The code to a fast-track career in tech industry

Rising demand prompting thousands in US to switch careers and learn digital language

Jobs in the tech industry are in high demand across America, and more people of all ages are answering the call.
Jobs in the tech industry are in high demand across America, and more people of all ages are answering the call.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO • After graduating from college, Mr Paul Minton worked as a waiter but always felt he should do more.

So the 26-year-old mathematics major took a three-month course in computer programming and data analysis. His starting salary last year as a data scientist at a Web start-up was more than US$100,000 (S$136,600). As a waiter, he made US$20,000 a year.

Stories like his are increasingly familiar these days as people across a spectrum of American jobs - poker players, bookkeepers, baristas - are shedding their past for a future in the booming technology industry. The money sloshing around is cascading beyond investors and entrepreneurs into the broader digital workforce, especially to those who can write modern code, the digital world's language.

Internet giants like Google and Facebook have long fought over the top software engineers in the US, and that continues. But now, companies in almost every industry, either by necessity or to follow the pack, are pursuing some sort of digital game plan - creating lucrative opportunities for computing-minded newcomers who, like Mr Minton, want to reboot their lives.

"These are skilled and ambitious people who are seeking an on-ramp to the tech industry," said Mr Jim Deters, chief executive of Galvanise, the school Mr Minton went to.

The boom-to-bust cycles in the tech business can be wrenching, like the last downturn in the early 2000s after the dot-com bubble burst. Yet software development and engineering jobs held up better than ones in finance, marketing, sales and administration.

For now, it is a seller's market for those who can master new technology tools for lowering a business' costs, reaching its customers and automating decision-making - notably, cloud computing, mobile apps and data analytics.

Companies cannot hire fast enough. Glassdoor, an employment site, lists more than 7,300 openings for software engineers, ahead of job openings for nurses, who are chronically in short supply.

For the smaller category of data scientists, there are more than 1,200 job openings. Demand is highest in San Francisco. Across the US, the average base salary for software engineers is US$100,000, and US$112,000 for data scientists.

In March, the White House announced an initiative, TechHire, to coordinate the efforts of the federal government, cities, corporations and schools to train workers for the thousands of jobs in the tech sector.

Students of coding schools belong to a wide age range, but most are in their 20s and 30s.

Past shifts and surges in the information technology industry - the early Internet boom in the 1990s, the personal computer revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, the minicomputer and mainframe eras before - have often opened doors to job seekers of diverse backgrounds.

Ms Savannah Worth majored in English and graduated last year from Colorado College. In college, she had dismissed computer programming as all maths and numbers and not a creative pursuit. But she dropped into an open house one evening at the Galvanise school in Denver. She found it filled with creative, smart people - and not at all just dry maths.

Ms Worth, 22, signed up for the 24-week Web programming class and excelled. She was hired by IBM as a software developer in San Francisco, and helps its corporate clients design and build Web and mobile applications that run in remote cloud data centres, and she earns a six-figure salary.

Galvanise's 24-week Web programming course is one of the largest among the coding schools. The average class length among the schools is just under 11 weeks, and costs US$11,000. Galvanise's course is among the most expensive, at US$21,000, but the job placement rate for its students is 98 per cent.

"What we hire for is the ability to learn," said Ms Rachel Reinitz, an IBM distinguished engineer, who is Ms Worth's boss. "The technology changes so fast."

Galvanise is selective, accepting only about 20 per cent of applicants. The vast majority are college graduates, but there are exceptions, like Ms Reyna DeLoge. She went to Montana State University but dropped out after a year, uninspired and in debt.

Ms DeLoge, 24, worked for years mostly as a barista and assistant manager. She applied to the Web programming course and was accepted. Ms DeLoge got a US$5,000 scholarship and a no-interest loan from Galvanise.

She graduated last month, immediately received a few job offers and decided to take one from Galvanise itself, as a teaching assistant and mentor to new students. Her salary is nearly US$80,000.

In a stroke, she is making more than her father, an experienced machine-tool operator and instructor.

"That blows me away," said Ms DeLoge, who sees her new skills as a gateway to opportunity. "Who knows where I'll be in a year."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline 'The code to a fast-track career in tech industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe