Get Cracking on Code

Community coding courses lead to jobs

March 30, 2015

Instructor Christina Koch
Instructor Christina Koch from Software Carpentry—a volunteer organization that teaches software skills to researchers—assists a student during a coding exercise at Stanford University.Photo: Amy E. Hodge

Matt Ferguson was in a dead-end job, and he knew it. He’d become a paralegal because it gave him flexibility to spend time with his family. But working in a small office, he had no hope for advancement, and he didn’t love the work. After researching different career options, he decided to learn about web development, an area ripe for growth. That’s what led him to the Louisville (Ky.) Free Public Library (LFPL).

In a matter of months, Ferguson took a series of free coding classes through the library. It opened up an array of career possibilities, and he was quickly hired as a front-end web developer with an advertising agency. “When I was working as a paralegal, I had reached the ceiling,” says Ferguson. “Whereas with web development, there are a lot of avenues I could go into.”

Christina Koch from Software Carpentry instructs a course on Git during a weekend-long training session at Stanford University in California. Many universities and their libraries are offering coding courses to their students, including graduate students, who are finding the workshops helpful in their research.
Christina Koch from Software Carpentry instructs a course on Git during a weekend-long training session at Stanford University in California. Many universities and their libraries are offering coding courses to their students, including graduate students, who are finding the workshops helpful in their research. Photo: Amy E. Hodge

Louisville’s library system (LFPL) is one of many across the country offering coding courses to community members. From the East Coast to the West, different programs have arisen, aimed at kids, graduate students, and the general public. The result: improving technological literacy while filling communities’ needs, and leading, even, to new careers.

Transformative learning

It was a program called Code Louisville that caught Ferguson’s attention in the first place. The initiative, a partnership among several Louisville government and nonprofit agencies—LFPL, the Department of Economic Development, Greater Louisville Inc., EnterpriseCorp, and KentuckianaWorks—as well as local businesses, is the city’s response to its software developer shortage. Louisville is home to a number of health-care-related companies, including Humana, Kindred Healthcare, Atria Senior Living, Trilogy Health Services, and, in recent years, has been working to fill nearly 2,000 technology jobs.

As part of the Code Louisville program, the library provides the learning platform and KentuckianaWorks (a workforce investment board and partner in Code Louisville) refers people to the library. As a library cardholder, Ferguson was able to enroll in a free 12-week course online that focused on front-end web development, where he studied independently and then met with his class and an assigned mentor once a week to review his work. Soon after the course ended, a recruiter helped him find a job as a front-end web developer, where he has been working since April.

Ferguson is one of 11 men and women who have found new jobs thanks to the coding skills they learned through Code Louisville (about 100 people have participated in the program since it launched in fall 2013). The initiative has been so successful that it was recently awarded a $2.9 million federal grant to expand into other regions and will begin working with additional libraries in coming months. The goal over the next three years is to train and place 500 people in jobs.

One reason it has been so successful: LFPL had the infrastructure in place to train library members in coding for free. “It really allowed us to deploy so much faster, because the distribution channel was there, at no cost to the individual,” says Rider Rodriguez, director of sector strategies at KentuckianaWorks, a workforce investment board and partner in Code Louisville. “We could never have launched as quickly without the library stepping in to do this.”

That infrastructure was in place thanks to Julie Scoskie, LFPL’s director of education and outreach. In September 2013, Scoskie purchased a license for the community to use Treehouse, an online resource of courses that teaches users to code, design websites, build apps, and more. As users master each skill, they’re awarded a badge by Treehouse and move along to the next skill. To date, more than 9,000 badges have been earned, says Scoskie.

To use the program, library cardholders simply register with their card number and log on remotely. They have access to more than 1,000 videos that instruct them on programming language such as HTML, JavaScript, app development, and Ruby on Rails. Designed to teach both beginners and experts, the program releases new content almost every week.

Libraries have been expanding their training from print literacy to technology and information literacy, so coding fits in nicely with that trend. —Steve Butzel, library director at Portsmouth (N.H.) Public Library

Scoskie says that coding classes fit perfectly with the library’s role in the community. “Our role is to help people in their pursuit of lifelong learning,” she says. “Many people are specifically looking, when they come to us, to upgrade their skills, to get a job, or to advance to a better job, and a lot of people just have an interest in this.”

She adds that teenagers especially have taken an interest in the Treehouse courses.

“As a library entity, we’re looking at not only meeting the needs that our community comes to us with but trying to seek out what are things in our community that our members haven’t even identified yet,” says Scoskie. “Treehouse was an excellent example of something we offered to the community, and we were very intentional in getting the word out.”

Cradle-to-grave literacy

Coding starts at a young age in Virginia Beach, Virginia. As the technology librarian at the Tidewater Community College (TCC)/City of Virginia Beach Joint-Use Library, Cynthia Hart teaches a preschool computer course, which has “graduated” four classes. Next on tap: coding.

“[The preschool computer class] is taking early literacy and digital literacy and combining them,” says Hart. “So now I’m getting ready to start up a preschool code club. You’ve got to know how to use the computer before you can code with me.”

Hart admits that her library is a unique one. It’s located on the campus of a community college, so she has access to technology (including robots), faculty, and businesses close by. As a result, she has transformed the library into a kind of technology academy for kids and adults.

“The library is a place where the community can collaborate in a lot of different lifelong learning opportunities, including different types of literacies,” Hart says. She says other local libraries have early traditional literacy covered, so she’s working to connect members to other types of literacy, including technology.

About 15 years ago, the library began teaching gaming classes, and, she says, coding was a natural progression. Hart is currently teaching a kids’ code club and a teens’ code club that focus on the Python coding language. Students range from ages 6 to 17, and in both classes, they use code to create their own games. In addition, during spring break in April 2015, the library will have maker mornings and code afternoons for kids and their families. “To flourish in today’s world, everyone needs computational thinking,” she says.

Whether she’s teaching her students JavaScript, Ruby on Rails, or just helping preschoolers understand how to use a mouse, Hart says that she loves seeing kids and adults experience those “a-ha!” moments and challenge themselves to learn more.

In a recent teen coding class, she says she was thrilled to learn that, independently, all the teens had exchanged contact information and met outside of class to work on their project. She remembers how proud they were when they showed her what they had completed. That’s when she realized what an impact the library was making. “We talk about libraries being transformational and making an impact on people’s lives,” she says. “To me, that’s incredible. There’s nothing better than helping someone get to that point.”

Coding workshops

In the past year, Stanford University Libraries has offered four coding workshops to its graduate students. Dozens of students and faculty attend each of these weekend-long training sessions to learn the basics of coding.
In the past year, Stanford University Libraries has offered four coding workshops to its graduate students. Dozens of students and faculty attend each of these weekend-long training sessions to learn the basics of coding. Photo: Amy E. Hodge

University libraries are also getting in on code courses, offering full-on boot camps to students. In the past year, Stanford University Libraries in California has offered four coding boot camps aimed at graduate students. Science Data Librarian Amy Hodge says the library invited volunteers from Software Carpentry, a volunteer organization that teaches software skills to researchers, to come to campus and host the weekend-long boot camps. During those sessions, graduate students, postdoctorate students, and instructors were immersed in Python, Unix Shell, and Git—software that taught them how to automate repetitive tasks, program in a testable way, and track and share work.

“Coding used to be something that I think of as fairly specialized, and now it’s expanding into all of these disciplines,” says Hodge. These workshops are a way to teach the basics and help researchers in their work.

Steve Butzel, library director at Portsmouth (N.H.) Public Library (PPL), says that the two coding classes his library offers arose from popular demand. About seven years ago, the library began teaching basic computer courses (Microsoft Office, internet skills, social media). Butzel says that a man approached the front desk, saying he was frustrated with his web developer. He wanted to learn to web design himself.

In response, the library started offering a two-part HTML class. “They’re a little bit on the geekier side of our classes,” says Butzel. He adds that each class—offered about two or three times a year—usually has between five and eight students who work with free software and learn to build their own sites. “People have absolutely cherished that the library is offering these computer classes,” he says.

Today, PPL offers about 20 different technology classes, and the chairs are consistently full. Butzel says that plans are in the works for new computer courses, which will include 3D modeling and possibly even 3D printing.

“Libraries have been expanding their training from print literacy to technology literacy and information literacy, so it fits in nicely with that trend,” he says. “And, increasingly, it’s an asset when you go to apply for a job if you are at all in the information industry.”

Which brings us back to Louisville’s Ferguson: Although still new to his front-end web development job, he is already working hard to give back to the program that helped shape his path. Ferguson just wrapped up a 12-week mentorship with Code Louisville, helping a class, much like his former one, gain the skills they needed to find new jobs. He says he’ll always be grateful for the skills he learned, thanks to the program and LFPL.

“I want to give back any way I can,” he says. “It completely changed my life, and I feel like I owe them quite a bit.”