Tom Eblen

Lexington needs more software developers. Welcome to boot camp for coders

Matt Smith, left, lead instructor for Awesome Inc.'s first 12-week Web Developer Boot Camp, works with student Lavanya Manoharan, who formerly worked as a civil engineer, on her final project. At far left is student William Hurst.
Matt Smith, left, lead instructor for Awesome Inc.'s first 12-week Web Developer Boot Camp, works with student Lavanya Manoharan, who formerly worked as a civil engineer, on her final project. At far left is student William Hurst. teblen@herald-leader.com

As a young lawyer, Thomas Cothran decided to use his basic knowledge of the computer programming language Python to build useful applications for his law practice. The more he worked on the computer, he said, “I discovered I liked the programming more than the law stuff.”

Cothran is now one of 10 people enrolled in Awesome Inc.’s Web Developer Boot Camp, which graduates its first class of software developers this month.

“It’s a very intensive program,” said Nick Such, a web developer and co-founder of Awesome Inc., a 7-year-old incubator for technology entrepreneurs that has been offering less-extensive coding classes for several years. “We like to say it’s two years of training in 12 weeks. The goal is to be very hands-on and practical.”

The program is designed to help meet Central Kentucky’s growing demand for software developers, who can earn beginning salaries of $41,000 or more. Kentucky’s only similar program is at Software Guild in Louisville, Such said.

The boot camp concept has become popular for several reasons. Many people can’t make the investment of time and money to earn a four-year computer science degree. Industry surveys show that about 60 percent of web developers come from backgrounds other than computer science, Such said.

Many companies think people with liberal arts degrees make some of the best software developers, because they have good critical-thinking skills. Because development is about problem-solving, musicians also tend to be good at it.

Awesome Inc.’s first boot camp students, whose average age is 32, came from a variety of backgrounds. In addition to the lawyer, there is a civil engineer, an analytical chemist, a factory worker, an insurance agent, a health care industry employee, a former University of Kentucky public relations student and two coffee shop proprietors.

The main instructor for this first boot camp was Matt Smith, a UK College of Engineering grad and co-founder of Lexington-based Apax Software. He is assisted by Drew House, whose UK degree is in agricultural economics. He learned coding at an Atlanta boot camp and has been a developer for several years.

Awesome Inc. will take applications soon for the spring boot camp, which will accept between 10 and 15 students, Such said. More information: Awesomeincu.com/bootcamp.

Because this was Awesome Inc.’s first boot camp, the company made these students a bold promise in return for their $9,500 tuition: each successful graduate is guaranteed a job as a junior developer at a Lexington area company.

With one week to go before the end of the boot camp, most students have yet to be matched with job offers. But Such said he doesn’t think that will be a problem. Several Awesome Inc. partner companies have expressed interest in hiring.

Among them is MakeTime, an online manufacturing marketplace that has grown rapidly since its was started in Lexington last year. The company now has more than 40 employees in Lexington, as well as a dozen software developers in Ukraine because CEO Drura Parrish couldn’t find enough to hire locally.

“Programs like Awesome Inc’s boot camp are vital to developing a next-generation workforce,” said Parish, who said he expects to hire several people from the boot camp next year. “Education and training are no longer linear. This opens up so much opportunity.”

Such said about 100 local companies employ software developers. They range in size from UK Healthcare to Frogdice, a computer game developer. Awesome Inc. has sent surveys to 124 area technology companies to try to gauge the market for developers. So far, it has received responses from 41 percent of them, indicating that about 23 percent of the 2,800 technology workers at those companies work in software development.

As a final project, each boot camp student must build a full web application to solve a specific problem. They range from a system for tracking pet blood donations for veterinarians to an Airbnb-like rental site for workshop and craft spaces.

In addition to Python, the boot camp teaches the programming language JavaScript, as well as the platforms Django and AngularJS. Languages and platforms will change as technology evolves, and Such said the boot camp is mostly about teaching future developers the thought processes they need to create.

“That way,” he said, “You’re going to be good at learning whatever the next thing is.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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