Launchcode: Tech students share hopes, dreams at networking event

Because he spoke very little English, Jose Similus couldn’t work in his field of computer science when he migrated from Haiti with his family. 

“In the progress of learning English, I ended up being a French teacher,” says Similus, a French and English as a Second Language teacher for 11 years. “My passion has always been coding and solving problems.”

Tampa native Sharon Austin winded up working at what was labeled a temporary job for more than six years so she could help care for her aging mother. But after her mother died, she had little to show employers because her development skills were self-taught and the websites were behind a firewall. 

She’s been working as an online teacher part-time while broadening her skillset through the national nonprofit Launchcode.

Luis Orozco, who holds an engineering degree, has been working in sales at a Westshore department store. He earned his college degree in Mexico after leaving his native Cuba more than a decade ago. But he likes programming. 

“[In] the process of getting something working, in that process you suffer,” he explains, “but when you finally get it, it’s such a happiness. It’s like, oh yes.”

All three are students in St. Louis-based Launchcode’s first free coding class in Tampa: Launchcode 101. Launchcode's work in Tampa is supported by funding from Hillsborough County Economic Development.

The students turned out for a networking event Thursday night at Hillsborough County’s Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Ybor City, where a panel of local entrepreneurs shared their stories and gave advice to the tech community.

Positioning people for success

Launchcode’s 23-week class is intended to help its 70 students broaden or brush up their skills, positioning them for success. The students in Launchcode's initial class in Tampa range in age from 22 to 67, and come from a broad diversity of backgrounds, education and careers.

“The majority that come through us, they’re doubling they’re salary when they get out,” says Jake Kalagian, Launchcode’s director of company relations.

Launchcode’s goal is to help people who are broke, working two jobs, and unable to spend time with their families. “We’ll stay with you as long as it takes,” he says. “I would say the average Launchcoder is in a job three months or so after the class ends.”

In Florida, students usually average around $54,000 annually in the first year. If a student needs job readiness skills, they help with that too, he says. 

Launchcode acts as an intermediary with employers that might believe they need to recruit experienced tech talent from other areas. Through an apprenticeship program, it reduces the risk to the employer by enabling them to hire on a temporary basis first, under contract with Launchcode.

“Launchcode hires them. The apprentice gets full-time benefits,” Kalagian explains.

Classes are tailored to meet the employers’ needs. “We don’t really have to worry about making money off of anything. We try to bend off of what the employers want,” he adds. “We can stay flexible for the companies. We’re willing to listen to anything and, if we think we can pull it off, we’ll try it.”

At the event, the students heard short talks from Jack Berlin, CEO of Tampa’s Accusoft; Marvin Scaff, a software entrepreneur and self-taught coder; Diane Egner, Publisher and Managing Editor of 83 Degrees Media; and Brian Kornfeld, Founding Partner at Synapse.

Advice for the future

What advice did they have for the new coders?

“Find mentors. Never stop learning, never stop being curious,” says Scaff. “Every business is a tech business. The way to differentiate yourself is to be more passionate. Be more hungry.”

“You’re taken the first step. That’s always the hardest. There’s always a thousand reasons to say no to something,” says Kornfeld. “Continue moving forward. Continue learning.”

When it comes to age, that doesn’t matter, according to Scaff. “It’s about your ability,” he says.

Launchcode accepts students and apprentices through an online application process. The current class is expecting to graduate in April. 

So what lies ahead for the local students? 

Similus wants to work in tech in the morning and teach at night. “The passion for programming is in my heart. It’s in my blood,” he says. “I love teaching, but my passion is programming.”

Austin, who developed a passion for the Internet because it’s an equalizer for the disabled and disadvantaged, wants to find a job where she can benefit a lot of people, she says.

Orozco, who moved to Tampa two years ago, says he’d like a programming job where he can develop his skills. “The most difficult things for me have been my pronunciation and my accent,” he says.

He’s looking to connect with employers where those things don’t matter. 

As Similus summed it up for the crowd Thursday, some of Launchcode’s students are just like flashlights with the wrong size batteries: they can’t work. Their skills are out of date. Launchcode can get them working again.

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. 
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