Gr8Code fills skills gap by teaching computer programming, coding to children, adults

Patrick Hughes is dedicating himself to learning a new profession.

Hughes, 28, of South Tampa, moved to the Tampa Bay region in February when he joined a startup company. But he soon found little satisfaction from his work. So he quickly decided to begin the process of reinventing himself for a new job that would better flex his technological expertise.

But how?

Before leaving his job, he started networking and found out about Gr8code, a local startup company that aims to introduce coding and programming skills to kids and adults to help them land highly skilled, high-paying jobs in the new economy. He signed up for their adult coding boot camp.

“I realized just how badly I craved something a little more technical,” Hughes says. “I had been on a career path that was pretty broad and I just decided to narrow my scope.”

As Hughes works to grow a more tech-centric career, Gr8code already plans to expand its program offerings after getting $5.4 million funding from a venture capital group -- resources that follow growth in the Tampa Bay area’s technology and startup community.

Preparing the next wave of workers

In the shadow of former cigar factories and the night life of Ybor City’s 7th Avenue, a colorful historic bungalow is getting a reboot as a technology camp giving kids and adults a jump start on 21st century skills.

The idea started simply. Virginia Barnett was talking to Phuong Cotey in December 2013 about what their kids would do over the summer. Their kids went to a camp at the Florida Aquarium the year before and the moms wanted to challenge their kids, who have interests in technology.

Barnett was director of operations at Florida Next, a foundation whose mission is to “empower young people, entrepreneurs and small businesses so they can drive the innovation needed to enhance Florida’s economy and quality of life.” Another founder is Deborah Neff, director of operations at Tampa Bay WaVE, a downtown Tampa creative space designed to help entrepreneurs develop their businesses.

With 15 years of management experience, Barnett saw a gap where technology developers can create and problem solve but do not know how to market and sell their products.

Finding limited options and the choices they had very expensive, Barnett, Cotey and Neff decided to develop a cost effective camp of their own. Children ages 8 to 13 learn how to create an app, design a website, create a computer game or shoot a short film at Gr8code's coding and technology summer camp. Part of the day is also spent teaching business fundamentals and how to pitch a product.

The summer camp went better than planned; 16 children signed up each week, four more than their goal, Barnett says.

Then in September they launched programming for adults in an accelerated, nine-week course. Students learn HTML, CSS and Javascript as well as network systems. There was no formal marketing for the adult program. Students came from word-of-mouth and networking events. The cost is $10,000.

In addition to class time spent coding, students network with professionals making contacts and getting job interview experience. Gr8code also partners with local businesses that are seeking developers.

Room to grow  

Technology is a part of nearly everyone’s daily life starting at an early age. Schools use iPads and other electronic devices. Businesses rely on technology and employees to know how to use it. There are currently 1,300 jobs open in tech-related fields in the Tampa Bay area, many that pay starting salaries of $55,000 or more, Barnett says.

Before finishing its inaugural adult classes, Gr8code founders are making plans to expand programming. The code camp is getting $5.4 million over four years from OmniElite Financial Group.

“This is not a typical investment for us, but after meeting with the Gr8code team and several of our key investors, it quickly became apparent that we wanted to be involved in this tech initiative,” says Steve Brickner, President of OmniElite, in a news release.

With millions of dollars in backing, Barnett says they are focused on filling their seats for January. They have hired an additional instructor and could be in line to hire 3-5 more people in the coming year as they expand programs.

“Awareness is going to be the biggest driver. People will hopefully understand our focus is to get people into open jobs,” Barnett says. “It’s really for people who are committed to move into the industry.”

Nurturing the local tech workforce

Software developers are a crucial part of the tech community, says Jennifer Whelihan, economic development manager of Hillsborough County's Economic Development department.

The investment in Gr8code could make an impact in expanding the tech workforce here, she says.

“I think its fantastic and hope it helps our community,” Whelihan says.

Luring tech companies and the higher wage jobs they bring is a strategy to boost the area’s traditional economy, which was built on real estate, tourism and the service and hospitality industries.

Through the Economic Development Innovation Initiative (EDI2), Hillsborough County is spending $2 million to help bring awareness to the Tampa Bay area’s tech and startup community.

There’s Startup Weekend at which entrepreneurs share their stories of success. The Alligator Zone invites families to learn how to avoid pitfalls that could hurt their businesses. A recent Veterans Symposium connected military members with potential opportunities as well, Whelihan says.

Also, the county’s Entrepreneur Collaborative Center, which lets anyone interested in starting a business meet with a consultant, take classes and pitch an opportunity, opens Dec. 11.

“We’re continuing to grow and it’s the right people who are hearing about us,” Whelihan says. “We are getting past the awareness phase and getting into the impact in the community phase.”

Programmers, developers in high demand

Three weeks into Gr8code’s course and Hughes has created a simple program. He’s developing a portfolio from what he’s learning, building websites and meeting people in the Tampa Bay entrepreneur and technology community.

It’s not all about code when it comes to getting one of those high-paying jobs.

“There’s always programmers needed. There’s always developers needed,” Hughes says. “There’s definitely a shortage of people who can code well and be sociable and that’s what a business expects — the well-roundedness that's the critical component here.”

Jared Leone is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. He writes about all things Tampa Bay. Follow @jared_leone on Twitter. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jared Leone.

Jared Leone is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.