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What does it take to help workers upskill?

A conversation with David Wintrich

There has been an increase in demand for skilled workers, including large growth in technical occupations, over the last few decades. The situation presents an opportunity for workers looking to make a career change, but often they can’t do it alone—they first need to develop the skills required for the industry.

Coding bootcamps are one solution workers have turned to when trying to build their skills. By offering shorter, essential coursework, these programs are attractive to some who cannot afford the time to pursue a traditional degree or certificate program.

However, the hope for short-term retraining initiatives that provide opportunities for upward mobility has sometimes fallen flat. Evidence shows that some coding bootcamps, which are generally organized as for-profit, have misled enrollees about their potential future success; others have faced complaints from employers and students for not equipping graduates with promised (and necessary) skills.

Nonetheless, some programs have worked to overcome these concerns. Tech Elevator, which offers a 14-week course in several cities across the Unites States and online, is one such program. Tech Elevator participates in the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR), an organization that standardizes reporting for program participants so that potential enrollees have a clearer picture of the types of outcomes that are possible after graduation. I spoke with David Wintrich, a cofounder of Tech Elevator and board member at CIRR, about the barriers to learning and career building the program’s students face, and how their program is designed to overcome them.

He told me that it takes more than teaching only typical coding skills to successfully upskill workers into a coding career. Although a standard classroom curriculum is a part of student success, Tech Elevator’s approach has focused on the range of additional, essential skills that are necessary for success, and how to teach them. But the program has gone even further to earn its successes: It has actively recruited employers to consider their graduates, and some of those employers are impressed enough to have hired Tech Elevator to train existing staff. In the latest CIRR report, more than 93 percent of Tech Elevator’s recent graduates were employed—all of them in work relevant to their training.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.

The need for coding talent is real

Dionissi Aliprantis

How did you get the idea for Tech Elevator? Can you tell me a little about its creation?

David Wintrich

Tech Elevator is what's commonly known as a coding bootcamp, which basically means it's an accelerated vocational training program that takes folks with little to no prior technical experience and helps them gain the skills to do full stack web application development, and then connect with employers to find jobs.

Despite not necessarily always being the most, we'll say, classically successful student myself, I had always had an interest in teaching. Also, I was working in the field at the time and we were growing a technology team, and I was seeing firsthand how hard it was to find people to do the work. It was just really difficult to find programmers.

Through colleagues around the country, I also became aware that it wasn't a Cleveland problem. It wasn't that we didn't have enough technology talent in Northeast Ohio. I mean, it didn't matter if you were from New York or San Francisco or St. Louis or wherever, everybody had the exact same problem. So [I] knew that a shortage of technology talent was in fact, a real problem.

I could see firsthand that the need that we had in this area. And I had experienced, through my own career, the impact it can have on a person to do work that they find engaging, challenging, and rewarding. And this was an opportunity for me to help solve that problem and also to teach and do something entrepreneurial.

Success means starting a career, which takes more than just coursework

Dionissi Aliprantis

Okay. So that's the backstory on Tech Elevator. Now that you all have been around for a little bit, how do you define success?

David Wintrich

We define success by our graduates’ finding jobs.

Dionissi Aliprantis

Pretty straightforward.

David Wintrich

Pretty straightforward. Our mission at Tech Elevator is to elevate people, companies, and communities. We've seen that when you connect folks who are hard-working and talented with economically valuable skills – in our case the ability to do software development – that can change lives. And when those people are providing those valuable skills to companies who desperately need that technical talent, that also improves the prospects of local companies. And if people are doing good and companies are doing good, then it goes a long way towards helping to improve the prospects of our communities.

And so again, I think one of the things that we got right at the outset is that we recognized that our product at Tech Elevator was not teaching somebody to code. Our product was providing an on ramp into a career in technology.

Dionissi Aliprantis

What's the difference between those two? Can you elaborate a little bit?

David Wintrich

Yeah. I think when you define the objective as just, I'm going to equip you with these skills, and now you go and make of that what you will, Good luck out there - well, that could lead to a couple different things. Or what I think of as perhaps even dysfunctions.

One, you're not really held accountable for the relevancy of those skills or that education because you haven't hitched your wagon to that student's goals. When a student comes to Tech Elevator, they're not coming to us out of just academic curiosity or because they want a new hobby. They're coming to us because they're trying to gain entry into a new career. And so we want to make sure that we're as aligned as possible with that student. We want to define our goals to be the same as theirs.

But also, by defining our success as someone finding a job and starting a career, that drives everything else we do. That drives our curriculum. It makes sure that we are constantly keeping an eye on, “what jobs are out there?” and, “what are employers looking for in terms of skills?” and making sure that we're aligning our curriculum with that. It makes sure that we are devoting resources to cultivating relationships with those employers and that there's a very efficient path to make introductions between graduates of our program and those jobs.

Just knowing how to code doesn't necessarily get you a job, especially when we're dealing with folks that, again, may have come up from any number of diverse backgrounds. Many of our students have college degrees, but many of them don't. Many of them have never worked in a "professional setting." Some of them maybe have never gone on any kind of interview process like what you're typically bumping into in corporate America. And so we spend just as much time focusing on interviewing skills and job searching skills and all those kinds of things as we do with the technical education.

Understanding how programmers learn, in school and on the job, helps guide Tech Elevator’s curriculum

Dionissi Aliprantis

Can you tell me a little bit about what you actually do and what you prioritize in terms of the curriculum? And can you talk a little bit about these add-ons that I might be surprised to hear that you do in a coding bootcamp?

David Wintrich

As someone who has been a programmer and hired other programmers and hired junior programmers and so forth, the genesis of our curriculum was, "Okay, well, I've hired a junior programmer. What the heck am I looking for when did I do that?" And the truth is that an entry level programmer is kind of useless, right? In other words, they don't come in and just immediately start contributing it as a fully functional member of the team. So if you were hiring a junior programmer, you're doing so as an investment.

This person, maybe a year from now, I'm going to be able to groom them into a fully contributing member of the team. When I was hiring folks like that, I really just looked for, “do you have a sufficient foundation? Do you know enough things that I can have you do something? [Can I] give you a task where you know how to do maybe 80% of it, and then you'll figure out the other 20%?” And then we just keep doing that enough times and eventually you learn the stuff that you need to learn.

So what we did then is we said, "Well, okay, of those things, that foundation, those foundational skills are really what need to form the basis of our curriculum." What is it that somebody needs to know to navigate a technical interview process? And then once they're on the job, continue to learn all the other things that they need to learn while they're there?

We look at what are the practically applicable theory elements of a computer science education? We teach that. And then we combine that with in-demand tools and technologies that are actually being asked for by employers.

Equally important to the curriculum is the teachers that we employ. We don't necessarily look for folks with a teaching background. Instead, we recruit as our instructors folks with industry background. On average, our instructors have somewhere around, I think on average, 20 years of experience in industry. So they've been in the trenches.

Dionissi Aliprantis

I didn't see that one coming. That's really interesting.

David Wintrich

We look for folks that have actually got credible technical chops, that have worked for the kinds of companies that are hiring our graduates so they can bring that real world perspective into the classroom. But also have a demonstrated track record of mentoring and of developing, say, junior programmers on the job. I think for our instructors, what they've found in their career is like, "Well, that's actually the thing I find the most rewarding. I love developing other people." And so this is an opportunity for them to take their technical skills and experience and deploy it in a very different way – in a way that they find very rewarding.

I think the choice to bring practitioners and people with industry experience into the classroom further reinforces our focus on employable skills. The other thing that we do that is a differentiator is we focus on helping students with general professional development: interviewing skills, job search skills.

Tech Elevator’s focus on graduates finding jobs determines how they approach partnerships with employers

Dionissi Aliprantis

I'm curious about your connections with businesses. What is it about the employers that brings them to you? What are they interested in when they come to speak to you?

David Wintrich

We actually employ folks whose purpose is to go out and “beat the bushes,” to make connections with new employers, tell them about our program, and that kind of thing. If it's a new employer that isn't familiar with us, we're explaining to them, "Hey, we're coding bootcamp. These are our these are our graduates, these are the things they know," that kind of thing. One of the first questions we'll have in an initial meeting is, "So how much does this cost?" Because they're used to recruiters coming to them and saying, "Well, I want a 20% fee.” You don't have to pay us anything. We just want to make sure our graduates have got jobs waiting for them at the end.

We do that deliberately because we don't want to put any friction between a graduate and a job. And so it's a pretty easy sell when you're going to an employer who's desperate for technology talent. This is something very valuable to them and you're saying, "Well, here I have some. Take it, it's free." We've had companies that have hired hundreds of our graduates and had us train hundreds of their employees. The value to employers of a program like Tech Elevator is that it's just this constant flow of talent, it's consistent, and we just try and make it as easy as possible.

Tech Elevator is a fairly large source of talent. We’ll graduate a little over a thousand people this year. That's pretty significant, even when you're looking at, for instance, The Ohio State University, which is the largest public university in the country. I think their computer science program graduates between 200 and 300 graduates in a year. As a source of talent, Tech Elevator is significant.

Tech Elevator challenges core assumptions about which workers will be productive

Dionissi Aliprantis

I'm wondering if you can tell us what you’ve learned from working with different students about barriers to economic inclusion? I’m thinking about people's ability to participate in the labor market and to develop their skills. When we're thinking about maximum employment and asking, “How do we make the economy perform at its highest level possible,” what kind of insights have you gained on relevant issues in terms of the students that you've worked with?

David Wintrich

The biggest barrier for most folks is financial. So either just simply having the actual means to pay or saying, "Well, you know what? I can't attend a full time training program. I need to have a job because I've got kids to feed," or whatever the case may be. "So even if you give me a loan for the tuition, I still need an income." We've recently introduced a part-time program actually to help try and address that.

But we've also looked at data and found that when folks actually do manage to get into Tech Elevator, their prior income level or prior education has no bearing on how well they do within the program. They are just as academically competitive, they're able to find jobs at a similar rate. Once they're graduated, they have the same kind of outcomes.

Dionissi Aliprantis

That's a pretty remarkable statement. And I think it's incredibly informative. So, let me see if I can repeat it to you in a way that you find correct. You're saying that of the students you have, the things that you might have thought were indicative of people's potential—like performance in traditional academic settings or pay in their current job—it turns out, in your data and from your experience, that's not necessarily the case.

David Wintrich

Yes. Earnings for sure. I don't know what somebody's GPA is when they come to Tech Elevator, but in terms of actual educational attainment, whether you have a bachelor's degree, or a master's degree, or a PhD or whatever, that doesn't really have bearing on your performance at Tech Elevator. You can learn to code just as well, regardless. Prior education is not a significant factor.

Dionissi Aliprantis

Wow. That's quite incredible. And I think it's saying that there are more paths to opportunity out there than maybe we realize.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

David Wintrich

Programmer | Educator | Entrepreneur

David Wintrich is a cofounder of Tech Elevator, an intensive education provider helping individuals and companies acquire in-demand technology skills for the modern workforce. More than 2,000 professionals have graduated from Tech Elevator, 90 percent of whom secured a job in software development roles in over 400 companies nationwide. Before starting Tech Elevator, Mr. Wintrich gained over 12 years of experience developing software systems in Fortune 500 companies and the US Federal government. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Cleveland State University.

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