In six months or less, a program at the University of Central Arkansas can take those with novice computer skills and train them to be entry-level software developers.
Arkansas Coding Academy, housed in UCA’s Division of Outreach and Community Engagement, opened in August 2016 as a way to address the shortage of software developers in the state.
Since its inception, ArCA has graduated more than 80 students. To better help the program’s growth, ArCA left the Brewer-Hegeman Conference Center space it once used and opened a new campus in August 2018. The new campus on South Donaghey Avenue includes private study spaces, two classrooms and a kitchen.
As technology becomes more integrated in various industries, many look to ArCA as a way to gain a competitive advantage, said Mary Condit ’14, former director. There are no prerequisites to enroll other than having basic computer skills. What matters most, Condit said, is that enrollees have a genuine curiosity for software development.
“We do a lot to change people’s lives, to take their career trajectory and quality of life and raise that for them in a really short amount of time,” Condit said.
ArCA offers two routes: a three-month program, designed for those who are able to attend class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and a six-month track that offers courses three nights a week from 6-8:30 p.m.
In class, students learn Java, a programming language, and also study SQL, HTML and CSS through interactive lectures that involve coding alongside the instructor, who is seasoned in the industry. Lectures are followed by lab time, during which students typically repair code independently.
Prior to enrolling, Sabrina Runge ’15, ’17 knew little about coding. Through ArCA, Runge was able to land a job as a senior analyst at Merkle in Little Rock, where she assists with the technical side of email marketing.
“Coding is important because technology is definitely one of the biggest growing industries and, just looking forward into the future, it’s a skill to have that will always be useful,” said Runge, who earned her certificate of proficiency from ArCA in October 2018.
Along with Merkle, ArCA students have gone on to work for companies like Acxiom, J.B. Hunt and numerous others in central and northwest Arkansas.
“What we have here [in Arkansas] to me is an exceptional quality of life and low cost of living and great salaries for software developers that I don’t think will do anything but rise,” Condit said.
ArCA’s student body is largely nontraditional. Most enrollees are in their late 20s to mid-40s and are seeking a career change.
Amanda Chandler ’15 was a teacher for eight years before enrolling in ArCA last year. In January, she began working as a business analyst at Merkle, which requires her to work closely with SQL.
“It’s something I’ve seen before and I’ve worked with in class,” Chandler said of SQL. “Whenever they showed me that, if I’d never gone to the school, I might’ve been overwhelmed.”
Students’ capstone projects, which are typically based on a hobby or past job, are presented at ArCA’s Demo Day, a time for students to demonstrate their work to potential employers and build networking skills.
For his final project, Thomas Montgomery ’09, who finished ArCA in fall 2017, created a database that stores information on one’s comic book collection. Montgomery now works as a delivery analyst at Acxiom in Conway.
“What made it even more so enticing was the excitement of the staff at the Arkansas Coding Academy, not just the instructors but also the director,” said Montgomery, who enrolled after feeling unfulfilled in the film industry. “They were always so excited. Their excitement for what they were teaching you was really infectious. It really got you into it.”
ArCA also offers coding classes for children and teens, and it partners with Philander Smith College to provide coding training in Little Rock.
Graduates say they encourage anyone who is interested to give ArCA a try.
“It really has changed my life around for the better,” Montgomery said. “I can’t recommend it enough.”