Coding the Future

Two organizations aim to close the software engineering talent gap with unique hands-on programs.

 

As new tech companies sprout up across the St. Louis area and established businesses expand their digital offerings, they all face a growing problem: There aren't enough software engineers and programmers to go around. It's a dilemma faced by cities everywhere as technology expands rapidly, which organizations usually solve by poaching talent from other companies or cities. But two new area programs aim to not only supply local companies with lots of software-savvy specialists, but also turn St. Louis into the nation's leading producer of programming talent—now and well into the future.

Jim McKelvey knows all too well the difficulties caused by a scarcity of tech talent, which is one of the reasons he co-founded Square in Silicon Valley instead of St. Louis. His new venture, Launch Code—co-founded with local entrepreneurs Chris Sommers of Pi Pizzeria, Dan Lohman of Pushup Social and Chris Oliver of Efeqdev—aims to fill the engineering gap by connecting programmers with area companies through “pair programming.” Launch Code matches up beginning programmers with seasoned professionals so they can gain the on-the-job experience most companies look for when hiring.

The goal to enroll 100 companies in the program turned out to be easier than expected—the benchmark was surpassed within a few weeks, marking the first of McKelvey's initiatives in which “nobody said no,” he jokes. Currently, Launch Code pairings are in place at such formidable organizations as Build-A-Bear Workshop (Matt Caplan and Carl Haufle pictured left), Monsanto, Emerson and Centene, as well as redhot startups like Food Essentials, TrakBill and CodePainters. At Pushup Social, where one of the first Launch Code teams began, Chief Software Engineer Brad Urani says he had questions initially but is now very impressed. For Kegan Myers, the mostly self-taught coder he’s paired with, the program is invaluable. “It's been a chance to show that I know what I know,” he says. And that's music to McKelvey's ears. “If you have basic skills, I can fix you in six months,” McKelvey says. “A lot of times people just haven't gotten the chance.” Learn more at launchcodestl.com.

STL Hacker Scouts, part of a new national nonprofit organization that focuses on STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, art and math), is hacking education. The St. Peters-based program for ages 8-18 educates kids and teens on circuit boards, programming and electronic prototyping. Skills are taught up to the mastery level, but kids advance at their own pace and each local guild operates in a “manner that suits their scouts best,” says STL Scout Hacker leader Teri Eddy. One of the first projects kids take on is building their own hackerling circuit, a uniquely designed arduino shield (circuit board). By the time they’re finished, they know the circuit inside out, including what each component and its function is— thereby forming a solid educational base for more elaborate future applications. There's already a waiting list for the program, but standalone Hacker Factory Maker Labs are held each month, with projects like constructing mechanical hands or bristlebots. Eddy plans to add more members as the program expands, which will require signing up new mentors. For more information, or if you have experience in electronics, programming or engineering and want to become a mentor, find STL Hacker Scouts on Facebook or visit stlhackerscouts.org.

 

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Photo credit: Matt Kile

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