November 5, 2018

New Farmington coder school aims to build Greater Hartford's future tech workforce

HBJ Photos | Sean Teehan
HBJ Photos | Sean Teehan
Vaishali Shah (left) and her husband Chirayu Shah opened Connecticut's first theCoderSchool in Farmington, which provides extracurricular coding lessons to school-age children. TheCoderSchool is a Silicon Valley-based franchise.
Coding coach Jacob Quirk (left) works with a student at theCoderSchool. (Below) A coder tree depicts various coding languages.

The sleek color design, co-working layout and Cornhole board give a new Farmington coding school the feel of a Silicon Valley startup.

That makes sense, considering that theCoderSchool franchise originated in Palo Alto, Calif.

Chirayu and Vaishali Shah officially opened the extracurricular K-12 venture in mid-October. The husband/wife duo are bullish about their prospects, and it looks like they have reason to be. During their first week, 52 students enrolled for courses — 100 signups within a year is considered a success, Vaishali said.

"We're essentially the first in the Hartford area … to offer coding-school services for kids," Chirayu said. "There are some competitors located in Fairfield County, but they're a good hour away."

TheCoderSchool's once-a-week classes for school-age children will fill a void in Connecticut, which is competing with other nearby states to grow its technology talent base, particularly younger workers with coding skills, said Bruce Carlson, outgoing CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council (CTC), a statewide tech trade association.

Connecticut schools — especially under-resourced ones — are behind the curve in teaching coding, which will continue to be a pivotal skill in the future job market, Carlson said.

In 2016, there were nearly 16,600 jobs for software and web developers in Connecticut, according to state Department of Labor data. That number is expected to increase more than 23 percent by 2026, Labor Department projections show.

Carlson said there is interest among state education and other officials to require coding classes at all schools but nothing has been formalized.

A key challenge is that Connecticut already has a full curriculum, and nobody's figured out how to incorporate coding lessons into the school day.

"I would say that at the state level, the Department of Education recognizes the need, but hasn't figured out how to then implement based on that," Carlson said. "We can be cheerleaders, but there just isn't enough time in the day to make it happen."

TheCoderSchool's success will likely hinge on how well students develop their coding skills, Carlson said. And results depend on how individual franchises are run, according to the corporate chain's founder and chief executive.

Hansel Lynn started theCoderSchool with Chief Operations Officer Wayne Teng just over four years ago. Both have experience working at high-profile tech companies. Lynn previously worked at Nuance Communications, which provided the speech-recognition engine used by Apple's Siri, and Accenture. Teng is an alum of Oracle, TRW Space & Defense and Cambridge Technology Partners.

Both are longtime techies, but, like the Shahs and many owners of the approximately 20 franchises around the country, neither has formal experience in education. But a previous venture gave Lynn a fair amount of experience teaching kids.

"I used to own a franchise … called School of Rock that taught kids how to play rock music," Lynn said. "So, a lot of that experience in how to teach kids in an afterschool activity, certainly influenced how theCoderSchool came about."

The idea is to get children comfortable with coding early on. It's a skill that has its own languages — such as Scratch, which is geared toward children; and Python, a more advanced coding users must learn that requires a specific type of problem-solving thinking.

Much like language-learning, the malleable brains of children are quicker to pick up coding than, say, a 20- or 30-year-old or even a college student. Coding facilitates the creation of anything from a simple computer game featuring a cartoon character to a game-changing app, like Uber.

That's why theCoderSchool allows franchises to formulate their own specific curricula, Lynn said. Franchises all have access to a "toolbox," and are expected to teach to the appropriate skill level of their students, Hansel said, but they're not held to teaching certain concepts within certain timeframes.

And, of course, they aren't regulated by state or federal education departments.

"Kids have their own personalities; some kids want to make a game, some kids want to make a website, other kids want to do this and that," Lynn said.

The Laissez-faire approach toward franchisees also extends to things like pricing (different markets are given different ranges; in Farmington monthly rates range from $129 to $299), and interior décor (franchises are simply required to use theCoderSchool's logo and colors).

That facilitates the kind of individualized experience theCoderSchool is shooting for, Lynn said. But it also makes it imperative that the corporate executives can trust franchise owners, and their choices in hiring so-called "coding coaches," especially given the liability working with children.

"If there's anything that's going to bring down this business, it's going to be something like that, something happens with a kid," Lynn said. There are required background checks for all owners and coaches, coupled with rules against things like texting students, or giving them rides home. No significant problems have come to Lynn's attention so far, he said.

"But people are people, so our job is to do what we can to train all these folks, and make sure that we prevent anything negative from happening to any of the kids," he said.

A Google search

Vaishali Shah said she has complete confidence in the seven coaches working at the Farmington school. All either have or are pursuing computer-science degrees, or work as web developers.

Colleges, including UConn and Manchester Community College, have served as coach recruiting pools, said Vaishali, a trained radiation therapist who taught the subject at MCC before leaving to open the Farmington school. Chirayu is a project manager at ESPN.

The couple came across theCoderSchool largely by chance. They always wanted to start a business, and their young son — now four — inspired them to look into after-school enrichment programs.

Chirayu eventually stumbled on theCoderSchool through a simple Google search.

Intrigued, the Shahs started talking to Lynn, attended an open house at a Long Island branch, and eventually went to California to visit several branches there.

"We saw the excitement of the kids, the parents, and we met the owners, and then we met the CEO, and that's when it really started to feel like, 'OK, this is probably something that we can do,' " Vaishali said.

There were other indicators, too.

Compared with other children's after-school education franchises they researched, theCoderSchool's upfront costs weren't as high. The all-in cost estimate for opening one school is about $100,000, Vaishali said.

When Chirayu did the math, theCoderSchool was likely to make them profitable faster than other franchises he researched. There was also limited competition.

Shortly after opening theCoderSchool in Farmington, the Shahs received multiple emails from parents in far-flung towns expressing interest in the school, Vaishali said.

"We've had parents from other towns, further, Glastonbury, Manchester, South Windsor, we've had parents from other towns ask us, 'can you open up a coder school near us?,' " she said. "We would love to open up more, it's all just going to depend on how this one does."

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