Justin Stacy wanted a change.
The Dayton native was living in Maryland and doing administrative work. But he rethought his career path and saw intriguing job openings in computer programming.
One big problem. Stacy, 28, wasn’t a programmer. And he also didn’t want to return to college and spend years and a lot of money getting another degree. He looked around and found a number of “boot camps” that promised to teach software coding in a relatively short period of time.
Stacy said the Software Craftsmanship Guild in Akron stood out. The Guild said, for $10,000, it could take someone with no software programming skills and in 12 weeks turn that person into a readily employable junior developer.
“It was perfect for me,” Stacy said. He would be back in Ohio, nearer to family and friends, and could advance his career. Stacy interviewed via a Skype teleconference, passed an aptitude test the Guild uses to screen applicants and was accepted.
He’s now one of 26 student-apprentices about halfway through the 12-week “cohort” that started Aug. 25 at the Guild. Offices and classrooms are on the sixth floor in the Akron Global Business Accelerator inside Canal Place off South Main Street. (The next boot camp starts Jan. 5).
The Software Craftsmanship Guild is small but its founders and employees believe their coding program can go national — even international. Besides a current estimated shortage of 1,000 software developers in Northeast Ohio, national projections show about a million unfilled developer jobs by 2020 — the Guild currently graduates about 100 people annually.
The concept is simple, said Eric Wise, chief academic officer who co-founded the Guild with Jennie Zamberlan, president and chief executive officer of Avantia Inc., a business software development firm in Cleveland.
For instance, when someone wanted to become a blacksmith, that person apprenticed under a master blacksmith, Wise said. The Software Guild replicates that proven concept with its apprentices tutored and mentored by experienced master programmers to solve real world problems, he said.
“It’s no different. It’s been working for thousands of years,” Wise said.
Idea takes off
The idea to create the Guild came while Wise was head of software development at Hartville Pet Insurance and needed more help. But the budget didn’t allow for the hiring of additional employees.
Wise said he found two people in the company’s call center who were interested in bettering their careers by learning how to write software code and become developers.
“They had non-tech degrees,” Wise said. He successfully taught them how to code; he said that was the “Aha!” moment that led to the Guild’s creation, he said.
“I thought there were a lot of people who want to get out of these careers and do it quickly,” Wise said.
Wise and Zamberlan, who also recognized a need for more developers and was looking to start a training program, joined forces and in 2013 created the Guild.
The “deep dive” learning program currently offers two tracks, one teaching the Java programming language and the other Microsoft .NET. The apprentices leave with about 700 hours of programming under their belts compared with many four-year students who graduate with about 400 hours, Wise and others said.
Wise said future plans include seeking corporate sponsorships, offering scholarships and having companies send “high potential” employees to the Guild for training.
The hours apprentices need to put in do not leave them a lot of free time. Classrooms are open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. but projects eat up hours afterward and extend into weekends.
The Guild is far from alone in offering this kind of high-tech vocational training.
Other programs around the nation include Dev Bootcamp, App Academy, Code Fellows, Hack Reactor, Omaha Code School, PDX Code Guild and others. Each has its own approach to teaching as well as pricing but the concept is basically the same: They take people with no experience and turn them into entry level coders.
Not everyone is accepted into the Software Craftsmanship Guild. People need to have intelligence and passion, said Wise.
“We reject 50 percent of applicants,” said Anthony Hughes, Guild president. He was hired in September to expand the Guild and move it in different directions; he most recently was founding director of the Burton Morgan Mentoring Program at Northeast Ohio economic development organization JumpStart Inc.
The Guild looks for apprentices who have the natural affinity needed to be a coder, Hughes said.
“You need to have a pretty high level of mental function,” he said. “We can take someone with no coding experience and make them shovel-ready.”
Most of the people who have gone through the Guild are in their 20s to 40s with varying real-world work experience, Hughes said. One common attribute is a belief in lifelong learning, he said.
About half of the apprentices come to Akron from out of state, and about half of those out-of-staters end up taking jobs in Ohio once they complete their apprenticeships, making the Guild a net importer of talent, Hughes said.
“They’re getting good job offers,” he said. It’s not unusual for a junior developer to take a job that pays $45,000 to $50,000 a year with benefits, he and Wise said. Someone with talent and skills may double their pay in five years, they said. (The median annual pay for a software developer in 2012 was $93,360, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
“They are taught how to code in a business environment. You don’t always get that with someone coming out of a four-year program,” said Chris Weizer, systems manager with AmTrust Financial Services. “They are taught well. They are taught the right way to code an application.”
Weizer said he learned of the Guild through recruiters AmTrust works with and will continue to seek hires from the Akron organization.
“I’ve interviewed 12 people in the last year. We extended offers to 10 of the 12,” he said.
Five are now on staff, Weizer said. “They are a good group. They are problem solvers,” he said. Hughes said the Guild’s experience is that the people leaving their program are what employers look for.
“The market is so hungry for talent,” Hughes said. “They come back and say, ‘Can I have more, please?’?”
Some current Guild students say they have high expectations once they complete their program.
Natalie Sheerer, 24, a recent University of Akron graduate, was thinking of returning to college for a computer science degree. Instead, she chose the Guild program.
“It was kind of overwhelming,” Sheerer said. But she is now settled in and looking forward to finishing.
“My short-term goal is to be a software developer,” she said. “My long-term goal is a sales engineer.”
Benjamin Grebner, said he entered the Guild program already with computer technology experience. The 31-year-old from Milwaukee had been a team leader of 28 people for Best Buy’s Geek Squad when he took a buyout and decided to become a software developer.
“It was very clear you could get out of this program as much as you wanted to put in,” he said. While early on Grebner said he thought he would return to Milwaukee once he finished, he now expects to remain in Ohio.
“I’ve already met a bunch of employers,” he said.
As for Stacy, he’s happy with becoming a coding apprentice at the Guild.
“I feel like I’ve made the right decision,” he said. “Everything is moving to technology. There’s not a moment I regret.”
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.