Square founder wants to fix the tech talent shortage (starting with St. Louis)

Nov 14, 2013

JimMcKelvey, cofounder of Square, LaunchCode
Credit Scott Pham / KBIA

It's a story you hear mostly from Silicon Valley: the "tech talent shortage." But it's a problem that affects the Midwest, too. Some are saying that the talent shortage is the single biggest obstacle holding back an emerging field of Midwestern tech companies--the very companies that could provide the jobs of the near future.

Here's one local company that's bucking the trend: 3 Interactive (recently renamed Division-D). Most people don’t know it, but a lot of digital advertising passes through Columbia and that's because of Bobby Campbell, CEO of Division-D. Campbell says his company runs over a billion ads a month.

Division-D is growing fast. This year Inc Magazine gave him a "Hire Power" award for job creation. In the past two years, he's hired more than 40 brand new positions.

It’s a lot of jobs to fill, but he doesn't worry.

“The University of Missouri is a great feeder of talent," he said. "Mizzou has a lot of resources that have really been key to our growth.”

What's key here is the type of talent that Campbell needs. Even though Division-D could be called a digital startup, it’s really a media company. And that means they need marketers, which MU produces in droves.

However, if he needed to hire 40 programmers, it might be a different story.


Hackton, a co-working space and the offices of Columbia startup AdFreq
Credit http://www.hackton.com/

Entrepreneur Jim McKelvy recently visited Hackton, the Columbia offices of startup AdFreq. He gave a presentation on his newest project, Launch Code. It sounded, at first, almost like a get rich quick scheme:

“If you want to be at the top of your game in coding...two years? I'm not kidding. I know guys who are worth 10s of millions of dollars who had two years of experience when we first started with them.

But for McKelvey, it’s less about the millions, and more about trying to support a young economic ecosystem. Midwestern tech startups are taking off. In St. Louis alone, just one entrepreneurial association called the ITEN network boasts 230 companies.

“We now have capital," said McKelvey, "We now have programmer groups. We now have dozens of startups. The whole ecosystem thrives when all these components work. The one thing that was missing was a way of creating quick talent. It’s the weakest point right now.”

The one thing that was missing was a way of creating quick talent. It’s the weakest point right now.

McKelvey knows about tech talent. In 2009, he co-founded mobile payments company, Square. The San Francisco-based company has $341 million in funding and now employs 200 people.

LaunchCode is McKelvey's four month old project that connects real companies with programmers and would-be programmers who don’t have the education or credentials to get through the front door.

"HR departments are designed to screen applicants," McKelvey said. "Typically they screen on a couple of things. They want to see a four year degree, they want to see two years of relevant experience, they want to see every single language.”

McKelvey says these policies are plain ridiculous. Putting the squeeze on the talent pool only makes sense in low-supply, high demand situations like marketing, law, or, say, radio.

LaunchCode candidates are often programmers who don't have traditional experience. But if they aren't programmers, but want to be, LaunchCode points them toward some free online resources like Harvard's CS-50. McKelvey says that just one four-month online class like this is enough to get started with LaunchCode.

Once selected, the candidate gets paired up with more senior programmers at companies like Mastercard, Scotttrade and Monsanto. There, the candidate learns on the job like an apprentice. They get paid while they learn and some have already turned the experience into a permanent position.

At Hackton I met Ted Doyle, a programmer who already signed up before the talk. Doyle interviewed with LaunchCode but couldn’t yet be placed. He told me he knows why.

“I came out of school with a PHD in computer science," said Doyle. "But the thing is, I haven’t programmed in any recent languages.”

A lot of newer software and web apps are built with programming languages that been invented in the past 10 or 15 years. Often times, the languages aren't taught in schools.

Doyle is educated and skilled, but without the new languages and the required two years of work experience, HR departments will toss his resume out in the first round.

McKelvey can get him past the two-year requirement, but Doyle will have to update his skills first. This, McKelvey says, is surmountable, and it's part of why he created LaunchCode:

“Others have walked this path," he said. "They're not superstars or geniuses or weirdos. They're just normal people who work hard. With LaunchCode as the on ramp, we can provide the easiest access to the best choice of careers. We're going to walk with you but you gotta take the first step.”

Currently, all LaunchCode placements are based in St Louis. And, like the rest of the tech industry, McKelvey has more jobs than candidates. He's currently looking for more applicants.

This program aired as part of Business Beat, KBIA's weekly look at business and economic issues in mid-Missouri.