LaunchCode bridging tech-talent gap in Miami

Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, right, announced the first LaunchCode Miami class will take place March 3. Wifredo Fernandez, director of CREATE Miami, left, and Leandro Finol, executive director of the Idea Center, asked McKelvey about the challenges and opportunities he has discovered in South Florida. Photo by Preston Tesvich.

One solution to Miami’s tech talent shortage is in reach.

That was the message from Jim McKelvey, founder of LaunchCode, during an appearance Wednesday night at the Idea Center in downtown Miami. During a talk, “Land Your Dream Job,” he asked 200 attendees to tell their friends and their friend’s friends that it’s time to get “a six-figure job” as a computer programmer, that it’s free, and anyone can sign up today.

McKelvey, the co-founder of the $6 billion company Square, was the featured guest for the Idea Center’s “Pioneers @ MDC” lecture series hosted at Miami Dade College. The free, monthly lectures inspire local entrepreneurs with stories from leaders in innovation. Knight Foundation supports both the Idea Center and LaunchCode to attract and keep talented workers in South Florida, while building the entrepreneurial community and expanding economic opportunity.

McKelvey told the crowd of 240 South Florida residents that he started the LaunchCode program in St. Louis in 2013 as a way to solve two problems: breaking the cycle of unemployment by equipping whole communities with the skills necessary to fill the giant deficit in tech talent.

One thousand aspiring coders attended the first class in St. Louis; 90 percent of them received jobs. McKelvey says that he plans to double those numbers in Miami.

“The big vision here is to solve areas of scarcity,” McKelvey said. “We’re creating pathways for thousands of people. The first people through the gate will have the highest advantage and first pick of whatever programming job it is that they want in this city.”

The curriculum adopted by LaunchCode is hosted by Harvard University on edX. McKelvey says that though Harvard’s course, “CS50,” is open to anyone, research shows that only 1  percent of people who take the course online by themselves pass. He says that providing on-site experts who can address the shared needs of the students is key to LaunchCode’s success. Even more critical, he says, is the method of pairing students to program together.

“I’m not saying it isn’t challenging,” he said. “You are going to have to work. What I’m saying is that once you put in the work there will be a job for you.”

Miami Dade Professor of Engineering Sari Kulthm will serve as the LaunchCode Miami instructor. He says the curriculum will begin with an introduction to C programming and help students to better understand the mentality of what it means to code. After learning C, he says students will have the basic understanding necessary to learn other programming languages.

Following the session, LaunchCode partners asked McKelvey about what challenges and opportunities he has already identified in the city. He explained to Leandro Finol, executive director of the Idea Center, and Wifredo Fernandez, director of CREATE Miami, that he is already facing some hurdles: Few people in local companies seem to know who he is and he can’t get access to the decision-makers above the human resources department.

“If anyone out there has access to the phone number of a CEO, I need you to help us make that connection today,” he said. “We reverse the job application process by having the jobs ready before the candidates even arrive — but it only works when LaunchCode knows what jobs are out there.”

Finol asked what success looks like for the partnership between LaunchCode, the Idea Center and Knight Foundation. McKelvey said that his success in St. Louis happened without a budget and that the $1.25 million in support for LaunchCode from Knight Foundation puts success within reach in South Florida. Finol added that Knight also gave $2.18 million to launch the Idea Center as an entrepreneurial hub and to make opportunities like this available to students and South Florida residents.

“If Miami doesn’t crush St. Louis’ first-year numbers, I will be seriously disappointed,” McKelvey said. “This worked in St. Louis and we didn’t even have a great facility like this; all we had was the public library. Ultimately, what we need now is a steady stream of people willing and eager to learn.”

Jenna Buehler is a Miami-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Knight Blog.

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