Switching to code
In the competitive world of computer code boot camps and online learning, Alchemy Code Lab calls itself "Portland's Best Code School."
Alchemy pushes hard the message that if someone can commit to the $20,000, full-time course for six months, they have a high likelihood of finding a job in the Portland market as a software developer. These jobs can start at $75,000 and rise to $120,000 within a year, making them stand out in a service-based economy in a city with an escalating cost of living.
Alchemy graduates between 20 and 25 students four times a year. On Friday, Sept. 20, the most recent cohort to finish (17 members) gathered to present their projects in front of colleagues, friends and family.
As Shannon Rasimas, marketing and career services director put it in her intro:
"This group represents seven women and 11 men, as well as the Latinx and LGBTQ community," said Rasimas. "Previous careers they've had include acting, teaching, kayak instructor, certified nursing assistant and glassblower. And one has never gone to school a day in their life, not even kindergarten."
The first group made an app called Happy Trees, named after the TV painter Bob Ross. Like Pictionary, it's a game where one person receives a verbal prompt to draw something on their touch screen. It shows up on the other player's screen, and they have to guess what the word was.
Wes Griffin explained that their target audience was demographically broad, so they imagined Sally, an 80-year-old lady who lives in Pennsylvania, playing with her granddaughter Octavia, a nine-year-old in San Diego.
"We decided to make sure that it was fully mobile across the board no matter what browser or what kind of phone you had," said Griffin. The goal was to make it easy enough that the grandmother did not have to call for help.
Trying something new
Griffin, 35, said before Alchemy, he'd done "a multitude of things," including ad sales in radio in Santa Barbara, Hawaii and Bend.
"It's amazing and a struggle, and at the same time, it's fun. It's like doing a puzzle that continues every day. And then when you feel stressed out and struggle, and then when it finally clicks, and you see an end product, that's the joy of it right there."
They are trained to be full-stack developers, which means they can program the front end, the back end, and some of the middle of an app. He has also learned to work in MongoExpress, React and, for the backend, Node.
He said the Alchemy course was nine to six, five days a week, plus networking events after hours. He's job hunting, but he's not desperate. "I'm lucky enough that I have some other business that I make an income from on the back. I would hope within three months I can land something pretty decent."
Another team created a habit tracker, which provided positive reinforcement for tasks like running and drinking water every day.
LiLi Boxer worked on the project. She is transitioning from being a wedding photographer to coding.
"I had a couple of life changes and decided I wanted to shift gears and move to a not-freelance schedule," she told the Business Tribune. "My family are all programmers, so I've always kind of been around it, but I've never done it myself."
She doesn't recall how much she paid Alchemy. She has loans but will pay them off.
"I'm pretty confident I'll find a job. I want to be a full-stack developer. They're normally two different jobs. People sometimes specialize in one or the other so they can be two separate jobs." Although Boxer thinks she would probably work on web apps, because that's what she's been taught, her skills can translate to mobile.
"It was like learning a foreign language, except that with one comma wrong, the app doesn't work. "I've got sharp eyes. Or I call a friend over and take breaks."
She liked being in the zone when shooting weddings, making micro-decisions to get the best shot. But coding offers a lot more time in the zone.
Marty Nelson, CEO of Alchemy Code Lab, started with Code Fellows of Seattle. When they pivoted to licensing their curriculum, he joined them and opened up Alchemy. Rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy, they decided that they could let local communities better address the local markets and needs.
"So, while there is an intensive technical part, it's also about being really good problem solvers. Being able to come in and convince a company both that you have the technical competencies and that you can stay focused on what we need to do with the technology."
The pay is attractive.
"A software engineer, software developer, you're starting at $75-to-$85K, and we see our grads, two years out, making $110,000 to $120,000. Software developers probably top out at $150K to $200K. So, it's not just that you got a great job coming out, but that you have nothing but upward growth to look forward to."
Many of them come from jobs like being a coffee shop barista, but they want a job where they're constantly challenged.
"They're surrounded by smart people; they get more credibility in their professional life; they get more financial security. And we see so many people who end up making double or triple what they've ever made in their life once they come through here."
Learn as you go
Nelson says their grads can move into the tech sector and pick up what they need to know.
He compares what they do to an on-ramp to the freeway: getting students up to speed so they can merge with others in new jobs. Engineering managers are often generalists, but they are looking for someone with a specific programming skill to join a project right away.
"More than 50% of people in tech right now have less than five year's experience. We also have to say every company is a tech company now — and they're all hiring. In Portland, we don't have a large business-to-consumer tech company, like Seattle with Microsoft or Amazon. Our biggest tech employers are apparel companies, Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, and then The Standard (insurance), Kroger, Fred Meyer…None of these businesses core competencies is tech. But you think about Kroger and their online battle with Amazon; they're going to live or die based on that."
Nelson also cites Vacasa, Acorns, and the online bank Simple. "In Seattle, Amazon is always hiring software developers, but here it's more when they get a big VC round, then all this hiring is ramping up. And then it goes down."
Alchemy Lab offers scholarships to women and people of color.
"We do a lot to get underrepresented folks trained and into these mid-level places as well," says Rasimas. "We have a lot of relationships with PDX Women in Technology and Women Who Code and ChickTech.
But Nelson and Rasimas don't rate self-teaching from scratch.
"Just like the reason people go get a trainer at the gym is like you need someone to make you do it. And this program has a timeline, it has a start and we're going to make you do what you need to do."
And then there's what's not in the YouTube video.
"We'll call it professional craft and habits. Because if you watch all the YouTube videos, there's not necessarily somebody explaining, here's how people do this on the job. You know, here's how you here's why it matters if you write code like this, versus this and here's the habits that you want to avoid."
Ryan Mehta, lead instructor said the intake is diverse in terms of how much coding background they have.
"We get people from all different industries that are mostly job switchers. But there's also people directly out of college and some that have dropped out of college. I think the most successful people that come through the program are the ones that are more motivated by the work and then the income is just a nice bonus. There's lots of things that make a lot of money, right. So it's kind of the combination of the two that I think motivate most people."
One team is making a "markdown translator" which takes code and translated it into a more readable format. They are pretending they have 48 hours to get it done to get funded.
He says the successful students don't have to be good at math, because "The computer is good at math." The skills Mehta learned in English composition class are more useful, since the job is writing, all day. "You're putting words on a page and making sure the words all make sense together."
From kayaking to coding
Lisa Nicholson was there to support her son, Eli Nicholson, 26.
When he told her, she thought, "Oh boy, what does he have up his sleeve this time?" She wasn't sure. "She hopes his job prospects will be good. "Many different kinds of companies need this kind of skill, not just computer companies. Every company needs someone. Although I read something recently that said that the prospects over the next 20 years will start to decline!" she said.
Rebecca Orr, his girlfriend, figured his job prospects would be good now. "He's done lots of office jobs and customer service, but mainly he's a kayaker. He's outdoors every waking minute."
She was proud of him for completing the intensive course and pleased that coding will give him the flexibility to work and kayak.
Five days after graduating, Eli Nicholson accepted a position as a software engineer at RightLine equipment, the lift truck attachments company.
Alex Ramirez de Cruz used to be a professional actress around town for 10 years, including at Portland Center Stage. ("A lot of ingenue roles, and a lot of devised theater.")
But she wanted a steady job.
De Cruz, 31, was discouraged from STEM when she was a child, so she pursued acting, but ended up bored. "My wife is actually in tech. It's always been her dream to be a software developer. At some point, I was like, 'I don't even know what that means.' And I started to look into it. And I started to play around with code. And I was really excited."
She did Free Code Camp online, then decided to do Alchemy for its intense focus, and because it offered scholarships. As a LatinX lesbian, there were a lot of scholarship opportunities for her. She got a partial scholarship, and crowdfunded the rest from the theater community."
De Cruz says she will be picky in her job search. "This was a really big investment for my family and myself. So, I would like to land at a place where there's a lot of support, where I can further my education. I'd also really like to work for a place that I can stand behind either what they do, or the tech is exciting to me." She has no interest in working remotely. "I would like to be in an office so I can keep learning from people around me."
She has been told to expect starting salaries from $ 70,000 to $78,000. And in a twist, after working for Apple for 10 years, her wife is considering doing the Alchemy program as well.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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