Inside Durham's Iron Yard Academy - 1

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Inside Durham's Iron Yard Academy - 1
They range from a 13-year-old gamer entering high school to a 55-year-old designer of Chips Ahoy and Geico ads trying to learn new skills.

The diverse pair came together in June through the inaugural cohort of the Iron Yard Academy powered by Smashing Boxes at American Underground. By the end of August, these two and 18 other aspiring coders will be proficient enough at front end development or Ruby on Rails to start their own tech companies, work as freelance developers or take on junior-level development roles at major corporations, startups or agencies in the Triangle.

The program is part of a movement sweeping the country. Code schools represent for aspiring students of any age the opportunity to learn new skills and enter new careers quickly. For fast-growing companies void of development talent, they provide a predictable pipeline of qualified workers. And for cities, they're an economic development tool - graduates help hometown companies grow, or they start new ones.

The Iron Yard Academy, an accredited program born in The Iron Yard co-working space in Greenville, S.C. and now expanding across the Southeast, promises in return for $10,000 in tuition and full-time dedication over the 12-week program, that its students will have jobs soon after they graduate. For this cohort, that happens after a Demo Day August 22nd.

How is all that possible in 12 weeks?

I sat down with campus director Jessica Mitsch (pictured above, left) last week to get an inside look at what actually happens at code school.

It starts with the team.

First, a bit about Mitsch and her two full-time instructors. Mitsch doesn't have a technical background, but she spent three years at Red Hat in human resources having plenty of conversations about and with developers. She has a passion for education - this girl clearly loves her job.

My favorite quote from our talk: "I sit here every day with a huge grin on my face because it's so cool to see how everyone has been able to learn."

Joining her are two long-time experts and educators in their fields. Julia Elman (pictured above, right) is a designer and front-end developer who worked on the Hallmark Cards' website re-design in 2007 and as a Django designer and developer at World Online in Kansas. Since moving to the Triangle, she's served as a local chapter leader (and a national committee member) for Girl Develop It RDU and Teen Tech Camp. And she's writing a book for O'Reilly Media called Lightweight Django.

One of her Teen Tech Camp partners is Iron Yard Ruby on Rails instructor Clinton Dreisbach (pictured above, center). He got his start developing on the IBM PCJr at age 10 and has worked in Perl, Java, Clojure and Ruby since then (He ran a game development firm from 2000-2008). He's also a regular conference speaker and over the last two years, has taught coding for programs like Citizen Schools, ClojureBridge (and Teen Tech Camp).

In January, the Iron Yard will hire a third instructor to teach a Python development class.

Smashing Boxes is a partner with Iron Yard in the program, and lends its developers and designers as teaching assistants and mentors to the students.

When I wrote about the Iron Yard/Smashing Boxes partnership in April, Iron Yard co-founder Eric Dodds told me that instructors are compensated as they would be if they worked in the field. They're also given time during and between sessions to hone their skills and stay up on the latest tech trends.

The best way to describe the program? Intense and exciting.

Inside Durham's Iron Yard Academy - 2
Mitsch describes the first nine weeks as a knowledge dump. Monday through Thursday from 9 to noon are spent in lecture with the instructors. Each afternoon, the students spend in lab working with the instructors and teaching assistants on projects they've been assigned to be due the next day at 6 a.m.

On Fridays, students have a 10 a.m. huddle to debrief from the week - a session added to help the students deal with the stress of the learning so quickly, Mitsch says. They also listen to guest lectures and receive a homework assignment for the weekend. And the last Friday of each month, they meet with developers at Smashing Boxes to get feedback on their weekend projects and witness a day in the life of a professional in the field.

Student Erin Brown, a Durham musician, has been blogging about the experience. In the first three weeks, she called her Ruby course "delightfully engaging", "fun and crazy" and "really hard." But the knowledge came quick. After week one, when her only previous knowledge was gained in a course on Java at Durham Tech, she already knew more Ruby than Java.

In her second weekend, she wrote a blackjack game in Ruby. Her blog entry sums it up well:

I worked pretty tirelessly all weekend to complete a Blackjack game we wrote in Ruby using Test Driven Development. You guys. A BLACKJACK GAME. It totally ran. I could make bets and get dealt cards and win or lose against the dealer and accumulate money and go broke. I'm basically a wizard.

Mitsch says that the goal of the first nine weeks isn't only to teach a programming language but to prepare the students to learn to code in any language. Because technology is always changing, much of learning to code requires trial and error. Code school helps students know where to begin in order to keep learning.

Those skills will be tested in the final three weeks of the program, which are spent working in groups on a final project. In most cases, students will have to learn skills they weren't taught in class. The projects are intense, Mitsch says. Students will build an app or website from start to finish. The current students decide on their projects this week - already, the front end development team has committed to redesigning Girl Develop It's national website.

All projects will be presented before potential employers and the press at the August 22nd event.

"It's a tricky event," Mitsch says. "The object is that they want to present their work and technique and accomplishment but they also want to present themselves as junior level developers ready to get hired."

Community involvement is key to Iron Yard's future.

Inside Durham's Iron Yard Academy - 3
The community has rallied around the program.

An Employer Advisory Board meets regularly to advise The Iron Yard on the skill sets they need and the jobs they hope to fill. Members of that board are executives at companies like Cactus Consulting, Bronto, Red Hat and Smashing Boxes. It's their need for Python developers that's prompting the January class, Mitsch says.

Developers and executives at Fugitive Labs, Shoeboxed, School Dude, Validic and other Triangle companies have provided guest lectures. The students went on field trips to Bronto and Spoonflower, and the Ruby students attended the Ruby for Good conference in Washington D.C. last weekend.

Each session will be unique, Mitsch says. When new Ruby and front-end development classes kick off September 15, the format will be the same but the guest lecturers, field trips and projects will be different. They'll be dependent on the schedules and involvement of the employers and the community. That will keep the program fresh and relevant, Mitsch says.

And in coming weeks, the graduating students will become part of that community. When the Iron Yard launches free kids coding classes in September, they'll be asked to serve as instructors.

Mitsch expects most will be in their new jobs and eager to demonstrate their new skills to others.

"One girl does a dance very time she gets code right," Mitsch says. "It could have been 15 or 20 years since they were in class so it's cool to see them re-enter and have so much fun learning again."