June 8, 2015

Computer apprenticeship program coming to Hartford

PHOTO | Pablo Robles
PHOTO | Pablo Robles
CEO Josh Geballe (left) and software engineer Blake Praharaj at Core Informatics in Branford. 

To ensure Connecticut has enough talent to fill one of its fastest growing workforce needs, a New Haven computer science apprenticeship program is expanding to Hartford this fall.

The A100 software development training initiative helps would-be computer programmers and engineers find internships at participating Connecticut companies, with the goal of having those interns become full-time computer science employees at in-state firms once they graduate from college. Eventually, the plan is to create a more robust tech industry throughout the state.

"Young people don't necessarily associate Connecticut with software development, innovation, and startup companies," said Derek Koch, CEO and founder of New Haven tech firm Independent Software, which started A100.

The type of talent A100 is developing will be vital to the future workforce and the success of the tech industry, said Andrea Comer, executive director of the Connecticut Business & Industry Education Foundation.

Of the top 20 fastest growing Connecticut occupations requiring a bachelor's degree between now and 2020, four are related to computer science, according to the state Department of Labor. They are computer systems analyst, software developer for systems, software developer for applications, and information security analyst. All four pay around $90,000 annually or better.

"I imagine if there is going to be growth, there is going to be a demand for talent," Comer said. "A100 is doing a good job of recognizing that and getting out in front of the issue."

Maryland native Blake Praharaj moved to Connecticut to get his master's degree in computer science from Southern Connecticut State University. He originally planned to work at an information-technology department in a large company like Aetna or Travelers but ended up as an intern at Branford biotech startup Core Informatics as part of the A100 program in the summer 2014.

"What A100 showed me is the value of being at a smaller company and its culture," Praharaj said.

Core Informatics CEO Josh Geballe said as a fast-growing biotech company, he is always looking out for new software developers. Praharaj's internship went so well that Geballe hired him after he graduated this spring.

"We are trying to show you don't have to move to Silicon Valley to use your skills to make a serious difference in the world," Geballe said.

Connecticut colleges like Yale churn out many good computer science graduates, Geballe said, so the onus is on the state industry to keep that talent here.

Praharaj said his computer science degree gives him the opportunity to work around the country, but he chose Branford because he liked Core Informatics' startup culture.

"It is easy to get pulled away from Connecticut. I get a lot of non-Connecticut job offers, but I am happy where I am," Praharaj said.

Koch founded the A100 program in New Haven after he moved to Connecticut from New York City to start Independent Software. After having a hard time finding computer science talent he was looking for, Koch said he decided to focus on recruiting from local colleges and universities.

While Connecticut doesn't have the same reputation as Silicon Valley or even New York City and Boston, Koch said the state is home to big tech firms like Priceline and plenty of opportunities exist for those with a computer science background. Koch said developing the workforce also is key to ensuring startups like Core Informatics stay in Connecticut.

"That is a huge factor for employers that they know, 'When someone comes and works for me, I know they will be able to do things on day one,'" Koch said.

Companies in need of computer science talent can partner with A100 to have apprentices assigned. Apprentices are typically juniors, seniors, and graduate students who serve as unpaid interns during the 12-week program. More than 70 participants have worked at A100 companies.

Based on the success of the first two years of the program, A100 is expanding into Stamford over the summer and in Hartford this fall.

In Hartford, the program is looking to open in co-working space on Park Street occupied by nonprofit reSET Social Enterprise Trust, Koch said. East Hartford recreational software provider RecDesk was the first to sign onto the Hartford A100 program.

Unlike the Stamford program, where Koch said he expects companies with corporate atmospheres to participate, he predicts Hartford will attract startups and fast-growing, young companies in need of computer science talent.

It's not just startup tech companies in need of computer science help either, Comer said. Manufacturers need people with computer science skillsets, too.

Traditionally, people think computer science people go to work for IT departments, but it is a much more interactive and diverse skillset needed across many industries, Comer said, particularly the STEM industries of science, technology, engineering, and math.

In order to develop a talented workforce, the state needs real-world settings where computer science students can apply their knowledge, Comer said.

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