- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) - A Twin Cities school that aims to diversify the tech industry recently graduated its first class as a Welsh Corgi named Aesop scampered around the classroom wearing a tie.

The quirky atmosphere fit. The Nerdery, a technology consulting firm, led a group of partners to launch the 18-week Prime Digital Academy boot camp in Bloomington earlier this year, Minnesota Public Radio News (https://bit.ly/1IFfIYR ) reported.

The emotional graduation of the first 20 students, about half of whom were women, took place in a classroom where erasable boards were scrawled with coding references like “roses are #FF0000, violets are #0000FF.”

Most of the students and instructors who spoke at the graduation at times choked back tears. Prime President Mark Hurlburt said the emotion was unexpected.

“We knew we were going to be training people, we knew we were going to give them tools to start a new job, but what we didn’t expect (are) the powerful bonds they’d build,” Hurlburt said.

People skills are important to success in programming, Hurlburt said. Prime also tries to change the industry to make it more diverse and kinder than the culture of the ‘brogrammer’ on display in movies like “The Social Network” or television shows like HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

“I believe that software is the tool that humans are going to use to move forward and to drive progress in virtually every area of human endeavors,” Hurlburt said. “It’s not just about being smart, it’s not just about being the most clever coder or sharpest mind, it’s also about having empathy and being able to identify with the people you’re trying to serve.”

Mary White of Minneapolis was working as a barista before she enrolled in the boot camp, which she paid for through a fund for low-income students at the school. A 23-year-old college graduate with a degree in gender studies, she’s always been interested in programming.

“I found that oftentimes I went about solving problems in a way that was very formulaic,” White said. “When I took my first programming class, it just seemed like a perfect fit.”

Although there is tech training available online and at lower costs, White said it was the more intensive and communal learning style of Prime that compelled her to apply to the school.

“My biggest weakness coming into Prime, and I remember talking about it in my interview, was confidence,” White said. “Going to Prime has really instilled that confidence in me and given me a lot of self-assurance, knowing that I’m competent and capable of figuring things out on my own.”

But the work was hard. Most students said they studied and worked on the complex programming problems 65 hours a week, foregoing outside employment and often working late into the night and weekends.

“Part of the closeness of the cohort is really a shared level of stress and difficulty that they’ve come through,” Hurlburt said. “They’ve really come through the crucible together.”

The class learned programming languages, as well as how to build online and mobile applications. Working in teams, students created an encrypted diary app, as well as software that allows wedding guests to remotely request dance music from a DJ.

Three of the 20 students have accepted tech positions. They’re making on average more than twice as much as before they went to the boot camp, according to the school. White has an apprenticeship at a large Minneapolis advertising agency, which she found through a mentor provided by the school.

In her mid-40s, Jeanne Erickson Cooley was the oldest person in the class. Cooley, a former customer service employee at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, said she’s always been interested in programming.

Although the Minneapolis resident doesn’t have a job yet, she’s applied to a number of local companies. Cooley hopes to take some financial pressure off her husband and have more freedom to spend on her teenage daughter and son. “We might even be able to take a vacation,” she said.

The school itself isn’t cheap. Tuition is about $13,000 for the 18-week program. The school sets up financing plans that allow students to take up to three years to pay off.

A number of scholarships are also available, including one supporting low-income students funded by the city of Minneapolis and state of Minnesota and $500 scholarships for women programmers and veterans. About half of all enrolled students have their tuition covered by grants.

Now that the first class has graduated, the school will start adding more students. Eventually, Prime hopes to graduate about 200 students a year.

The next four classes maintain the original 50/50 ratio of men and women, according to current enrollments.

A new class launched this week with an appearance by Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who has supported the program as a way to bridge racial disparities in the region.

But the school didn’t immediately meet all its diversity goals. The first class coming out of the school was mostly white.

Hurlburt says the school will be working in the coming months to reach out to communities of color. Prime is searching for nonprofits and industry partners that are willing to provide financial support and help people see themselves in the industry.

“We can bring a wider and more diverse set of people and give them the chance to have an impact on the world and push things forward,” Hurlburt said. “We really feel like this is the way we can change the balance in the industry.”

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, https://www.mprnews.org


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