Del. employer-backed school quickly trains needed programmers

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Tariq Hook is lead teacher at Zip Code Wilmington. The veteran computer engineer specializes in Java, most wanted by employers. Graduates of the first class got job offers averaging $55,000 a year.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. is looking for software developers. Lots of them.

The giant bank needs not just front-end Silicon Valley-style programmers trained in cutting-edge languages to build smartphone apps, but also meat-and-potatoes Java and .NET developers ready to update the vast, aging enterprise software to cope with exploding data volumes, applications, and attacks.

It has a special need in the Philadelphia area because it's gearing up to hire several hundred programmers for its new 1,800-employee Fairfax, Del., tech center over the next year and a half, says Jennifer McDermott, a JPMorgan executive director.

JPMorgan joined with Corporation Service Co. (CSC) and five other big Delaware employers to brainstorm as part of the Obama administration's TechHire program, which seeks to fund employer-backed programmer-training efforts. "We started looking around the country for Java boot camps. And we found there aren't that many. You can count them on your hands," McDermott said.

The federal government says this country faces a shortage of hundreds of thousands of programmers. Engineers' groups dispute that, noting that companies prefer to import foreign programmers or hire young people cheap, instead of retraining veteran Americans.

The employers' group quickly allied with a cell of like-

minded, well-connected Delawareans: tech investor Ben du Pont; his cousin, investment manager Porter Schutt; and marketing whiz Jim Stewart, whose Wilmington firm, Epic Research, has set up financing programs for Apple and other big companies.

That trio had sketched plans for Zip Code Wilmington, a "code academy" that they hoped would help low-paid but math-adept working people and non-tech college grads transform into job-ready junior programmers after just 90 days of intense instruction.

Du Pont and his partners set conditions: JPMorgan, CSC and the five other employers would pledge $100,000 each and agree to hire graduates. They snagged $380,000 in state grants and raised more from nonprofits, as seed capital. They leased a floor in the Buccini brothers' I.M. Pei Tower, near DuPont Co.'s former headquarters in central Wilmington.

The employers wanted Java. So Zip Code Wilmington drafted as lead teacher Philadelphia native Tariq Hook, a veteran computer engineer and educator who specialized in it. They sorted more than 100 applicants from diverse backgrounds into 19 student slots. Students paid $2,000 each, with $10,000 more pledged by employers after six months on the job.

The first class graduated Dec. 3. All 16 who made it through three months of 71-hour weeks received offers averaging $55,000 a year - modest by industry standards, but double what they'd been making, on average, said Anthony Pisapia, a Newark, N.J., native who oversees the program. He's fielded more than 200 applications for 40 slots in the next class.

Joel Guevara, a Marine Corps veteran from West Chester, was working as a building-maintenance carpenter when he applied to Zip Code Wilmington. "I was always a big math kid growing up," Guevara told me, and he figured it was time to boost his earnings. He got a hiring offer from Diamond Technologies, a consultant whose clients include Wawa.

"I wanted to learn some computer languages," said Greg Furlong, a University of Delaware graduate (he studied chemistry) who was working in a store when he was picked. "I wanted to earn much more." He's been hired by JPMorgan.

"This is not a replacement for a computer science degree. It's like an internship on steroids if you already have the degree; it's a trade school if you don't," Hook said Monday as students arrived.

"I'm a big advocate of college. But a lot of great developers are self-taught. What we've done is to streamline the curriculum, so we cut down the time it takes to teach yourself. You won't get mastery at the end of this program. But you will be on the road to mastery."

Veteran programmers, laid off by big corporations as they contract work to outside firms, are often frustrated by how hard it is to land a new job, said Hook. Both the U.S. workplace and the computer science field have become fragmented to the point where employers now expect that coders will put in extra hours, nights and weekends, to learn the languages and applications they need for new jobs or promotions, he said.

Programming isn't a daytime job; like owning a restaurant, it's an "artisanal," vocational trade where you journey from apprentice to master by putting in way beyond 40 hours a week, in Hook's view.

"Every two years, you need to start something different to keep your skill set fresh," he told students - a new job or a side "passion project that keeps you up till 1 or 2 in the morning." Without constant refreshers, "you get tunnel vision, and you lose sight of where the market is going."

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