The Missoula-based Montana Code School offers intensive coding “boot camps” aimed at giving Montana students the skills to win jobs at growing tech companies. Credit: Erika Peterman / Sova Partners

MISSOULA — Hunched over MacBooks in a cluttered room inside a low-slung Missoula office building, two young women are trying to make their app work.

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Exploring Montana’s economic future.

Ali Morgan and Olesia Thoms are in the final days of a 12-week course offered by the Montana Code School, a University of Montana-affiliated program that says its coding “boot camps” can give Montanans the skills to land good jobs in the state’s growing tech sector.

Morgan and Thoms are building a simple social media app, combining code-based tools offered by Google and Facebook to create a quick-and-dirty prototype that lets them message and play tic-tac-toe on their Android phones. Instructors chat with other students nearby, but the women are working through the bug by themselves, toggling their monitors between text editors and Google results linking to technical documentation as they talk through potential fixes.

When it comes to workforce development, the scene may offer a glimpse of Montana’s future.

Olesia Thoms listens as fellow Montana Code School student Ali Morgan discusses a team project, a phone-based tic tac toe app. Credit: Erika Peterman / Sova Partners

Montana’s tech sector is a bright spot in the state’s economic landscape. An industry study commissioned this year by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance found that alliance members, which are clustered in Bozeman and Missoula, paid a median salary of $63,000 and planned to add 1,100 new jobs in 2018.

The study also reports that the single biggest factor holding Montana’s tech industry back is talent: the skills gap between the jobs that companies will pay top-dollar salaries to fill, and the experience Montana workers can bring to the table.

Enter coding boot camps, which promise to bridge the divide with fast-paced, hands-on courses lasting a few months. In contrast to university-based computer science and engineering programs, which have been the traditional route into tech for anyone who’s not a prodigy coder, such boot camps focus on helping students develop basic competency with current technologies.

Code camps have been around nationally since the early 2010s, long enough to weather at least one cycle of media hype and blowback. A 2014 story in the New York Times profiled the pioneering San Francisco-based Dev Bootcamp, calling it and similar programs “vocational school for the digital age.” Two years later, Dev Bootcamp and another fast-growing code camp company, the Iron Yard, had shut down, providing what the Times called a “reality check” for the industry.

“Want a Job in Silicon Valley? Keep Away From Coding Schools,” warned a 2016 Bloomberg News headline above a story alleging that Dev Bootcamp and other for-profit programs had lured students with dubious job-placement statistics and under-delivered on instruction, leaving some grads stuck with hefty debt and slim career prospects. “Computer programming is highly specialized work,” an Inc. contributing editor scoffed in 2017. “It can’t be effectively taught in an intensive program.”

Montana Code School students Kyle Gillett and William Hale confer as they work on a final course project, a 3D puzzle game that runs in a web browser. Credit: Erika Peterman / Sova Partners

Boot camps have continued to grow regardless. A 2018 industry survey by Course Report tallied 95 in-person boot camps and 13 online-only programs nationally, with the Montana Code School and the Big Sky Code Academy operating in Montana. Combined, U.S. coding boot camps expected to graduate 20,000 students in 2018, compared to an estimated 93,000 students who completed computer science degrees at accredited universities in 2017.

The Missoula-based Montana Code School has operated since 2015, running full- and part-time courses in Missoula and Bozeman. Unlike the learn-to-code industry’s high-profile flameouts, it’s set up as a nonprofit under the umbrella of UM’s Montana Enterprise Center.

With an $8,000 course fee plus the cost of a required MacBook and three months of living expenses the code school isn’t cheap. At Montana State University in Bozeman, a bachelor’s degree for in-state students adds up to about $29,100 in tuition and fees, plus four years of rent in the state’s priciest urban housing market.

According to executive director Paul Gladen, the Montana Code School now averages 40 students a year in five or six cohorts. For comparison, Montana State’s Gianforte School of Computing says it awarded 59 computer science bachelor’s degrees in 2018. The University of Montana says its number is 24.

In part because of the backlash against ineffective code camps, it has become common practice for programs to publish audited metrics like graduation and job-placement rates. But Gladen, who also runs UM’s Blackstone LaunchPad business incubator, says the Montana Code School doesn’t track figures with that level of detail. Instead, he says, he encourages prospective students to talk to local tech employers and alumni before making the decision to enroll.

“We have to run a very tight ship, and that’s time and money we’d have to spend gathering that data,” Gladen says. “If you are motivated, the code school has clearly demonstrated you can get a good job here.”

Interviews with more than a dozen tech employers, current students, and alumni do give the program mostly positive reviews as a way to reboot a career and indicate many graduates are finding good opportunities after they finish. However, the typical code school success story — a city-dwelling 20-something with a prior degree and some history of dabbling with tech — doesn’t necessarily look like the typical out-of-work Montanan. And even graduates who thrive in the program need to find employers willing to invest in helping them learn what they can’t pick up in 12 weeks.

“I’d do it again,” says Ben Rechtfertig, a Bozeman attorney who attended the code school in 2016 to try something new. He enjoyed the program, but found he wasn’t a spectacular coder and ended up returning to law after a stint in Bozeman as an account manager at digital marketing company Elixiter, since acquired by Perficient.

“It’s not turnkey,” Rechtfertig says. “You’ve got to put a lot into it if you want any guarantee of a job at the end.”

Kevin Grastorf, 47, graduated from the Montana Code School in 2016. After struggling to find coding work in Bozeman, he says connections through the school have helped him land a promising lead on a tech job in Missoula. Credit: Erika Peterman / Sova Partners

Kevin Grastorf, now 47 and living in Missoula, says he attended the code school’s Bozeman course in hopes of finding a career that would let him build a stable life in Montana after spending most of his adult life working seasonal hospitality gigs.

In his youth, Grastorf earned a degree in musical theater in his native Syracuse, New York, and, among other gigs, spent several summers as a “singing waiter” at an establishment in Alaska. Eventually, though, the seasonal lifestyle wore thin. “I tried to settle down a couple places,” he says. “I just couldn’t find a good-enough job.”

He was working as a restaurant manager in Yellowstone National Park in 2016, he says, when he heard about the code school. He’d been considering web development as a new career — he knew the field was growing and figured his customer service background would give him a leg up. In part because the code school was then advertising a 95 percent job-placement rate, he signed up for its fall 2016 session in Bozeman, turning to family for help with the tuition bill.

Before the program would take his money, he says, he was asked to do some pre-course exercises online and tested on his ability to pick up the material. Even so, after finishing the 12-week program, Grastorf couldn’t find web-development work in Bozeman beyond a few freelance gigs. By his own admission, he wasn’t the strongest student in his class, and it seemed like entry-level jobs at Bozeman tech companies were few and far between. He also wondered if his age was working against him in an industry dominated by younger workers.

“I never really clicked with anyone in the dev community there,” he says. “You need someone who’s willing to give you a chance.”

Grastorf pondered moving to a bigger city with more jobs — Salt Lake City, perhaps, or Seattle. Instead, he moved to Missoula this fall, where he says he’s had an easier time making friends in the coding community and, as of this week, has a promising lead on a job with a tech consulting company.

In contrast, Smai Fullerton, now 28, found success out of the code school almost immediately.

Originally from Maryland, Fullerton says she dabbled with web development as a preteen but, in part because of the gender stereotypes around programming, didn’t see computer science as a serious career option. Instead, she studied international relations and Spanish in college, then spent a stint living abroad. She moved to Montana in 2011 to work on a Montana Conservation Corps crew. Working with a recruiting database for an administrative job with MCC eventually rekindled her interest in technology.

Smai Fullerton, 28, graduated from the Montana Code School in 2016. She now works as a software engineer at Workiva in Missoula and helps organize women-in-tech events. Credit: Erika Peterman / Sova Partners

After taking a break for a bike trip in Europe, Fullerton enrolled in the code school’s fall 2016 course in Missoula, receiving a scholarship from the school and taking out a $7,000 bank loan to help pay her tuition.

“There is a financial risk for sure,” she says. “It was a gamble.”

It paid off. She says she loved how the immersive course twisted her head in knots, and the creativity involved in crafting code and troubleshooting problems with teammates appealed to her. The experience, she says, was nothing like the stereotype of “lone hackers down in the basement.”

After graduating from the 12-week program in December 2016, she interviewed with several companies and started a paid internship in Missoula that February with Workiva, a publicly traded accounting software company based in Iowa. After eight months, the company brought her on as a full-fledged software engineer. Two years later, she’s established enough that she fends off recruiting efforts from other companies, she says. She’s also become a fixture in the Missoula tech scene, organizing women-in-tech events and a Google-sponsored holiday party for local coders.

Getting a foot in the door at that first job seems to be the biggest hurdle for code school grads, Fullerton says, especially now that there are enough of them in Missoula that the market for entry-level programmers may be saturated.

“Not a lot of companies offer internship opportunities,” she says. “It is a big gamble for a company to hire someone who’s so fresh to coding.”

“It is an investment — you need some resources on the inside to continue their education,” says Rob Becker, an engineering manager at Workiva.

Compared to university computer science grads trained primarily with solo homework assignments, he says, he sees code school students graduating with a team-oriented mindset and practical experience with current technologies. But the 12-week program doesn’t have the time to get into theoretical computer science topics that become useful when tackling complex software engineering problems.

A project board in Montana Code School classroom in Missoula in November 2018. The program aims to help Montanans acquire the skills to land jobs at growing tech companies Credit: Erika Peterman / Sova Partners

Gladen, the code school’s executive director, also says that many of the program’s graduates end up — as Rechtfertig did — in coding-adjacent roles in sales or customer support, where the ability to communicate with programmers matters even if the job doesn’t involve pounding out JavaScript.

“The code school is prepping people for a much broader range of jobs than just being a software designer,” he says.

That’s also reflected in the code school’s current website marketing, which has replaced claims such as like “become an employable software developer in just 12 weeks” and the 95 percent employment rate figure with language stressing “CodeSavvy” as an essential 21st-century orientation akin in importance to the traditional “three R’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Two days after their debugging session, Morgan and Thoms are standing in front of a 40-person crowd of fellow students and software professionals at a downtown Missoula web design firm. Their tic-tac-toe app, running on their phones, is projected on a big-screen TV as they explain how it works and field questions. Students on other teams show off a 3D puzzle game and, courtesy of a retired math teacher in the class, a web-based order of operations calculator.

With code school wrapping up, both women say they have internships lined up at well-regarded Missoula software companies, positions that will give them their first foot in the tech sector door. Thoms is following in Fullerton’s footsteps, starting at Workiva.

Becker, the engineering manager, makes a habit of showing up at events like this. They give him a way to mingle with aspiring programmers, he says, and scout talent.

“If we see someone who’s really compelling, we bring them on as an intern and level them up,” he says. “That’s a really low-risk option for us.”

Story edited by Brad Tyer.

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans.

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Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.