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Zip Code Wilmington: A ‘life-changing’ 12-week curriculum

The Wilmington-based nonprofit’s graduates emerge ready to take on new careers in tech.

A Zip Code Wilmington class in November 2021. (Courtesy photo)

This article is sponsored by Zip Code Wilmington and was reviewed before publication.

F. That was the grade Grace Bunde and Kwame Warrick received on the first eight-hour quiz of Zip Code Wilmington’s three-month curriculum. The two bonded over their failure, but it also left questions hanging over their heads.

“Alumni would come in to visit, I used to ask them, ‘Y’all were able to get through this curriculum?’” Bunde said. Although Bunde and Warrick had a rocky start, they were able to use that experience to motivate themselves throughout the 12-week course.

The curriculum at the nonprofit software developer training program is rigorous, but it brings high rewards, including job placement at esteemed companies and networking opportunities with industry professionals. For Bunde and Warrick, their 2019 acceptance led them to jobs at Morgan Stanley.

Zip Code Wilmington’s mission is to help talented candidates pursue a career as a software developer or data engineer if they have not had the opportunity otherwise, said Desa Burton, Zip Code Wilmington’s executive director.

“By getting them into that career, we build them as a person and that builds the community surrounding them, which builds our region,” Burton said.

Zip Code Wilmington is accepting applications for its June 2022 cohort through March 20, 2022.

The application process

Zip Code has a five-part application process, starting with the initial submission. Then, interested folks will complete an online pre-assessment and assessment before a group interview with other applicants. The final stage is a one-on-one professional interview with the executive director, as well as a technical interview with the director of education.

However, the application process is not screening candidates for stringent technical experience. No prior coding experience is necessary; Zip Code Wilmington students come from a variety of career backgrounds. They include, for example, baristas, veterans, customer service reps, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, and even a student who was a masseuse.

One of the key aspects of the application process is the group interview because it demonstrates an applicant’s teamwork skills, Burton said. Zip Code Wilmington alumni reported that group projects and daily standup meetings with fellow cohort members are integrated into the curriculum.

“If you’re unable to work well in a group, if you’re not able to hear other voices and come to a consensus, then being at Zip Code Wilmington is not the right fit for you,” Burton said. “They’re all pretty much team players before they come in.”

The beauty of data is that it’s everywhere, Zip Code Wilmington alumni Deana Stuart said. That means anyone can take the technical skills Zip Code Wilmington teaches and apply them to their world. Stuart, for example, frequently worked with databases in her previous career as a library archivist. Now, she’s a data analyst for Freya Systems.

“The possibilities of data are endless, but to succeed at Zip Code Wilmington, you just need to be a curious person, a person who likes to learn,” Stuart said.

The curriculum

“Are you able to attend full-time?” That’s the second question on Zip Code Wilmington’s application. Students are expected to attend all classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with earlier networking sessions twice a week for the duration of the 12-week curriculum. This makes it virtually impossible to be employed while enrolled.

Alumni reported different ways to keep themselves afloat while dedicating themselves solely to Zip Code Wilmington.

Zip Code Wilmington students in January 2020. (Courtesy photo)

Warrick beefed up his savings and moved closer to Zip Code Wilmington’s campus (pre-COVID, all of its classes were on-site, but it’s since switched to hybrid and local remote options). Bunde worked a part-time night job, but quickly realized that schedule was not sustainable, so she applied for and received a stipend from Zip Code Wilmington’s corporate partner BlackRock. Stuart and her long-time partner Seth Abrams completed Zip Code Wilmington’s training program in different cohorts, allowing them to support each other while they were studying.

Once in the program, students have to be aware of how hard they are pushing themselves, Zip Code Wilmington alumni Demetrius Murray said.

“I would say the biggest challenge is time management and dealing with the stress, mostly because there is such a flood of assignments and information,” Murray said. “There were times around week six, week 10, week, 11 that I felt burnt out, and I had to kind of take myself back and say, ‘Alright, tonight, I’m going to take a step back.’”

So, what’s the payoff?

Zip Code Wilmington reports a 96% graduation rate for enrolled students. During COVID, when job opportunities in most industries were scarce — and tech hiring overall was active, but junior devs were often skipped over — about 61% of its Java software developer graduates were placed in paid full-time employment within one year of completing the program. That percentage has since increased to 85%.

Burton anticipates the demand for trained graduates will continue to increase in 2022. Zip Code Wilmington has approximately 20 corporate partners (and counting). Graduates have been hired by more than 60 employers in the last six years, typically doubling or tripling their annual earnings.

Zip Code Wilmington’s outcomes have important implications for the individual graduates, as well as the economic health of the state overall, Burton said.

Burton herself has a varied professional background. Before becoming Zip Code Wilmington’s executive director in 2019, she served 10 years in the US Navy and as an intellectual property lawyer. One of her top priorities at Zip Code Wilmington is enhancing the organization’s community engagement efforts.

“When we are bringing folks into the program, we are investing in them,” she said. “We are making a decision to go on a journey together. So every student is a part of a family going forward that is not just the family of Zip Code Wilmington, but the family of Wilmington, Delaware.”

Alumni told about the specific gains Zip Code Wilmington provided each of them.

For Warrick and Bunde, who met at Zip Code Wilmington as students, it was the beginning of their relationship and the eventual birth of their daughter. For Abrams and Stuart, it was enough financial stability to purchase a home together. For Murray, it was the mobility of his new career that landed him in Austin, where he lives with his partner and their dog.

“Zip Code Wilmington really has been life-changing for a lot of people,” Murray said. “And it’s just a matter of how much work you put in at the end of the day. What you put in is exactly what you’ll get out.”

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