Toni Warren, President at Suncoast Developers Guild, took an hour out of her busy day to talk to us about education, Tampa Bay coding talent, and getting involved in our community.
Roxanne Williams: Tell us a little bit about the transition from The Iron Yard to Suncoast Developers Guild.
Toni Warren: When The Iron Yard announced that it was closing, the community asked us to step up since we were the only immersive code school in Tampa Bay. Our campus had been running very successfully. We were the highest-enrolled campus, quickest to job placement, and our job placement rate was over 90% – the highest job placement out of all of our campuses. Being that we were the only code school in Tampa Bay, if anyone in the community wanted access to our education, which is web development and software engineering, they would really have to leave the area or do it on their own as part-time study. That’s really not fair for people who want to learn. It also hindered the growth of our employers and startups due to a lack of talent.
We went through all of the due diligence with the Department of Education and the Commission for Independent Education. We submitted our application in November of last year, which was as quickly as we possibly could. We were approved to start advertising, marketing, and opening applications in late June. It was approximately a year since the announcement that The Iron Yard was closing that Suncoast Developers Guild was able to rebrand, reboot, and get approved by the State to start talking about what we’re doing and start educating again.
Roxanne: Has the Fall cohort filled up already?
Toni: We have two cohorts in session and the Fall cohort starts on October 22nd! We are still accepting applications and enrolling. Our cohort that started on September 4th filled up and we are anticipating the same for our October cohort so if you are thinking about joining, don’t delay in applying.
Roxanne: Would you like to share some information about the curriculum for anyone interested?
Roxanne: Suncoast Developers Guild is more than doing its part to bring qualified tech talent to Tampa. What kind of starting salary can graduates see?
Toni: The average starting salary for Junior Full Stack Devs in the area is between $40,000 to $60,000, with the true average being $55,000.
Matt Vaughn: I’m curious how you’re finding success bringing people into the program. What are you doing to drive people to the school?
Toni: There are a few things. We are the only immersive code school in Tampa Bay. We’re also the only not-for-profit immersive code school in the State of Florida. What we’re doing is very new to this area, so we’re not just doing brand awareness about Suncoast Developers Guild, we’re doing educational awareness about what a code school is. If you go into bigger tech markets such as Atlanta, Austin, or San Francisco, a lot of these markets have 8, 10, or even 14 code schools. People are very well-aware from both the student side (people interested in learning and scaling up), and from the employer side (they’re aware of the skillset coming out of these schools).
Here in Tampa Bay, it’s different. People have been hungry to learn these skills, they’ve been wanting to learn web development, and they’ve been wanting to do in-person training with a teacher on campus, building an alumni network. They haven’t been able to do that here. We also have people that are new to the area who have been researching online what code schools are. Those are, by far, the types of applicants we’re getting, which is great. They’re already aware that this program is very intense and accelerated. They’re also very aware of the job opportunities after.
We’re also doing a lot of awareness about what code education is and how we work. We do open houses, and we offer free crash courses. We do these either on campus or out and about in the community.
We hosts hackathons, and we support over 30 meetup groups and tech organizations in the community just by being a tech hub, and being a place where people can come and cowork for free, just to build that community and have that safe space for people to be able to share knowledge and grow.
Those are, primarily, our grassroots marketing efforts.
Matt: We appreciate your efforts!
Toni: Yeah! We are in the business of educating our community. What they do with those skills after is up to them. We want them to have the freedom to take those skills and work anywhere, or freelance, or own their own company. But at the same time, we are aware that the majority of our students are career shifters and career starters, and for that, we have very high job placement and many employment initiatives. However, we’re much like traditional educational institutions, in the sense that you won’t see us taking money from companies. We don’t take recruiting fees. If we did that, we’d start teaching only what certain companies wanted us to, and that wouldn’t be fair.
Roxanne: I know you mentioned hackathons, but I wanted to get a bigger picture about your involvement in the community?
Toni: First and foremost, we are a not-for-profit entity, so there are no owners. Technically, we are owned by the community, and we’re very proud of that. We are mission-driven. We want to provide the best education in web development to anyone that wants to learn this craft. But we also pride ourselves in facilitating a healthy community for developers. We support any Suncoast Developers Guild member or alumni in a way that strengthens our community and promotes the common good. I love being involved in any community initiatives that are going to involve developers or advance their skillset. We would not be where we are today if we weren’t involved in the community. We love to collaborate and work with employers and hiring partners. We work with them at all sizes, from startups to enterprises. That being said, we work with a lot of different organizations. I, specifically, sit on the Emerging Tech Leaders board, I was the organizer of the web development and software engineering track for the past 4 or 5 years of Tampa Bay Startup Week, and I’m very involved in Tampa Bay Tech. Suncoast Developers Guild will be very involved in local Chambers of Commerce. Although we are located in St. Pete, we serve all of Tampa Bay.
Some of the initiatives that we do here are free kids classes that are all volunteer-based and led, simply to expose kids to coding. I’m involved with Women Who Code and Girl Develop It. I’m also involved in Code for Tampa Bay. I was one of the organizers of Tampa Bay Hackathon, as well as the Synapse Innovation Summit hackathon. I’ll go out and do presentations about traditional and non-traditional jobs in tech, and I specifically like to speak to college and high school students to try to reach populations that might not have thought about tech as an industry. Showing them that development and design is an option. There are just so many opportunities in the tech industry.
Matt: Do you intend on offering more bootcamps as SDG grows? Perhaps a PHP course?
Toni: We get a lot of questions about why we teach what we teach, and there are a few reasons. One is, we are going to teach the programming skills that will allow students to become successful as developers in their long-term career, but we also teach them web development skills that are needed in Tampa Bay.
PHP isn’t in our wheelhouse because it’s less of a general purpose language and more of a tool for solving specific problems in web development. We teach our students, first and foremost, how to be programmers. We teach them how to think like engineers.
Due to our provisional license from the State, we can’t add or change any of our curriculum for another year. What we can do, and what we’d like to do one day, is add a DevOps and UI/UX program. Right now, our focus is just building the web development program and possibly offering some intro courses or weekend / evening courses for people who are considering joining the full-time program.
Roxanne: Do you believe experience should come before education at this point? Should traditional 4-year degrees still be necessary in this day and age where self-taught devs can do as great, if not better, of a job?
Toni: I believe in all types of education. Whatever works for that person. The difference between us and traditional educational degrees is that they’re teaching the stuff that we don’t teach here. They’re teaching the theory and concept, which is great if you want to understand the true inner workings behind programming, and this is typical with a CS degree. Here, we teach them how to program. Week one – if not day one – our students are making an impact on a project’s code base because they’re able to program.
The reason that traditional educational institutions are having such a hard time teaching this is because of the accreditation system. It’s a very lengthy process. It can take 2 or 3 years to have textbooks, curriculums, and professors approved. Well, that’s just null and void in the tech industry.
Rather than going through a 4 year degree and saying ‘oh it’s not any good’ (which isn’t necessarily the case) what I’d like to see in Tampa Bay is working more with the universities and having this as an add-on, so whether it be between their junior and senior year, or maybe right after their senior year, or during their senior year, they’d go through the program in three months. So they’d have the theory and concept behind programming, but now they’d also have the skillset to code.
Matt: What do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?
Toni: I’d like to see more diversity in tech here. This industry is so rewarding for everyone, and everyone uses tech. The people who are building the tech should be representative of our entire population.
We’re a bit behind here in Tampa, and we need to get our city, our county, and our state behind our educational goals. We have these tech hiring initiatives, but we’re lagging because of the red tape and the archaic processes and requirements behind our educational institutions, and we can’t meet our tech hire needs. That’s going to be one of my initiatives once we get past our provisional license: how do we change the licensing procedures for educational institutions so that we can have more innovative and startup educational institutions that are allowing our people and our communities to learn the skills necessary for us to meet these tech hire goals? Right now, unfortunately, we’re just not there in Florida.
Roxanne: Have you had to overcome any adversity in your career as a woman in tech, or has the Tampa community been welcoming?
But what I hear is that from the outside looking in, if there aren’t other women in these fields, women often think that they aren’t welcome or it’s not a field for them. I actually got into tech because of my sister. She’s a designer and developer, she’s very well-known in the design world. She created Styletil.es, she’s a design manager at Adobe in San Francisco. And she kept saying to me ‘there needs to be more people like you in the tech field. You’d do great.’ I’d respond with ‘I don’t want to sit at a computer all day, that’s never really been for me.’ Meanwhile, when I went to get my MBA, I was like many of our students at Suncoast Developers Guild – I was in transition. I was looking for a rewarding job, meaningful work, better work-life balance. I came from the hospitality industry, and hadn’t gotten a holiday off in quite a few years. It wasn’t sustainable. I was working very long hours – probably between 60 to 80 hours per week. I was really tired, and I wanted to be in creative workspaces with creative and intelligent people. Which I had in the past – I love the variety of personalities in the hospitality industry. But in the tech industry, we have that too. So all these things I wanted led me back to the tech field. That’s why I like to be at the forefront of women in tech in Tampa Bay. If I notice an event without a female speaker, I’ll ask ‘what can I do? How can I be a part of it?’ The Synapse Innovation Summit was a great example for that. There were a few breakout sessions, and no female MC – so they asked me to do it. I ended up having women come up to me after to say ‘thank you, there weren’t any other ladies here and I was starting to feel like maybe it wasn’t for me.’
We have an interview as part of the application process at Suncoast Developers Guild. You’d think if someone doesn’t show up for the interview they’d be completely axed, right? You think if they don’t show up, that’s gonna be a reflection of their work ethic – but that’s not the case. Oftentimes, it’s just because they’re so nervous and they’re transitioning into the tech field, and they’re not sure if it’s for them. But once they walk through those doors and they see a campus that’s very inclusive and diverse, they feel comfortable. They recognize ‘ok, I can do this, just like anyone else can do this.’
That’s actually more of my concern right now. I want to make sure we have tech diversity scholarships to let everyone know that this is a field that everyone can be involved in, that it’s rewarding, and welcoming. Personally, I think that I have gone through some woes of being a woman, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s about being in the tech field, to be quite honest. I’m seeing that more now that I’m the President of the Suncoast Developers Guild. Now that we’re opening and starting our own business here, that’s where I’m seeing a little bit more – I wouldn’t say it is exactly adversity, but there have been comments I might not have fielded if I wasn’t a woman. But that’s ok, because we’re pioneering the way and we’re making a lot of progress, and a lot of those comments are not made locally.
Matt: Obviously you’re busy with all the events you attend, and opening your business, but have you taken part in a cohort?
Toni: No, I haven’t. I dabbled in HTML and CSS and I ran the website of the prior tech company I worked at. If SDG didn’t get launched here, I’d be going through a code school myself just because of the amazing opportunities I’ve seen. It just accelerates you as far as networking, peers, and learning potential. It’s really exciting. But, no – in fact, I handle everything non-code here. The CEO, Jason Perry, and myself, are 50/50 in terms of leadership. I handle all the operations, marketing, student support, and community engagement. He handles the academics, curriculum, as well as a lot of other things in the community side and operations. If I coded all day every day, I wouldn’t be able to have the interactions I currently have. I’m so passionate about the education piece and the community piece – that’s really where I prioritize my efforts. But I absolutely will sit in for a lot of the crash courses and a lot of the meetups. Plus, I get involved as much as I possibly can to respect the craft that they’re doing.
Roxanne: Is there anything you’d like to say to anyone thinking of going into tech? Any words of wisdom?
Toni: There’s no better time than the present. I wouldn’t be here today if this didn’t work. The ROI is absolutely incredible. Our program is $14,900 and lasts 3 months, and graduates are making, like I said earlier, between $40,000 to $60,000 starting salary.
Invest in yourself. This is a skillset that isn’t going anywhere. The opportunities, as far as where you want to take your skills, is completely up to you. It’s a very rewarding career, so if you’re thinking about it, don’t look at it as an expense. Look at it as an investment in your journey, and get started!
Matt: Any further thoughts or insights you’d like to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline for Suncoast Developers Guild?
Toni: We are having our first cohort’s Demo Day at SDG October 12th at 2pm, so anyone looking to hire developers is welcome to come. And then our other exciting news is we’re enrolling for our October 22nd cohort. It’s filling up fast, and it will be our first group graduating in 2019!
About Suncoast Developers Guild:
Suncoast Developers Guild’s mission is to provide those seeking an education in software development with the technical and soft skills they need to pursue rewarding careers as programmers. They also seek to promote a sense of community among local technology organizations, supporting members in a way that strengthens the Tampa Bay community and promotes the common good.
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