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Robert Litan: WSU academy helps supply coding talent

In late February, the CBS morning news ran a segment about the explosion of tech companies in Lincoln, Neb., also showing a chart with Kansas City, Mo., and Des Moines as part of a “Silicon Prairie” map. The story featured low real-estate prices, coupled with tech talent, as key driving factors.

Wichita has the same advantages, evidenced by the move of SNT Media here, along with Wichita-founded tech companies such as Cybertron, Applianz, Paste Interactive, Callcap, BalancedComp and Ulterius Technologies.

We are also fortunate to have Kenton Hansen, software development director at Ennovar, an applied tech institute at Wichita State University that provides hands-on, paid engineering and software development experience for the university’s undergraduate and graduate students.

Hansen, a Wichita native and WSU graduate of the school’s entrepreneurship program, is also the founding director of WSU’s new coding academy. The idea didn’t start with him, of course. Private coding academies have been popping up all over the country, some charging more than $10,000 for just three intense months of classes (and even more actual coding out of classroom).

Prior to being recruited to WSU by Ennovar, Hansen had a variety of entrepreneurial gigs after graduation before founding the Labor Party in Old Town (the name is meant to convey a marriage of entrepreneurship and fun, not socialism). The Labor Party offers work space for more than 30 entrepreneurs and their firms.

Realizing through his own need for coding that demand for software developers was strong, Hansen began offering coding classes himself in 2014, at first for $200 and then later for free, after the Kansas Board of Regents (unbelievably) said he couldn’t charge if he didn’t pay the extensive fees required for educational providers in the state.

WSU’s coding academy is a bargain, at only $440 for an eight-week program. It will be even more affordable when students will be able to use financial aid, which the university is working on.

Anyone of any age can join for the 12-person classes. Hansen says teaching is most effective if class size is kept small, which allows for a maximum of teacher-student interaction and peer-to-peer learning. Classes began in January and are already oversubscribed, with a waiting list, so it makes sense to sign up soon, both to get in the queue and also because some people on the list may not eventually take the course (webs.wichita.edu/?u=ennovar&p=/workshops).

Once they complete the class, graduates can apply for a mentorship with Ennovar Developers, to get experience in a production environment. From this pool of individuals, Hansen is looking to hire more developers to fill the work at Ennovar that needs to be done.

Of course, it is too early to know how many of its graduates the WSU coding academy will place with full-time jobs, but with an increasing number of tech startups and other established companies in Wichita needing coding talent, it would be surprising if placement were a problem. Hansen’s bigger challenge almost surely will be finding ways of expanding the number and topics of classes to accommodate the growing demand for them.

Robert Litan, a Wichita-based attorney and economist, is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.