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John Wark founded Nashville Software School in 2012, fueled by local demand and the crafstmanship-style of learning that he and fellow tech leaders grew up on.  While the mission has expanded (NSS just doubled their available seats to allow for students outside of Nashville to take part in their unique learning model), the six-month program remains innovative and effective.

We talk with John about choosing the non-profit route, the emphasis on local instructors, and his mission to create a coding school “of Nashville, for Nashville, by Nashville.”

 

What is your story and how did you end up in the coding bootcamp space?   

I’ve been programming professionally since 1971- I started working at a large university, then moved to a bank, and I went to work for my first software company in 1978.  I’ve spent 30 years going back and forth between startups, running a marketing/developing team for larger companies.  Then in the 90’s I ran a couple of venture capital backed startups on the west coast.  So I’ve spent a lot of time in tech entrepreneurship, software development, and the product side of the tech industry.  For most of my career, we’ve had a shortage of good developers (except for short periods like right after the internet bubble).  I’ve been in Nashville since 2005, and I’ve been an adjunct prof of entrepreneurship at Belmont University. I’ve mentored at Jumpstart Foundry, a local startup accelerator, similar to Tech Stars.  And through that, I became very aware of our shortage of developers in Nashville to feed a startup economy that felt like it was taking off.  In comparing notes with a lot of the leaders in tech in Nashville, we realized that many of us didn’t have any formal computer science training- we had learned in the craftsmanship style.  There’s nothing that said we couldn’t attack this shortage of resources locally through a more structured program.  We all agreed, over one too many beers, that this was a good idea, and then I realized that I had volunteered to start this thing.  We came up with a model in early 2012, recruited our pilot cohort in June, and graduated them in November 2012.  

 

Why did you create a 6-month curriculum, when a lot of bootcamps claim they can teach these skills in 8-12 weeks?

We consciously chose a 6 month model when we started.  To get someone really qualified, 3 months was just too fast.  Secondly, we developed our curriculum with 8 or 9 local tech companies, and we asked them, “As we train our students, where do they need to be when they graduate in order for you to hire them?”   We do 12 weeks of front end development (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, some node.js) which, for most of our students, is their intro to development, where they’re learning to develop web apps using the JavaScript stack.  Then the second 12 weeks is all server-side development.  We’ve been teaching Ruby on Rails, because a lot of our partners are Ruby shops and we had that local demand.  We’re hoping to add a few server-side options in 2014- Java is a candidate, so is .NET/C+, and there’s a lot of demand locally for PHP, so we’re talking with our partners to work that out.  We want to build a rotation and produce a steady stream of people with varied back-end backgrounds.

 

Why did you choose to create a non-profit organization?  

Being a non-profit was a conscious choice.  I’m a for-profit guy, my background is in startups, but a big part of our model when we started, was an importance in mentoring.  The nice thing about Nashville is that it is a very community-driven town, not just the technology community.  It’s still southern, it’s not too big, and there’s a community glue here that I was really impressed with when I moved to Nashville.  And we want to take advantage of this- we just decided that it was going to be easier to serve our mission of growing Nashvilles tech community if we could leverage the skills and expertise of the existing tech community, if we were a non-profit.  We wanted to be in the game with the rest of the tech community.  

 

Tell us about the Apprenticeship Payment Model at Nashville Software School.

We have what we call an apprentice tuition model- pay $1000 upfront, and pay us back when you have a job. When a partner hires one of our graduates, they pay us a placement fee, which is 20% of the student’s first year salary (this is paid by the company, not out of the student’s paycheck).  Some of our partner companies will even subsidize that tuition if we find someone who has the motivation and aptitude, but doesn’t have the $1000 cash. We’re investing in our students as they’re investing in themselves.  We want to tap into the potential of people and open the door to a tech career for them, irrespective of their economic resources. I didn’t want to only serve people who could write me a check for $10,000- others need a way to get into this industry.

 

Who are your instructors and how do you choose them?

We have lead instructors for each class, and then other local developers as guest lecturers. Our instructors are experienced developers here in Nashville. It was important to us that our lead instructors had credibility in the community- Eliza Brock has been our lead instructor on the server-side of our course. She has her own software consulting business, and is really well known locally and regionally in the Ruby on Rails community. And Chyld Medford started in September with us- he taught before at both Flatiron School and General Assembly in New York.  We’re also now to the point where we’ve graduated enough cohorts that some of our leaders in the courses have become our Teaching Assistants.  We watch what the students do, and the ones that students seek out for help, those are the students we want to bring back as TAs or mentors.  It’s really good to have recent students because they remember the things they got stuck on- it makes a great mix.

 

What are you looking for in potential students?  Do they need programming experience or can they be complete beginners?

People can be complete beginners; our primary priorities while screening are motivation and aptitude. What is the applicant’s motivation? It’s got to be more than that there are jobs available in tech. We’re looking for people who want to be builders and makers, who have an inclination towards being a professional problem-solver. We’re also looking for indicators of potential aptitude.  We have some good predictors of aptitude if you’ve never coded before.  One thing we’ve seen changing is that since Code.org and other learn-to-code programs, we have more people who have spent time on the MOOCS and other self-study sites and come to us with a bit more experience.  It’s taken some of the uncertainty out of our interview process.  

Until now, we’ve only marketed locally- we’ve been “Of Nashville, For Nashville, By Nashville.”  We hadn’t entertained someone coming from New York or Boston, unless they had some indicators that they were likely to stay and work locally.  Now, we’ve created a second tuition option, which is basically our “out-of-state” tuition.  In this option, people can pay us up-front, $10,500 for the full 6-months, to give people who are attracted to our model the chance to work with us.  In 2014, we’re doubling our number of cohorts, and all of the new seats will be tuition-bearing seats.

 

If someone is not looking for a job at a company, but wants to start their own business or startup, is that a red flag?  

In our second cohort, we experimented with that. I had a group of guys who had started an online startup, and they wanted one of their founders to have a technical background- but obviously he wasn’t going to take a job with a partner company.  So he could take the “out-of-state” tuition.  

In our current cohort, we’ve actually found that half of those tuition-bearing seats ended up being local people who had this goal to start their own startup.  They knew they were getting ready to do something where they couldn’t really pay us back in our apprentice-model, but they had money to pay us upfront.  

 

Of your 25-person cohort, how many are typically male vs. female?  Do you do outreach to attract more women or other underrepresented groups into your program?

Cohort 3 (started in September) was a third female students- 8 out of 24. We all know that women and other minorities are underrepresented in the programming world and software development.  There are a lot of white males, which means that we’re not taking advantage of the latent potential of more than half of our workforce.  Anything we can do to open the door to a larger percentage of the people who have potential to be good developers is a good thing, in our opinion.  We actively support a number of womens tech groups in town and encourage our female students to go to user group meetings and spread the word.  Our numbers have gone up with every class (from 3 women to 6 women to 8).

We also work with some local refugee agencies, like World Relief.  There are a lot of people with official refugee status who come to the US with a technical background, so we’re working to identify people with those backgrounds and offer them access to the program on a scholarship basis. We’re on a couple of high school advisory boards and we’re actively interested in serving returning veterans.  There are going to be several hundred thousand veterans coming back each year, and for wounded warriors, programming can be a great job for someone with mobility issues.  Because we made the choice to be a non-profit, we think about these populations more.

 

Who are your partner companies in the apprenticeship program?

The website might need to be updated (we’re running lean on the admin side of our business), but here are many of our current partner companies:

Centresource, Checkd.in, Eliza Brock Software, Change Healthcare, OnLife Health, iostudio, Emma, LiveSchool, StudioNow, GreenPal, Thrive Marketing, HCA, GS&F, Ferf & Co, RecruitTalk, Kindful, Lonely Planet, FLO {thinkery}, Stratasan, Uniguest, Moontoast, Populr.me, RockHouse Partners, Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, Shareable Ink, Zeumo. 

 

Anything else you’d like to add about the learn-to-code space or Nashville Software School?

It’s been incredibly rewarding. The payoff is seeing our students go through our first cohort and they’re now in their first jobs.  They’re in their annual reviews, they’re getting promotions and raises, their employers are happy.  Seeing them thrive in their new careers is very cool.  Everything I’ve accomplished in my professional life has been because I learned to code. Working so closely with the community has been so rewarding- it’s been really fun to see this movement evolve.

Looking for more information on Nashville Software School?  Check out their School Page on Course Report, or their website!

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