‘Nerd herd’ will be ready when the jobs come
By ANDREW McGINN
Twenty-five years ago, there was no Google. No Amazon. No Netscape, Napster or even Myspace, either.
Mark Zuckerberg was 9, and America Online was just beginning to send out free trial floppy disks via the thing that would become known as snail mail.
At Jefferson-Scranton High School, no greater title could be bestowed on a student than that of “animal,” P.E. teacher and wrestling coach Tom Ball’s nickname of choice for students.
At today’s Greene County High School, second-year computer science teacher Jeff Whyle calls his best students “nerds,” which, after 25 years, can be translated to mean “animals.”
Whyle always predicted that nerds would end up ruling the world — and now they do, he notes.
“It’s considered a compliment around here,” said junior Mitchell Stevens, a student in Whyle’s introductory programming class and a member of what Whyle calls his “nerd herd.”
A former high school geometry teacher who originally left the classroom to develop websites for two decades, Whyle, 56, was enticed back to education with a chance to build Greene County’s computer science program from virtual scratch.
Then Pillar Technology entered the picture with a plan to create as many as 30 software development jobs in Jefferson for people just out of high school with starting salaries between $55,000 and $60,000.
Whyle now finds himself in the position of grooming a workforce from virtual scratch as well.
“I love this idea,” Whyle said of Pillar’s plan for Jefferson. “I’ve never heard of anything like this. It’s totally unique.”
Whyle is working to develop three paths for local students: programming, hardware and web design.
Potential programmers would veer off into the computer software strand at Iowa Central Community College’s regional career academy, set to open in 2020 adjacent to a new high school on the north edge of Jefferson.
Both were approved by local voters in April.
In turn, the career academy would ready students for roles at Pillar and other tech companies.
Finally, Pillar would provide job training that it says is better than a four-year computer science degree — with none of the debt.
Tech jobs have largely bypassed rural America for one simple reason, according to Brian Waller, president of the Technology Association of Iowa.
“No skilled talent exists to hire,” Waller said.
On the contrary, Whyle’s “nerd herd” will be ready.
“There are 1.4 million computer programming jobs in the United States right now,” Whyle explained. “And there are 400,000 programmers. We’re a million short. They can write their own ticket.”
At the national kickoff Saturday night in Jefferson of Pillar’s R3 (Revive. Rebuild. Restore.) initiative to reinvigorate rural America, a delegation of leaders and tech titans from Silicon Valley pledged not to overlook small-town Iowa anymore.
Pillar, which has developed software for use by autonomous vehicles and in precision agriculture, is encouraging other tech companies to join it in Jefferson, pitching rural Iowa as a cheaper alternative to offshoring work or securing H-1B visas for foreign employees.
The effect would be a win-win: companies get more bang for their buck and rural Iowa begins to replenish its lost population.
“If the kids like this stuff, it’ll just be a pipeline,” Whyle said. “The dream of dreams is that kids will move here to get into this.”
Until the career academy arrives, Whyle will do what he can to ensure that students start to become fluent in such computer programming languages as Python, Java and C++.
Each one is a different coded language that facilitates specific actions by a computer, whether it’s that new gaming app on your smartphone or the supercomputers keeping watch over the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
“Everything is technology,” Whyle said, “and there’s code behind all of it.”
Like many of the billionaires today in Silicon Valley, some of Whyle’s students, like Stevens, taught themselves how to code in C++ at home in their spare time.
“I liked the idea of being able to tell a computer what to do,” said Stevens, whom Whyle casually refers to as “my Linux nerd.”
Stevens toured Pillar’s Forge in downtown Des Moines — Pillar calls all of its offices Forges — with a group of fellow students last week from Greene County High School.
“It’s somewhere I would like to go work. Especially the one here (in Jefferson) because it’s close to home,” Stevens explained. “It was a really fluid workplace.”
Other students come to Whyle having never coded, he said.
“Not their fault,” said Whyle, explaining that coding classes didn’t exist locally until last year.
One of those students, he said, was Regan Lamoureux, co-valedictorian of the class of 2018.
“Now she’s a computer science major? Win,” Whyle quipped.
She was one of just 19 programming students he had his first year.
This year, Whyle is up to 40 students, and he also spends his mornings at Greene County Middle School teaching basic web design to students in grades 5-8.
“Part of what I have to do is recruit,” he said. “The worst is girls. They just don’t want to take these classes.”
He surmises that boys outnumber girls in his high school classes because of the image surrounding computer programming — that it’s mostly still the realm, in his words, of “40-year-old fat guys in basements.”
But that image is waning.
Writing last year in a guest op-ed for The Washington Post, Democratic California Congressman Ro Khanna — who represents Silicon Valley and was among those Saturday visiting Jefferson — made it clear.
“Techies are no longer the iconoclasts or the math whizzes who didn’t quite fit in at homecoming,” Khanna wrote. “They are now the largest winners in a 21st century global economy.”
Whyle wants to eventually see even elementary kids in Greene County exposed to coding.
“It should just be like reading and writing,” he said. “People should know a little bit of coding.”
That’s right in keeping with what the state is beginning to expect.
The state of Iowa is encouraging high-quality computer science instruction in all schools beginning at the elementary level.
Announced this past June, the state established a $1 million incentive fund to help Iowa schools expand their computer science programs by building a computer science teacher workforce.
The fund was created with $500,000 from legislators and with money that Microsoft paid to settle a 2007 class-action lawsuit on behalf of Iowans who bought the company’s programs at inflated prices.
In August, the Greene County Community School District was awarded a $3,000 grant from the fund to send six staff members to the Iowa Technology and Education Connection (ITEC) conference in Des Moines.
Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 31 percent growth in the job market by 2026 for software app developers, the creatives behind programs and video games.
Compared to other occupations, that’s much faster than average.
The median pay in 2017 for a software developer was $103,560, according to federal statistics.
Pillar Technology has said that its developers in Jefferson could be earning as much as $75,000 three years out of high school.
That income would still put them well above most workers in Jefferson, where the median household income stands at $43,333, according to census data.
Just for the sake of comparison, the median household income in Palo Alto, Calif., is $137,043.
The job outlook for regular computer programmers — those people who only write and test code for software developers — isn’t quite as rosy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects a 7 percent decline in jobs by 2026.
Those jobs can be done anywhere in the world, in countries where wages are lower, but savings often are offset trying to manage a project from overseas, according to the BLS outlook.
Whyle loves the Pillar concept, but encourages students to work toward a college degree as well.
“They still need that four-year degree,” he said.
Whyle doesn’t see himself as merely a Pillar talent recruiter. He said he wants to expose students to different programming languages to prepare them for a path of their own choosing — whether that’s here at home or somewhere else.
“We’ll work with them,” Whyle said of Pillar, “not for them.”