LaunchCode, WashU Engineering team to meet demand for tech professionals

Beth Miller  • Fall 2016 issue

Computer technology jobs are among the fastest-growing occupations in the 21st century, but employers nationwide have more positions than they can fill with qualified candidates. Many of these high-paying technology positions do not require a four-year degree, but a package of fundamental skills that can be supplemented with on-the-job training.

To meet this challenge, Washington University School of Engineering & Applied Science alumnus Jim McKelvey started the nonprofit LaunchCode in St. Louis in 2013 to provide the fundamentals at no cost to area professionals looking for a career in the tech industry, but without previous experience to open the door. Through a unique partnership, Washington University and the School of Engineering & Applied Science are providing some of LaunchCode's students with Engineering's popular introductory computer science course to give them the most relevant skills that can be used right away in the workplace.

McKelvey, who earned bachelor's degrees in computer science and economics from WashU in 1987 and also is a cofounder of Square Inc. and a general partner for Cultivation Capital, formed a team to get LaunchCode off the ground, including Zach Lou, who earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 2012, and Brendan Lind, who earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology in 2012 and departed the company in September. LaunchCode's purpose is twofold: to help companies find skilled workers for the growing number of tech jobs and to provide free coding courses for those looking for a career in technology, no matter their previous education or background.

Since LaunchCode began, it has placed more than 480 candidates in technology jobs. That astounding success rate caught the eye of the White House.

LaunchCode offers 16-week hands-on training courses in several computer programming languages. Near the end of the course, students can apply for a 12-week apprenticeship as a coder/programmer with one of nearly 500 companies, such as MasterCard, The Boeing Co., Express Scripts, Monsanto and Emerson, among others. As apprentices, students earn $15 an hour as programmers while working with a mentor at the workplace. Ninety percent of people LaunchCode has placed into apprenticeships have gotten permanent, full-time jobs. Since it began, its services have pumped more than $80 million into the economy.

In its first year, more than 1,000 people used LaunchCode's mentoring and education programs. More than 80 percent of them did not have a degree in computer science, and 90 percent had no prior programming experience.

President Barack Obama recognized LaunchCode when introducing the TechHire Initiative, which made $100 million in federal grants available to communities nationwide and organizations such as LaunchCode that prepare Americans for well-paying jobs in technology, calling such programs "a pathway to the middle class." LaunchCode boasts that its graduates double their salaries from their previous jobs when accepting permanent placement.

In early September, Vice President Joe Biden, who has been outspoken about providing accelerated, accessible education to nontraditional students, visited LaunchCode in support of the nonprofit's mission. He indicated that by 2022, there would be a need for more than 1 million qualified IT workers.

"As the world figures out how to solve the tech talent gap, Vice President Biden and the Obama administration recognize that what we're doing is unique and has been quite successful," said Mark Bauer, who was recently named executive director of LaunchCode after serving as director of operations for a year. "The vice president used his visit as an opportunity to come here and speak about the way that people in the U.S. can acquire these skills to get that first tech job and use LaunchCode as a conduit to do it."

The organization's funding comes from three major sources: the government, including the U.S. Department of Labor; private foundations; and earned income through its apprenticeship program. The organization charges a placement fee when one of its apprentices is hired full-time.

LaunchCode's growing leadership team consists of at least a half a dozen WashU alumni. Lou says working with Washington University was a goal from the organization's beginning.

"WashU is the premier educational institution in the region," Lou says. "We reached out, and within Engineering, there are a lot of great people who wanted to collaborate with us and make something happen."

Creating the collaboration

Their first action was to team with Doug Shook, lecturer in computer science & engineering, to offer a 16-week free coding course in the spring 2016 semester using Harvard University's CS50x course, an entry-level computer science course for majors and non-majors. WashU computer science students were teaching assistants (TAs) for the course.

With that success, the LaunchCode staff and the School of Engineering expanded the partnership into the organization's "Summer of Code," a portfolio of four 20-week courses offered in diverse locations in the St. Louis area to reach an equally diverse community. An evening and a daytime course were in partnership with WashU Engineering, using the computer labs in Urbauer Hall for the first third of the evening course and the curriculum of Engineering's CS 131, Computer Science I, developed by Ron Cytron, associate department chair and professor of computer science, and the most popular undergraduate course at WashU with more than 1,000 students each academic year.

CS 131 takes a non-traditional approach: Students watch the lectures online before coming to class, then spend much of the time in the classroom working in small groups, called collaborative studios. In the LaunchCode classes using CS 131, each student is assigned to a group of about eight other students who share a TA, a WashU computer science student who provides help with the in-class problems and homework.

"In teaching CS 131 to undergraduates, I saw that students working together made it more fun, they taught each other, they learned better, and moreover, it sold the idea that computer science is a collaborative discipline right from the very beginning," Cytron says. "It's made a big change in how students view the discipline."

Moving from using Harvard's CS50x course, which teaches the programming language C, to CS 131's Java was a change for LaunchCode, but one with benefits.

"WashU's CSE 131 was particularly appealing because it is Java-based," Bauer says. "If you do any searching of any job sites, Java is the No. 1 in-demand programming skill. Being able to take advantage of that and having access to WashU students who are actively pursuing their degrees to help teach others has been nothing short of amazing. It has been great for our students to talk to a person who has taken the class and is pursuing a career in technology — it cements the credibility and allows students to learn at a faster pace."

Shook, who earned a master's degree in computer engineering at WashU in 2013, has taught CS 131 since he was a graduate student and was a lecturer for the spring 2016 course.

“I was really excited to teach this curriculum, not only because I know it better, but also because I think it does a better job of getting people working together in groups and getting people interacting with teaching assistants, which is actually very important for programming,” Shook said.

"The studios especially are well suited for that. The students also get to form a relationship with their TAs."

Unlike the undergraduate students, LaunchCode students do not receive grades for the course, Shook said.

"People still want to get the work done, and there are still deadlines, but there are no letter grades at the end," Shook said. "You either did what we asked you to do, or you didn't."

While the course is intense, there are fun assignments along the way. In the fourth week, students are asked to design their own flag using Java. Along with that, they name their own country and come up with a national anthem, as well.

"It's fun, because there is the creative act of making something out of your own design, which is fun on its own, but you can draw it on the page and think about how to draw it on the computer using shapes that you're able to work," Cytron said.

Not only are Engineering faculty involved with the LaunchCode course, but students are as well. Nikki Wines, a junior majoring in computer science, was a TA for the spring 2016 course that taught the Harvard CS50x curriculum and is a TA for the evening course that began over the summer. She says she notices a difference in how the students are learning using WashU's CS 131 curriculum.

“It's great getting to know the students,” Wines says. “It's a much more personal experience than being a TA in a WashU class where everyone is the same age and has a relatively similar experience in their daily life. It's definitely rewarding.”

"In the spring, a lot of students became overwhelmed by the amount of information coming at them, so LaunchCode restructured the class," she says. "It's much more structured now and a more cohesive class. LaunchCode has really worked hard to make sure students aren't overburdened or are getting left behind."

Wines says working with students older than she is was daunting at the beginning, but now she feels responsible for their success.

Davis Heniford, a senior majoring in economics with a minor in computer science, was a teaching assistant for both of the summer LaunchCode courses using CS 131. As one who had taken the course with Shook as a WashU student, he gained a different perspective as a TA than he had as a student.

"These are people who are very different from WashU students," he said. "They come from very different backgrounds, not only personally, but also coding backgrounds. All have very different experiences, and seeing them come together on these projects is pretty cool."

Students' perspective

The evening LaunchCode course that started at WashU had about 100 students, ranging in age from high schoolers to adults in their 50s and 60s, while a daytime course, offered at the organization's Mentor Center at 4811 Delmar Blvd., had about 50 students. Students are expected to turn in homework weekly, and from these assignments, the LaunchCode staff can determine the effectiveness of the curriculum.

In a class session in the fifth week of the course, the students were learning how to write Java code to create a sine wave, a mathematical curve. One of about a dozen teaching assistants presented the problem with only a partial framework for the solution, then gave the students 10–15 minutes to work on it in their groups.

“It’s hard to learn new concepts when you haven’t been in formal education for a long time,” she said. “It’s also really nice to get ‘a ha!’ moments when I get it. It’s been absolutely worth it.”

True to its mission, the evening course attracted students from diverse backgrounds and skill levels. Dave Yoo earned a master's degree in counseling last spring, but decided it wasn't a good fit and took the course to learn development skills.

"I worked as a tech in IT for eight years," he said. "I liked it, but I wanted to do something more creative with it. This course is great, because anywhere else, you'd have to pay for it."

Indeed, coding boot camps are springing up nationwide to meet the shortage of qualified tech workers. However, these boot camps come at a price: one boot camp in San Francisco, which claims a 98 percent job placement rate, costs just shy of $20,000 for a 12-week session, while others are in the $10,000 range. While considerably less expensive than the cost of a four-year degree in computer science, the cost may still be out of range for adults looking for a second career.

Tracie Russell, who was working full-time as a property manager at the beginning of the evening LaunchCode class, said the course is challenging.

Russell, who has a degree in biology, said she spends about six hours outside of the two classes weekly preparing and studying.

"My main goal is to learn something new and decide if this is the direction I want to take," she says.

Growth potential

Though LaunchCode is based in St. Louis, it is expanding to other U.S. cities where there is a demand for workers in tech fields and a need for preparing workers to fill the jobs. Most recently, federal funding allowed LaunchCode to open offices in Seattle and Portland, Ore., adding to its other locations in Kansas City, Mo., Minneapolis, South Florida and Rhode Island, with the goal of offering the same quality education in all of its classes.

About halfway through the course, Russell began working as an entry-level software engineer at a local company. She attributed the move to her experience in the LaunchCode course.

Steve Wang, a research technician in radiation sciences at the School of Medicine, took the course to boost his skills for his job.

"I work with optical instruments and scientific instruments that require integration," he said. "I already knew C++ and MatLab, but those are very specific to engineering and don't give as broad a view as you can get with Java. This has definitely been worth the time."

While most students agreed that the Summer of Code was challenging, by more than midway through the course, about three-fourths of the students were still enrolled, compared with about half in LaunchCode's previous courses that used the CS50x curriculum, Lou said.

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