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Pioneering code education: Catching up with St. Pete’s nonprofit code school

Megan Holmes

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The Academy at Suncoast Developer's Guild faculty.

When downtown St. Pete’s campus of The Iron Yard shut its doors in 2017, it left a gaping hole. The national startup code school was failing, but its St. Petersburg campus was thriving, and playing a major part in closing the glaring skills gap for Tampa Bay companies sorely in need of trained developers. Its closing sent shockwaves through the tech community, dashing hopes that it might help Tampa Bay be the next big tech leader of the Southeast.

But just one year after its closing, a cadre of the Iron Yard’s former instructors was back, establishing the Academy at Suncoast Developer’s Guild (SDG), the first not-for-profit coding school in the state of Florida and the only code school in Tampa Bay. 

In just one year, SDG has developed innovative strategies and methods for bringing this essential education to the companies and students who need it. The Catalyst caught up with SDG President Toni Warren, to rehash its first year and look toward the future.

Toni Warren, President of Suncoast Developer’s Guild

Cohort Proforma

SDG’s very first cohort was filled before program applications were open, thanks to a pioneering workforce initiative in partnership with local tech company, Proforma. Proforma paid to put an entire group of new hires through the Academy at SDG, recognizing how vital the code education could be after hiring two graduates of The Iron Yard. 

Most companies hiring entry-level junior developers out of traditional computer science programs recognize that they’re going to have to spend significant time and resources training them, Warren explained. “When Proforma hired our junior developers, they were amazed by how quickly they were able to make an impact on their code base,” she said. “Not only that, but their skill level was well above what they had expected for a junior developer – we hear that from a lot of our hiring partners.” 

Proforma’s CEO Vera Muzzillowas was impressed and intrigued by the program and reached out to SDG to build a partnership. “She gets it,” said Warren. “She recognized that it was really hard to find developers and she also recognized that their skills sets are really valuable and needed.”

SDG’s education team worked hand-in-hand with Proforma’s experienced developers to build a unique training model for their cohort, synthesizing the academic material from SDG’s full stack program (both front-end and back-end developing skills) with Proforma’s specific workforce needs. The result was a full cohort of junior developers who were ready to contribute to Proforma from day one.

Now, after three full cohorts as Suncoast Developers Guild, not only are they tackling Tampa Bay’s skills gap, they’re also hard at work closing the gender gap in code education.

That effort began after SDG had their first all-male cohort in the history of The Iron Yard and SDG combined. Staff saw this as a disturbing and all too familiar demographic trend arising. Out of the 26 students that SDG served in 2018, just 10 percent of the students were women. This only confirmed a phenomenon in the industry as a whole, where software development has been dominated by men since the mid-1980s. In a recent survey of more than 10,000 developers by Stack Overflow, less than 7 percent of respondents were female. 

But this trend was something they had not seen with such magnitude at the Iron Yard.

The difference? The Iron Yard had always had an established diversity scholarship, incentivizing women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community to apply. In the first year of operation, SDG had decided to simply opened up applications, and let the chips fall where they may.

“We didn’t want to turn a blind eye to it, but we didn’t want to make it an issue, either,” said Warren. SDG had also not yet developed the funding structures for a scholarship. But it was the first all-male cohort, Warren explained, that opened their eyes to the disparities they were seeing. They wanted to shift who was learning code and building technology to be more representative of users. 

SDG got their board and hiring partners together to come up with a plan and soon found community partners willing to help fund the scholarship. Companies like Sourcetoad, Walmart, and Experian opened their pockets to create the SDG Diversity Scholarship, available to self-identifying women, people of color, individuals with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community. 

Since the scholarship’s implementation, SDG has seen their most diverse class ever. Representation of women has seen a more than 35 percent increase, with nearly half of the participants in the latest cohort being women. Warren attributes this change not just to the scholarship, but her team’s efforts to reach into women’s groups, even those that are not primarily tech-related and let women know that they’re welcome. “They’re wanted in this industry,” Warren said, “and not only are they wanted, they’re needed in this industry to help make diverse teams.” 

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