Base Camp Coding Academy Director Sean Anthony and student Nicole Shelton go over the day's tasks. Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

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WATER VALLEY — This summer, thanks to a free coding academy in north Mississippi, a group of 11 high school graduates will be qualified to work in entry-level computer science and coding positions.

Kagan Coughlin, co-founder of the academy, said he and Glen Evans, president of mortgage software company FNC, Inc., were brainstorming about the next project they’d like to take on.

“We’ve seen a lot of young people in Water Valley in the 10 years we’ve been here who are amazing … and on the other side, Glen is running a company with a couple hundred technically minded people and it’s a challenge to find competent staff,” Coughlin recalled. “And if they’re not from Mississippi, it’s more of a challenge to keep them in Mississippi.”

And so began the idea for Base Camp Coding Academy, a place where local high school graduates could attend school for free, 40 hours a week, for an entire year and learn the skills necessary for an entry-level job as a developer. The cost value of the program is around $15,000, but the students don’t pay a dime.

Coughlin and Evans recruited several others from FNC Inc. and C Spire to start up the school, and soon they had raised $500,000 to start a 3-year pilot program.

“We’re putting the financials in reverse order, instead of students financing their own education and paying it back with earnings,” Coughlin explained. “Oftentimes the first employer spends a lot of money training them because education is broader than job requirements so first employers usually spend six months getting them (new hires) up to speed.”

The first step for developing a curriculum involved working directly with companies to find out what skills they looked for and what job candidates needed to be able to do.

“Our curriculum design process was we went and found 50 job postings … and the board read through all the posts to see what qualifications and skill sets were showing up,” Academy Director Sean Anthony described. “Then we synthesized all these down and talked to two potential future employers who all said … ‘If they can do this by the end of the year, if they could do this right now, I’d hire them on the spot.’ ”

Students are in class 40 hours a week, much like a regular full-time job. But the classes emphasize innovation and self-starting, in addition to group work.

“We’re preparing students to be full stack developers. A full stack of what it takes to make a website, what you see in the browser to the database on the back side of it,” Anthony said.

A typical day at the academy is similar to a work day. There’s a morning exercise waiting in the students’ inboxes, along with a list of tasks they need to accomplish.

“They’re learning how to manage time, how to budget working with other people to make sure a project gets done completely,” Anthony said.

Nicole Shelton is one of three females in the class.

Shelton worked with two other classmates to come up with a website called “Broke-n-Hungry.” The site features a graphic of a wheel of different fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Wendy’s with options from their menu. When you click on an item, the price and the nutritional table for the item is shown.

“I am a food fanatic, I love everything good. So we were trying to find projects to do and I was joking around about that and it’s (the idea) everybody chose,” she recalled.

Shelton enjoys working mostly on the back end of creating websites.

“I like doing back-end work instead of all the customization and design and stuff,” she said.

She also said she would tell other females interested in the field not to be intimidated.

“If you’re really passionate with it, the boys won’t bother you – you’ll just fit right in,” she said.

Fellow Base Camp student Martin Guzman logs over 100 miles a day driving to and from school, home and work. In the mornings, he drives from Oxford to Water Valley, then heads back to Oxford to change into work clothes and then on to his family’s restaurant in Holly Springs.

He said he knew nothing about coding before beginning the academy.

“I just figured it as people with glasses typing all day long,” he said. “I had no clue I was going to do this.”

But when a teacher at Oxford High School gave him information about the school, he became interested.

“Working with projects and making stuff come alive … it’s awesome. I also like going to different places and meeting all the people already in that type of business and learning from them and how they succeeded,” Guzman said, noting the class has visited Renasant Technology Center in Tupelo and went to Ole Miss’ Data Day event.

Coughlin says he hopes the program will expand or be duplicated in other parts of the state.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in Jackson, the Coast, and a huge amount of support from Northwest Community College who is helping this as a pilot for their own research,” Coughlin said. “It’s a very mobile education – we need laptops and a safe place, and the overhead is very low. I’m hoping it’s duplicated and that we will have the ability to scale up as well.”

To join next year’s academy, students must be recommended by a teacher or counselor at their school and then complete a series of interviews to be accepted into the program.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.