The number of unfilled software development positions among St. George tech-based companies is a good indicator that the region is experiencing a shortage of qualified programmers.
However, opportunities like Code Camp, a yearly programming, design and entrepreneurship contest, help grow and develop the future pipeline that will satisfy not only local businesses, but make St. George an attractive option for outside tech firms. Tech builders, from the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) to the Utah State University (USU) 4-H coders, are building the tech pipeline in southern Utah that will propel the region’s economic growth.
Joshua Aikens, chair of Dixie Technical Association, says that more vexing than the shortfall of programmers is the issue that of those precious few, a large portion are unprepared after four years at a university to take even an entry level or internship position for a local company.
“Programming is hard and four years is often not enough time for a student to become proficient,” said Aikens. “What if you started learning English during your first semester of college? Would you be prepared to write a novel upon graduation?”
Jeff Poulton, CEO of Rocketmade and chair of Southern Utah Code Camp said Code Camp is a competition, not an instruction based experience. Learning and instruction for programming is available at Dixie State University, Southern Utah University and Dixie Applied Technology College, or “code schools”.
“We see a handful of participants each year who join a team with a friend and try their hand at programming,” said Poulton. “Ideally, participants will have learned at least one programming language and will have had some exposure to building a web, mobile or desktop application.”
The concept for Code Camp originated with Jerry Brown of OveractDev and Jill Elliss, director of the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) South. Since its beginning, a board of volunteers has evolved Code Camp into an event that is gaining popularity and recognition across the region. The camp is intended to introduce potential programmers to the world of computer programming at an early age, and also serves university level students by providing them an opportunity to build something outside of a lab that can have real world application and value to the marketplace. Professionals get a chance to show their experience, compete with one another as well as meet and mentor up and coming talent.
About 200 programmers attended the camp last year, ranging from 10 years old and up. Aikens said that most attendees had coding background, and for some it was the very first experience with coding.
“Although the 24 hour competition is indeed a competition and not the time to begin learning how to code, if we exposed a few kids to programming and started them down the path, then we still succeeded,” said Aikens.
Paul Hill, a USU extension professor to Washington County, became involved with Code Camp by serving on the planning committee, teaching youth how to code and organizing 4-H code clubs so they can develop the skills they need to participate in the event. In the early days of 4-H, agriculture was a major component as kids needed to know how to do things like raise a steer and grow corn. Today, however, they are focused on teaching STEM education through hands on experiences.
“4-H is about providing youth with the opportunity to master skills,” said Hill. “We adapt to meet the needs of youth in their generation. I believe coding is the new literacy. At the very least, youth should be exposed to it at a young age so they can become familiar with it; we all depend on technology but so few know how to read and write code.”
Poulton says more qualified programmers in the Southern Utah region means more companies relocating to Southern Utah.
“One of the biggest opportunities for the local economy would be to attract larger companies to open an office or relocate to St. George,” said Poulton. “There are a lot of folks living out of town that grew up here, or have family in the area, who would really like to live here. A wider variety of businesses and a larger span of required skill sets would create more opportunities for people to move back to St. George.”