am

When it comes to hiring software engineers, Dusty Davidson wants the best talent — and he doesn't care where it comes from.

Davidson is a co-founder of Flywheel, an Omaha startup that simplifies the Web design and management process. He and co-founders Rick Knudtson and Tony Noecker will be looking to hire two or three Ruby on Rails developers in 2014.

Those employees could come from traditional universities, from other employers — or they could come from Omaha Code School, a new endeavor led by Omahan Sumeet Jain and former Omahan Rahul Gupta that is scheduled to launch Feb. 24.

The 12-week coding boot camp will take those willing to put in the work and able to pay the $6,000 tuition “from beginner to capable very, very quickly,” said Jain, who founded the Omaha development firm Bigwheel Brigade with Gupta. “The only prerequisite is the willingness to work very hard for that whole time.”

Many startups have expressed difficulty in finding Web and software developers to hire in Omaha, in Nebraska and in the Midwest, and this is a case of a startup doing something about the problem, said Dusty Reynolds, the Omaha Chamber of Commerce's director of entrepreneurship and innovation.

“If you compare city to city, Omaha has quite a few (developers) per capita, but they're all with big companies. That doesn't allow startups to be able to pull and attract them because they can't compete on salary or benefits,” he said.

Jain said local university programs are putting out qualified developers who do find jobs. “The problem is that they seem to be finding most of their jobs at large corporations.”

Code schools are popping up in larger cities across the country, but Jain believes the closest to Omaha is in Chicago. California is “saturated” with them, Jain said. He taught a course at one such school in San Francisco that wrapped up in August, and 13 of the 15 students now have full-time jobs as Web developers with startups.

“They all started at the same place that Omaha Code School students will start,” Jain said.

The Omaha class will be taught by Jain and run weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an intense workload of homework and projects.

About 50 people have applied so far, some from as far as Turkey, Singapore and Luxembourg. Sixteen students will be accepted into the school, and Jain said he and Gupta are in the second phase of the application process now, which involves a self-taught coding exercise.

“We want to help Omaha develop its talent, but we also would be excited to bring talent to Omaha,” he said. “We really do feel like this is an opportunity for the region, not just for our city.”

A location for the school hasn't been secured yet, but Jain said he is looking at spaces in the midtown and downtown areas. Some local universities have also offered up space for the class, he said.

Most applicants are at least 21 years old, Jain said, but applicants must be over 18. If the first class is successful, he and Gupta have plans for a summer camp for younger people.

Mentors from the Omaha startup community, including Davidson, are being recruited to help out with the class to give presentations and provide feedback for students. The class will teach Ruby on Rails — a Web application framework using the Ruby programming language — to focus on building applications for startups.

Some are skeptical that 12 weeks is enough time to turn a novice into a capable developer, Davidson said.

But one of the school's mentors and founder of Omaha's RiffLabs, Corey Spitzer, said it's more about teaching people to think about solving problems in a different way — an “algorithmic” way.

“The course skill is to be able to see a problem presented to you in plain English and break it down into instructions that a computer can understand. ... After that, it's just details,” he said, adding that to even use Ruby on Rails in a real world setting also involves knowledge of HTML, CSS and probably Javascript. “So really, they're going to be learning multiple technologies.”

Reynolds agreed: “If you can teach someone Ruby on Rails, they'll be able to pick up other languages as well. It's not necessarily the language ... it's also introduction to theory.”

The chamber is backing the school by making connections with other supporting businesses and helping the school find a space for its first class, Reynolds said.

The school officials' next step is making connections with local businesses for sponsorships and other support of the school. “Specifically, we're seeking employers in the region to support our effort by sponsoring scholarships, networking events, our end-of-course demo night and participating in an exclusive job fair for our graduates,” Jain said.

Scholarships are especially necessary to make the school more affordable, which he said is vital to having a diverse class.

“Lots of people will reap the benefits of this if it's successful,” Davidson said. “And a lot of people who were previously just complaining about lack of talent will be beneficiaries of it.”

Davidson and Spitzer said they aren't sure what their roles as mentors will entail yet, but Davidson said he's “willing and able to do whatever is necessary.” Any effort to increase the overall supply of developers in Omaha is a good thing, he said.

“I'm bullish on it. To me, it's all about creating more developers in the region.”

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