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Trigaux: Closing Iron Yard coding school hits area tech hard but leaders talk of options

In better days last fall, friends and family of graduates at The Iron Yard, based in the Station House in downtown St. Petersburg, applaud during "Demo Day" when grads of the coding school show off their skills. Despite the local success and strong job placement by the coding school, The Iron Yard is closing all of its 15 locations across the country this summer. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
In better days last fall, friends and family of graduates at The Iron Yard, based in the Station House in downtown St. Petersburg, applaud during "Demo Day" when grads of the coding school show off their skills. Despite the local success and strong job placement by the coding school, The Iron Yard is closing all of its 15 locations across the country this summer. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Jul. 28, 2017

The coming shutdown this fall of the Iron Yard software coding school in downtown St. Petersburg — announced this month as part of a national closing of all 15 Iron Yard locations — remains a shocking event to a Tampa Bay technology community that dreams big of becoming a major player in the Southeast if not the nation.

Ask local technology leaders: How do we reignite the pipeline of workers with at least core coding skills after Iron Yard shuts its doors? Seek another coding school? Build one from the well regarded Iron Yard instructors here? Start another from scratch? Rally the local colleges to step up?

The Iron Yard's recent arrival here promised a fresh pipeline of early career tech coding talent, quickly delivered, with key software skills often desperately sought by many tech firms. Clearly, Iron Yard's closing will hurt.

"It is a big deal and very unfortunate," says Joy Randels, prominent area entrepreneur and CEO of startup Citizinvestor.

"We are competing globally for tech talent and startup capital. Anytime we lose a key resource for our entrepreneurial ecosystem it's a setback," says Tonya Elmore, whose Tampa Bay Innovation Center runs the TEC Garage startup incubator in downtown St. Petersburg and plans an ambitious incubator near USF St. Petersburg. "Most major startup communities have an advantage in that they have multiple coding schools graduating a skilled workforce to fill the tech pipeline."

Only a few years young, Iron Yard in the fall of 2014 began offering concentrated 12-week coding training programs with a price tag that now stands at $13,900. Tampa Bay's demand is so high for younger workers with at least rudimentary coding skills in key software languages that Iron Yard graduates were all but guaranteed job opportunities.

Recruiters from companies like Malwarebytes and JPMorgan Chase, the global bank that operates a large back-office campus in Tampa, would attend local Iron Yard graduation ceremonies in person just to improve their odds of nabbing job candidates as soon as they were handed their diplomas.

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

Obviously, the Iron Yard here is not closing because it was not good at what it did. Tech observers lavished praise on the instructors.

Nope, Iron Yard is closing because its corporate owner apparently did not see enough profit in operating a coding school chain.

Iron Yard was founded in Greenville, S.C. Apollo Education Group, which owns the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools, invested $15.9 million for a majority stake in Iron Yard two years ago. In turn, Apollo was bought earlier this year by an investor group that includes the Vistria Group, a Chicago private equity firm run. Such firms seek one thing above all others: A solid "return on investment."

Iron Yard may have failed that ROI test. It's becoming a familiar tale for coding schools. Dev Bootcamp, a coding school that the for-profit education company Kaplan acquired three years ago, this month also announced that it will shut down this December.

Other industry watchers suggest the supply of coding schools got ahead of demand — though hiring trends here suggest that was not the case in Tampa Bay.

Liz Eggleston, cofounder of Course Report, which tracks coding bootcamps, told the Wall Street Journal that both Iron Yard and Dev Bootcamp expanded rapidly into new cities where it may have been hard to get a grasp on which companies may have needed what specific coding skills.

So where does the Tampa Bay tech community go from here?

Joey DeVilla, a 2014 arrival from the Toronto tech scene and a new employee at Tampa software company Sourcetoad, is a firm believer that Tampa Bay has what it takes to evolve into a bigger, better tech community. He blogs about it often.

Toronto's tech scene benefitted from coding schools and boot camps, he says, and so must Tampa Bay's. "The Iron Yard was a key player in bringing techies together, and I think we need to work together to fill the gap that it will leave behind."

That idea is echoed in many comments of area leaders.

"I often hear from our local entrepreneurs that talent is still one of their key concerns, and the demand for this talent will only increase in the coming years," says Linda Olson, who heads the Tampa Bay WaVE incubator for business startups in downtown Tampa. "This has created an opportunity for someone else to step into the market. Considering the demand, I don't think it will be long before we see someone do just that."

Where will people go if there is no coding school here? It's a good question, says Randels. She suggests our high schools and universities do not teach the skills necessary to go into a software development school.

"The Iron Yard filled the next step to allow people to become entry level developers and designers," she says. "If we want to get ahead of the game we need programs like the one proposed in the legislature last year to allow coding (in public schools) as a foreign language."

RELATED COVERAGE: Florida House won't count computer coding as foreign language for high school students.

The Iron Yard will be graduating its last cadre of students in October. Daniel James Scott, CEO of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and a member of Iron Yard's local advisory board, has high hopes that some other way to gain coding skills will emerge.

Scott points to the addition to this area of the St. Louis non-profit called LaunchCode — apparently surviving Florida's state budget trims — will arrive with a version of coding training this fall and offer "some level of continuity."

"And who knows," Scott adds. "Maybe the team at The Iron Yard decides to soldier on together. That would be really great to see."

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