A Technology Academy Grows in Brooklyn

_0016_C1Earlier this year, Ben Schippers and Will Schenk, the co-founders of software engineering firm HappyFunCorp, taught a short-term practicum at Bates College, the esteemed liberal arts institution in Lewiston, Maine. The course was called Digital Innovation, and focused on the “tools, techniques and practices used by digital innovators as they develop, design and test products.” Students were taught coding, design, marketing, entrepreneurship skills, and project management; more importantly, Schippers and Schenk were explicit in their desire to train students how to recognize or create job opportunities, and how to seize them.

Bates isn’t Stanford, and the school, renowned for its interdisciplinary, liberal arts approach, might not at first seem like the ideal setting for this type of utilitarian instruction. But Schippers and Schenk discovered the opposite was true: course EXDS s15D seemed to answer questions hanging over the heads of anxious seniors and befuddled faculty alike. The school’s president could point to the course as an example of tangible value provided at Bates, while the students were thrilled to learn a set of hard skills that would prepare them for jobs in the country’s fastest-growing sector.

“I think liberal arts schools are running into an identity crisis,” Schippers tells me later, at HappyFunCorp’s offices in Dumbo. “Especially the mini-Ivys in New England. The degrees you get at those colleges allow you to apply to getting a job anywhere, but what’s happened is that so many of those jobs don’t exist anymore. So what are those colleges telling you now? They’re telling you: ‘We’re preparing you for graduate school.’ There’s nothing wrong with going to graduate school! But if you look at a college like Bates—and I went to Bates—you’re gonna end up paying a quarter-million dollars to graduate with a wonderful liberal arts education, and another $60,000 to get a graduate degree. Is there a value there? I think it’s unclear, at this point.”

During their five weeks on campus, Schippers and Schenk talked to many students, and what they found was a looming anxiety about the future. There seemed to be so much uncertainty: about the economy, about jobs, about debt. Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, the duo were running a rapidly-growing tech services company, looking to hire people all the time—only, they couldn’t find qualified applicants. Graduating seniors seemed to lack the “mix of hard and soft skills that actually get you hired,” Schenk says. “You read about the state of the economy, how young people can’t find jobs, and yet we can’t find people. How is that possible?”

Liberal arts is great at teaching soft skills; the oft-repeated maxim is that such an education will shape you into a well-rounded, autonomous person. But most economic growth is occurring in highly-specialized sectors that require workers with specific skill sets—technology, manufacturing, computer science. Schippers and Schenk believed that, with few exceptions, American higher education isn’t adequately preparing students for the realities of the 21st century economy.

To solve this problem, a range of “technology academies” have popped up across the country (and on the Internet). These tend to be very technical; most resemble bare-bones vocational schools. “We see the graduates from these programs, and they sorta have just one part of it,” Schippers tells me. “If you want to be working at some sexy startup, you gotta also understand design, be able to talk to marketers, and wrap all that in with your ability to code or program.”

Schippers and Schenk course at Bates was a case study of a technology academy HappyFunCorp plans to debut later this summer. “At the onset of HappyFunCorp, we really did a lot of coaching—that’s how we grew the business,” Schippers says. “We’re now in the position to start a traditional academy, and do what we were doing at the beginning in a more formal way.”

The HFC Technology Academy will take students through a linear program in which they’ll learn a mix of technical skills, including HTML, Javascript, CSS3, and hard coding, and softer skills (examples include mock interviews, team-building techniques, and network strategies). Industry leaders, experienced developers, and employees from outside tech companies will be brought in as guests, with the intent of helping students kickstart a professional network before the class is over. The first class will be a “meat-and-potatoes technical class with sprinkles of everything else we’ve talked about,” Schippers says. It’s enrolling now, and will begin meeting 9-5, five days per week, in September. The total cost? $5000.

“If there’s a spectrum of higher education, liberal arts are on one side, and other technical academies are on the other,” Schippers says. “I believe what we’re trying to do is bridge that gap.”

HappyFunCorp will teach the introductory course twice, and then offer other, more narrowly-focused technology courses: one on design, another on product development. Eventually, there will be paths that students can track through, much like a major: programming, entrepreneurship, etc. But each class will have elements from other courses. It’s a modular approach that seeks to demystify the technology sector by breaking it down into component parts, and then exposing students to all of it. “The curriculum is being modeled on what we do as a company, and it spans financing to product design to marketing,” Schenk says. “But all students, no matter their focus, will have an understanding of how the technology works.”

Schenk described the typical student at the HFC Technology Academy: someone who knows the vernacular of the Internet, and has some basic awareness of the technology governing her life (who knows, for example, that there’s a gyroscope in the iPhone, even if she’s not sure what it does). “We’re trying to pull back the curtain to see how things work,” Schenk says. “The higher level thing is people should walk out understanding how a web application is built, by having gone through and built a number of small ones, touching all of the major pieces that you’d need to do that. So you could build something that has the same functionality as Twitter, and you would understand the pieces involved. For people who’d focus more on the entrepreneurial side, they’d know how to hire somebody and be able to communicate with them and express what they’re trying to do. If you go down a programming path, then you’d have all of the foundational knowledge.”

Not that students will graduate with everything they’ll ever need to start the next Facebook. “There’s a pool of knowledge that you’re always going to have to keep dipping your feet into,” says Aaron Brocken, the Program Director for the Academy. “If we can help the students learn how to navigate that in the most effective and efficient way, that’s just as valuable as the hard skills they’ll learn. It’s like the difference between knowing how to conjugate in a language versus being conversant in it—we want to teach people to be conversant.”

There’s something in it for HappyFunCorp, too. “In a perfect world, selfishly, we’re starting this program because we want to hire the best students,” Schippers says. “That will be a big measure for us—is this curriculum tailored enough and specific enough to be able to take a graduate from this course and give them an opportunity at a growing services engineering firm?”

The tech sector is famously meritocratic, or at least that’s what it tells itself—having an idea is one thing, securing angel investment another. But few would argue that the industry isn’t dynamic and open to change and improvement, especially from the outside. “Technology is everywhere,” Brocken says. “These skills are in-demand, and people do need jobs, and if they feel they’re not barred from learning those skills because of their background—that’s what the Academy is all about. It’s not about waiting until you’re a master to start building something—you have to become competent and fluent in what you’ve learned in a way that you can implement it. Then, you can keep learning.”

If you’re interested, you can learn more, and enroll, at the Academy’s website.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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