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Montana Code School faces uncertain future as enrollment plummets

Posted at 2:57 PM, Jul 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-12 17:51:39-04
Montana Code School graduates, left to right, back row to front row, Ben Angel, Kelsey Steinman, Eric Breitenbach, Timothey Fox, Ian Oberbillig, Eli Dery, Erin Olsen and Laura Gabriele, all found jobs either at ATG-Cognizant in Missoula or SoFi in Helena. (courtesy photo)

-Mari Hall reporting for the Missoula Current

MISSOULA – When Ed Weymouth, an instructor at Montana Code School, attended a 1 Million Cups meeting in May, he asked the audience if the school was still necessary in Missoula.

Many agreed that, yes, a school that teaches students about coding and other high-tech subjects is necessary, given the industry’s speed of evolution.

There’s still considerable demand for high-tech talent, and according to the Montana High-Tech Business Alliance, the industry is growing up to nine times faster than the overall Montana economy while providing about 1,700 new jobs per year.

The audience offered suggestions for how the code school could get more attention, but Weymouth is uncertain enrollment will ever return to earlier, sustainable rates.

“There’s a bit of a saturation in the market,” Weymouth said. “The market goes up and down really quickly. There will be a burst, and everyone will hire and then it’ll just shut down.”

The Montana Code School was founded as a nonprofit in 2015, and teaches students JavaScript, a universal programming language, along with other aspects of the web, web design, databases and app creation. About 180 students have graduated from the school.

“We provide the platform and the introduction and the training that allows somebody to become a junior developer and start that career path,” said Kiah Hochstetler, co-founder of the school. “Another core piece of it is how to learn, not just here’s the tools, here are these specific programming languages, now go get a job, but here’s how you can continue to grow and expand your career.”

The school provides a 12-week full-time course and a six-month part-time course in both Missoula and Bozeman. Since the beginning of the year, however, Weymouth said, student enrollment has decreased drastically.

He has since left the Montana Code School for other employment.

While the number of applications didn’t decrease, the number of students who actually enrolled dropped by more than half, he said.

Paul Gladen, Montana Code School co-founder, said there are many factors that contribute to low enrollment.

Coding isn’t for everyone, he said.

Tuition for the courses is $8,000, and many students who take the full-time class have to quit their day job to dedicate to the Monday through Friday routine. Some students struggle to find jobs after graduation; it takes intense dedication to get a foot in the door of a high-tech firm.

“We’ve seen folks who have applied and have been accepted into the program who ultimately said, ‘I can’t afford to do this,’ ” Gladen said. “And it’s not just the cost of the program, they obviously have to go the 12 weeks without pay, plus some period of time, and probably on average one to three months after the program, to then find the right job for them.”

Having the program available only in Bozeman and Missoula is another obstacle, since some students aren’t able to make the move, even for the 12-week course.

A proposed class in Billings that didn’t receive enough applicants prompted discussion about remote online courses, but ultimately fell through, Weymouth said.

“We know there have been some fundamentals in the way the program is structured that just limits the amount of people that it’s readily accessible to,” Gladen said.

Another factor may be due to Missoula-based tech company ATG-Cognizant’s All-In Missoula specialized training program, or AIM, he said.

AIM is a 12-week program at Missoula College and teaches students about business essentials, consulting, systems analysis and design, data analytics and more, specifically designed to ATG-Cognizant’s systems.

Students focus on the Salesforce platform, which is specific to ATG-Cognizant’s implementation services, pay students a livable wage while they train and guarantee an interview for possible employment with the company.

“AIM focuses on creating technical business consultants, so for four weeks we focus on business consulting and for eight weeks, we do a deep dive on cloud computing technologies,” said Amita Greer, manager of All-In Missoula, in an email. “We do focus on coding and development, but it’s not the entire focus.”

Gladen helped put together the AIM program and its partnership with the University of Montana. He said that while AIM may be a factor in reduced enrollment at the code school, he’s supportive of ATG and its mission.

It’s just the reality of the industry, he said.

“It’s doing what we set out to do with the code school,” Gladen said. “It’s equipping people with technology skills to take advantage of the demand there is for tech talent, so sure we may have lost a handful of students who may have come through the code school, but those folks are getting rewarding career opportunities potentially with Cognizant.”

Due to low enrollment numbers, Gladen said the code school will start to only offer the part-time course at a reduced tuition rate of $4,950. It will also look to high-tech businesses and modify courses based on industry needs.

“There’s a wide spectrum of coding, software technology and tech savvy skills that people can learn,” Gladen said. “So we want to figure out, is there a different model or is there a different range of classes that can be taught? What are the needs of the tech industry?”

About 80 to 90 percent of students find jobs after graduation with companies like Submittable, LumenAd, Workiva and others, Gladen said. The school has a good relationship with those employers, and plan to have better partnerships.

“I think there’s an opportunity for employers to look at adding additional tech-savvy skills to their existing workforce, so taking someone who may be working in a sales role or even in an administrative role or finance department or HR department, who knows plenty about their business, but doesn’t have the tech savvy skills,” he said.

Jacob Marsh, who graduated from both Montana Code School and the AIM program, wanted to get into a development role after he finished the code school. He applied to different jobs but didn’t have much luck, so he decided to apply to AIM.

“I wanted to go into a development role, and this was sort of a plan B,” Marsh said. “But I’m kind of glad it happened. There’s a lot that I’ve learned and there’s a whole field of being a technology consultant that I didn’t know existed or knew what it was.”

The code school helped him connect with others in the tech industry, and his peers who graduated from the code school all found jobs. The curriculum was more challenging and focused primarily on code, while the AIM program dabbled in other aspects of the tech industry and ATG-Cognizant specifically.

The code school was one of the best experiences he’s had learning code. Some might not like coding by the end, but the skills are valuable.

“It’s an entry to a whole field and if you have a basic understanding of it, you can understand the stresses, and you understand what coders need and get to be in the mind of a coder,” Marsh said.

Now,  he’s working as a programmer analyst with ATG after he finished AIM three weeks ago.

“It’s been a great experience where I’ve gotten to meet 27 other driven individuals trying to advance their careers and learn,” Marsh said in an email. “We’re trying to cope with the ambiguity of a new path and learning that being uncomfortable is the only way to grow while taking in a veritable fire hose of information. I’m loving it.”

Greer with the AIM program graduated from the Montana Code School in 2015 and became its executive director in 2016. Now, being manager of AIM, she still sees a need for both programs, which provides options for people. With different curricula, the two wouldn’t be considered direct competitors, she said.

“It’s crucial to have programs like AIM and MTCS where people can learn about coding and the high-tech industry,” she said in an email. “Average wages in the Montana tech industry are significantly higher than other industries in Montana. It provides opportunities for people to have a lucrative career while still being able to live in Missoula and Montana. You don’t need to go to a large city to have a successful and challenging career.”

Gladen said that even if the code school doesn’t continue in the future, helping students jump-start their tech careers and informing a better understanding and appreciation of code and the industry, was the main goal of the program.

“I think we’ve achieved more than we ever expected to,” Gladen said. “I’ve had graduates of the code school come up to me and say you’ve changed my life. When you hear that, and there are many out in the workforce who have gotten great jobs and great careers now because of what the code school did, so that’s enough.”