Nonprofit Accelerator Plans Milwaukee Coding Camp to Grow Talent Pool

Milwaukee startup advocates have made a lot of effort over the past few years to inspire more local entrepreneurship. Now, the area could use a boost in grooming the professional talent that tech companies need.

That’s according to leaders of the Global Entrepreneurship Collective (GEC), a Milwaukee nonprofit that runs two local startup accelerators. The collective is launching a program to teach high school students and adults how to write software code. Ward 5 Code Camp is designed in a similar vein as General Assembly and Codecademy, says GEC and Ward 5 co-founder Greg Meier.

He says the program is needed locally because he believes innovation and wealth creation require two ingredients: entrepreneurs and “the builders,” such as engineers and software developers, who handle the technical side.

GEC officials saw that although many recent startups here had good ideas, “they lacked the technical capacity to bring their products to market,” co-founder Nick Wichert says in an e-mail. “If we do not build the technical infrastructure of our community, we are going to cap our capacity for growth.”

High schools and colleges are “not nimble enough” to keep up with rapidly evolving software, Meier says. He points to Apple’s surprise announcement this year of a new software programming language, Swift. “You need to be able to respond to that almost instantly,” Meier says. “Apple’s expectation is that you have developers ready almost today . . . not two, three, four years from now.”

Ward 5 will train participants in Ruby on Rails, an open-source Web programming language. The group intends to work closely with local employers to make sure its courses are teaching the skills companies seek in new employees. The idea is that a Ward 5 certificate would provide sufficient education credentials to land an internship or job with partner companies, similar to what Udacity is doing in Silicon Valley, Meier says.

“That’s an evolving trend, predominantly on the West Coast and Silicon Valley, but we’ll see that emerge because it’s highly productive and efficient,” he says.

GEC will continue running accelerators, Meier says—assuming it keeps securing the necessary funds. GEC’s accelerator for military veterans, VictorySpark, received a $50,000 federal grant in September that will allow it to hold a program next year. Meanwhile, state agencies have expressed interest in providing more money for Revolution Labs—GEC’s other accelerator, which helps inner city entrepreneurs—but new funding allocations have yet to be announced.

Ward 5 will complement the accelerators, Meier says.

“This is the twin to our accelerator startup work,” Meier says. “We’re hoping somewhere in November we’ll reshape the entire GEC look and feel, so it has a clear integration between these two.”

Ward 5 will begin holding classes in late January. It will consist of two 12-week programs: a $6,500 adult course held three days a week, and a $2,500 course held two nights a week for high school students. In addition to tuition, Ward 5 will seek grants to support operations, as well as scholarships for inner city students, Meier says.

He believes Ward 5 is fairly priced, given the number of classroom hours: more than 320 for the adults and 48 for the high school students. It’s also cheaper than some competitors, he adds. General Assembly, for example, costs $11,500 for its 12-week program, which runs classes five days a week. Others, such as Codecademy, offer free online programs.

Ward 5 is assembling a group of local instructors and mentors who have software experience. Classes will involve heavy doses of hands-on coding and project-based learning, Meier says.

The classes will be held at GEC’s space in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward neighborhood south of downtown, which inspired the coding group’s name. Meier says it was a coincidence that Ward 5 has a similar name to Ward 4, the nearby co-working space being planned by micro-VC fund CSA Partners.

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