Washington state’s tech sector is adding roughly 3,500 new jobs each year that require a computer science degree — but the state only graduates 500 students annually with those skills and education, according to the Washington Technology Industry Association.
This month, North Seattle College is taking a small step toward helping meet that demand with its first graduating class to earn a Bachelor of Applied Science in Application Development.
“One of the main goals for the program is to really make students employable and build a pipeline of software engineers who are ready for the job,” said Tobi Gierk, a member of the Technical Advisory Board that’s helping shape the program, who also works as a software development manager at Amazon.
The bachelor’s degree is intended to be more hands-on and job oriented, with less focus on computer science theory than would be found in a traditional university program.
North Seattle College’s two-year program targets three main areas: web applications, mobile applications and cloud computing. Students complete a practicum in each, working in teams in partnership with local companies and nonprofit groups to solve actual software problems. The students also do internships or an intensive project in their second year, and their instruction includes training in how to do technical interviews and provides networking opportunities.
“That was a big selling point,” said Ian Peters, one of this spring’s 13 inaugural graduates. The program “gets you involved in the industry and in the things that matter in a way that builds your resume. When you graduate, you have the skills and experience you need to get started.”
Peters, whose background was in journalism, landed an internship last summer at Expedia, which he has now turned into a full-time job as a software engineer.
When Peters came to North Seattle College, which is one of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, he was partway to completing a bachelor’s degree that he had started in Colorado some years back. He started out taking some basic computer classes at the college, briefly transferred to the University of Washington intending to study computer science, but returned to North Seattle when it launched its bachelor’s program in 2014.
Peters thought the college program was superior to the UW option given his employment goals, and it was more affordable. For the 2016-17 school year, one quarter of full-time, undergraduate, in-state tuition (including required fees) is $3,866 at the UW. Comparable tuition for the North Seattle program is $2,394 — and the price is dropping in the fall to $2,009. Peters said that he also considered some of the area’s boot-camp programs, which are much shorter, intensive and expensive, but he felt they were a better match for someone seeking very specific skills.
Other state-run colleges in the Seattle region that offer their own Bachelor of Applied Science programs in computer technology-related fields include Bellevue, Green River, Highline, Olympic, Renton and Seattle Central.
All of the programs are relatively new, and their tech focuses vary. In 2005, the state Legislature created the applied baccalaureate program, which also includes degrees in health care, nursing and teaching. In 2010, the degree program shifted from being a pilot project to a regular offering.
“They were designed to help meet the demand of the workforce,” said Michelle Melero, program manager for North Seattle’s application development program.
North Seattle’s tech program is small; in addition to the 13 students finishing this month, 24 are continuing and a new class will start in the fall. The max enrollment is 30 students per cohort, but the college has the option to keep adding more cohorts as demand grows.
The program is a hybrid of onsite classes, online learning and outside projects. The average age of the current students is 31. Most are people who already have a bachelor’s or master’s degree and are changing careers, or they currently work in technology but haven’t earned a bachelor’s and need to check that box to have access to additional career opportunities; a smaller fraction of students are both new to the field and lack a degree.
“We just want to see students who are dedicated and committed (to learning the subject),” said Melero, “not just because they know there are jobs out there and want to get paid a lot.”
Ksenia Ivantsova is another student graduating this month, and has been working as a software engineer intern at Virtuoso, an online travel service. She began the college program with a degree in accounting earned in her native Russia. She immigrated to the U.S. in 2011.
“My goal is to be a software architect and I would like to maybe get a master’s degree in systems engineering,” Ivantsova said. Before pursuing another degree, she’s planning on working and expects to be able to pay off her student loan in her first year of employment.
“We have a very good market in a very good city, so I’m going to look and see,” Ivantsova said.
Gierk, who serves on the advisory board, expects that some graduates will be able to go to tech giants including Amazon or Microsoft, but others will find positions doing tech work for companies not specifically focused on software.
“These jobs are still super high paid compared to other positions,” he said.
Like Gierk, many of the instructors at North Seattle are professionals currently working in the field, but who make time to teach the evening classes.
Steve Balo, the internship coordinator for the program, said it hasn’t been difficult recruiting experts to teach the courses. They feel like “here’s a way I can give back,” said Balo, who worked at Adobe for 13 years, most recently in the position of engineering manager.
“The instruction has been incredibly personal and challenging,” said Peters, who also acknowledges that program has some limitations. He wouldn’t recommend it for people interested in working in operating systems, and the program “has its growing pains trying to figure out what the classes look like.”
That said, if someone is “interested in hitting the ground running and help finding work,” said Peters, “this is a great place to go.”