Erik Gross took his background in classroom and practical instruction for the Navy and combined it with his expertise in .NET and Java. Add the clear shortage of talent in the booming Portland IT market, and Erik knew he had a recipe for success. He started the Prosper IT Academy (now Tech Academy Portland) in 2013.
We talk with Erik about their unique rolling admission model, how they team up with staffing partner CorSource, and what students learn during their ten weeks at Prosper IT.
What were you doing before you started Prosper IT and how did you get into this space?
My technical and education background both come from the Navy. While I was in the Navy, I was a Nuclear Reactor Operator and Electronics Technician, and I was also a classroom instructor teaching computer fundamentals, electronic, nuclear power, physics- everything you need to know to operate a nuclear reactor in a ship. I was also a practical instructor inside the ship, and I found that I loved it. All the way through my professional career, I have always had a mentor role with getting people up to speed on changing technologies.
Fast forward to the last several years, and I’ve been operating in Portland. The IT market in Portland is really vibrant. We’ve got a strong .NET/Java enterprise community, and also a strong startup community. I’ve been part of the enterprise community for a long time, and I realized that there was a distinct shortage in talent. I was pulling in all of these side projects, and it was hard to find junior developers to work on these projects. So a buddy of mine and I started to create our own talent; we developed a curriculum and taught best practices to this group of junior developers. Everybody who went through that prototype program got jobs in IT- it worked out really well.
Then about a year ago, my son came home from school (he’s 15) and said he wanted to do a developer bootcamp. The lightbulbs went off, I did all my research, and realized that my specific advantages were that I was going to teach .NET, because that’s the stack I know. We weren’t going to teach Ruby because I don’t know that stack- what I do know is how to be a well-rounded .NET developer. So I started putting together this course to create a well-rounded developer. We produce developers with the technical skills to be an entry-level developer, but also the soft skills with the ability to communicate well, handle stress, and genuinely network and establish long-term relationships with people.
Why did you choose to teach .NET?
It’s what I know, but also, it’s the area that we need talent. Everyone I pitched the idea to just lost their minds - there is a tremendous demand for .NET talent in this town. It’s mindboggling how many jobs there are relative to the number of developers - we have Intel, Nike, Techtronics, IBM, all of the major healthcare companies - and they’re all .NET stack. In fact, we work with a partner, CorSource, who handles all of the interview prep and resume building for us. They came up with 143 different companies in Portland that employ .NET developers!
What are you looking for in potential students? Do students need to have any programming or IT experience?
We have two different offerings in our school - one is for the experienced developer who has been on the job for 2-4 years and is well-established in the industry, but wants to get up to speed in a newer technology like ASP.NET MVC, test diven development, or unit testing. This is not a bootcamp environment; it’s 1-2 weeks long and is a crash course.
The other is the bootcamp. The only requirement is that you’re very bright and have a good personality. To that end, the applicant testing isn’t about IT knowledge. We do an IQ test, which tells me a lot. Then, we do a personality test which helps weed out people who are unstable or are putting on a front. Because we weed those people out, our classes are really awesome, even though some of the students are smart-alecs! It’s a really great dynamic - they naturally form teams. That’s the kind of product we want in the IT community - a develper who is friendly, can take criticism well, is naturally inquisitive and isn’t insecure.
So students can start the program at any time. Do they form cohorts or is this a one-on-one experience?
For the first third of the program, a lot of learning is one-on-one with the instructor.
First, we assess knowledge of computer science fundamentals with a pretty brutal, two-hour test. We don’t care if they do well or poorly on it, we just want to know how much they know about number systems, algorithms, data structures, basic computer architecture, and fundamentals of programming. Based on those results, we create a custom training program to fill any of those holes. Some people have to learn all five modules and others only have to do one or two.
How many students are in the space at the same time?
6-10 at a time. We have 2 instructors.
Are you getting a lot of interest in the program?
Last week, we got 20 inquiries and 3 applications. We just kicked off a marketing campaign. I want to be able to deliver well - we just added another office so we’re ready for that.
How selective are you with applicants?
We are selective, but we spend a good amount of time interviewing. There are some people who I encourage not to even do our initial testing. But once a student gets through the testing, we’ve had 100% acceptance rate.
What is the makeup of your cohorts? Do you do outreach to women and underrepresented minorities in the community?
We have about 20% women and 20% underrepresented minorities right now, which is fine, but I’d like to get that up. One thing we’re doing is outreach in local education to tutor STEM subjects in middle and high school. I’ve worked in the enterprise IT environment for so long, where often 40% of the workforce are women. I have a phenomenal track record working with women in this industry, but most of the women I’ve worked with have been from India, because they’re really well educated in STEM there. Probably 90% of our applicants are men. We’d like to change that.
Tell us about the soft skills that you’re teaching students and why that’s important.
In-house, towards the end of their technical training, they go through a communications course. This teaches how to ensure that you’re being understood by another person, ensure that they’ve understood you, without getting upset. The communications course handles this well. The main reason I’ve been hired in the past is because I interview well and have gotten along with people - I want my students to have that. Then, our staffing partner CorSource takes over, and they get into the specifics of the interview process and handling difficult questions. They drill the students beforehand, so that they don’t fall down during their first interview.
How does Prosper IT help students get jobs in tech once they’ve completed the program?
They’re building a portfolio with the two or more live projects they do - I get people asking all the time about our students working on their projects. We have specific requirements about what we’ll accept. It must be a full-stack application and it must have a viable back-end component. We’re not just going to build a glorified brochure page for a real estate company, for example. It also must be public-facing, ideally viewable on the internet, or, if it’s an in-house proprietary app, the client has to be willing to let the students keep the code base so that they can show prospective clients their work. That is their resume.
Do you have any examples of projects that your students are working on now?
There’s a junior developer user group that just formed in Portland ,and our school is making the website for it. They’re creating the back end to be able to store historical data, keep minutes of the meetings, store membership data, etc., as well as the front-end of the site.
Another one is a tool called the Parts Writer, for an Oregon aerospace company who needed the ability to take the materials for aircraft and determine which elements of those parts were new and revised versus parts that the company already has. So it aids them in building highly technical parts and repair manuals. These are live projects, not theoretical assignments.
Tell us about your job placement stats and your relationship with CorSource. Does a student get a tuition refund or are there recruiting fees?
We’ve placed 100% of our students, and honestly, we always will. One of the key components of our relationship with CorSource is that they organize talking tours, where CorSource arranges events with their clients – our students get to talk with the CEO and developers at the company- it’s the ultimate foot in the door. CorSource is working with us for free, but they want to place the students because that’s how they get paid. On the other hand, I’m forming relationships directly with employers and for those, I negotiate a hiring fee, and all of that fee goes to the student.
If a potential student isn’t looking for a job, but maybe wants to start their own company or launch their own product, is that supported at Prosper IT?
I’ve never had anyone bring it up. I have a couple guys now who are natural hackers and entrepreneurs, but their goal is to get solid training, work in the industry for a few years, and then launch on their own.
Your website says that you will pay for the MTA (Microsoft Technology Associate) Certificate - have you had success with that?
I haven’t had a single person test for it. I’m perfectly willing to pay the assessment fees, though!
Do you feel pressure to become accredited or work with regulatory agencies in Oregon?
I haven’t specifically gotten word of anything like that in Portland, but we’ve all been talking about it. I’ve talked with my students, and a couple of guys who run other code schools. That said,
I really want to have my finger on the pulse of this - I want to know if anyone is going to either try to suppress this area or try to grab a piece of it, because there is money being made. I don’t mean to seem cynical, but I saw the article about the California regulations, and I know that’s not motivated by concern for the students or protecting them from fraud, because they’re all getting hired at $100,000 per year, so why do they need to be protected? I’ll try to be as far ahead of this as I can.