We can make north central Virginia the next Silicon Valley if we supply the talent with two-year, fully-funded programming trade schools
I. Virginia needs more programmers
I moved to Culpeper last year when my partner got his dream job at the Library of Congress. Before that I was in the middle of my computer science PhD at the University of Washington. My field is Artificial Intelligence and my goal moving here was to build a tech startup. Culpeper and the surrounding areas of north central Virginia really are a great location for a thriving tech industry: beautiful countryside, fast internet (for some and it’s a work in progress), charming local restaurants and good craft beer. Local vineyards all around. DC with its venture capitalists is not too far but not too close. Amazon has 25 data centers nearby in NoVA. But I encountered a serious roadblock: lack of available programmers. None of my friends from New York, Washington and California were interested in moving to a deep red district, especially when they do a little research and find out our delegate is behind the latest anti-LGBT discrimination bill to pass the General Assembly. Programmers typically are either libertarians, independents, or Democrats. For example, the internet industry gave Hillary $6.3 million in 2016, and gave Trump just $56 thousand. So a tech startup in red Virginia has a hard time bringing in talent from out of state. And local talent isn’t sticking around: Virginia is growing at its slowest rate since the 1920s as more young Virginians than ever are leaving the commonwealth.
II. Programming is a skill that must be learned over time
I’m a programmer and I know that computer programming is a skill that must be learned over time. Here’s how getting a programming job works. First, three things can get you in the door: an online portfolio that showcases your code (e.g. github), a computer science degree, and/or prior work experience. Then you have a job interview. Here’s how the interview works: job applicants are asked a series of coding challenge questions that test their abilities. If you answer the questions better than anyone else, then you get the job. It’s that simple. In other words, getting a programming job is about skill, skill, skill.
Virginia has some of the best community colleges in the country. But taking a few computer science classes will not teach you how to code. Programming is a trade, and it’s time we start treating it like one. We need programming trade schools.
III. Coder “boot camps” are expensive and successful, but target the elite and don’t go far enough
Private educational programs called coder “boot camps” aim to address the lack of programming talent. These private, three to six-month education programs focus on the motivated few who can afford their tuition, and often have very high job placement rates. But this isn’t enough. First, their tuition is out of reach for many. Second, private ad hoc bootcamps can cut corners or obscure data. And third and most important, three to six months is nowhere near enough for a new high school graduate to properly learn how to program.
IV. Solution: Programming Trade Schools that immerse students in coding for two years
I will launch a first-in-the-nation initiative: top-tier, publicly-run programming trade schools that will supply Virginia with a new generation of programmers. Not every talented high school student needs a four-year college degree (although anyone who wants one should be able to afford one). My plan will offer tuition, housing and a stipend to Virginia high school graduates with good math scores. Professional programmers and computer science educators will teach students how to code every day for two years. Students will be provided with industry internships, job placement training, and an online portfolio that tracks the students’ progress over time. After graduating, every student will receive a Virginia programming degree and the skills to immediately get a high-paying job.
Students who successfully learn how to code can choose to get a job immediately in the industry, or else move to an even more rigorous four-year engineering program with a huge advantage. Either way, the resulting influx of new local programmers will immediately, vigorously stimulate Virginia’s tech industry. Together we can make a Virginia degree synonymous with computer science.