By Peter Haapaniemi
Five years ago, Damien Rocchi saw an opportunity in Detroit. On the one hand, a number of people were looking for jobs. On the other, companies had a growing need for skilled information technology workers. Venture-capital firm Detroit Venture Partners saw the same opportunity — and, working together, the firm and Rocchi launched a technical-training institute, Grand Circus, in 2013.
“From the beginning, the goal was to bridge the gap between people who are looking for work or to change careers, and employers who are desperate for tech talent,” says Rocchi, CEO of Grand Circus. With that formula, the company has grown, and has been able to round out its venture funding with revenue-based programs.
Of course, Grand Circus has not completely eliminated that gap, but it has had a real impact. More than half of its graduates who look for jobs find one within a month, and 92 percent have full-time employment within three months with a median salary of about $50,000. Those statistics point to the business world’s exploding need for technical talent — and to the opportunity the tech sector holds for entrepreneurs in Detroit and across the state.
The Bootcamp Approach
New organizations typically face a learning curve, and Grand Circus’ success did not happen right out of the gate. Early on, the institute began providing training to the IT teams of corporate clients, but saw only modest results.
“We realized that companies were not really interested in having us train them. What they wanted us to do was provide them with talent,” says Celena Mancina, director of operations at Grand Circus. “That kind of flipped the light switch for us and brought us to our current model, the Coding Bootcamp.”
As the name implies, Grand Circus Coding Bootcamps focus on teaching people to write computer code through a 10-week, hands-on learning experience. At the end of a bootcamp, students are ready to go to work for corporate employers.
“We wanted to find a way to teach differently,” says Rocchi. “Traditional learning institutions often have lecture-based courses, but in our experience, that doesn’t work. If you want to engage people and get the best learning outcomes, classes have to be more interactive.”
Grand Circus’ approach also features a focus on diversity, “a hugely important theme in tech today,” says Rocchi. Indeed, the institute has a high percentage of women and people of color in its programs, compared to tech training programs across the country.
“We pride ourselves on keeping those percentages really high,” says Mancina. “But we also realize there is more we could be doing.” Overall, she points out, “women make up about 57 percent of the U.S. workforce, but they fill just 25 percent of tech roles.” In the effort to do more, Grand Circus created a “DEVELOP(her)” bootcamp last year that specifically targets women students.
The Development of DEVELOP(her)
Like other Grand Circus bootcamps, DEVELOP(her) offers 10 weeks of intensive training designed to prepare students for the real world, with learning that covers more than technical skills alone. The institute wants to “align itself with employers’ needs,” says Rocchi, and companies have made it clear that they are not always getting all they want from the more-traditional schools.
“We’d often hear from CEOs that they wish the students they were seeing had better soft skills. The ability to communicate, to work in teams — that sort of thing.”
Grand Circus bootcamps cover those soft skills and, at the same time, offer sessions focusing on getting jobs: writing resumes, creating LinkedIn profiles, going through mock employer interviews and so forth. In addition, Grand Circus wanted the DEVELOP(her) program to be offered at no cost to students. It was able to do so with funding from the Hagerman Foundation in Flint, Mich., and the TEKSystems IT staffing firm in Southfield, Mich.
The 2016 DEVELOP(her) bootcamp enrolled 20 women from Detroit and Flint. Nineteen of those graduated and 17 are working as full-time developers today.
“That first DEVELOP(her) program was hugely successful,” says Rocchi. Not only did those women find good jobs, he says, but also “the fact that we developed a program that addresses the lack of representation of women has had a great reception in the tech community.”
Mancina says the Grand Circus team was also pleasantly surprised by the level of enthusiasm that women had for the program.
“There are so many women who are interested in transitioning into a career in technology that we actually ended up routing a lot of them into our other regular full-time programs,” she says.
And based on that interest, Grand Circus is offering the DEVELOP(her) bootcamp again this summer, expanding it to include 45 students. The program is adding Michigan locations in Lansing and Grand Rapids, which will offer standalone bootcamps for the students. Women in the Detroit program will be offered scholarships and will be added to the general bootcamps. All the women in DEVELOP(her) will once again be able to attend free of charge.
Help wanted: the need continues
Looking ahead, the demand for coding professionals is not likely to abate. According to Rocchi, projections indicate that by 2020, there will be 1 million tech jobs in the U.S. that can’t be filled by existing computer-science educational programs.
“So there is a shortage today, and it’s really growing all the time,” he says.
In Michigan, Rocchi expects the auto industry to be a key driver of demand.
“We’re seeing the Big Three reposition themselves as mobility companies built on technology,” he says. “I think that technology is going to find a much larger role in the [state’s] economy as a result of that.” He adds that the auto industry’s shift to mobility is also likely to generate more startup activity in the area, as it provides a focal point for entrepreneurs and their innovations.
The type of skilled IT workers being turned out in Grand Circus’ programs will be an important enabler of that scenario — and to the potentially broad impact that tech can have in Michigan.
“There’s a multiplier effect with tech jobs,” says Rocchi. “For every tech job that gets created, there are another five jobs that get created outside of information technology. That shows the opportunity that tech has for Detroit and the state.”
Grand Circus: Learning and Connecting
The Grand Circus IT training institute was established on “three pillars: events, co-working and education,” says Celena Mancina, the organization’s director of operations. For example, Grand Circus hosts a number of tech-related community events, including some held by the well-known Techstars business accelerator and Google. In addition, its co-working space now houses nearly two dozen companies. Grand Circus is one of just nine organizations in North America to be named a tech hub in the “Google for Entrepreneurs” network, which provides hubs with technical content, business tools and infrastructure upgrades.
In terms of education, Grand Circus launched its bootcamp programs in 2014 with a handful of courses. Students were sponsored in part through third-party funding from the City of Detroit and the Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, the city’s workforce agency. The program has been growing ever since, becoming popular enough to allow Grand Circus to transition to tuition-based programs in 2015. Last year, it ran 12 bootcamps and graduated 250 students.
Grand Circus rounds out its educational offerings with workshops designed for working IT professionals who want to enhance their skills. It has also pioneered the use of apprenticeships in tech education, offering programs in which students go through six weeks of training at Grand Circus, then work for a company for a year of on-the-job learning. Then, says Mancina, “if all goes according to plan, they can come out of the program as a full-time salaried employee of that company.”