This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When entrepreneur Jim McKelvey met software developer Chris Oliver a month ago, he was stunned to hear how many of Oliver’s talented friends in the field were out of work.
“My jaw hit the ground,” said McKelvey, a native St. Louisan and founder of Square, a mobile device payment system. “I’m on the opposite side of the equation. I know a bunch of companies that are trying to hire programmers and can’t find them.”
That realization was the genesis of Launch Code, a new initiative unveiled this afternoon at Washington Avenue’s Lab1500. A diverse group of entrepreneurial movers and shakers were on hand to see the birth of something McKelvey – along with co-founders Chris Sommers of Pi Pizzeria, Dan Lohman of Pushup Social and Oliver of Givver – hope will transform the startup scene by connecting programmers with the area companies who need them.
“When businesses are grown in St. Louis and are ready to go to market and create jobs, we want them to do that here and not somewhere else,” Mayor Francis Slay told the group. “We don’t want to just be a farm team for other cities across the country. Part of the reasons those companies are looking elsewhere is because we don’t have the necessary talent to keep them here in St. Louis in many cases. That’s what this effort is all about.”
The premise is simple enough. Launch Code has gathered 75 companies that are each offering single jobs at $15 an hour to beginning software developers who will then be paired with a more experienced programmer to work on projects. Participating enterprises in the effort are a diverse list that reads like a who’s who of St. Louis commerce, including newer startups like TrakBill, Tunespeak and Bonfyre as well as established names like MasterCard, Monsanto and Emerson.
Organizers will cap the initial round of the project at 100 companies with 100 applicants being placed in positions where they remain until the enterprise either hires or drops them. However, more developers are invited to come on board for Launch Code and McKelvey expects the program to expand rapidly with a pool of thousands of applicants possible for future rounds of the effort.
“Just on this line, I did a back of the envelope calculation,” he said pointing to the top row of corporate logos on the banner behind him. “There are over 2,000 jobs ready to be filled right now.”
McKelvey said that about 50 developer candidates had already signed up even before the program was officially announced. He hopes there will be many more.
Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, he said that literally every company Launch Code approached said yes.
“All the companies you see behind me are looking to grow,” he said. “We’re going to give them those resources and it changes the entire ecosystem.”
“When have you ever seen big firms act this quickly?” he added. “They are signing up because they recognize the value and they have the need. The jobs are there.”
The paired programming technique is one with which McKelvey is very familiar. Used commonly in Silicon Valley, it is also employed at Square. McKelvey admits it can be a bit counterintuitive for cost-conscious organizations to put multiple salaries on the same job, but it is ultimately rewarding on multiple levels.
“This pairing, although it seems very expensive because you have two people and only one output stream, is extremely effective in reducing errors and it makes for much better code,” he said.
But you also get on-the-job training and mentoring for nascent programmers without sacrificing productivity. In the case of Launch Code, each company may also identify new full-time employees, some of whom might otherwise go overlooked in a resume-driven world where the inexperienced often find breaking into the industry nearly impossible.
“There are a lot of barriers,” he said. “If you don’t have experience, most of the opportunities are eliminated immediately.”
McKelvey said he understands that the pay is underwhelming, particularly in a field where the median salary is $90,000 a year. But the modest rate is intentional.
“We chose $15 an hour because it is an incentive for the newbie to come up to speed very quickly,” he said. “We don’t want you staying in this job any longer than necessary and the company wants a full-time person who is up to speed.”
Still, he stresses that it is not an internship and no classes are provided.
“You are going to be paired with a professional, but you are going to be doing real work,” he said. “This is not a summer program or training program.”
McKelvey said the unique nature of the project means that these first participants will also serve as test cases to gather evidence of whether it is working.
“It’s still an experiment at this stage,” he said. “One hundred companies is enough to get good data and we have very good evidence that this works on a small scale, but this has never been attempted at this scale before. We’ve never seen another city or another region ever trying it.”
And McKelvey notes the issue being addressed is regionwide.
"Actually, it is worldwide,” he said. “There is a worldwide talent shortage so recruiting isn’t going to solve the problem. Just making St. Louis a more attractive place means we’re just stealing from everybody else and if we just train people in small batches, we’re going to get raided. We have to create a system that creates such a surplus of talent that the problem goes away all over the map.”
It’s in that vein that he has high hopes for the effort.
“If Launch Code takes the trajectory I think it will take, St. Louis will solve its IT talent shortage within a year,” he said. “Within two years, we’ll have a surplus.”
Interviewed after the presentation, Lohman, one of the project’s founders, said he thinks it is another way the city can boost its image as a center of innovation.
“Ultimately, I think it is a stepping stone,” he said. “St. Louis has tremendous momentum and a great trajectory for not only startups but a lot of the more established businesses. Ultimately, if St. Louis can be a tech hub and an innovator with respect to technology and development, we’re going to bring in more developers from outside of St. Louis and companies can grow and thrive.”
Trip Goodloe is COO of Girls Ask Guys.com, a locally based website for relationship and dating advice, which is one of the first-round companies to offer a position. He said he’s happy his organization is participating.
“It was an opportunity to help advance St. Louis from a development vantage point and also it is a great opportunity to find phenomenal talent in the St. Louis area,” said Goodloe whose enterprise employs about 10 people in St. Louis. “We’re very excited to be in the inaugural class and looking forward to bringing on the new team member.”
Dan Reus of Openly Disruptive, a local innovation and education group, said he feels the environment is ripe for the initiative.
“We run into so many people where, right now, there’s not a way for talent to match with opportunity,” he said. “For startups and large enterprises, we need something that will break through that log jam.”
Jim Brasunas of ITEN, Innovate St. Louis’s tech accelerator, said the experimental nature of the idea means it could succeed or fail but there really is no downside to making the attempt.
“It’s a very creative way of addressing a problem that we’re all aware of,” he said. “At ITEN, we’re all-in trying to make this happen.”
Ken Harrington, head of the Skandalaris Center at Washington University, said he thinks Launch Code will help to connect people in town with the jobs they need.
“It’s a fantastic idea because so many people who need to meet each other are going to meet each other just because of the dynamics of the process,” he said.
Launch Code is set to hold its next event Sept. 23 when organizers expect to have placed their first 100 employees.