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At tech boot camp Iron Yard Academy Tampa Bay, students learn to crack the code

ST. PETERSBURG — As a writer, actor, musician and songwriter, Matt Schwartz is innately familiar with the creative process.

"What is so interesting is that there have been three moments in my life where I've entered into a kind of flow zone where I forget that time is passing, and two hours later, I have a finished piece," the 30-year-old Palm Harbor resident said.

The first was in college, when he wrote a short play. The second was a piece of music composed on the piano. "And it happened with this project," Schwartz said. "It would be three in the morning, and I was in that flow state that artists covet."

For that third project, Schwartz wasn't choosing words or conjuring musical notes. He was crunching computer code, creating a social media application called Question the Day that took him three months to build.

Schwartz recently graduated from the Iron Yard Academy-Tampa Bay, a relatively new code-writing school that is sending waves of local residents into a job market clamoring for programmers.

Iron Yard just graduated its seventh cohort from its intensive, three-month local course, and is garnering the attention of the area's tech community.

"In the past, when we brought people on, we'd have to find people that were mid to senior level. That brings a lot of challenges when you're hiring, especially when you're a small company trying to grow," said Jesse Curry, development director at Haneke Design in Tampa.

Curry has already hired one Iron Yard graduate and on Oct. 7 scouted talent at the school's "Demo Day," the last day of class at which students present software applications they've designed and built over the previous three months.

Curry said too many applicants for programmer positions can't handle the real-world pace, miss deadlines, can't work as part of a team, and just can't produce high-quality code.

"We've been really happy to have a program like this, because in my opinion, it prepares people to work in an actual environment, in a deadline-driven environment, in an environment where quality matters and you need to work with other team members," he said. "They throw them in this collaborative environment. I see these folks working with each other, helping each other out, really challenging each other."

It doesn't come cheap. Students pay $13,900 for a 12-week Iron Yard course, the next of which begins Nov. 7. But entry-level programmers can earn $60,000 or more here in the Tampa Bay area. Senior programmers can easily make six figures.

Iron Yard is among dozens of schools with names like Dev Bootcamp, Hack Reactor and Hackbright Academy that have popped up nationally as demand for computer programmers soars. For now, Iron Yard has the Tampa Bay area to itself.

Like Iron Yard, the schools traditionally claim placement rates of 90 percent or more, but there are no industry standards for counting internships and temporary jobs among the employed. Fast Company, meanwhile, detailed how a student at a West Coast school — not Iron Yard — was asked to leave the program when she struggled, ostensibly protecting those high job-placement numbers.

Classes at Iron Yard are small, usually about 15 students, and there are three instructors. There are courses in front- and back-end engineering.

Candidates for Iron Yard face a two-step interview process. They first interview with campus director Toni Warren, then with the instructor for the course they intend to follow.

"We're looking for a few things," Warren said. "One is that they're aware of the time commitment. That they have the passion to do this — that they want to build, they want to craft, they want to learn programming. Also that they're open to this process, because this is a different type of learning environment. But it's also one of the most rewarding."

The Tampa campus welcomed its first students in 2014. It's one of 21 Iron Yards around the country, with the first launched by software entrepreneur Peter Barth in Greenville, S.C., in 2013.

The school bills itself as a "brutally intense 12 weeks of heavy-duty learning."

Students echo that description. Amanda Porto, who graduated in October 2015, said that when she started the program, "I didn't know how to work a Mac computer. It was very brutal in the beginning."

But she persevered, with a half-dozen companies issuing interview invitations after her Demo Day. She now does programming for Malwarebytes, a global computer-protection company, in Clearwater.

Few of Iron Yard's students fit the stereotype of the computer geek hunched over a keyboard slurping Mountain Dew. Porto earned bachelor's and master's degrees in business, but got restless simply working for a paycheck.

"I do get bored easily, so I talked to a lot of people, and they said you're always learning when you're coding. There's never a dull moment. And I really needed that constant challenge," she said.

Schwartz, meanwhile, has appeared in Hollywood commercials and recently had a musical he cowrote, Moments Awake, staged at Studio@620 in St. Petersburg.

"I read an article that said folks with creative minds should switch over from traditional jobs like waiting tables, tending bar, that kind of thing, and enter the tech world," he said. "Because it accesses similar parts of the brain as, say, writing a piece of music does. I'm a piano composer. So I thought I would give this a try."

His Question the Day app, at questiontheday.org, involves a community of users facing one subjective question a day that provides a platform for introspection and an opportunity to share. Examples: What was your favorite thing about the '90s? Would you rather be a comic book hero or a comic book villain?

While he's now considered a qualified junior-level programmer, Schwartz said his interests remain in the artistic realm.

"I don't want to turn my back on that life," he said. "I still want to be a writer. I thought for my final project, I would create something that marries those two lives."

Schwartz and his 11 classmates are now candidates for more than 200 job postings for junior-level developers that have come online in the Tampa Bay area within the past 90 days alone.

Numbers like that have economic development officials salivating over programs like Iron Yard.

"It's exactly how you help an economy grow," said Chris Steinocher, head of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, as he checked out students' final projects at Demo Day. "You give people the real-life skills that are going to make them successful, and these are the same skills our companies need. If you're not here today, you're missing out on what real economic development is, what real job creation is all about. To me, this is exactly where everybody needs to be. This model works."

Contact Jerome R. Stockfisch at jstockfisch@tampabay.com.

At tech boot camp Iron Yard Academy Tampa Bay, students learn to crack the code 10/14/16 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2016 3:37pm]
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