[As of October 13, 2017, The Iron Yard will no longer be operating.] After working with the state of Florida to get licensed as a post-secondary education institution, The Iron Yard is ready to hit the ground running, teaching dozens of future programmers in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg. We spoke to campus director Toni Aliberti about why licensing is so important for coding bootcamps, the tech scene (and the current shortage of developers) in Tampa Bay, and how involved The Iron Yard alumni are with the local tech community.
When did The Iron Yard Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg campus first open and how successful have your first cohorts been?
The four cohorts that graduated are all doing very well. Many have received promotions, quite a few have been doing freelance work and picking up contract work, and they've also been super active in their communities.
What types of licensing did you have to get in order to operate as a coding bootcamp in Florida?
In Florida you can't run an educational institution unless you're licensed, so it was really important for us to receive this license. As of today, every single campus we operate is licensed. We were lucky to be able to run four cohorts during the Florida process of approval. Once we were on the homestretch of the licensing process, the Florida Department of Education asked us to hold off on enrollment until they finished all approvals. That's why we put classes on hold for a few months.
We first applied for licensing in 2014. In some cities it takes three to six months, but in Florida it was a more lengthy process. It’s not that Florida isn’t open to educational startups, they just wanted to make sure students are getting proper education and are in a safe environment. Licensing is very important to us because now we're recognized by the state as a post-secondary educational institution.
What have the instructors and staff been up to while you couldn’t run full-time bootcamps?
We've stayed super busy. The instructors have been creating content for our crash courses and for different parts of our curriculum. They've also been working on global Iron Yard initiatives.
We’ve all also been very active in the Tampa Bay community. We’ve hosted meetups, worked with our alumni and our advisory board members, and met with employers that are hiring, getting to know them. And we've even been teaching kids classes!
After going through this process, how important do you think it is for all coding bootcamps to be licensed in Florida?
All states license schools like ours for consumer and student protection. The state wants to make sure that The Iron Yard is delivering quality education, we're able to help students find jobs, we offer quality resources, and good connections. We're not falsely marketing what we're doing, we're not flying by the seat of our pants; we have a curriculum, skilled instructors, and our campuses are beautiful, comfortable, and creative spaces. Getting licensed wasn't even a question. We're always going to be licensed.
When will you start running full-time courses again?
Applications are now open for our next cohort starting on July 18th. We're excited to offer both Front-End and Back-End Engineering classes.
Can you tell us a bit about the tech scene in the Tampa Bay/St Petersburg area and what kind of tech companies there are?
The tech scene here is absolutely amazing and extremely welcoming, with a lot of people wanting to help each other and share knowledge.
Tampa Bay has everything from startups to large companies. It’s a great place for small to medium-sized businesses to really flourish. We see lots of different startups trying to get to that next step.
There is a great range of companies on our advisory board including startups, small design companies, midsize enterprises, and agencies. One is called Big Sea Design, a web design company run by Andy Graham, who founded the Girl Develop It Tampa Bay chapter. There is also California-based Malware Bytes, which has a branch here. They are a bit larger, and are really involved in the community and sponsor a lot of events. Also Valpak Coupons, which has a coupons app.
Why is Tampa Bay/St Petersburg a good location for a coding bootcamp?
The number one reason we're teaching here is that there's a huge skills gap for Tampa Bay tech companies. Companies hiring or looking for developers and designers are having a very hard time finding and keeping talent. I’ve seen this first-hand working at a payroll software company and seeing that we couldn’t find developers. I realized at that point that there was a serious shortage, and I hear that from a lot of members in our community.
The Iron Yard gives Tampa Bay the opportunity to learn coding in-person. Of course, you can learn to code online, and we provide free online resources for students when they are interested in experimenting. Or you can learn at traditional universities, but not necessarily at a fast pace. There are no other code schools in Tampa Bay, so we wanted to give people that opportunity.
What is your favorite part about working with The Iron Yard?
What I love most about The Iron Yard and being part of the tech scene is working with such creative, intelligent people. It's very motivating, and after transitioning into tech, I’ve found so many resources and tools that make you more efficient and productive. Tech is freeing in that way.
I get to talk to high school students and college students about traditional and nontraditional jobs in the tech world. The tech world is vast, so of course you can become a programmer, but you could also work in operations, PR, recruiting, office management, or coordination for a tech company and have a really rewarding career.
How do Iron Yard alumni keep in touch after graduating?
Our graduates are some of our biggest supporters. We start every cohort with instructors and students, but we end up as peers. We love keeping in contact with our alumni and hosting alumni events. Alumni are always coming back to campus and telling us what they're doing at their jobs, sharing programming tricks they’ve found, and sharing knowledge and giving back. That's been really rewarding to see.
And I go to the gym with some of the alumni – we talk about different coding things while working out! And I was just a maid of honor for one of our alum’s weddings.
What's the Tampa Bay campus like? Where can students expect to be learning?
Our campus is beautiful. We have our own floor in a building called The Station House Building – think beautiful pine decor with exposed brick. There are two classrooms and a big open space for lab hours, Friday Huddles or game days at Iron Pints.
In addition to classrooms, we have sitting areas, comfortable areas to work, and standing and seated desks. We also have Ping-Pong, darts, and other games to get students off their computers – because it's actually very hard to get away from coding. We try to encourage them to do stretch breaks, a bit of chair yoga, and take walks outside. We're about three blocks from the Tampa Bay, which is amazing.
Most of The Iron Yard campuses are located in urban areas because we like our students to be able to easily grab a bite to eat during lunch, or set up a meeting with a hiring manager nearby.
How is your campus is different or similar to the other The Iron Yard campuses. Do you have your own culture?
What I love about all of The Iron Yard campuses is that they're all so creative and comfortable to work in, and they encourage you to be productive, while being relaxed. Most of our campuses have 24/7 access, so it's like a home away from home.
The campuses are definitely heavily influenced by local culture. We have local art mixed in with indie art from all over the country, all handpicked for us. We definitely incorporate a lot of local flair, for example, we serve local Tampa Cuban coffee.
How many students are in a typical classroom? Do you have rolling admissions or do you have cohorts going at the same time?
Our Back-End Engineering and our Front-End Engineering programs are starting at the same time on July 18th. Then in August, we will also be offering a User Interface Design course. We are looking at starting other programs depending on what students want to learn.
Right now we typically have about 30 people on campus at a time but we could do up to 60. Smaller class sizes mean that we get to know each of our students, and we like to learn a lot about our students.
How many instructors, mentors or TAs, are on campus?
Right now, there are two instructors. And if we have more than 10 students in the class, we'll add a TA. If we have 20, students can expect two TAs.
What sort of jobs did you see those students getting? Are they staying in the Tampa Bay area?
Our Tampa Bay students are in positions as front end developers, UI, UX developers, software engineers, Ruby on Rails developers, and web engineers. Most of our students want to get jobs and stay in Tampa Bay. One outlier was a student who took an apprenticeship in Ohio for six months.
What are your favorite meetups for people who are new to the tech scene and want to get a better understanding of what it’s like at a coding bootcamp?
Girl Develop It is great. It's not just for women, and they do some really great introductory classes. They have workshops at The Iron Yard in St. Petersburg, in Sarasota, and on the Tampa side as well.
A lot of our alumni are also running local meetups. We have two alumni that run Women Who Code, and an advisory board member and alumni who does Girls Develop It. Our instructors, one co-founded, and both are co-organizers of the Tampa Bay Ruby Brigade. We try to be super involved with anything that will benefit our future students, students or alumni, as far as continuous learning, professional development, networking.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about The Iron Yard Tampa Bay?
We're just so excited to be back live in Tampa Bay. The Tampa Bay community has been so supportive of us, by hiring our students, and maintaining the interest level in our classes and our courses and what we're doing. We just can't wait to get going again.