As published in Midland Magazine
Justin Blobaum was ready for a change. “I had been working in the restaurant business for nine years. I have two kids, and I wasn’t making enough money to support my family as much as I wanted to,” Blobaum said. “I always had an interest in computers and what makes them do what they do. Everything fell in place for me to get here. This has been a way to change my life in a relatively short amount of time.”
What changed Blobaum’s life was his entrance into the Midland University Code Academy. Blobaum is one of many Code Academy attendees who have been able to alter the course of their careers during the 12-week program at Midland’s Center for Graduate and Professional Studies location in Omaha.
The Code Academy completed its third cohort this past spring since switching to the 12-week format. Classes meet each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in what is referred to as a “bootcamp” format. Prior to that, the class would meet three times a week, three hours per night, for 10 months. Mike Truax, the Director of the Code Academy, has embraced the new format as he believes it is beneficial for both himself, and his students.
“One issue we found meeting three nights a week was that if people didn’t keep up over the weekend, we were spending half of the class on Tuesday reviewing,” Truax said. “The change in format has allowed a couple of things. Everyone is here every day, so they have become much more invested. These people have had to leave jobs to be here, so we know they are here because they want to succeed and get the most out of the program. Also, because we’re here for longer periods of time, we can have more time dedicated to in-class work. We dedicate our morning to new topics and spend the afternoon on project work. It allows them to get their hands dirty and have a teacher here to assist them.”
Each cohort has featured a wide range of diversity when it comes to students. There are some who have little to no previous college experience, as well as those have earned four-year degrees, but are looking for a fresh start in their careers.
At 53, Shelly Wonder had finished her degree 30 years ago. But as the demands in the workforce continue to change, she wasn’t about to be left behind. “We live in an informational society and coding is the most effective way of getting messages out and utilizing my creativity,” she said. “The job market in code is so good, I was ready to leapfrog and make some changes. I wanted to get more financial stability underneath me.”
As opposed to having her eye on retirement, Wonder said she wants to continue to push herself. “We have to constantly challenge ourselves,” she said. “Being in a wheelchair, I’ve always encountered that. Everything in my life has an extra degree of difficulty and if I’ve handled those challenges, I can handle this. With coding, my disability does not offer as many barriers as opposed to other jobs.”
Like Blobaum, Jackie Mezick is a young parent. She got her degree in communications from UNO and began working as a development specialist. She then transitioned into work as a database administrator, which is where she developed an interest in coding. It was also where she realized she wanted to expand her career opportunities.
“I was responsible for fixing the website, but I had no experience with the back end of the website,” Mezick said. “I had an issue where I was not able to receive gifts and it was affecting my work. Throughout the process of getting it fixed, I felt helpless. I was having to rely on other people to resolve this problem and it was frustrating. When I saw an ad for the Code Academy, it seemed interesting to me, especially after I had just gone through a situation where I didn’t have the knowledge or the expertise to figure it out for myself.”
Truax says it doesn’t matter if you have an extensive coding background, or no experience at all. The Code Academy can be a fit for students of all ages, talents, and experience. “It’s actually somewhat beneficial to have little to no experience in coding because you haven’t learned any bad habits,” Truax said. “Even for people who have some initial coding experience, by the second week, they’re not bored because we’re into new topics. They’re all in this together, which has helped because if a student if not picking something up quickly, they can look around and realize they’re in the same boat as someone else. That’s huge when you’re learning something new because it can be scary.”
Wonder says the challenges are real, but through the support of Truax, and her classmates, she has felt more confident in the process each day. “There’s a reason it’s referred to as a bootcamp, so I knew it would be tough,” she said. “But each day I’m finding that things are starting to connect, and I think that’s because of the immersion. This is the only thing I have to concentrate on. I have a fantastic group of people around me and the staff has been so supportive.”
Blobaum describes the academy as a “firehose of information,” but he, like many others in the class, has been amazed at the amount of knowledge they have gleaned each day. “Everyday you’re learning new topics and it’s up to you to solidify those topics,” he said. “You’re immersed in it each day and there’s no distraction from other classes. It’s challenging, but it’s been a while since I used my brain. It’s great to get back in that school mindset. There’s an instant gratification in being able to see that what’s on that computer came from you.”
In his work as a part-time consultant for local businesses, Truax has a good gauge on what employers are looking for. He has been able to incorporate that knowledge into his students in order to help fill the void that is needed in a variety of professions. “You hear employers say they want someone with 20 years of coding experience, but there aren’t many who have been doing it that long, so you’re seeing that number drop to 10 years or five years,” he said. “That’s where the benefit for our students comes in. Employers are seeing the time our students are willing to put in. While skill and aptitude are important, they are seeing these students who have the attitude of wanting to learn and are willing to put the time in.”
Completion of the Code Academy can open up a myriad of possibilities to employers. “The main focus will be web development, both front end and back end,” Truax said. “From a cross section, you will see students in database administrative work, students in automated testing where they are bug fixing, and students doing internationalization of applications. You will also have people working behind the scenes to make sure websites keep running.”
Truax also knows that once these students complete the code academy, they won’t have to wait long to find employment. He said that of the students who have successfully completed the academy, nearly 90 percent have already found jobs in a code-related field.
“The fact we have those kinds of numbers speaks for itself,” he said. “I’ve spoken with graduates from previous cohorts and they are already in line for promotions. From a financial standpoint, it makes sense for a company to be hiring these people. Senior developers are making between $120,000 and $140,000 a year, while junior developers are making around $55,000 to $60,000. So you can basically hire two of these people for the price of one senior developer. That’s a big reason we are starting to see more traction with the bigger companies.”
Mezick said the opportunity to be financially stable for both herself, and her daughter, was a driving force to enroll in the academy. “I had a health scare a few years ago, and that added to my decision to make this leap,” she said. “If it becomes an issue again, or I pass it to my daughter, I want to be able to financially support both of us and have great benefits, which tech companies do.”
Along with the benefits of being financially secure, Mezick wants fulfillment in her job, something she knows she would be attaining in a career in web development. “With web development, you can do a little bit of everything,” she said. “I want to do more than just put in data. I want to be able to create a framework for it, design it, and have more say in how it looks and operates. I like being involved in all aspects and that’s been a driving force for me.”
Truax says the real reward in teaching comes after graduation, when his students find fulfillment in a career field they might never have envisioned. Teaching the technical aspects of code is critical, but teaching them to be productive employees is of equal importance. “We want to help them be more hireable,” he said. “We have recruiters come in and talk to them, we tour local businesses, have them do networking, and we do mock interviews. Our focus is to give them a good cross section of the skills they need. One of my favorite things about teaching this is seeing students go into all different fields. We’re basically teaching them to be wizards and they are learning how everything works.”