Rep. Terry wants Omaha students to design app for software dev challenge

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Posted: Friday, March 7, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 1:51 pm, Thu Jun 5, 2014.

A local politician hopes involvement in a nationwide app challenge will get Omaha high schoolers' creative juices flowing and spur an interest in coding. Congressman Lee Terry of Omaha recently announced the 2014 House of Representatives Student App Challenge, a contest designed to spark interest in STEM careers among American high school students.

Students will design smartphone or tablet apps that will be judged on their originality, design and level of coding difficulty. There aren't restrictions of what kind of apps can be submitted so long as they do not contain illegal, hateful or vulgar content.

The deadline for submission is April 30 and students can work alone or in a group.

Terry, who chairs the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade subcommittee, believes the United States has a “skills gap” when it comes to high tech jobs and this contest is one way to encourage Omaha students to consider careers in technology.  

“It would be great if every single student could participate in some way," Larry Farnsworth, Terry’s communications director, told Silicon Prairie News by phone from Washington D.C. "It’s a fun activity, one that probably hits home for them."

The congressman’s office has been reaching out to math and science teachers in the area, but ultimately participation is up to the kids. Students in the second district will be competing against other students in the district, and a winner will be selected in May. Their project will be displayed in the U.S. Capitol building for one year.  

Terry(right) opted to have Omaha participate in the competition because, according to Farnsworth, he has been hearing from executives in his subcommittee hearings that they cannot find enough skilled workers.

“STEM education is important to Congressman Terry,” Farnsworth said. 

Judges for the contest will be leaders in Omaha’s tech community. One those judges, Flywheel co-founder and CTO Tony Noecker, is looking forward to the experience because he says teenagers are increasingly sophisticated when it comes to computer programming.

“I’m interested in seeing what students are interested in building at this point,” he said. “Technology is everywhere and so easy to get your hands on that just seeing what the students come up with given all the varieties of technology that are available—I’m pretty interested in that.”

Noecker (left) is also interested in the competition from his standpoint as an employer. His first job out of college was with a large Nebraska company and he says many computer science graduates in the region are focused on corporate jobs rather than being part of a startup. He thinks this contest might help develop an interest in tech entrepreneurship among Omaha teens. 

 “Building their own application is a taste of that kind of startup life. I think it’s really valuable to get them interested in that kind of entrepreneur [career] channel,” Noecker said.  “We definitely see this as a potential channel for finding young talent and we’d love to bring in students to do internships for Flywheel.”  

Brad Masterson, head of application development for financial services at First Data, says recruiting tech talent can also be tough for established companies, just for different reasons. While startups like Flywheel have to compete for talent with big corporations, established tech companies need to replace retiring Baby Boomers. Masterson also pointed out that they have to adjust to a younger workforce that tends to think shorter-term when it comes to their tenure at any one company.  

“There are so many companies in Omaha and they create a competitive marketplace,” Masterson said. “We’re working [with that] uniquely to try to address it.”   

One way that First Data is addressing the need for more talent is by partnering with UNO on education initiatives, including the IT Innovation Cup and CodeCrush, an education initiative targeting middle school girls with an aptitude and interest in IT careers. As result Masterson is very supportive of anything that would increase the numbers of Omaha-area students pursuing tech careers. 

What does Masterson think more local talent would mean for First Data and other high tech employers in Omaha?

“It would be huge,” he said.

To learn more about the Student App Challenge, visit Rep. Terry’s website.

Credit: App Challenge logo, Terry photo from leeterry.house.gov, Noecker photo from Twitter

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