Richard Simms and Betsy Hauser-Idilbi met at an intensive coding bootcamp in Chicago, became friends, and decided that the South was missing similar opportunities to learn to code. Since then, they've launched Tech Talent South in Atlanta and are adding cohorts in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Asheville. We talked to Richard about the mission of Tech Talent South, the programs they offer, and how they produce web developers in just 8 weeks!
Tell us about your background and how you ended up in the Coding Bootcamp space. Do you have a background in education?
Betsy and I make a dynamic duo and we bring a good perspective to the mix. I’m from Atlanta, so I’m very passionate about starting and headquartering Tech Talent South here. I went to school in Virginia and moved to DC afterwards to work for Cvent. It was a really good first experience in the tech world, and where I caught the bug. At the time, there were about 75 employees, and it grew to over 1000 employees in the four years I was there. As a young guy, I got to do all kinds of cool stuff outside of my comfort zone- I was travelling internationally, overseeing strategic partnerships- I was more of a business guy, but loved tech because I had aspirations to be entrepreneurial. When I left Cvent, I wanted to do a true startup, so I went to Chicago to join a company called HighGround. We had no product, no money- we were working on a SaaS tool in the HR space geared towards performance management and employee engagement. Once we raised money, the next step was to start hiring developers. I became really interested in learning to code because I wanted to be dangerous on both sides, and more importantly, I had ideas of my own that I wanted to be empowered to prototype. So I started playing around online with tutorials, but I really wanted more structure. I started at The Starter League in Chicago, which is where I met Betsy. We worked with Ruby on Rails, which is what we teach, and we were the only two Southerners in the program (Betsy is from Charlotte) so we naturally became buddies. We saw the impact it was having in Chicago, and Betsy especially will tell you how much she wanted this opportunity to exist back home- she left her fiance in Charlotte for several months!
Betsy has a really interesting background being a woman in tech, which is traditionally not common. She ran a product development company in Charlotte called Little Idea. They worked with inventors and entrepreneurs to prototype an idea for a product, design a business plan and a marketing strategy. She sold Little Idea to a company called Enventys and went on this journey to learn to code. We have a very soft spot in our hearts for people who want to launch their own product.
You both went to Starter League, which is a 12-week course. Why did you design yours to be 8 weeks?
We get this a lot, because we’re 8 weeks long instead of 10 or 11. But don’t just factor in the number of weeks, factor in how much time you’re in class and how busy you are during that time. We loved Starter League, but we would rather have class four days per week (as opposed to three at Starter League) and work through the material in 8 weeks instead of 11. We’re not cutting out material, it’s just more condensed.
You have two tracks, Full Time and Part Time. What are the different outcomes for each of those courses?
It is pretty unique that we do part-time, but we love it. The part-time course is two nights a week from 6-9pm. Part-timers can still take advantage of all the outside activities- guest speakers, events, tours of local companies. What’s great about the part-time program is that it allows people to keep their day job and keep a steady paycheck coming in. We get a lot of folks in part-time who are interested in supplementing their current job. Maybe they work in Sales or Account Management at a tech company and want to learn about the other side of the equation. We also get people who do something totally irrelevant to tech in their day job, but they want to pursue something on the side. We love supporting the people who are dipping their toes in the water.
Naturally, full-time is more in depth. Full-timers are typically looking to reinvent themselves. They’re looking to make a career change or pursue a job in web development, or they have ideas of their own. Both are great programs, it just depends how in-depth you’re willing to go and what sacrifices you’re looking to make.
Was your first cohort in Atlanta?
Our first group ran through Atlanta from October-December. We had 15 students between the two programs for our first group. We’re about half-way through our second cohort and we have 22 students in this group. We’ve been growing, which is great. The way we started is in kids’ camps, which is a lot of fun. We’re constantly doing these camps around the Southeast, getting kids excited about tech.
And now you’re expanding into Charlotte, Raleigh, and Asheville. What’s next?
Our goal is to put the Southeast on the map as the next big tech epicenter. We came up with the name for a reason- Tech Talent South. Atlanta has gone really well, so we’re excited to bring that experience to other towns. Our next program starts in Asheville on Monday. We have a great instructor on the ground there. And we’re gearing up for Raleigh and Charlotte. We have a good grasp on what we’re doing here, and we’re ready to take it to other spots.
Tell us about the tech scene in the cities where you’ve launched.
I have a soft spot for Atlanta because this is where I’m from. There are a ton of great startups in Atlanta- we’re hitting it at a really good time. A big part of the tech hub narrative is that people are hungry for more talent, so we obviously are excited to push more developers out into the scene. There are a lot of Fortune 500 companies here, so if you’re able to create a product that delivers value to those companies, then there are a lot of potential clients here.Plus, we’ve got a low cost of living!
Betsy is from Charlotte, so she knows the community there and has been very connected with the tech and entrepreneurial scene there. Similarly, there’s a great startup scene in Charlotte and a lot of neat coworking space- we’re going to be working out of one called Industry Charlotte. There’s plenty of activity to support what we’re doing. Raleigh-Durham is a nobrainer between the universities and a lot of great tech companies with a tech presence. We’re definitely strategic about the places we’re picking.
What are you looking for in a potential student? Do you consider yourself a “Zero-to-Sixty” bootcamp, and how can students set themselves apart?
We definitely go for personality over pedigree. We don’t care where you went to school, if you have a college degree, or even much about what you were doing beforehand. What we care about is enthusiasm, the right attitude, and that you’re someone who will really buckle down and get a lot out of the experience. We have a killer curriculum and great instructors, but there’s no silver bullet. It takes a lot of work and powering through the frustrations that come with being a beginner. Naturally, when we interview folks we’ll ask about a tough project that they’ve worked through and how they approached the challenge. We get a really interesting mix of people and we do double-round interview everyone. It’s a pretty rigorous process, which we think is good.
Have you ever accepted a student who did not fit the tech profile but ended up doing really well?
We are beginner focused, but with that said, we have pre-course work that we require. We provide resources and are very adamant about getting through that material because we move at a rapid pace. Folks who we interview who have the right drive, if we’re bringing them from “zero to ten,” then we make sure they’re at a “2” by the first day. In that sense, we don’t have anyone coming in on Day 1 who has never touched programming. At this point, we haven’t had anyone drop out of the precourse work, but it get people in the right mindset- this is going to be tough and you have to be ready to buckle down.
How large are your cohorts?
In our last group, we had 15 and in this current cohort, we have 22 (part-time and full-time). We get a lot of applications, which is great- we’re lucky that we’re able to be selective. We know that we want to keep the classes small- I don’t want 25 people in our classes, so I don’t think we’ll go much bigger with our cohorts. We have a full time and a part time instructor. We like that model because they can share ideas about what’s working in the classroom, team up to do lesson plans, and they both have office hours. We also have a TA, which is a huge help, and even I hold office hours. We also have mentors from the tech community- we try to make sure they have a lot of resources.
Describe the curriculum and tell us about the teaching style.
As you would imagine, classroom time is a mixture of lecture and lab. The instructor will introduce new material (ie. how to add a gem to your rails application) and then the students pair program to solve the problem. The instructor will float around and offer guidance, but it’s meant to be very interactive. The way you learn this material is by putting it into practice, so you need to hammer through on the keyboard and work it out yourself. That’s the classroom dynamic. Our students stick around for the full day, we’ll often have speakers in the afternoon, or we may jump in the car and go tour Mailchimp or Scoutmob.
We love that you’re supportive of entrepreneurs who may want to start their own thing, but how do you help the other students who want to find jobs in tech?
As I mentioned, we do have some folks who aren’t necessarily looking for a job, but naturally, we do have a lot of people who are. Our track record on that is very strong. I know that over 85% of our students have had at least one job offer within 2 weeks of class ending. Every single one of our students who stayed in Atlanta has a job. One of our guys came from Puerto Rico, and he’s now back there freelancing. Another woman is working for a startup in Charlotte, and another is pursuing her own idea. With our current cohort, a lot of them are just getting into that process. We have relationships with several tech recruiters, which is a huge help with resume and interview prep. And then we have a mentorship program where each of our students is set up with a developer or an entrepreneur, depending on their goals. Our goal is to have the Tech Talent South network spiderweb out as much as possible.
One of our favorite success stories is a woman named Jenny who was an OB-GYN with her own practice for about 16 years. She was burnt out on medicine, so she started playing around with coding online. She felt invigorated again, and set out to make a dramatic career change. She went through our program and now works for a dev shop called Toolbox9 in Atlanta. She has kids who are 14 and 17 and they think she’s awesome now because she spends her days building apps and games!
What is the makeup of your cohorts in terms of gender?
We have a dead split in terms of men and women. I think some of that is a testament to Betsy too- she makes it more approachable for women trying to break into web development.
When a student takes a job with a company, do you take a hiring fee or recruiting fee?
We don’t, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I don’t want to be incentivized to push our students in one way or another. We try to stay impartial on that front. We provide them with resources to get them to a place they’re happy with, but we don’t want to be collecting money if they get a job. And a lot of our students are more interested in doing their own thing, so I don’t want to encourage someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit to take a job because Teck Talent South will get a kickback.
Do you feel pressure to become accredited or to work with the regulatory agencies in Georgia?
We’re very careful not to position ourselves as a “job placement” program, which is where, I think, a lot of that heat comes from. And I’ve seen a lot of programs that make some lofty claims- six figure salaries, guaranteed job placement etc. We try to be more careful about managing expectations. Is the developer path a very lucrative path to go down? In two or three years, will you be commanding a high salary? Absolutely. But you’re still a beginner, you’re starting over. You’re not going to learn to be the best concert cellist in 8 weeks, just like you're not going to be the best developer in the world in 8 weeks, 10 weeks, or even 20 weeks. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Just like anything else, it takes time and hard work.