Students at Geekwise Academy listen to their lesson for the evening at Bitwise Industries. Geekwise has grown significantly and is scrambling to meet the employment needs in the Valley’s tech industry. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz.
To say that Mark King has had a diverse professional life is putting it lightly.
At age 58, he’s had his own landscaping business, worked in IT, worked in the archaeology field and is currently enrolled at Geekwise Academy in Downtown Fresno, where he’s learning the programming end of computers — an area of the tech field that he says can afford him a better level of creative freedom than he had in IT.
“It’s as creative as you can get on the technical side,” King said. “You know, I really didn’t think I was going to be changing careers at my age anyway, but it turns out that I am and this is going to be the last one.”
With the tech industry beginning to blossom in the Valley, there’s been a rush to fill positions for programmers and other software/hardware professionals, and King is just one of many Valley residents to move towards learning more about the computer science field as these opportunities present themselves. It’s also been a boon for learning institutions like Fresno City College and Fresno State, where instructors are more than happy to supply the growing demand.
Geekwise Academy has become one of the leading providers of computer education in the Central Valley — and one of the fastest growing. Taught at Bitwise Industries and at the Hive in Downtown Fresno, Geekwise teaches students coding and software programming, with classes for beginners and intermediates up to experts.
In fact, Geekwise is the largest vocational educator of computer science in the entire U.S., according to Jake Soberal, Bitwise co-CEO.
According to Bethany Mily, president at Geekwise, the organization is looking to start ten new cohorts by the end of the year, and have started specialized groups to bring in and bring together underrepresented populations in the tech community. The leaders at Geekwise hope that by bringing these groups together to support each other, there may be an increased representation of these groups within the industry. Such groups that Geekwise Academy hopes to bring in include women, the formerly incarcerated, veterans, the LGBTQ community, people of color and single mothers.
Other inroads have been made by Geekwise in partnerships with public schools, giving primary school children the ability to train as soon as possible in the hopes of cultivating an interest.
Mily further explained that with the growth of the local tech industry, companies will need all the talent they can find — lest they should pull up stakes and search elsewhere.
“It’s happened in Fresno a number of times in our past,” Mily said. “Technology companies have started to grow in Fresno, but once they found they couldn’t find the talent to continue the growth of the company, they’ve had to move to other areas.”
Now, however, that pattern appears not only to be broken, but is being reversed.
“I think we’re now finding that not only are companies staying because they’re able to find the talent they need, but companies are relocating from other regions,” Mily said.
At a recent event hosted by The Business Journal, tech entrepreneur Jamin Brazil relayed a story about his former market research company, Decipher, needing to hire around 60 new programmers in the Fresno area. He partnered with Fresno State to create a class at the university. At the end of it, students were able to land jobs. And he found the people he needed.
Meanwhile, others to come through Geekwise’s cohorts aren’t just working for tech companies, but are going into business for themselves. Ordrslip, for example, was launched in 2017 as a software-as-a-service app and has been used in restaurants across Fresno and as far as the East Coast.
Between the Tower District and Fresno City College, Root Access Hackerspace has also been helping aspiring tech workers find their footing. Andrew Runner, president of Root Access, said one of the biggest contributions made by the coworking space has been to help guide these people through the “tyranny of choice” that prevails the industry.
“Say, for example, if you said to someone, ‘I want to get into art.’ There are so many different ways to get that accomplished,” Runner said. “Are you going to digital art? Are you going to be a sculptor? A painter? Or are you going to be a glassblower? It’s the same way with technology.”
Runner elaborated that while Geekwise tends to focus more on coding and the software end of the computer, Root Access puts emphasis on the inner workings and the hardware. They also provide members with such equipment as 3D printing and laser cutting.
Runner says they are now cultivating a groundswell in the hopes of having classes on hardware, further expanding the options for aspiring tech employees in the Central Valley.