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This Guy is Wicked Smaht

by Spencer Fleming

December 22, 2015

Back in October, Launch Academy partnered with VentureFizz and asked for your ideas about how Boston can become the nation's leader in coding education. This is going to sound like a totally contrived thing to say, but it's true: there were so many great ideas that we really struggled to pick just one winner. So we settled things the way any mature workplace does: a sword fight.

Just kidding. We put it to a company vote. When the dust settled, the winner was Scott Macmillan. Scott's essay, like many of the others that were submitted, touched on the importance of providing better coding education in primary and secondary schools. But Scott took it one step further by addressing the meta-issue of brain drain.

With Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston College, Boston University, UMass, Northeastern, WPI, and many other universities in the Boston area, the region isn't exactly hurting for education. The problem, though, is that we're not keeping all of those brains here—at least when it comes to coding.

Scott saw this as the real challenge facing Boston. The problem isn't just about becoming a leader in coding education, it's about becoming a leader in coding, period. That means the city needs to do more than just provide education and cross its fingers hoping people stay—it needs to cultivate local talent. Talent that has permanent ties to the city. Talent that won't leave the city after a winter where they see a few people commuting on skis or a car casually lying on its side in the middle of the highway

In a perfect world, schools would simply hire expert programmers to teach new state-mandated curriculum. But the reality is that the existing incentive structure doesn't make this possible. Public schools can't come close to offering a a salary that's competitive enough to lure professional programmers away from their existing jobs, and offering current teachers training in real-world programming languages might have the same effect. If teachers could use their new programming skills to double their salary, what incentive would they have to stay? Instead of trying to tackle the incredibly complex problems with the existing incentive structure in the job market for teachers, Scott instead proposed a solution to this problem that could work right away: tap into the fast-growing Boston tech industry for support through company sponsorships and volunteer work.

Scott uses the analogy of a Major League Baseball team establishing a regional farm team to explain his idea. In the plan, Boston-based developers and code educators will establish coding 'farm teams' at high schools in the region. Students will be introduced to programming by industry veterans through after-school and weekend classes, with the ultimate goal of preparing high school graduates for entry into a full-time development bootcamp like Launch Academy. It's time we established a system that is responsive to the emerging reality that software development is a modern vocation, and being an effective developer doesn't require a Computer Science degree in most cases. Providing an alternative path to economic stability and success for students unable to fork over the insane amount of money it takes to earn a traditional degree is the way forward.

Interested in hearing more from this wicked smaht guy? You're in luck. I recently sat down with Scott to talk about how he developed the ideas in his essay, his decision to get into programming, and why he chose to attend a bootcamp instead of pursuing other options. More after the jump.


How did you choose the topic of your essay?

Scott: I've spent a lot of time in my past career in the video game industry thinking about the best ways to get the community involved in useful technology education for the youth. The more I thought about the idea of doing coding clubs, the more I thought about how that actually feels like the most viable of the things I've considered. There's a real demand and a potential supply... but there's a disconnect. There's huge demand for high school kids to get into coding, to have a place to learn and a mentor. But there's very few people that can and will provide that. Professional developers aren't exactly clamoring to take a 50% pay cut and go teach this stuff. So I thought, 'what if we can align the incentives so that somebody who wants these kids to be doing this is going to be able to help them out.

How did you decide you wanted to code?

Scott: I got into video games at a time when, pretty much if you wanted to break into the industry, you had to go get a 4-year Computer Science degree. That wasn't something I could do at that point—I already had a degree in Theater and History and I wasn't about to go back and get another 4-year degree. And at that point, that was the only infrastructure you had besides learning it all by yourself, and I knew that wasn't something I would be able to pull off. Getting there would have taken me years and years, and I couldn't do that at that point. So I ended up getting into QA, and then into project management. But in the end, the opportunities I had for advancement just weren't there. And I realized that the reason I got into games was that I wanted to make things. I wanted to change things up, so I started looking at at the options out there.

Why did you decide to go to a bootcamp instead of teaching yourself?

Scott: The big thing that made me look at bootcamps over self-teaching or online programs was that I felt I needed teachers and to be in a room with people. I've got some coding basics, but a big next thing I need is to be working directly with others in the same codebase, and I needed to get out of the house for it. Having an environment where you get up and you 'go to work' was very important, especially because I have 3 kids. Getting out of the house, getting into a new building and a new place, and getting that stimulation and that focus that comes with all of that is really important.

I guarantee, even if I were doing it on my own at my own pace, being able to push myself in a way that's demanded by the pace at a bootcamp like Launch Academy is just not something that I'd be able to do. It would take a lot longer. And when you're talking about switching careers, the time you lose if you go at a slower pace is a money sink.

Why Launch Academy?

Scott: I chose Launch Academy after I'd been accepted because a lot of the folks I know in the tech industry in Boston have hired graduates from different [bootcamps], and overall, the feedback was that Launch Academy graduates are by far the strongest technically out of the programs in the area. It's really exciting to be diving into the command line and start thinking about the things I want to build. I already have an idea for my Breakable Toy project. 

You can find Scott on twitter @scottmacmillan, or read about his experience as he goes through Launch Academy on his blog at commandertso.com

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