Nebraska Dev Lab Celebrates Completion of First Cohort and a Future of Growth for Software Development in the State
Jenny Nielsen gave her two weeks notice to her manager in Nelnet’s marketing department in January 2020. But she wasn’t leaving the company. Instead, she was one of two internal employees sponsored by Nelnet to complete the Nebraska Dev Lab’s Pipeline Program.
Now, Nielsen and her coworker Heather Honer are full-time software developers at the company, and two of the six participants who started in March 2020 — and graduated in January 2021 — as the Pipeline Program’s first cohort.
The program’s goal is to direct participants from having little to no experience in programming and development into high-quality entry-level software developers. Five of the six participants are working full-time in software development, with the sixth working as a software product manager, a related occupation in the IT field.
That’s 100% success in the first year of the program, even during a period filled with unprecedented challenges. And the Dev Lab discovered that the program can even be shortened by three months for future cohorts.
“We were able to shorten the program because we had an excellent group of participants who were very motivated and held themselves accountable to learn,” said Dr. Alec Engebretson, professor of information science and tech at Doane University. “They came out at the end as very good software developers.”
The three co-creators of the program — Engebretson, Doug Durham, CEO and co-founder of Don’t Panic Labs and Chad Michel, senior software architect at Don’t Panic Labs — are looking toward the start of the Dev Lab’s second cohort. From having six successful participants in the first cohort, they’re now aiming for 25 people to complete the nine-month program in 2022.
The Pipeline Program began around 2016, when Durham and Michel were asked to create a code school in Lincoln and realized they wanted to do something more than provide a quick overview of programming.
“I told them that if I were to develop an education program, it would have to be something that would produce a product that we would hire at Don’t Panic Labs,” Durham said. “So we thought, maybe there is an alternative way to bring people in for whom access to a four-year college program is not going to work for them now. Maybe they already have a job, maybe they have an aptitude but just didn’t get the opportunity, or it didn’t occur to them that this was an opportunity.”
Enter Engebretson and a partnership with Doane several years later, and the Dev Lab was off and running.
The program is structured in four segments, with the goal of having each participant able to jump in as an entry-level software developer after 28 weeks at the company sponsoring their participation. It combines two 10-week periods — first, learning in a classroom environment with Engebretson, then taking those basic skills and applying them to projects with Durham and Michel to build professional development. Then, eight more weeks spent putting learned skills to practice on a capstone project. For the last eight weeks of the program, each participant is working alongside a mentor as an apprentice on a development team at their sponsor organization.
“It was an opportunity to take all these really effective educational practices that are really difficult to do in a regular classroom over a semester. But since we had the participants for 40 hours a week for nine months, now, you can really do some special things educationally,” Engebretson said.
Nielsen said it’s daunting to try and teach yourself software development, and that the first segment of the program spent with Engebretson was a key reason for her success in completing it. He was able to provide a 3000-foot overview of software development, she said, that enabled participants to feel more comfortable diving into increasingly difficult aspects of the field.
“He is an amazing instructor — all were awesome,” Nielsen said of Engebretson, Durham and Michel. “He [Engebretson] made us feel so warm and welcome.”
The cohort had a little over a month of in-person instruction before COVID-19 arrived in Nebraska and went virtual during the first week of March. Surprisingly, while the pandemic did cause some disruption and learning inside a classroom would have been desirable by both the educators and participants — it was also an advantage to the program. Engebretson said they knew the pilot year of the program would bring a lot of learning opportunities, one of which was having to immediately format the program to be accessible with remote, online learning.
“The pandemic forcing us remote, I think that it may have helped us in that it was the first time through. We probably would have been a little less formal in our content structuring,” Michel said. “It forced us to structure things better and I think we’re seeing big dividends from that.”
Another unique piece of the program is that it provides an opportunity for students at all stages of life to pursue a new direction in their career. With the sponsorships, participants receive a paycheck that enables them to focus on learning rather than be faced with a choice to give up a full-time job or pay out of pocket for another program.
That was one part of the program that Nielsen appreciated. She came to Nebraska from Seattle and had known friends who became software developers through code schools, but underwent a lot of financial risk. With the Pipeline Program, she knew she had a stable income and a guaranteed job at Nelnet after finishing the program. She also did a lot of research to make sure software development was the right direction for her.
“The collaboration aspect and the problem solving [of software development], I had noticed these are key things I enjoy from other jobs,” Nielsen said, and has leaned on her project management skills learned from her time in marketing in staying on top of projects for herself and her team. “I also like learning languages and learning code is a lot like that.”
By sponsoring an existing employee in a different job, like in Nielsen’s case, companies can invest in their talent pool and retrain an employee into a career that offers job security and financial stability. The program is also a plus for smaller companies that want to grow into software development but can’t compete to hire someone with more experience. Companies and grants can also support a participant with untapped talent in the community who wasn’t able to choose software development earlier in life.
“This program doesn’t double down on the existing pipeline, it creates a new one,” Michel said.
This is important for two reasons — Nebraska has had a shortage of software developers for years and, overall, the field doesn’t have a lot of diversity. The program’s potential to supply more diverse software developers who can immediately be hired is one of the reasons Dev Lab received two worker training grants from the Nebraska Department of Labor to support the first cohort. In this second round, the Dev Lab will also be working closely with the Nebraska Tech Collaborative.
“There are plenty of studies out there that show that a more diverse team is better at problem solving. For those companies that are concerned about diversity, equity and inclusion — which should be everybody — this might be a way to address some of that,” said Durham.