James Pfeifer successfully transitioned into a coding career at age 39. After earning an Associate of Science and volunteering in his new career field, he landed a job as a junior software engineer.
His timing was good.
At a time when many are suffering angst over spiraling rents and higher prices at the gas tank and grocery store, Pfeifer is content.
“I’m happy with what I’m doing,” he explains. “Money isn’t an issue for me right now. That in itself is a pretty good feeling.”
Pfeifer, who lives with his wife Kristin and four children in Oldsmar, didn’t always have it so good. When he sold car parts, he earned salary and commission. In the best of times, that was $15,000 less a year than he started at in coding.
The transition, however, didn’t happen overnight.
Always technically minded, Pfeifer’s journey began with the motivation to write a Google Drive client to use with his Linux operating system. Then it took him four years to earn his degree; some credits didn’t transfer to St. Petersburg College when his schooling was interrupted by the family’s move from New Jersey to Florida. Then there was COVID-19, when he became a stay-at-home dad because it just wasn’t cost-effective to work and pay for the children’s childcare.
The final leg of his journey was volunteering at Code for Tampa Bay, where he gained the confidence and experience he needed to make his final leap into coding.
“It can feel very overwhelming once you start getting into it,” he acknowledges. “It really isn’t so bad.”
Higher pay scales and flexible working conditions have been a draw to the career field. And coding camps have proliferated, offering to expand your coding skills or train newbies without a college degree, or without one in computer programming.
These coding careers go by a variety of names. Popular ones are software developers. Front-end developers. App developers and full-stack developers.
Indeed.com lists 12 of them, ranging in pay from some $53,000 for a computer systems engineer to more than $108,000 for a full-stack developer.
Whatever its name, the career has been somewhat intimidating to some people who didn’t learn it as children. That has helped give rise to a number of training alternatives for those who want to transition into the field for higher pay or job flexibility or expand their skill set or beef up their skills.
“Arbitrary barriers” have been keeping “really smart people” from getting into the tech industry,” asserts Chris Morancie, a co-founder, the CEO and chief product officer of LT3 Academy, which offers pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships in coding.
“There seems to be a high level of mysticism that actually surrounds tech careers,” he explains.
In reality, getting into coding is doable – even for those who didn’t learn it as children.
“You can work your way into this. You can learn your way into this,” Morancie asserts. “People can do this stuff.”
Learning coding through pre-apprenticeships
LT3 Academy was born out of a need Morancie couldn’t fulfill.
Before the COVID breakout in 2020, he was looking to hire mid-level to senior developers for the Digital Operations Factory, a subscription service for companies seeking digital transformation (automation).
Only one out of 100 passed the interview stage; about 90 percent of the applicants were from outside of the country.
“We couldn’t find people in the United States who could actually meet the qualifications,” he points out. “The talent is not there.”
So he recruited top students from the University of South Florida and St. Leo University, then trained them to fill the jobs.
“It is the job of employers nowadays to up-skill employees,” says Morancie. “However, employers do not have the infrastructure or time to be able to do that.”
Now LT3 Academy has stepped in to fill the void for other companies.
Based at Rithm at Tampa’s Uptown, LT3 Academy and its lab offer coding training in-person and online to folks from across the state.
The cost? Technically $13,000, but scholarships and financial aid are available to those who qualify. This has made the program free for its initial participants, whose costs have been paid by the program’s national partners.
“Our mission really is to drive equal access and equal opportunity in the tech careers. That’s a really big deal for us,” he explains.
LT3 Academy, which stands for Learning Tomorrow’s Technology Today, also offers a path program for high school students in addition to pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships
One of the things that makes the program different is that it is registered by either the Florida Department of Education or the Department of Labor.
LT3 Academy is working with CareerSource Tampa Bay and other workforce development organizations. Participants are paid $15 an hour for 21 hours a week during the 24-week program in pre-apprenticeship. The apprenticeship program pays more based on an individual’s career industry.
Who’s a good fit? High school students who either can’t afford college or decide that college is not for them. Or people who have jobs but are looking for careers; transitioners bring added value to employers.
The basic requirements are minimal: You must speak or write enough English to complete the course. GEDs are acceptable.
Since participants are actually employed, they must be able to pass a background check; they should not have a history of violent crime, fraud or financial crime.
What does Morancie recommend as the ideal career path? A six-month, pre-apprenticeship program, then a well-paying job for six months to a year. After that job, which could pay some $55,000-$60,000 a year, he suggests going back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree. The student should continue to work while attending college.
Ultimately, Morancie is a firm believer in apprenticeships because he knows firsthand they work. His dad Stafford participated in one as a teen on the Caribbean island of Dominica and became a successful businessman.
“I am passionate about this model. I would not be doing LT3 Academy if the government had not put a huge drive behind apprenticeships,” he explains. “Apprenticeships work. I’ve seen it.”
Getting a jump on coding at Florida Polytechnic
Lakeland’s Florida Polytechnic University offers the country’s first coding certificate program for freshmen. Through its Data Science and Business Analytics Department, the Coding for Data Analytics certificate gives students marketable skills for the private and public sectors.
“Students gain an understanding and experience in coding and programming necessary for big data analysis, strategy, and innovative solutions to an ever-changing landscape,” says Dr. Ben Matthew Corpus, the university’s vice provost of admissions and financial aid. “All courses, which currently include topics such as Python, SQL, databases and cloud, are credit-bearing and applicable toward the Data Science bachelor’s degree — and many are also applicable to other Florida Poly bachelor’s degrees.”
Dr. Corpus believes expensive coding boot camps and “strictly online instruction” often fall short as stand-alone training. Students are expected to have more depth which comes from focused training in software engineering, computer science, intelligent mobility, control systems, machine intelligence or embedded systems.
“A coding certificate provides the tools and certification that enhances their degree and marketability in each and all of those areas, giving students more flexibility and more options as they graduate with the bachelor’s of science degree,” he explains.
The 18-credit program also helps prepare students for internships required before graduation. While the program is currently available only to admitted freshmen, there has been discussion on campus about expanding it to include others.
“Industry relevant, stackable micro-credentials are very real in the this economy and in demand by students,” he says.
Cutting-edge foundational skills are increasingly in demand for job applicants.
“Increasingly internships, as well as jobs, are now requiring, more than preferring, an adept proficiency in coding and big data,” he adds.
Expanding coding skills through Code for Tampa Bay
People like Pfeifer are finding they can learn and give back at the same time through Code for Tampa Bay, working as part of a team helping non-profits or government. The process, at times, has been remote.
“Where people really learn is where they keep coming back. They stay with the brigade [a chapter of Code for America] for a period of time,” explains Rick Myers, co-brigade captain with Frank Perez. “They can experiment and try things in a non-threatening environment. Everybody is there learning something.”
The group helps non-profits who need to upgrade websites from the 1980s, for example.
That makes for good job training, even in coding-related careers such as project manager, business analyst (who confers with organizations about their website goals), user interface/user experience (UI/UX) design and wireframing (or laying out the website), and tester (who makes sure the website functions as it should).
The projects are usually short and can be done on a weekend or during the week. Volunteers can connect through Meetup.
“Your job depends on your skillset,” Myers explains. “You can watch over someone’s shoulders. There’s no requirement for you to sit down and code. You can observe. You can learn from what everybody else is doing on the team.”
There’s no shortage of work to do.
“I can get a demand from the nonprofits,” he says. “It’s the supply that we need to build up.”
He can use mentors to train those coming out of school with basic skills but no real-world experience. Or folks who have completed boot camps. But even the self-taught can contribute.
“It doesn’t matter the skillset you have. As long as you have a willingness to bring something to the table,” he says.
All of the organization’s services are free for non-profits.
Coding camps help people expand their skills
Here are some other programs that may be of interest.
Girls Who Code offers free Code at Home activities for students, educators and parents. Some of these are available online at its website.
Iron Hack This Miami-based coding boot camp has opened in Tampa, offering nine-week full-time and 24-week part-time training in web development, UX/UI design, and data analytics. Iron Hack’s Hybrid Campus provides in-person collaboration and remote-live classes online. A global tech training provider, it has career coaches, more than 600 hiring partners worldwide, and scholarship opportunities.
Nucamp offers a comprehensive program students can enroll in while working. The courses are among the more affordable, with live online boot camps offered in the Tampa Bay area on a part-time/weekend basis. Camps are offered for beginners and more advanced students including Web Development Fundamentals, Back End, SQL, and DevOps with Python; Front End Web + Mobile Development; and Full Stack Web + Mobile Development.
Children have other options. The Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library has a video playlistavailable.