Coding school looks to fill unmet demand for programmers in Charlotte

Students work on computer coding during a "crash course" in computer programing hosted by The Iron Yard on August 18,2015.
Students work on computer coding during a "crash course" in computer programing hosted by The Iron Yard on August 18,2015. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte companies looking for computer programmers typically have to scour college campuses across the country. Homegrown talent is tough to come by.

The Iron Yard, a school for aspiring software engineers, hopes to change that. Some 250 job openings pop up for junior-level software engineers in Charlotte every three months, the company estimates. And co-founder Eric Dodds says its intensive training programs can start to fill that gap.

The first 12-week course is to begin in October and will cover topics from back-end engineering to digital marketing. The company is still looking for a location, but offered a free “crash course” in software development off Arco Corporate Drive in southwest Charlotte this week.

The company – which bills itself as the largest code school in the world – has deep roots in the Carolinas. One of its co-founders grew up in Greenville, S.C., and that’s where the company was born in 2012. It grew out of an accelerator program for software start-ups.

“We faced a problem that a lot of people faced: There’s not a lot of development talent,” Dodds said. “We decided, ‘What if we just trained people to fill that talent gap?’”

Its coding schools have since spread to 13 other cities, including Atlanta, Austin, Indianapolis and Las Vegas. Graduates boast of quickly landing programming jobs at start-ups or large companies like Ally Financial and State Farm. More than 280 students graduated from its programs last year, and other 400-plus started in January.

Over the course of the program, students learn how to develop web and mobile applications and manage the databases that run them. When they graduate, the goal is for them to be able to develop apps or write code for companies large and small.

The Iron Yard chose Charlotte because of its status as a kind of “sister city” to Greenville, Dodds said. The company’s founders also looked at the dynamics of the financial and healthcare industries in the city.

“We want to be part of the growth Charlotte is experiencing,” Dodds said.

Huge demand

The Iron Yard joins a growing emphasis on tech in Charlotte. A similar program, Tech Talent South, is already up and running in the Packard Place building uptown. That program offers an eight-week crash course in languages Ruby on Rails and JavaScript – and its classes are continually breaking attendance records. Those two languages are commonly used to build applications and websites around the world.

But even together, the two programs are likely to only scratch the surface of the need in Charlotte, the city’s tech experts say.

“It would take a lot more classroom seats like what Iron Yard is bringing to Charlotte to fill all the demand,” said Dan Roselli, co-founder of Packard Place, a co-working space that hosts startups. “I think having one of the hottest coding schools in the country coming to Charlotte shows our status as one of those up and coming tech and entrepreneurship communities.”

Today, Charlotte companies both large and small regularly bring in candidates from other states to fill their open software positions, said Alan Fitzpatrick, chief operating officer of DC74 Data Centers in Charlotte. “Every company I talk to is looking for developer talent,” he said.

Competition can be fierce. Because of the demand, there’s been a big shift in how companies recruit for those positions. At one point, college juniors and seniors were the primary targets. Now freshmen and sophomores are being courted – and sometimes even high school students.

“Software engineering is one of the hot markets right now. There’s a huge demand from most companies to hire and develop this talent,” said Amaris McComas, director of talent acquisition at Charlotte-based healthcare technology company Premier, Inc. “The supply is low at this point in time.”

But can a program like The Iron Yard really churn out qualified candidates in three months?

“It certainly gives people the basics. There’s no substitute for years of experience,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can only do so much in 12 weeks, but it would give companies a resource.”

Companies getting involved

Larger Charlotte-area companies that regularly hire software engineers say they welcome programs like The Iron Yard.

Indian Land, S.C.-based marketing company Red Ventures has about 80 employees in its technology and engineering teams and hopes to grow the division by about 30 percent in the coming year, said Hallie Kilmer, vice president of human capital. One challenge with that: “Charlotte and the Southeast are not known as a tech hub today,” Kilmer said.

She said she hopes Red Ventures can work with The Iron Yard to help shape the training programs it offers.

Leaders at Premier, Inc., hope to be involved as well.

“My first reaction was, one, this is great,” McComas said. “No. 2, that this is needed. And No. 3, how can we get more involved?”

Details on The Iron Yard

Length: 12 weeks

Hours spent: 60 per week

Classes: In-person

Tuition: $12,000

Pre-requisites: None. The school does assign “very light amounts” of reading and exercises before classes begin.

More info: theironyard.com