Population 3,392, Water Valley, Mississippi, is home to an innovative organization that is helping break the cycle of small-town youth having limited access to high-wage jobs. In May, the first graduates of Base Camp Coding Academy—a free coding bootcamp for high schoolers—will have the knowledge, skills and confidence to get employed as software developers. We talked with Kagan Coughlin, Base Camp’s cofounder and executive director and one of the reasons Water Valley is beating its small-town odds. Here’s what he had to say about the program and the impact it’s having in Mississippi:
Why did you start Base Camp Coding Academy?
Because our young people are capable, and deserve an opportunity like this. And our business community needs their talent and passion now and in the future. And if all it takes is a little coordination to bring two parties together for their mutual benefit, how could you not?
Are people surprised to learn about a coding academy in Water Valley?
What can you tell us about Base Camp Coding Academy’s first year?
Fourteen students started at Base Camp June 1, and 11 are on track to graduate May 6. The students have been fully capable of grasping the content, at speeds that exceeded our highest expectations. Students are cycling out of the classroom to spend a 40 hour work week job shadowing at area employers, like CSpire, Renasant Bank, FNC / CoreLogic, MTrade and NextGear. They have been actively applying and interviewing with those companies, as well as with FedEx and Howard Industries. Our hope is that each student will have a solid job offer before they graduate on May 6.
Meanwhile, the support from the business, philanthropic and educational communities has been amazing. Beyond financial support, these groups have contributed time, hosted the students at their facilities to add to the educational experience, and mentored all of us.
Since it serves high schoolers, does Base Camp Coding Academy coincide with the school year?
Yes and no. On the front end we ask the students to forego their summer vacation after graduating from high school. They work 40 hours a week through the summer, and straight through the fall/winter/spring, to graduate in the ballpark of when other educational programs are letting out for the summer, or preparing for graduation. This is the time of year when many businesses are expecting to make new hires of college graduates; it seemed like a good idea to tap into that existing behavior.
Do these types of job opportunities exist in Water Valley, or is that kind of the point of coding, that it doesn’t matter where you are?
There may be, and certainly in the future as these students grow their careers they will have the opportunity to work remotely. At this time we are focusing on the first step of their career with a regional employer.
What are your plans for the organization in the next year? Where do you see it in three years, five years?
We are actively vetting the incoming class, and have sufficient funding to accept 25 students to begin June 1. We are working through a three-year pilot. The success of the pilot is based on the success of the graduates in the work force, which takes several years to gauge. The goal is to have clear metrics in the third year, with two graduated classes gainfully employed. At that time, if the employers are pleased and the interest is strong in our high schools, we will start the work of fundraising and growing the program.
Students are nominated, right? What’s the criteria? Do you target any specific type of student, such as girls, minorities, underprivileged?
Where do you start looking for that smart, hard-working young person who does not have a viable opportunity to attend college? It was one of the most difficult challenges we faced, and we first went to education experts to ask for their ideas. Their idea was to ask them to help identify the students, as every teacher knows a student or three that fit the criteria we look for. Once students are nominated by a teacher we conduct interviews and have them complete an aptitude test.
Every student in Mississippi falls into a category that is considered underrepresented in the tech world; minority, women, underprivileged, and/or rural. We certainly spend a little extra effort reaching out to young women, as we have some significant stereotypes to educate around when it comes to who can be a great coder/software engineer.
What role does Base Camp Coding Academy play in preparing Mississippi’s workforce for these new tech-centric jobs?
We expect our students to come to us at a zero-experience-with-coding base-line, and we will bring them up to level-1-software-developer before they leave us. Each student who successfully walks this path will at a minimum educate their friends and family that this is a career that is possible. In time we hope to see awareness translate into inspiration, and programs like Base Camp, and the software departments at our existing higher education institutions, will be scrambling to provide these opportunities to every student who is willing to apply themselves.
We can only dream of the positive impacts a thriving talent pool will have on our business community, and our state as a whole.
Are Mississippi schools doing a good or bad job preparing students for these types of jobs?
I think the hard answer here is that for the most part they are not, simply because this field has not reached the radar of most of our K-12 institutions. We did not realize when we first set out to recruit students for Base Camp that we would first need to explain to the administrators and teachers what software development and coding is.
There are wonderful organizations that are working on building awareness, like Code.org. and in Mississippi there are groups that are running pilots inside high schools to incorporate coding into the curriculum. For example, North Mississippi Community College and Mississippi State are both pushing these initiatives. In many ways Base Camp and programs like it cheat by avoiding the inertia that larger education institutions must wrestle with.