Five Years In, Grand Circus CEO Reflects on Detroit Tech, Coding Boom

It seems like it was only yesterday when we covered the debut of Detroit’s Grand Circus, but the tech school is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

The local tech scene has grown since 2013, as has the popularity of Grand Circus and other coding schools nationwide, which run short-term programs aimed at bestowing the skills needed to earn jobs in the booming software industry. We recently called Grand Circus co-founder and CEO Damien Rocchi to discuss the maturation of the school and the Detroit tech ecosystem over the past several years—and to find out what he has planned for the future.

“The original idea was to create a school around digital marketing and business skills,” Rocchi recalls. “Over time, we’ve become a training program for people who want a career in software development. We’re very focused on outcomes, getting close to employers, and the skills needed in the job market. In the meantime, we’ve grown a ton and started to see ourselves as a Michigan company and not just a Detroit company.”

Grand Circus works closely with area employers to refine its curriculum and connect students to jobs once they complete their training. It’s a model that is catching on at other code schools across the country as an antidote to perpetually rising college tuition costs. The school holds quarterly coding bootcamps and workshops teaching a variety of high-demand programming languages, including Java and C#. The for-profit Grand Circus also offers free coding classes for people who want to dip a toe in the water, and it opens its downtown space regularly for community events. Grand Circus opened a second location in Grand Rapids, MI, in 2016.

Rocchi and his 25-person team are united in their desire to have an impact on people’s lives, he says, rattling off a few stats: 1,000 students, 250 of them Detroit residents, have graduated so far from Grand Circus, and more than 2,000 people have taken a free coding class. Forty-one percent of these graduates have been women and 30 percent have belonged to minority groups that are underrepresented in the tech industry. More than $1.9 million in coding scholarships have been provided to Grand Circus students since the school opened.

“One thousand students is an amazing achievement, but it means nothing if they’re not getting jobs,” Rocchi says. “We’ve had almost 200 companies hire our graduates. Five years ago, the idea of hiring a student out of a 10- or 12-week coding program was pretty new. Employers have really embraced our model.”

Michigan’s abundance of open, good-paying tech jobs helps a program like Grand Circus succeed, especially when the cost of a college education has grown absurdly high in some places. (Back in my day, I paid roughly $12,000 per year for out-of-state tuition. Get off my lawn!) The school collaborates with a number of government and corporate partners, including Quicken Loans, GM, and Accenture.

“Anyone who has been to college knows—the vast majority of what I learned never saw the light of day,” Rocchi points out. “Spending time with employers, we see what’s needed is a combination of hard and soft skills, so we start there and work backwards. Our curriculum doesn’t have a lot of waste.”

As for why Rocchi and his co-founders chose Detroit as the location for a new code school, he says the market came to them.

“When we started talking to [Grand Circus investor] Detroit Venture Partners, employers were desperate for tech talent,” he says. “Detroit was a great place to start a business because it’s small enough to access investors, employers, and government, and it’s also big enough to matter. Detroit is a very easy city to make connections in. There’s a willingness to help new companies get started.”

Rocchi is pleased with the way the Motor City’s tech community has grown since 2013. Back then, you’d go to tech events and see the same people over and over. These days, he says he goes to tech events and doesn’t know anyone—a positive sign of momentum, he adds.

Rocchi also finds joy in the testimonials from Grand Circus students. He mentions Carlos, who went from working at a help desk to winning a job as a front-end developer, and Alexis, who used to be a truck driver before she found her way to Grand Circus and an IT job. “To see the trajectory for these stories, to see people coming from dead-end, non-tech jobs move to high-growth, high-paying tech jobs” is what gets him out of bed in the morning, he says. This year, one focus for Grand Circus is expanding access to its programs. To that end, the school runs a free, three-hour “learn to code” seminar every Tuesday.

“It’s available to anyone curious about tech or coding,” he says. “We’ve found that ends the biggest barrier besides cost—people just don’t know if they’re smart enough or have enough aptitude. A big focus for us is to get intro programs into as many places in the city and state as possible.”

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