Amita Greer wanted a career change, and she found the perfect opportunity at the Montana Code School in Missoula.

school lane road sign

School Lane street sign in Seeley Lake

“Working at the Missoula Small Business Development Center (SBDC) I had worked with small businesses before,” she said. “I was familiar with the entrepreneurship environment. I loved working in that smaller startup scene and I thought, ‘What’s a good industry to get into?’ Obviously tech. Especially with coding, those skills are valuable, in demand and transferable.”

Greer is one of many Montanans who have joined the growing legion of students and workers learning the ropes of computer coding.

Code Schools in Montana

Coding is what creates the apps and computer programs that users adore from Candy Crush to The Sims. The code in a program tells a computer or device how to operate. Rather than using the binary code of 0’s and 1’s to craft programs, computer languages were created.

These coding skills can be used to create new technology businesses and supply employees for this booming workforce demand in Montana.

“In our 10-year strategic plan, Envision 2026, two of our four core objectives are entrepreneurship and workforce development,” said Webb Brown, president/CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce. “The knowledge Montanans learn from coding can be used to create new businesses and develop a better high-tech pipeline for Montana.”

At the Montana Code School, Greer said students are usually between 20- and 30-years old, but there have been students as young as 13. Most of the school’s students do not have any programming experience. Greer said they focus on teaching full stack web development which includes learning JavaScript, hypertext markup language (HTML) and cascading style sheets (CSS).

“What we’re really teaching them is how to learn software programming,” Greer said. “If they’re going to stay in Montana there are some companies that use the same technologies we teach. Every company has different software with different technologies, but no matter where they end up they learn faster.”

Closing the Coding Gender Gap

While the computer science field has been dominated by men, women and girls are joining the conversation.

A subsidiary of another Montana coding school, the Big Sky Code Academy, is the program Montana Code Girls. The first class launched in fall of last year in Bozeman with free after school programs for girls ages 9-19. Participants are asked to find a problem in their community and build the technology to combat that issue. They also write a business plan to ensure their technology remains solvent.

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Devin Holmes, the founder of Big Sky Code Academy, said he recognized the need to support girls in the computer science field.

“In 2015, our four-state region graduated just 44 Computer Science female graduates,” said Holmes. “Montana graduated eight, South Dakota 26, North Dakota eight and Wyoming had two. In 2016, only nine high schoolers took the AP (Advanced Placement) Computer Science exam; none of them were female. We know that women who learn computer science in high school are 10 times more likely to major in the subject in college. Beginning with 28 registered participants, the project has grown to over 145 registered participants.”

One of the Montana Code Girls most notable accomplishments so far was having one of its Technovation Montana teams make it to the semi-finals of the global Technovation Challenge.

The Big Sky Code Academy launched in March 2016 and teaches full stack web development. Classes are offered in Missoula, Bozeman and online. As a program of the national nonprofit American Campaign, the Big Sky Code Academy is also working on getting money from the G.I. Bill to count toward tuition for the school.

Students range in age from 18-45. Holmes also said they are currently creating a software development pre-apprenticeship program and an apprenticeship program for high school students.

A national non-profit group that landed in Montana is Girls Who Code. This organization was created in 2012 and offers classes in all 50 states. There are several Girls Who Code clubs in Montana
stretching from Kalispell to Hardin. Starting in January, a Girls Who Code program will also be in Big Sandy.

Big Tech Exposure in Small Towns

Before the end of December, a seventh-grader approached science teacher Melanie Schwarzbach and asked if she would be the club’s facilitator. Schwarzbach said she was proud of the student’s initiative and interest in the coding program.

“I think it’s really important because we don’t have the local people in our community who have these types of careers,” Schwarzbach said. “It gives them the exposure to other possibilities besides the careers they see in small town Big Sandy. A lot of our kids seem to go into engineering or medicine. Those are two great career paths, but there are other opportunities out there that they are just not aware of.”

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