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Is coding is the new Mandarin?

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Milo Winningham, a software developer for Treehouse, has been doing computer programming since he was six years old.There is much talk of the shortage of skilled workers, such as ironworkers, carpenters, machine operators. We are always being told there are good living wage jobs going begging as the Boomers retire and construction and manufacturing boom.

But what it you don’t want to get your hands dirty? Coding seems to be the answer.

In late June, Code Oregon launched. It is a partnership between Treehouse, an online learning company, and Worksystems Inc., the region’s Workforce Investment Board.

Through Code Oregon up to 10,000 Oregon residents, 18 years and older, will have free access to online training accounts available through Treehouse.

Treehouse offers courses in coding languages such as Android, HTML, CSS, Apple’s iOS, WordPress, PHP, Python, JavaScript, Ruby, and others. The free training is made possible through funding from Worksystems Inc. and the State of Oregon.

Treehouse users make their own hours. They log on, follow tutorials and write computer code right on their own screens. The regular cost is $25 for the basics, or for $49 a month, access beyond forums to lectures. The company was already doing the same thing in Kentucky, called Code Louisville, before Oregon discovered it.

Treehouse will also provide data on the best students — what they learned, how much and how quickly — and with Worksystems, offer career services, mentoring, and additional training to be vetted as job-ready.

“The requirements are basic,” says Treehouse co-founder and CEO Ryan Carson. “You have to live in Oregon and have at least average intelligence. It’s mostly about creativity not intelligence. It’s about solving problems.”

For Carson, it’s urgent.

“In the future economy of innovation, millions of jobs will depend on people being able to code, “ he says. “But there’s only one science teacher teaching code in all of Portland Public Schools. It’s as if there’s a total denial.”

The launch for the project was held at Treehouse’s warehouse style office at 2712 N Mississippi Ave, near Widmer Brewing. The look is conventional startup — ping pong, standing desks, video studio — but Treehouse goes a little farther. The company has four day work week and a flat, “no-manager” structure. Staff pitch for projects they are interested in and manage themselves.

Milo Winningham, 29, a Treehouse developer since January, was still writing code at his desk as the guests flooded in. He was using the Ruby coding language to search through the Treehouse database to find the most qualified students in certain skills and match them up with employers.

The screen showed strings of characters and truncated words, including words such as “def.”

“Def is the keyword used to ‘define’ a method, to define a piece of code that does something to the class that it’s contained in,” he explained.

Winningham started programming in Basic at age six and earned his degree in Computer Science from the Maharishi University Of Management in Iowa.

For his work, he needs coffee and the company-provided headphones. Staff avoid email. They created HipChat, an internal chat room for communicating asynchronously.

“The only reason Treehouse exists is to get people a job,” says the CEO Carson.

“We have students from age 8 to 74, but the key market is people in their 20s to 40s. Our basic promise is to take you from zero experience to job ready in 12 months,” says Carson. “With no experience and no degree you can start out earning $45,000 a year as a web designer or developer, and quickly ratchet that up to $80-$95,000. “

Carson is skeptical of university degrees in programming languages.

“I did a Computer Science degree. My parents paid $60,000 for my degree and it was worthless in two years.” He advocates constantly learning online and accepting that skills go out of date every two years.

“We see either people wanting to make an app and be the next Instagram, or others responding to the fact that there are thousands of companies clamoring to pay you to make an app. It’s extremely lucrative and creative, and demand will only increase. There’s going to be software everywhere you look, in the future.”

Carson recommends beginners start with Ruby, Python, or PHP. On the mobile side they need Java or Swift, an object-oriented language he says is easy to learn.

“If you have graduated from high school you can learn. It’s a trade, and the exciting thing is, it’s a trade that’s going to get bigger and bigger. It takes dedication and hard work, but it doesn’t require a high IQ.”

He recalls an email from an electrician who lost his job in the Great Recession and was terrified of not being able to put food on the table for his three-year-old son.

“He told me ‘I wandered across Treehouse on the web, and it changed my life. Now I can get paid and feed my child.’”

Treehouse uses badge development: Courses are organized in tracks and you measure proficiency by the number of badges a student has earned. Students can show off things they have built on GitHub in front of a huge audience of peers.

“At the recent New York Times tech conference, I heard someone who hires for Google say 19 per cent of the people they see don’t have college degrees, but they are competing against the MITs,” says Lanie Block Wilker of Treehouse. She likened it to learning by playing a video game.

“To get into nursing you have to take organic chemistry and anatomy. Here you can just get on with it in your own time, in your own home. It’s a digital New Deal, this is how we can go back to work.”

Carson, of Treehouse, had a different analogy.

“It’s almost like writing a story, you have this big idea and you break it down into chapters and sentences. It’s actually very like writing a movie script, there’s a structure and formatting,” he said.

There are other places to learn to code in Portland. Portland Code School was founded by Chris Kelly, specializing in Javascript and Node.

The school offers immersion classes at 40 hours a week, or evening classes. The school partners with Vitamin P and Core Source, helping students find jobs by conducting mock interviews. This is where a jobseeker has to prove their knowledge by solving a problem in abbreviated code on a traditional white board.

What a 20-year-old needs to succeed in coding is the ability to focus for long periods of sitting and solving problems. He says people who can play advanced board games and video games for long periods, such as Civilization or Magic the Gathering, often have the skill and the temperament.

“It’s a specific kind of skill a lot of teenagers possess. The language is specific, the strategy is specific, it’s forward thinking.”

He stresses that beyond knowing how to code, students need to learn professionalism, and most of all, the number one in-demand trait: being a good team player.

“You need to show the interviewer you will be a nice person to work with and not a total s—-head.”

At the Portland Code School, Kelly says, “We’re heavily into Java. We use Mocha and Jasmine. Node Javascript is an up-and-coming framework. Netflix, PayPal and WalmartLabs have all recently switched to Node.”

Skip Newberry, president of the Technology Association of Oregon, likes the program.

“It gets more and more people exposed to what it’s like to work in any tech career. This way they can break off small chunks, and in six to eight months they’re ready to hit the ground running.” A former lawyer, Newberry was used to just-in-time training, so found a text book online and figured it out by himself.

“It was a short term deliverable and it needed to get done.”

CORRECTION: The figure 90% was amended to 19%.