Pivot Point: Montana Code School offers students route to engaging career, higher wages

Montana Code School students pose on a Demo Day in 2017. Each cohort spends a few weeks developing an app from scratch that they show off to community members and potential employers. Photo courtesy of Amita Patel Greer.

By Katy Spence

Beth Thomas needed a change.

Thomas had been a saleswoman since high school, working on commission and most recently selling software. She was looking for a career path with more potential.

“I had been selling software, and I knew how to talk about it in a high-level way,” Thomas said. “But I didn’t know how it worked. I wanted to build the software instead of talk about it.”

In 2015, Thomas signed up for the first coding course with the Montana Code School. Before the course had ended, she had secured a position for Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply for the following January.

Most students at the Montana Code School are looking for a career change, like Thomas. Others are ensuring they remain marketable in an increasingly digital world. Whatever the motivation, coding courses like those offered at Montana Code School prepare students for a lucrative new career in software or web development.

Thomas was part of the Montana Code School’s first Missoula cohort in September 2015. Since that time, 110 Code School students have graduated in Bozeman and Missoula.

Code School Executive Director Amita Patel Greer knows all too well what kind of student can succeed in the intensive 12-week course, because she was part of the school’s second cohort.

With three master’s degrees and a background in economic development, Greer said she was interested in breaking into the entrepreneurial tech scene in Montana. Code school seemed like a quick, cost-efficient way to do that.

After she completed the course, Greer planned on becoming a programmer. But when a position opened up at the Code School, she felt compelled to apply.

“I love what the Code School did for me,” Greer said. “It’s hard not to fall in love with coding.”

The Code School offers part-time and full-time courses year-round, with scholarship opportunities for women, Native Americans, veterans, and low-income candidates. Greer said the Code School also offers a number of financing options.

But money isn’t the most important asset students bring to the code school, she said.

“The biggest trait for success is your commitment to learn and your commitment to be uncomfortable,” Greer said. “Being comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Learning how to code is like nothing you’ve ever learned before, Greer said. In some ways, students have to re-learn how to learn, and then apply that to computing languages. Once they’ve mastered how to learn one coding language, they can apply those skills to learn any language a company may require employees to know.

Greer knows it’s intimidating, because she was intimidated at first, too.

“I didn’t come in feeling confident,” Greer said. “I was terrified, and every student feels the same way. But in three months, I went from terror to falling in love.”

Montana Code School students work together on a project during the 12-week intensive course in Missoula. Photo courtesy of Amita Patel Greer.

Greer loves that coding allows her to create something out of nothing, and she can apply these skills anywhere she may want to live. The Code School encourages collaboration and failure among its students to encourage creativity and problem-solving. In some ways, this environment simulates how a group of programmers might work together on a challenging project.

“I love challenges,” Greer said. “With coding, you’re always learning.”

Greer said coding is a great avenue to enact a mid-career change, whether someone is looking for something new or an opportunity to make more money. While the Code School cannot guarantee students will be placed in a higher-paying position than the student previously occupied, high tech positions as a whole tend to pay higher wages than other industries in Montana.

Greer said her students come from a huge variety of backgrounds. Some students come with college degrees, such as in music, business, or graphic design. Most Code School students are in their late 20s to mid-30s. Greer has had a 13-year-old student as well as students older than 50. The typical student, Greer said, is looking for a career change.

“The ability to jump quickly is why coding schools have significantly increased throughout the country,” Greer said. “It’s really hard to pivot in other industries and still make a decent wage when you finish.”

Code School graduates learn coding languages like JavaScript, Node.js, HMTL, and CSS, as well as methodologies and approaches to use them. It all culminates in Demo Day, when students show off the app they’ve built from scratch to the community and potential employers. Montana Code School alumni have gotten jobs with companies like ATG, Workiva, and more.

While the Code School currently only has physical locations in Missoula and Bozeman, Greer said she hopes to offer remote classes to other communities in Montana. One of the benefits of coding is that Montanans could apply their new coding skills to the communities they’re already embedded in.

Several companies in Montana, including Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply, have partnered with the Montana Code School to offer lucrative internships to its graduates.

Murdoch’s CIO Lance Tinseth pitched the idea for an internship partnership to the company’s owners, who thought it was a creative solution to the company’s need for talent, as well as a way to invest in potential future employees.

Murdoch’s internship program is a 6-month opportunity for a new Code School grad to earn a living wage while applying their new skills to a position with an established company. And the company gets an influx of fresh ideas.

“They’re probably learning something new that hadn’t even been thought of two years ago,” Tinseth said. “That fresh perspective is great for us.”

For example, during the years before the internship program, Murdoch’s had to hand-charge each gift card that was ordered online during the holiday season. Customer service reps then had to hand-write the label and address before mailing the gift card to the recipient. One intern saw an opportunity to automate the process.

“She learned how to write the code and connected the process to the printer,” Tinseth said. “She got it to work. It was a huge win for us.”

Because of her fresh perspective, the intern was able to save the customer service department hundreds of hours during one of their busiest seasons.

As the consumer base increasingly looks to shop online, Tinseth said Murdoch’s will continue to strive for the best possible customer experience, and part of that is having a strong technical team.

Code School grad Beth Thomas is part of that team as the E-Commerce Content Specialist at Murdoch’s Home Office in Bozeman. She’s helping the company redesign the user interface on the website to help make customer experiences as satisfactory as possible. It’s all part of how Murdoch’s has become a modern retailer, Thomas said.

“Murdoch’s is really a tech company with a ranch and home problem,” she joked.

Thanks to the skills she got at the Code School and her natural-born persistence, Thomas was able to get the job she wanted at a company she loved.

“I had zeroed in on Murdoch’s,” Thomas laughed. “I was going to be knocking on their door every day until they hired me.”

About the Author: Katy Spence is Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and she’s just finishing up the Environmental Journalism Master’s Program at the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of more than 320 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.

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