In many ways Wyoming is enamored of its past, with cowboy culture still a defining element. But for technology entrepreneurs, this can be frustrating.
“I’ve always had this feeling that Wyoming has always been 10 years behind everything,” said Eric Trowbridge, who spent eight years at Apple before returning to Cheyenne. Now Trowbridge is working to start Wyoming’s first coding and technology school, with an eye toward bringing the state up to speed.
Array School of Technology and Design in downtown Cheyenne is accepting applications for its inaugural class of 12 students. The school’s first offering will be an intensive six-month course in “full stack” web development, intended to prepare graduates to go straight into the technology industry as software engineers.
Trowbridge said there was an urgency in developing talented tech workers in Wyoming, and Cheyenne specifically, to retain existing companies and attract new ones. In 2012, Cheyenne’s Sierra Trading Post, an primarily online outdoor gear retailer, opened a technology office in Fort Collins, where it hired more staff and moved some of its Wyoming workers south.
Without developing local talent, that will be an increasing trend, Trowbridge said. “If we don’t do this, these people will leave.”
Cheyenne LEADS, a business development group, has helped connect companies with skilled workers in Laramie County. But much of the technology industry surrounding Cheyenne is made up of data centers that require workers to maintain the sophisticated HVAC systems that offer climate control for the massive servers. Laramie County Community College has tailored programs to train students to work on those systems, but for companies that need software developers, the options have been more limited.
“When it came to the tech piece, there was a need in the community and there were companies that identified that,” said Derrek Jarred of Cheyenne LEADS.
Some companies, including scientific safety company Underwriters Laboratories, have been drawn to Laramie, where they can rely on students from the University of Wyoming. But Ron Gullberg, with the Wyoming Business Council, said a major concern for employers remains whether Wyoming has the talent they need.
“Companies like Underwriters Laboratories and Microsoft are showing that they’re willing to invest here and are finding workers,” Gullberg said. “ As they grow, we’re going to have to meet that demand with education and workforce recruitment.”
Trowbridge hopes Array can help with the educational component. While the school is starting with just a dozen students, he said that if the demand was there it could grow to include classes focusing on specific skills like mobile application design and even color theory. He also hopes to offer courses on the weekends and after work to make it possible for currently employed workers to become familiar with software design.
For now, Trowbridge said the school has received a diverse crop of applicants, which is notable given that the technology industry is dominated by young men.
The first student admitted is a former energy worker who was recently laid off and is looking to pivot into a new industry, Trowbridge said. He added that building a pool of graduates for local tech companies to hire was an important step in the economic diversification of Wyoming.
“We’re kind of dubbing it a coal-to-code transition,” Trowbridge said. Array has applied for a grant from the state in part to subsidize the costs of keeping laid-off workers in the state by retraining them.
But Trowbridge acknowledged that it is not a one-to-one switch, which is why despite not requiring any previous experience with computers the school is rigorously vetting applicants.
“I don’t want people coming to Array thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to get this great job,’” Trowbridge said. Despite the pay for qualified graduates hovering around $75,000 per year, Trowbridge said he did not want to give prospective students the wrong idea.
“If they don’t genuinely love logic, math, if they don’t love sitting behind a computer for eight hours a day, [pay] doesn’t matter — you’re going to hate your job,” Trowbridge said.
Another factor is the speed at which companies in the technology sector move. The coding language you learn at Array might not be the same one a prospective employer uses.
“If [a student] wants something that they’re going to learn once and never have to learn again, this not going to be a good fit,” Trowbridge said.
Array is a for-profit corporation and is not accredited, which Trowbridge said is standard for a coding school. Tuition is $15,000 for the course and includes a laptop. Trowbridge said explaining the cost has been a major challenge, and he emphasizes that it is lower than at similar schools in big cities.
A similar program in Denver costs $16,000 and one in San Francisco charges about $14,000, but does not include a laptop.
Board members have invested around $35,000 in the company and expect to raise a similar amount in coming months, Trowbridge said.
Trowbridge is also adamant that as a victim of for-profit universities he is not out to make a quick buck on students by over-promising and under-delivering. He said he took on $175,000 to attend the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and Los Angeles Film School and said he knows what it feels like to be had.
“I have a personal gripe toward private schools running as a private business,” Trowbridge, who is still paying off student loans, said. “I don’t want anyone to have to experience what I went through.”
With that in mind, Trowbridge worked with Cheyenne LEADS to connect with local technology companies during the planning process to confirm there would be a demand for graduates.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, he said.
“It is in our best interest that our students get jobs,” Trowbridge said. “Over the next few years if our students don’t get jobs, we aren’t going to be a school much longer.”