Tom McNeill took his first software development class 20 years ago, but it didn’t stick.
“You have to be patient,” he said.
Now, at 68, the gray-haired South Philadelphian says he has the patience to learn.
He’s one of four students at Coded by U, the 12-week, pay-what-you-can software development course run by Iraq veteran Sylvester Mobley. McNeill runs two city KEYSPOT computer labs, one in Passyunk Square and one in Queen Village, and wanted to take the Coded by U course so he could teach youth at his labs.
Coded by U, a spinoff of Mobley’s youth program, Coded by Kids, kicked off in early August, just a few months after winning a nearly $20,000 grant from the city’s StartUp PHL program.
Mobley’s idea was to offer an affordable alternative to the popular but pricey developer boot camps, like New York’s Flatiron School and the New York Code + Design Academy that expanded to Philly earlier this year. He hopes it can make the tech scene more equitable.
“My mission is to use Coded by U to make opportunities in tech a reality for people who would have previously found them inaccessible,” he wrote in a blog post.
The course that he holds at Graduate Hospital’s Marian Anderson Recreation Center is pay-what-you-can, and in most cases, that means the students take the course for free, Mobley said.
There’s about one month left of the first Coded by U program. Meanwhile, Mobley just launched another one at Benjamin’s Desk. This one is geared toward the broader public and costs $2,170. (For a rough comparison, New York Code + Design Academy’s 16-week part-time course costs $3,850.) The paid version of Coded by U is not funded by the city’s StartUp PHL grant. The proceeds will go to Coded by Kids. The first paid course started on Sept. 23 but you can apply now for the next one.
When we visited Coded by U last month at the upstairs computer lab of the Marian Anderson Rec Center, three students were working on an assignment to build a website with HTML and CSS, as the air conditioning unit hummed and early evening sunlight shone through the trees.
McNeill was adding a photo of a car to his website — the car-lover owns a 1990 white Mustang. “It’s a classic,” he said.
The program originally had more students but they ended up dropping out, Mobley said, adding that he wished he had more female students (there’s just one out of four). Still, he said he preferred to have a small group of consistent students than a larger, less-committed class.
Mobley’s struggle to find students speaks to one of the hardships of launching a software development class from scratch — marketing is hard work, especially if you’re trying to target those who might not already be tapped into the tech scene. (When the Urban Technology Project launched its tech apprenticeship for high school grads who live in Philadelphia Housing Authority apartments, they went door to door, introducing themselves and trying to recruit for the program.)
That Monday evening, Mobley, in basketball shorts and a gray thoughtbot T-shirt, spent some time going over the assignment at the tiny whiteboard on the wall before he let the students at it. The students used coding platform Codio and worked closely with the class’s teaching assistants.
One of the teaching assistants, Elliott Hughes, was essentially Mobley’s first adult student.
Hughes, 24, of Fishtown, works at Marian Anderson Rec Center and that’s where he met Mobley a few years ago (Mobley hosts his Coded by Kids courses there). When he met Mobley, Hughes was struggling to teach himself programming language Python. Mobley suggested he try learning a front-end language first.
“Sometimes people just need a little bit of guidance,” Mobley said.
Now, Hughes does freelance web development on the side and helps with both Coded by Kids and Coded by U.
Hughes spent most of the evening helping Haomin Tian, a 26-year-old who moved to Philadelphia with his family from China five years ago. Tian, who lives in Chinatown, is currently studying IT at the Community of College of Philadelphia and fixing computers at Northeast High School, as part of an apprenticeship with the Urban Technology Project.
UTP’s founder, Edison Freire, suggested that Tian take the Coded by U course so he could teach other apprentices software development, Tian said. UTP has traditionally been hardware-focused, but Freire is hoping to expand it to encompass software development and other IT skills.
Tian, who wants to become a server administrator when he graduates from school, says he likes the class but it’s hard because it’s just once a week and he also has to juggle his apprenticeship and his classes at school.
The same goes for McNeill, who said he’s been doing work out of class, at home.
“There’s no way to get it all in 12 weeks,” he said.