An instructor gave some directions to students in the FastTrack’D program before they started working on a final project. / Photo Matt Blois
By MATT BLOIS
A Memphis tech company is training new developers to fill information technology jobs in Williamson County’s tight labor market.
Cook Systems’ FastTrack’D program trains students to code. The trainees become Cook Systems employees when they finish, but are placed with other companies looking for tech workers as contract employees. Cook Systems bills those companies for the services their former students provide.
Cook Systems CEO Brad Weeks said this program is useful because there aren’t enough developers to fill all the IT jobs in the Nashville area.
“There’s insatiable demand,” Weeks said. “With Amazon coming, and Alliance Bernstein coming. There’s a growing issue here.”
Williamson County had less than three percent unemployment in October, but Weeks said that number is probably close to zero for the IT field.
Cook Systems started offering FastTrack’D courses in Memphis five years ago, and has since run courses in Jacksonville, Dallas and Columbus. The first cohort of new developers in Williamson County will finish the nine-week training program later this month.
On Wednesday afternoon, the classroom in a Berry Farms office building had Nerf guns and a video game console on a table at the front. The eight students had lines of code pulled up on laptops while an instructor gave some directions before they started working on a final project.
The students come a wide range of backgrounds, but all had some coding ability before staring the program. Several in the current cohort had college degrees in math or computer science.
One student said he was training to be a missionary and worked as a plumber before applying to FastTrack’D. Another student dropped out of medical school and wanted to switch careers.
Joe Hunter, who directs the FastTrack’D program in Nashville said the company will go through hundreds of applications to find the right fit. They’re looking for students that have already taught themselves some coding or have some background in development.
“We do a predictive index, a cognitive test, multiple personal interviews to make sure that person has the right aptitude and ability to be able to think quick, to adapt to change,” he said. “If they don’t have those skill sets they aren’t going to work in the program.”
Hunter said the selection process is part of what makes this program different from a coding boot camp.
Another difference is that the students in FastTrack’D don’t pay any tuition. Instead of charging students money, Cook Systems makes money by sending its former students to other companies and charging for their work.
“Most people who are running software schools don’t have an incentive to produce a person they get paid for,” Weeks said. “You need a model that aligns with the interests of the customer. We’re at risk just like they are if we fail.”
A 12-week coding boot camp through the online coding school Convalence costs $9,500. A six-month web development course at Nashville Software School costs $11,900. The school also offers scholarships.
Students said they felt like the FastTrack’D program did prepare them to be developers. Austin Sauer, the medical student turned software developer, said there’s no way he would have been able to complete the course’s final project two months ago.
“We could learn the languages on our own, but having the tools to make the languages do what you what is really what we’ve learned here,” he said. “I might be able to write some lines of code, but it doesn’t do anything until I use a system that makes it do something.”
Hunter said the program focuses on more than just teaching students how to write code. He said the program also has components to help trainees improve their communication skills so they can work on a team.
Forest Hill, one of the current students, said communication was one of the hardest parts of the final project. The students had to build a program like Google Drive that could save and retrieve files. But they also had to make sure the other students on their team understood how the code worked.
“It’s really important that we have a mutual understanding of how that’s going to happen,” he said. “If I’m telling the front end to send this thing one way and (other members of the team) tell the back end to receive it a different way then nothing works.”
Cook Systems plans on holding at least one FastTrack’D course every quarter in Williamson County, but could schedule more if there are enough companies looking for tech workers. The next course starts in January.