In an age increasingly expanding its reliance on technology in business, science, education, and defense, the significance of a technologically skilled workforce has never been more important.

While many states have made great strides in the tech sector, the Mississippi economy is in need of more tech expertise. Whether this expertise is utilized in the state’s more traditional industries, such as manufacturing and agriculture, or used to launch innovative new startups, tech skills are essential. 

I recently visited with Mike Forster, chairman of the nonprofit Mississippi Coding Academies, based in Jackson and Starkville. It was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the work being done there to develop a skilled workforce in Mississippi.

Matthew: What is the main purpose of the Mississippi Coding Academies?

“Mississippi has done a great job in the past attracting manufacturing industries to our state. But the future of this state and of this nation … in fact, the hub of the world economy, is the digital economy. Everything that we touch every day, from literally our refrigerators and televisions to our smartphones, requires software development. Coding is what puts life in all of these electronic devices. 

“So we, the founders of the Mississippi Coding Academies, perceived that there was a need in Mississippi to directly address the underserved population of our state who don’t have some of the advantages others might: others who can go to four-year colleges and make an investment in computer science as a choice of degree and therefore prepare themselves for futures in this industry. The interesting thing is that the four-year colleges in Mississippi produce about 250 to 300 computer science graduates a year, and half of them leave the state. We’ve got about a thousand openings right now in the state for people with the kinds of skills that Mississippi Coding Academies produce. Some of those jobs are for more experienced people, of course, but the message is still the same.

“There is a big gap between what we have in terms of local production of people who have the ability to develop software for electronic devices and for new services. There’s a huge gap in the state between what is needed and what we’re producing. The community colleges play an important role here. I don’t want to overlook them, but we are unique in that we are really a high tech vo-tech operation. We focus on folks who are high school graduates, who typically have no ability for whatever reason, socioeconomic or whatever, to go to college, even to a community college, or, perhaps, they just are people in transition. Perhaps they’re veterans who’ve served this country, and now they’re looking for a way to build some new skills.

“And so what we do is take our students – and we don’t prepare them for jobs – we prepare them for careers. This is a 20-year or 30-year career opportunity. Now they’re going to have to continue to develop, change and grow, but they’ve got all the fundamentals when they leave us to be able to have a long-term career in this economy.”

Matthew: Can you tell us a little bit about the significance of encouraging people with different career contexts to learn code?

“I spent 54 years in the technology world, and I ran worldwide operations for billion-dollar companies and was CEO of two “bleeding edge” software companies. One of the things I learned over the course of all that time is you cannot predict who has the skills to be a good software developer. There is a creative component, as well as an analytical component, to this job. And the most capable and creative developers that ever worked for me had other skills, but they also had a certain level of analytical ability and they could tie those two things together. You just don’t know who has those skills. They are innate in many, many people who don’t even realize they have it. Our coders are layering these new skills onto existing skills and going forward. … Part of what we do is conduct a little bootcamp, and we let them learn more about what it is we are expecting from them. They invest a year of their lives in developing these skills. When they get through, they are ready to go to work. They have been in a workplace environment. It is as if they had just spent a year in a training program with a local employer, except that they’ve been in this simulated workplace in the coding academy.”

Matthew: How do you work with potential future employers?

“One of the unique things that is a very important part of our program is that we build partnerships with employers. They make sure our curriculum is up to date, they evaluate our students. They help us select our students. They come in multiple times a year. Some of them are guest lecturers, but they all bring the practical, ‘Here’s what it takes to be successful in business,’ type thinking into the Coding Academy. These employers and these supporters add tremendously to what it is we’re doing because they put us in a real-world type environment.

“Neither Jackson nor our GTR Academy [in Starkville/Columbus] are lecture halls, they are a workspace. Now we’ll use whiteboards and screens to teach a new concept, or to get a new concept going, but what we do is basically introduce a concept and put people to work. They learn by doing. They work together. They learn to work together in small teams. And one of the things that this employer relationship provides is to keep us on our toes. It keeps us current. This industry reinvents itself about every two years: there’s some new development in technology that didn’t exist two years before. Because we can be light on our feet, we can operate a little bit more independently than educational institutions. We can adapt quickly to what’s going on, and that’s critical in preparing our students for the workforce with future employers.”

Matthew: How are the Coding Academies facilitating the further development of Mississippi’s largest current industries, as well as new industries?

“There is no industry today that does not need technology. You can take an industry as traditional as steel, or the energy sector, or Mississippi’s tire plants. These manufacturers have enormous amounts of data. Our graduates can help industries that are more traditional. Manufacturers need significant amounts of tech expertise too, to be able to harvest and to use all the data they’re collecting. They all need technology. Of course, tech startups need coding too, as does everything associated with the digital economy.

“The net of it is that there’s no industry that doesn’t need traditional IT support, help desk support, data, mining, cyber security and reporting capabilities, as well as application development for new capabilities and functionality on the shop floor. All those kinds of things are needed and are essential. Our graduates are able to fill those types of jobs.”

Matthew: Why is Mississippi a good place for tech innovation?

“Some of Mississippi’s advantages are that we’ve got a low cost of living and our students have a strong work ethic. And many of them have the skills to become 21st century economy contributors. Our public schools need to do more to inject coding into their junior and senior high programs. As they do, we will have more and more students ‘self-select’ themselves to be candidates for the coding academies, or to pursue a traditional computer science degree.  We need to expand our coverage within the state, and I’m excited about the possibilities of a Gulf Coast location in the near future. We’ve also got an exciting new initiative called ‘TechSmart’ that will allow us to reach smaller communities via tele-learning. Governor Tate Reeves and the key folks at the Mississippi Development Authority and the State Workforce Investment Board are all very supportive of our efforts, so my confidence is at an all-time high that we’ll continue to expand and provide these 21st century skills to Mississippi’s greatest natural resource: our wonderful people.”