When the Rev. Phillip Lindsley coined the moniker “Athens of the Southwest” to describe Nashville in the 1820s, he was describing the abundance of educational opportunities afforded by the city.
But nearly 200 years after the phrase was first used — it later changed from “Southwest” to “South” as the country’s boundaries expanded — the Nashville Software School, a not-for-profit organization, is continuing to enhance higher education in Nashville in a way Lindsley never could have imagined.
This version of higher education is a long way from the monolithic buildings and grassy quads traditionally associated with college. Tucked inside a downtown classroom near Tennessee State University’s Avon Williams Campus, twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings peck away at keyboards as the rumblings of nearby trains shake the room.
The program costs only $1,000 in tuition upfront and meets five days a week for six months.
NSS serves a specific purpose — to train the next wave of software developers who will work in Nashville’s burgeoning technology industry. Every month, the Nashville Technology Council releases job market numbers outlining the hundreds of open technology positions in Middle Tennessee. The latest projections show more than 800 open tech jobs listed on the Internet.
John Wark, who cofounded the school last year, decided something had to be done about those numbers.
“We need to be home-growing some more talent,” said Wark, who has a background in tech venture capital start-ups. “We also felt in kicking it around that there is a pool of late talent here. There are people in town that have the aptitude to do this kind of work and that have the motivation to change careers.”
“Technology has become the delivery vehicle for almost every kind of product or service the government or business offers,” Wark said. “We’re teaching people to build those things.”
NSS isn’t the first organization to note the shortage of developers — a problem that Wark contends exists in nearly every city, even in Silicon Valley. Prospective developers can choose from a number of “hacker academies” or other educational programs to learn code.
But NSS holds a unique, local bent in their mission statement. The school works closely with local tech companies and funnels students directly into full-time jobs. The $1,000 price tag is also far cheaper than hacker academies that can run upwards of $10,000. The students are paid to work on projects and learn simultaneously in the second half of the six-month course.
In the first session of the class that ended in November, 10 of the 14 graduates were employed within two months of graduation. The average starting salary for the graduates was between $40,000 and $55,000, according to Wark.
“The important thing is, with three or four years of experience in the technology we trained them in, these guys will all be making, even in Nashville, $75,000, $80,000 or $90,000,” Wark said. “And a lot of these guys were unemployed or on a career path that wasn’t going to get them over [$50,000] any time soon.”
Wark said he vets applicants for two things: aptitude and motivation. No direct experience necessary.
“[Aptitude] is tricky because if they’ve never programmed or never had a tech class we have to look for proxies for aptitude: anything that involves logic,” Wark said. “Another attribute of good developers is staying focused on a hard problem for a long time. That’s just the nature of programming. We look for evidence of that.
“This stuff is hard. It’s not trivial to pick up. It’s not memorize these eight rules and you can pick up $100K.”
And then there’s another element: “being” Nashville.
“Somebody who comes from New Jersey, who has been doing start-up stuff in New York City, and who applies to us because we’re cheaper than a hacker academy in New Jersey, but looks and smells like somebody who is going to go right back to N.J., we’re going to turn them down — and we [have],” Wark said.
“We’re of Nashville, by Nashville, and we’re for Nashville.”
There may be no better embodiment of NSS’s “Nashville” focus than current student Jay McDowell. He moved to town in 1992 with a stand-up bass and ambition.
“I treated it like that old, ‘It’s not what ya know, it’s who you know,’” McDowell said. “I didn’t really have a grand plan, but I wasn’t intimidated by everyone being better than me.”
In a “only in Nashville” moment, McDowell met some guys on Lower Broad and they formed thetraditional country band BR-549. “In the blink of an eye,” they were in New York City and at the Grammys, McDowell said.
McDowell’s interest in technology was piqued thanks to a chance meeting with former Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. BR549 had wrapped up a show with McDowell and wanted to take a group photo with the classic rock star.
But no one had a camera.
“Keith was laughing like, ‘You know how many times I get my picture taken? And when I want to get my picture taken, we don’t have a camera!’ ” McDowell said. “I called the record label and said we needed a camera.”
At the time, BR-549 was signed with Sony Records — so they were promptly sent a high-tech video camera. McDowell was given access to the label’s editing bay and a new passion formed.
After years of video editing experience, McDowell teamed up with the Musician’s Hall of Fame — combining his interests. But the museum is in the process of relocating to Municipal Auditorium, so McDowell’s regular work was put on hold. He heard about NSS from a friend, then saw a panel discussing the program at a local tech conference.
“My wife said it was out of left field, but it was no different than shifting from playing bass to doing video work,” McDowell said. “I was in a holding pattern with the museum. If I don’t do this now, a year from now things will shift so I won’t be able to.”
While not every class member has been to the Grammys, Wark said quite a few of the students are musicians — and it’s one of the factors he looks for when reviewing applicants. “Every software company I’ve ever worked for, we’ve had one or more good in-house bands, and almost everybody in the bands have been programmers,” Wark said.
“The reality is that anybody that’s going to be good at music theory and music composition, what’s that? It’s logic. It’s mathematical relationships. It’s structure. It’s pattern recognition. Well, hell, those are essential skills in programming.”
McDowell has picked up on the connection, too.
“When you hear music and you hear something where the beat isn’t right, you may not know why it’s wrong, but you know it’s wrong. And the answer to that is always in the math. That fascinates me,” McDowell said.
“Even though sitting at a piano and playing a song isn’t the same as developing a website, in my mind I see so much that is the same. And the same reason that that gets me excited in music, I get excited by [programming] in the same way.”
Ultimately, Wark believes that Nashville’s creative community is the “secret weapon” to success for NSS.
“I think all of us that started the school, we believe programmers are just another new component of the Nashville creative community, along with our singer-songwriters and musicians,” Wark said. “We have this incredible creative community, and they are musicians, which means there’s a lot of them that have the gift to become a programmer.”
Amanda McCadams is also part of Nashville’s creative class. But unlike McDowell, she attended college and has three degrees including a bachelor’s and master’s in photography. She worked in education and other fields before being laid off last year. Her passion is using photo and web skills to help small and medium-sized museums with archiving and preservation.
McCadams saw coding as a natural step for her career.
“When I was laid off, it was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is the best opportunity to be able to dedicate the time to study web so I can combine all of those other skills,’” McCadams said. “While a lot of people might be switching careers, I see it more for me as adding to my toolset.”
McCadams said her photo skills don’t have a direct correlation to software, but she equated the tedious nature of programming to perfecting proofs in a dark room.
“Coming from a fine arts studio background, I’m more of a get in there and do it kind of person. For me, that’s the way I have to approach this ... making mistakes and hashing it out,” McCadams said.
Students of the class will have to decide when they graduate whether or not they want to pursue full-time jobs in the field.
That worked out well for Adam Scott, who graduated the first session of the class.
Scott moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University and work in the music industry. He headed up the marketing department of a record label before it went under.
Then, he started to self-teach himself code. When he inquired about attending NSS, Wark asked him to use his prior knowledge to help teach the first half of the class.
“It not only helped me but I think it helped the students in seeing that software development is not something that you can just be an expert at by learning certain things,” Scott said of his teaching experience. “I think people can see that they aren’t much different from me. Really, anyone can do this, it’s just about finding that passion.”
And looking back, Scott wishes he had an opportunity like NSS when he first taught himself code four years ago.
“In the first three months of the school, all of the stuff we’re teaching them is great because we’ve curated the content ... It took me a year or two to learn the stuff they do in three months,” Scott said. “In the first three months, they can go out there and get jobs doing front end stuff right off the bat.”
Scott joined his pupils for the second half of the class, which covers more detailed programming languages. He was hired as a developer at Centresource upon graduation.
In a move that illustrates how NSS has been embraced by local tech companies, Centresource is “lending” Scott back to NSS to teach for several hours a week during this session.
“We think the benefits accrue to the employers. These employers are the same guys that have been talking for the past seven years about how we don’t have enough tech talent. Well, alright. We’re growing some. You can help defray the costs,” Wark said.
Matt Mueller, the chief technology officer and “token nerd” at local start-up checkd.in, said he’ll be looking to hire a student from this year’s class in June.
“As a company, we’re really invested in it. We’d much rather go to the software school than go to a recruiter,” Mueller said.
“We really believe in the mission and we’d like to see John be able to keep doing this. As a company, we want to give back because we know this is going to make it a better city for every company like ours.”
Wark still considers the NSS to be in it’s pilot stage — and they have already made some tweaks to the curriculum following the first session last fall. He hopes to keep offering classes, with about 25 to 30 students in each class.
The school is also going to launch night classes later this year, allowing full-time professionals to take classes and sharpen their skills. Wark also hopes to stir up some conversation with local government and education officials about the NSS mission.
“I’ve shown we can create employable, entry-level developers. So I think we’re at the point where we can have a serious conversation with both the city, who again is committed to development of the tech workforce, and the state,” Wark said.
He also hopes to reach out to some of the Metro Nashville Public School “academies” programs. And he thinks coding could be a great career option for veterans in the Wounded Warrior Project, who may be bound to a wheelchair.
And while local universities certainly don’t seem to be slowing from an enrollment standpoint, Wark believes there is a distinct place for the Nashville Software School.
“I think there is tremendous value in a real liberal arts education, or a professional education... but is it right for everybody?” Wark said. “We tell them go to college, and you’ll get a better job, right? At least in this economy, we’re seeing that that’s not always true.”
Scott — a product of both forms of higher education — agrees.
“I got a lot out of the Belmont degree. I probably wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t moved to Nashville to go do that,” Scott said. “But at the end of the day, yeah, I’ve gotten a lot more out of learning to develop [software] through teaching myself and through the school.”
Slow to react, Nashville behind on tech workers
The effect of technology, in general, on the global economy since the Internet turned commercial in 1994 can’t be understated. The world was changed.
However, it still took more than a decade before local industries in Nashville started to truly adapt — which has led to the shortage of tech workers in town, according to Stratasan chairman and founder Tod Fetherling.
“We didn’t know how important the Internet was going to continue to be [15 years ago]. We had a lot of overinflated evaluations,” Fetherling said.
“In Nashville’s perspective, music was slow to change and health care was slow to change ... It left us with a void in technology talent that was going to be critical to the strategic success of companies, particularly in health care and music.”
Fetherling was the president and CEO of the Nashville Technology Council when it conducted its first jobs report in 2008.
“We found what one might have expected: People in Nashville were hiring, but they were usually looking for three to five years in the industry, they were paying a little better than average, but you were looking at HCA, Dollar General ... big employers in town,” Fetherling said.
“If you were looking at starting a new tech company, there was no bench.”
Part of the problem was — and still is — a cultural divide, Fetherling said.
“What we are lacking as a state ... is this crazy engineering mentality,” Fetherling said. “Jobs that we lost in 2010, they aren’t coming back ... The economy is shifting, whether it’s advanced manufacturing, digital music or digital health care, we better start learning how to do this pretty quick.”
Fetherling also pointed out a large technology void in traditional higher education in the area.
“We have 17 colleges and universities in Middle Tennessee; combined they don’t [graduate as many technology students] as Georgia Tech does by themselves,” Fetherling said. “We really need Vanderbilt and MTSU to step up and endow those [technology] programs and start attracting more kids.”
The NTC backed an initiative in 2008 called Turning the Tide of the Technology Workforce — or T3 Workforce — that targets technology education, from Metro Nashville Public Schools to local universities.
The number of open tech jobs has decreased by a third — from roughly 1,200 to 800 in five years.
“I firmly believe the work in Nashville and at the Nashville Software School are all parts of the solution for a long-term growth in technology,” Fetherling said. “That number is coming down a little bit, but we still have a long way to go.”