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Trigaux: As Iron Yard coding school exits, LaunchCode arrives to spur tech opportunity

Matt Mawhinney, who is helping bring the non-profit LaunchCode school for coding to Tampa this October, poses with Rep. Kathy Castor in Tampa on Monday at a job fair. LaunchCode, started in St. Louis and now spreading to various cities including Miami, offers coding courses free to students and also helps in finding a tech job once the course is complete. [Courtesy of Matt Mawhinney]
Matt Mawhinney, who is helping bring the non-profit LaunchCode school for coding to Tampa this October, poses with Rep. Kathy Castor in Tampa on Monday at a job fair. LaunchCode, started in St. Louis and now spreading to various cities including Miami, offers coding courses free to students and also helps in finding a tech job once the course is complete. [Courtesy of Matt Mawhinney]
Published Aug. 29, 2017

It's just a coincidence of timing.

As the for-profit Iron Yard coding camp closes its doors in St. Petersburg this October, a non-profit coding school based on a different business model will open in Tampa. But the hope of the tech and greater business community is the same — that the arrival of the non-profit LaunchCode can deliver a supply of program grads with software coding skills that can start making a dent in the demand for such work.

Matt Mawhinney, who helped establish a LaunchCode program nearly two years ago in Miami, was in Tampa Bay on Monday to attend a technology job fair. In an interview, he said he is part of the advance team to ready the first LaunchCode "101" coding course that will start Oct. 17 in Tampa. A full-time person will be hired in Tampa this fall to help manage LaunchCode's local efforts.

The initial Tampa program is backed by $500,000 from the Florida Legislature, which was approved this spring. That's enough funding, Mawhinney said, to provide two coding courses. After that, new funding will be needed.

As a non-profit, there is no charge to students who apply and are selected for the coding training. As many as 120 students will be participate in Tampa's 101 course, which is part-time and runs 23 weeks.

Mawhinney is already talking to Iron Yard coding instructors as they wrap up their final coding class to see who might help staff the LaunchCode course.

How can LaunchCode offer free instruction when Iron Yard, whose program cost students more than $10,000, fail as a coding school?

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Mawhinney, 32, said the models of the two organizations are different. LaunchCode was started in St. Louis by tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Jim McKelvey. LaunchCode's funding relies on grants, gifts and federal and state funding. The group has since spread to Kansas City, Seattle, Portland, South Florida and now Tampa. The non-profit's mission is to training people in coding but focus on minorities and folks without college educations who are finding it difficult to break out of low-wage and low-opportunity jobs.

Partnering with CareerSource in Tampa, Mawhinney said, will help reach people — including minorities and veterans — with tech interests (no formal training is required) who might make good candidates for the program. (About 8 percent of tech-sector jobs are held by Hispanics and 7.4 percent by African-Americans, a 2016 study found.) An online application at launchcode.org/lc101 presents prospective candidates 15 problem-solving questions, and asks why they think they are interested in technology in general.

About 50-55 percent of LaunchCode students complete the course. Those who do are assisted in finding apprenticeship tech jobs that pay $15 an hour at a local company. Mawhinney said 80 percent of LaunchCode apprentices end up getting job offers that typically pay between $44,000 and $55,000. A company that ends up hiring a LaunchCode graduate must pay the non-profit $5,000.

If the formula works, that's a striking bargain for nearly everyone involved. Not all the reviews are glowing, however. A business story earlier this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper says LaunchCode may be overstating its success — educating more students than it has graduated, falling short of diversity goals and exaggerating its impact, according to economists.

Founder McKelvey told the newspaper that these are growing pains consistent with any start-up like LaunchCode. But he did acknowledge that about a third of LaunchCode students ultimately end up getting programming jobs.

For LaunchCode students who succeed, it can mean a ticket out of dead-end, low-wage jobs.

"We are asking the employer and the student to put some skin in the game," Mawhinney says.

Why pick Tampa? Mawhinney said LaunchCode finds it does best in up-and-coming tech regions — less so in places like San Francisco or Boston — that, like Tampa Bay, have a growing number of mid-sized and larger businesses.

Many companies that on the surface would not appear to be tech companies still find they must compete for tech jobs and are losing workers to larger cities that pay more, Mawhinney said. "We can go into those markets and fulfill a need for those employers."

Tampa, he said, "is one of those cities."

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Daniel James Scott, who heads the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, likes the potential scale of LaunchCode. "Depending on how many make it to graduation, they have the potential to graduate in one year as many, if not more, than our local Iron Yard since it has been here."

Scott said he'd still like to see a full-time, in-person coding school here. And since it is a totally different model, he said, "I'm sure LaunchCode would agree."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.