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Banking on KC – Jeff Mazur of LaunchCode

Banking on KC – Jeff Mazur of LaunchCode

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Jeff Mazur, the Executive Director of LaunchCode. Welcome, Jeff.

Jeff Mazur:

Thanks, Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

At its most basic level, LaunchCode is a nonprofit coding academy. And that's the short version, but it's really a lot more than that. So, tell us about how LaunchCode got started, who it serves, and how it works.

Jeff Mazur:

Sure thing, Kelly. Thanks. Yeah, I think it's easy to boil down what LaunchCode does to this idea that it's just a place where people go to learn to code, but I think it really is a lot more than that. And if we go back to the beginning of LaunchCode, it was really something that was created by a guy named Jim McKelvey, who famously is one of the co-founders of Square. And if you ask Jim, what it is that he does, he says, "I invent things to solve problems."

Jeff Mazur:

And LaunchCode, for him, was one of those inventions. He had had this experience as he tried to start Square, to try and build a development shop in St. Louis, which was his hometown. Tried to hire software developers to build the platform for Square, and he found pretty quickly that even as he was hiring away developers from other companies, he still couldn't build that team quickly enough to have it make sense and have it work.

Jeff Mazur:

And so, he had to move all of that piece of his company to Silicon Valley where it lives today. And for him, that spurred this question: "Why shouldn't I be able to build a development shop in St. Louis, or in any other city for that matter, using the people who were already there." And so, that really got him going down this road of, "How do I invent something to solve that problem?" And his answer was LaunchCode.

Jeff Mazur:

And very much more than just teaching people to code, he saw this as a demand side issue. He really viewed it through the prism of the company that's trying to hire someone. And so, what he was keenly focused on, and what LaunchCode remains focused on today, is really working with employer partners to understand what their talent needs are; particularly in the software space, and in the junior software developer and programmer space.

Jeff Mazur:

And then trying to create a pipeline of candidates that, at scale, gets people to a level where they can meet those requirements and move into those roles. So, LaunchCode is intended to be a solution for tech talent, that very much links demand to supply. And in the course of doing that creates just hundreds of opportunities for people to step into technology careers, who probably absent, some kind of opportunity like this would not have that chance.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right. Because they haven't gone and gotten a degree in Computer Science or in some of the other fields that we typically associate with technology careers.

Jeff Mazur:

Absolutely right. I mean, over history to the degree that for the last, however many decades that this job of software developer has existed, there's been a pretty narrowly circumscribed pathway by which someone attains one of those jobs. And oftentimes, it's been someone who earns a Computer Science degree at a four-year institution, and they go and become a software engineer.

Jeff Mazur:

Or more recently, really in the last 10 years, maybe they go to a boot camp where they plunk down 11, 12, $20,000. And they go for 15 weeks, and they learn to code, and then they get a job. That's a little bit more accessible than the four-year degree path, perhaps. But still for someone who is 24 years old, they have a two-year old child, they're working two retail jobs, 28 hours a week just to try and put food on the table, plunking down $15K for a boot camp isn't really an option.

Jeff Mazur:

Going back to school for a four-year degree, not a great option either. And so, LaunchCode exists to bridge that gap and say, "Here's something that's free." Because all our programming is free of charge with the participant. "Here's something that's accessible." By and large, our programs are offered part-time in the evening. So, someone can take them even while they care for a family, do full-time work, et cetera.

Jeff Mazur:

That innovation has really been what's allowed us to say, "Hey, this is a space that we know people are interested in. We know many people have the aptitude and the capacity and would be really good at this. They just haven't had the door opened to give them that hard skill that gets them the chance. And so, LaunchCode is the opportunity to do that." And from inception in late 2013 to date, we're talking about now 2,400 people who've started careers by virtue of the door that's been opened to them at LaunchCode.

Kelly Scanlon:

And many of those are now in the Kansas City area too, because about four years ago, LaunchCode expanded into Kansas City, and it was its first expansion. So, what attracted the program to Kansas City?

Jeff Mazur:

Kansas City is a place where there are a variety of companies of all sizes, that are hungry for tech talent. And unlike, perhaps, companies that may exist on the Coast, be it in Seattle or Silicon Valley or New York or Washington DC; where there's a persistent flow of four-year Computer Science graduates from all these institutions across the country, into those cities.

Jeff Mazur:

Cities like Kansas City and St. Louis, and for that matter, Cincinnati or Cleveland or Minneapolis, don't always see that net inflow of people who are coming in to find tech jobs. And so, we saw Kansas City as a really natural place given the nature of the labor market. And then on top of that was just the tremendous community of partners that really helped foster LaunchCode's engagement in the Kansas City market.

Jeff Mazur:

And when we talk about our partners there, it's some of the very anchor institutions of Kansas City. Foremost among them, Kauffman Foundation, which was at the beginning and continued to be one of our key funding partners. And then a variety of other partners who helped bring us to the table, many of whom have been engaged since then as well. I think about the Missouri Technology Corporation that helped get us started there.

Jeff Mazur:

Certainly the Hall Family Foundation was integral in the early going. The Bloch Family Foundation was very important. The impetus to get started and to do the work that we were doing in St. Louis and Kansas City was really brought to there by all those institutions, as well as many other partners who helped bring us to Kansas City. So, we could start to do that same work of building that junior talent pipeline.

Jeff Mazur:

And whether it's by virtue of differences in the market or because of some of the help and assistance of Kauffman Foundation, which is very invested in entrepreneurship, we've seen over the years that our involvement in Kansas City has been usually 60, 65% of the placements that we've made there, have been what you might think of as startup type companies.

Jeff Mazur:

So, we've really been able to engage with the community in Kansas City on a lot of different fronts. And it just seemed like back in 2016, a tremendous opportunity to create more impact. Hundreds of people in Kansas City since then have been able to get those skills and start those jobs because of all of the things those partners have done to bring us here.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. And I believe that you hold the classes at Rockhurst, right?

Jeff Mazur:

That's right. For our last two or three programs when we were doing actually in-person programming, that was where we hosted our class. And so, Rockhurst has been a tremendous partner. We love them, and we're all hopeful when we get to the other side of this pandemic era, where we feel like we can safely and healthily do in-person programming again, we're really anxious to be back, delivering programming on that campus and building on that great partnership.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've recently taken a major step in Kansas City by forming a board of advisors. So, what does that action do to solidify LaunchCode's presence in Kansas City?

Jeff Mazur:

We're really proud of everything over the five plus years that we've been working in Kansas City of all we've achieved. And in terms of number of careers we've started, the number of people that we've provided skills for, but I think as we came out of the pandemic and into 2021, we really wanted to think about, how do we ramp up even further our impact in Kansas City?

Jeff Mazur:

And one of the ways that we saw we could really do that is to build a group of just about two dozen people who are steeped in the Kansas City community, in the business community, in the tech community, in the civic leadership space so that these folks can help us figure out how we do more, how we grow, how we bring more people into our program, how we engage more companies in providing talent.

Jeff Mazur:

And through that avenue, through that board of advisors, and just bringing in the wisdom, the knowledge and the ownership of these wonderful people, we think we're going to be able to reach that goal of really amplifying our impact on the Kansas City community. How do we go from starting 36, 39, 40 careers a year to doubling that in 2023? How are we starting a 100 careers a year in Kansas City? And we think the answer is by engaging some of the very best people in Kansas City to help us in that goal.

Kelly Scanlon:

If someone, a group, reaches out to you in, say Seattle or wherever it might be, you'll work with them as well. Correct?

Jeff Mazur:

Absolutely right. Yes. We do pride ourselves on being an agile organization, in that we have all these employer partners, some of whom we've developed relationships with in a place like Kansas City or in a place like St. Louis. But sometimes those companies are national or global. So, we will set up a program, do recruitment of learners, put on a class, move people into the jobs or apprenticeships that that employer has there, sometimes with very specific skill sets.

Jeff Mazur:

It may be that we're helping them build 12 developers who have a mainframe or a legacy systems skill set, something else that's very hard to find out in the wild. And really helping them fill these niche needs, or sometimes it's like a Microsoft who says, "Hey, we need to find 40 people who have these hard-to-find security clearances. Can you help us find those people? And then by the way, as they transition out of the military with these security clearances, can you teach them to be developers too?

Jeff Mazur:

And then we'll take them on to work on these big contracts." And we say, "Sure, that's something we can do. That's in our skillset." So, those are all the sorts of things that we're doing. And it's really about being able to take this strength that we have and finding good people, and giving them skills quickly, and being able to deploy that on occasion-by-occasion basis really anywhere in the country, that to help fill that employer needs.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned that the program is free. How is it funded then?

Jeff Mazur:

Everything is free to the participant. The way we make this work is by generating an earned revenue stream through our employer relationships. In the majority of instances, when an employer wants to bring on a LaunchCoder onto their team, what they do is they use what we call hour apprenticeship model. And really this looks like a [inaudible 00:10:14] style engagement, where we send a candidate to the employer and the employer says, "This person looks great. I want to bring them on as a LaunchCode apprentice."

Jeff Mazur:

And they go to work. They start on the role the next week. But they work as LaunchCode's W2 employee, and we bill the employer partner on an hourly basis for that employees work. And over the period of that engagement, which average is about four months, but it could be three months, it could be six months. That person is doing the job.

Jeff Mazur:

They're demonstrating that they're a good employee and LaunchCode is collecting this hourly bill rate from the employer, and the delta between that hourly bill rate and what we pay out in wage and benefit to the apprentice, is our net revenue stream. And so, via that model, we can provide an employer with a really great candidate. We can provide the candidate with a job, a chance to learn on the job and pay.

Jeff Mazur:

And we can provide ourselves with our earned revenue stream that helps us sustain the program over time. And it's been using that model that we've really been able to grow, how to create a sustainable model for the organization's growth. And it's frankly been a really great innovation for employer partners as well. They found it to be a really powerful way to bring new people into their organizations.

Kelly Scanlon:

What is the eligibility for participants in the program?

Jeff Mazur:

We're not requiring any credentials of coming into LaunchCode. It's, of course, very difficult to get someone a job if they don't have a high school equivalency or a high school diploma. But beyond that, there's really no requirement. Really the requirements are not credentials-based at all. They're really trait-based. And so, what does it really take, and what are we looking for when someone applies for our program?

Jeff Mazur:

We're looking for someone who's driven. We really try and dig into what that person is like in terms of, how do they deal with adversity? When they reach a problem, when they get to a brick wall, are they someone who is apt to just kind of give up and walk away? Or is it someone who can really sit with a problem, who can find another way around, and be persistent enough to drive through?

Jeff Mazur:

People with that kind of drive typically perform very well in our programs, and they perform very well as apprentices. We really look for passion. It's one of the other traits. Is this someone who is interested in a technology job? Because they just really care a lot about technology, they want to work in tech. They like to take things apart and see how they work.

Jeff Mazur:

They like to look at code and try and figure it out. Those are people who tend to be lifelong learners, who are always picking up new things, who are always developing new skills and who, when they're put in an opportunity like LaunchCode provides, really thrives. And they just grow and they get better and stronger, and they become a really powerful and valuable team member for employers.

Jeff Mazur:

And then the third key thing we look for is aptitude. And aptitude, of course, shows itself in a lot of different ways, but typically we're trying to assess a person's capacity for logical reasoning and problem solving. Can they look at some facts or some data and draw conclusions from that?

Jeff Mazur:

Because so much of what they're going to do as a software developer is really about problem solving, and thinking through problems, and thinking creatively about problems. And so, if you can find that person that has the aptitude, they have the passion, they have the drive, those are usually the things that we know make up a really good LaunchCoder and a really good developer for one of our employer partners.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about some of the industries where LaunchCode graduates are being hired. I think that might surprise people who think of coders as being embedded in technology companies, the traditional tech industry. So, talk to us about some of the types of industries that have a need for these kinds of software coders that you've been talking about.

Jeff Mazur:

To some degree, every company is a technology company in 2021. It's really hard, even if we don't think of the company as a tech company, to see a company that's doing business in this time and place that doesn't have technology as a core part of what it's offering, and perhaps it's banking or other financial institutions. Almost every institution has some sort of online presence and they've got e-commerce. And they've got these systems be they internal or customer-facing that require a lot of technology in order to operate them, and in order for them to meet customer expectations.

Jeff Mazur:

And so, I think about financial institutions. We don't think of them as tech companies. It's easy to think about coders and software developers and think immediately about Google, Facebook, these sorts of companies, Square for that matter. And certainly those are tech companies that require an awful lot of tech talent in order to succeed. But we see every company these days is orienting itself oftentimes away from the brick and mortar space, and into the digital space.

Jeff Mazur:

And it's oftentimes taking people out of a situation where, whether it's a tech company or not, where they're in what we think of as non-technical roles and preparing them to do the work that the company needs in the future, oftentimes which looks very much more technical. So, when I think about Kansas City, one of our most prolific hiring partners in Kansas City is VMLY&R, a renowned company that works in the marketing space.

Jeff Mazur:

People may not immediately identify VMLY&R as a tech company, but so much of what they do lives in that digital realm and that digital space. And they need lots of people in order to serve their clients needs, be it for digital media, or social media, or these campaigns that they do are so heavily focused in a digital realm now, that they need lots of people who have that skillset.

Jeff Mazur:

And we're fortunate and feel really privileged that we get to help provide them with many of those folks who do that work. So, it's not always a "tech company" that we're helping find the tech talent in the future. Oftentimes, it's just a regular company who does a traditional thing, who increasingly has tech and tech-enabled needs.

Kelly Scanlon:

What have been some of the major impacts of LaunchCode in the cities where you have a presence?

Jeff Mazur:

Well, when I think about Kansas City, I think about the fact that on a year in, year out basis now for the last five years, we're somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 90 people per year are graduating our program with a full stack software developer skillset. And that's as many, or frankly more people than are graduating from any institution in the Kansas City region with a Computer Science degree. So, when we think about trying to fill the massive need that exists for tech talent in a market like Kansas City, we're not swamping the boat there.

Jeff Mazur:

We're not turning out a 1000 people a year, but we're one more partner, one more element, one more component of a tech learning community that's really helping lift the tide of tech talent in Kansas City, by putting those 70, 80, 90 people out there into the commercial world who have that software skillset. If you do this work and you do it for a few years and you do it well, you can start to really make a dent in the need that exists among employers for technical talent.

Kelly Scanlon:

When you think about future graduates of LaunchCode, what can corporations do to increase their potential opportunities?

Jeff Mazur:

What we see is that innovative companies that understand that they're not simply going to be able to rely on the traditional models for bringing people into their companies in this technology space, that they're going to have to think differently about that. And they're going to have to think differently on a few fronts, but the thing that we're always encouraging companies to open their minds on and to do more.

Jeff Mazur:

And I think where we see a lot of growth in this space is companies just being willing to contemplate bringing someone on as a developer, or an analyst, or a business intelligence employee who doesn't have the traditional background, who doesn't have the traditional experience. To be open to really consider what skills someone has, rather than simply relying on credentials.

Jeff Mazur:

And then a really important piece, when they do open the doors to those people, to really understand that these are people who are lifelong learners and to invest in those folks as they go along. Because we know the technology changes, and every nine months there's going to be a new technology, there's going to be something different. And you're not simply going to be able to go out and hire new people every time technology changes.

Jeff Mazur:

You're going to need people on your teams who are open to learn, and who've demonstrated a capacity for learning quickly and learning ably. And if you open the door to those people, and then you give those same folks, the chance to continue to grow and learn and gain new skills while they're on the job, you're going to have really refined tech teams, people doing great work and filling the need that you simply can't find out there on the hiring market.

Jeff Mazur:

Every company is looking for experienced developers and they're paying lots of money for it. But the reality is companies can do a great thing by bringing people in and then helping them learn for two and a half, three years. And they will have developed this amazing resource, this amazing, talented person that they wouldn't be able to find out there on the open market. And that's a really powerful thing.

Kelly Scanlon:

Just as the students in LaunchCode are taking a little bit of a non-traditional means to getting their skill, corporations too have to shift their mindset a bit, and think outside of their typical sources for these kinds of candidates, for these kinds of positions. But for either group, for the potential candidates or for the corporations, how do they get in touch with LaunchCode to become engaged in it?

Jeff Mazur:

I would urge anybody who wants to learn more to go to launchcode.org. And there you can learn about our learning programs. If you're someone who's interested in pursuing a career in technology, you can learn about our apprenticeship program.

Jeff Mazur:

If you're an employer, you can come and you can look at all the ways that we work, whether it's finding sourcing talent for you, whether it's providing upscaling for existing employees and giving them new skills. If you want to get in touch with me, you can email me at jeff@launchcode.org, and I'd be happy to have the same conversation with you.

Kelly Scanlon:

Jeff, thank you so much for all the work that you're doing, and for bringing this program to Kansas City. I know that some of our jewels here in Kansas City, were part of the attraction of coming here, and we really appreciate you and all that you do.

Jeff Mazur:

Thank you so much. Kansas City is a wonderful tech community we're glad to be a part.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Jeff Mazur for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. In our fast-changing world, more and more non-tech industries are driven by technology. Healthcare, marketing, retail, and real estate are just a few that come to mind. As technology dependence grows, the demand for skilled coders already in short supply, will only increase. Organizations like LaunchCode are determined to change that situation.

Joe Close:

And at the same time provide job opportunities for people without traditional technology degrees and experience, by making quality tech education based on marketplace needs free and accessible. When the various sectors of our community work together to consider a situation in a non-traditional and innovative way, not only are problems solved, but opportunities are created for businesses, for workers, and for consumers. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.