Boot Camp Lands Coders Plum Jobs

Aliyya Swaby PhotoRonnie Simonelli and James Smith are working together in a Chapel Street media company to fix coding bugs in an updated system framework — putting to work skills honed as apprentices at a “boot camp” that is churning out software developers one block away.

Simonelli and Smith graduated from the spring 2015 cohort of” A100,” a 12-week boot camp that hones recent computer science graduates into serious contenders for software development jobs at companies across the state.

Situated above the Wireless Wiz at 786 Chapel St., A100 bridges the gap between employers desperately seeking high-quality talent and young people hunting for their first jobs, with the intent of building a local community of developers in the process.

It’s showing results. Over the past three years, more than 120 people have gone through its ranks in the pursuit of knowledge and eventual employment. And many are landing good jobs.

Each Thursday, A100 hosts a meetup for people who want to learn how to program and code—sometimes at the Happiness Lab on Chapel Street, or at the offices of local tech companies.

The program is growing rapidly. A100 founder Derek Koch is in the process of recruiting applicants for an upcoming cohort, and wants this summer to expand the applicant pool to people in neighboring states—Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York. He is targeting students in those places who grew up in Connecticut and might want to move back or who want summer opportunities in their home state.

Ultimately, the program aims to build a visible fleet of young software developers around the city to draw in companies and create a true tech scene in New Haven, Koch said. Two new startups — chauffeur service “I Drive Your Car” and health care service Patient Wisdom — have moved into A100’s office space in the last couple of weeks to work alongside its team. “It’s part of generating a successful startup ecosystem,” Koch said.

Matching Local Companies With Local Talent

Koch said that large companies in larger markets such as New York, Boston and Silicon Valley “suck talent out of local environments” like New Haven. That makes the hiring landscape difficult for both companies and the job-seekers who want to stay in the area.

“The students don’t know that the companies are here, and the companies don’t know that the students are here,” Koch said. They target “diamonds in the rough,” not necessarily those who had managed to get enough professional experience to be hired directly after college.

It’s difficult for companies to work with younger developers fresh out of school. Many require the equivalent of two or three years of experience, even for entry-level software development jobs, Koch said. Universities can only teach their students so much; there’s not always time for extensive development practice, he said.

“In some cases, on the part of the employer, that means, in order to bring that person on, it means they’re getting someone who will be good in the future,” he said. A100 helps bridge the gap in experience and skill. “We see people come out of school, get experience and become valuable commodities.” (A100—The “A” in the company name stands for “apprentice.”)

The boot camp is tough. Julio Mansilla, a Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) graduate, applied to A100 after graduation and then was hired as one of the company’s site manager and then outreach manager.

He remembered sitting on a team with four other recent graduates and listened to them talk about programming. Graduating from college, he was nervous, was suffering from “impostor syndrome,” feeling inadequate despite his past successes and promise.

“I realized how little I know. Schools do an excellent job at teaching the basics. Companies want something else,” Mansilla said. The 12-week program includes eight weeks working on different projects and honing specific skills in teams of four or five, and two weeks “matching” students with good jobs.

From his mentors during the apprenticeship, he learned how and where to find foundational programming resources, such as manual pages or “man pages” designed by the creators of Javascript programming language for those work to learn it.

And he learned how to use “Git,” a version control system that allows the multiple developers working on the same project to manage changes made to the code. Though Mansilla had received a tutorial on Git at SCSU, it wasn’t enough: “You need to use it daily to understand.”

As outreach manager, Mansilla drives to colleges and universities around the state to share his experiences and tout the benefits of applying to A100 for aspiring developers.

He was effective in convincing at least two people a recent program: fellow SCSU students Simonelli and Smith.

Smith said he sat next to Mansilla at his graduation and mentioned he was looking for a job. “He recommended A100,” Smith said. “I know so many people who have done it and had really good results and were linked up with companies and got jobs right after.” Simonelli and Smith had taken classes together and decided to apply for A100 at the same time.

Smith now has little trouble presenting his code to his peers at SeeClickFix, the international problem-solving web service, when he is working on a new project. After A100, the pressure of a major presentation feels like “second nature,” he said.

The two were hired together out of SeeClickFix because they already collaborated well. Their teamwork made them a good fit for SeeClickFix’s focus on “pair programming,” in which one developer writes code and the other one reviews each line, cutting back on errors, said Ren Provey, who hired them.

“They wanted us both together, because in their minds, we had pairing compatibility,” Smith said. Both musicians, Smith and Simonelli presented an interactive music app as their final project for A100 in front of dozens of representatives from regional startups and major companies. Their project “caught the attention of SeeClickFix” and they were both hired soon after, within the same week, he said.

Computer science majors learn a lot of theory, but don’t get enough practice collaborating with others on self-directed projects—a key skill companies seek, Provey said.

Needed: Women

He has hired just a couple of recent college graduates without going through A100. One had been a summer intern at SeeClickFix, with experience in a “professional culture” and work on development side projects. “He had a lot of skills coming in,” Provey said. But he has also conducted interviews with a few candidates ” who would benefit from a program like A100,” he said.

One struggle: getting women to apply for A100. Only two women have graduated from the last two cohorts of the program. Cohorts before that have included anywhere between zero and two women.

Koch said he’s working on it. He is reaching out to some of the women who have gone through past cohorts, to help him recruit.

“It’s important that we’re seeing young engineers from all backgrounds,” he said. “Whenever a female candidate applies and is accepted, we try to keep them in the community.”

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posted by: Esbey on February 15, 2016  12:33pm

This effort is one of the most important, and cost effective, things we can do to aid the New Haven economy.  These young folks are already pretty well trained by local universities, but they need extra hands-on training to be really appealing to companies.  Those companies, in turn, will judge New Haven by the availability of a good local work force. 

Probably New Haven has put too much emphasis on biotech (which is a super high cost super risky business that hires PhDs into well paying jobs) vs software startups (many of which can thrive on low funding, and who demand all kinds of BA-level college grads.)   

Similar efforts (like the existing construction workforce initiative) would train less educated workers for jobs in construction and related trades, as well as entry level health care jobs.  These efforts seek to turn high school grads into actually employable workers.

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on February 15, 2016  4:17pm

I worked with A100 for a bit and the team over there is really terrific and I’m glad to see them get some publicity for their program. It’s a great opportunity for young developers to learn what it’s like to work in a team, though I admit it seemed more focused on web development/design than pure programming. Still, any experience students can get using source control and software development methods is a great boon for them.

@Esbey: While I agree that biotech is certainly high risk, it makes a lot of sense for New Haven because of Yale-New Haven and the enormous medical complex, as well as all of the research going on. Yale is not a big engineering school, so it’s not creating a ton of software developers. It’s too bad—we could certainly use something more engineering-focused.

As a former UConn grad, I’d love to see some sort of pipeline from UConn (and other state schools) to the startups, but not entirely sure how that would work.

Congrats to A100 on their continued growth!