Lacking tech curriculum in schools, Memphis groups step up to prepare students

Memphis, a logistics hub for the U.S., is taking steps to embrace tech as a new industry. There are over one thousand job openings in Memphis for skilled developers at giants such as FedEx and ServiceMaster, but Memphis faces a skills gap.

It’s one of the reasons the Bluff City is more likely to attract an Amazon fulfillment center as opposed to a new corporate campus.

Related: "Memphis checks many boxes but is still a "long-shot" in the Amazon HQ2 bid"

The causes for the shortfall run deep, from social ills like poverty, crime, neglect and a resignation to Memphis’ past of racial strife and inequality. Advances in early adult education and accessible coding camps seek to level the playing field and reshape Memphis as a contender in the tech economy.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) has made inroads in Shelby County schools, but Tennessee has set no computer science standards for K-12. Most curriculums don’t stress coding at all. While there are summer camps for coding, these vary from year to year and provide limited exposure to a complex topic.

While the educational system is adapting to the technological revolution, organizations have come online to bridge the gap.

Empowering youth

One of these organizations is CodeCrew. The local nonprofit teaches young people the basics of writing software. It was founded by Meka Egwuekwe – the former director of software development for Lokion Interactive – in 2015, along with Petya Grady, senior interaction designer at ServiceMaster Innovation Lab, and Audrey Willis, formerly a business systems analyst at AutoZone.

Justin Martin, 12, works on coding a video game at the TigerCrew program, hosted by nonprofit CodeCrew. (Brandon Dahlberg)

Along with six full-time employees, CodeCrew operates eight in-school elective classes, 12 afterschool programs, and three summer camps for students at public, charter and private schools.

“We will never be able to achieve prosperity unless we get these young people to see themselves as producers of technology and not just consumers of technology. That’s where the jobs will be, that’s where the careers will be and that’s where the entrepreneurship opportunities are going to be,” said Egwueke.

Started as a pilot program at Lester Community Center in the Binghampton neighborhood, CodeCrew works with 250 students regularly. Overall, more than 1,000 students have received instruction. The nonprofit has a stated goal to serve underrepresented youth in Memphis and advocate for diversity in tech careers.

Related: "Video: Code Camp offers a tech future for Binghampton kids"

The largest of CodeCrew’s events is the annual Hackathon at the end of July. Last summer was the Lost in Space Hackathon where children were educated about computer science as well as the evils of human trafficking. CodeCrew also partnered with the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation over the summer to teach over 60 students how to build apps and cultivate computer science tools.

“All of these programs are in the K-12 space. All of them are very focused on mentoring. We describe ourselves as tech mentoring for young people,” said Egwuekwe.

Through programs and events like these, the hope is young Memphians will develop an interest in technology beyond its mundane applications.

“But if we want to shift that to being producers of technology, it’s really all about logic and learning and getting behind the curtain of the machine. That’s where we have to start the interest. We have to ensure that people who want to do this have access to the technology,” said Jamie Smith, ServiceMaster senior vice president and chief information officer.

School district leaders, meanwhile, are currently working to get in front of the eight ball. School-by-school assessments and guidelines are being worked on to bring tech instruction into the classroom. Much like a foreign language, technology is easier to learn the younger the person is exposed to it.

Even if guidelines are put into practice soon, high school students and young adults will face a gap. With recent graduates and young adults in mind, CodeCrew is launching a Code School in July.

The six-month program will teach entry-level software development. There are currently 29,000 young people aged 16 to 24 that are unemployed or not attending school, which is a population CodeCrew intends to target as the school is open to ages 16 to 30.

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“The Code School fits in both buckets of building a tech workforce and coding in Memphis. Our K-12 offerings are more on the long-term play. But then the Code School for young adults is a more immediate placement of taking young people who may not have any coding experience at all and turning them into entry-level software engineers,” said Egwuekwe.

CodeCrew students and mentors practice coding in the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library's Cloud901 teen lab. (Brandon Dahlberg)

High school grads or soon-to-be grads will be nominated by teachers, community partners, or some other non-relative for the inaugural 25-member class. Students will undergo a two-part interview, aptitude test and face-to-face meeting.

Classes will be held Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Laptops will be provided for the 24-week program. There is no cost for participants. Nominations end April 6.

Graduates will leave with a "sound knowledge of full-stack software development," a portfolio of completed projects, industry-based coding certification, soft skills and at least one job prospect.

“This fills a hole with some of our kids we work with who knew they didn’t want to go to college or didn’t have the financial means to go to college, but still wanted to be software engineers so this provides them the option to do that,” said Egwuekwe.

An Emerging Workforce

Other organizations are also looking for alternative training in Memphis to help build a tech-savvy workforce.

ServiceMaster’s demand for in-house developers has grown significantly over the past three years. They primarily do their product development in Memphis. On-sight coders help them be agile and fast and to be better aligned with the customers’ needs, ServiceMaster said. 

“Coding is really critical to us. It’s our factory. It’s where we’re developing the software parts of tomorrow. At some point, they all go through coding. So, having coding here in Memphis for us is very important,” said Smith.

This is accomplished through partnerships with local vendors and more recently organizations like Tech901.

Related: "Building a tech workforce in Memphis bit by byte"

“Our future IT leaders are coming out of people who start as coders. Having those people here, and grow up in the business and grow up in Memphis and understand that our environment, our business, our customers, as they transition and grow into the future IT leaders, gives us a leg up if they start here in the first place,” said Smith.

ServiceMaster partnered with Tech901 in the past year to develop the nonprofit’s Code 1.0 course. They wanted to offer a course that would benefit local companies. During the planning stage, conversations were held with local IT professionals to gauge their needs.

After the graduation of the first Code 1.0 cohort, ServiceMaster hired four students as interns. Kelly Miller was later hired full-time. She now works as a front-end developer with the American Home Shield E-Commerce team.

Meka Egwuekwe, co-founder and executive director of CodeCrew, speaks to coding students at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. (Brandon Dahlberg)

“I deal with the customer-facing side. The images, the words, and the content you see is created with JavaScript, HTML and CSS. It’s connected to the back end — the database and such. I am interested in front-end development so everything you see on the site is what I create,” said Miller.

Miller holds an undergraduate degree in Engineering Science from Vanderbilt University. After an internship as a product engineer, she switched gears and became a teacher.

She took a position in the Peer Power organization. While working as the STEM coordinator in 2012, she was recruited to East High School to teach engineering courses. After several years, she was ready to tackle a new challenge.

Related: "Student to teacher ratio improves 75 percent with addition of in-class mentors at Whitehaven High School"

“I knew I wanted to do something more technical since I had that undergraduate degree. And it still very much was an interest of mine. I wanted to pick a field that was growing,” said Miller.

Upon returning to Memphis, she heard about Tech901’s Code 1.0 course.

“After I read about it, I really was like ‘this is too good to be true’ and people always laugh at me for that. After an information session, I signed up for the course. Anyone with a STEM background can pass the course,” said Miller.
Kelly Miller, right, and her manager Sharon Bailey at the ServiceMaster Downtown headquarters. (Kim Coleman)
The course uses the Harvard C550 computer science curriculum paired with a local developer for instruction. Instructor Brad Montgomery, who is on the board of directors for the Memphis Technology Foundation, also heads the Python users group. Python is one of the primary coding languages.

The class provides the foundation for basic programming, learning basic algorithms, and common techniques for sorting data. Students also learn database and front-end technologies. A team concept is emphasized to mimic real-world work environments.

“Development today is getting more and more advanced. You have more happening on a web page. The web is not just a brochure. It’s applications that do things and let you track data and manage workflows. It’s getting pretty complicated,” said Montgomery.

“It is a challenging course, but it’s not unapproachable. If you graduated from high school, you can do this type of work," he added.

Reaching for new interest

Tech901 is also working with FedEx and their new Pathfinder program. Launched last year, it seeks to ferret out talent who took non-traditional educational paths. Trainees are considered full-time and receive benefits like tuition reimbursement. In the past, the program required a four-year degree.

Another gap to bridge is the low number of women pursuing careers in technology. Currently, only 12 percent of these jobs are held by women. 100 Girls of Code began in 2014 to address the current challenges of diversity in STEM fields.

The organization provides one-day workshops in Memphis, partnering with local female developers, engineers, and teachers, where female coders are exposed to an interactive learning experience. It includes an introduction to computer programming, website development, games and apps.

The goal is for girls to walk away with a clear picture of programming and a possible future in computer science.

Although Memphis is trailing the pack in computer science education – and coding in particular – through coordinated and individual efforts, some ground can be made up.

“Ultimately, I would love for us to reach a point in Memphis that coding is so integrated into all of our schools that an entity like CodeCrew doesn’t really need to exist anymore. That would be a dream come true and then I can go back to being a software engineer,” said Egwuekwe. “Until that day comes, we believe we need to have additional offerings to augment what’s happening.”

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