When AllianceBernstein was still operating under secret code name “Project Stella” in Nashville last year, the global financial firm’s chief technology officers visited the city to see whether to locate its new headquarters here.
Among their stops was the Nashville Software School, a 7-year-old program that has evolved from a scrappy startup to a pillar of the tech community that local business leaders are eager to celebrate.
AllianceBernstein officials have since become a regular presence at the school’s demo days, and at least six recent graduates have joined the firm’s payroll.
“We have hired a bunch of folks from his programs,” Karl Sprules, who leads technology and operations for AllianceBernstein, said. “We like what he is doing.”
The “he” Sprules describes is John Wark, a laid-back and unassuming tech entrepreneur who formed the program in 2012. After helping create multiple tech businesses and taking a Southern California tech company public, Wark moved to Nashville in 2005. As a local mentor to entrepreneurs and an adjunct professor at Belmont University, Wark recognized the difficulty that local businesses were facing in finding enough skilled software developers.
While many Nashville business leaders were focused on addressing the issue through K-12 education or by recruiting from other cities, Wark decided to pursue another strategy — build a vocational school that would teach entry-level coding skills without the tuition and time demands of a college or associate degree.
“This shortage exists everywhere. We’ve got to home-grow,” Wark said. “We had a big pool of bright people with the aptitude to do this work, who just needed a pathway.”
Today, there are about 100 students at the school’s current campus at Tech Hill Commons, and nearly 800 people have graduated. Students with laptops gather around tables to work on coding projects and build skills in web development and data science that they hope will lead to meaningful jobs in the fast-growing tech sector. The school offers full-time classes during the day and part-time classes at night as it seeks to connect students to jobs and to connect employers to a pipeline of much-needed tech workers.
The school has been a regular feeder of entry-level workers at several prominent Nashville companies and startups — Ingram, HCA, Eventbrite, Change Healthcare, Beachy, Aspire Health and Dave Ramsey. As bigger companies with large tech needs move to the area, such as AllianceBernstein and EY, the demand for graduates has grown, allowing the school to expand and accept more applicants. This summer the school will move into a larger building on Plus Park Boulevard to make room for more students and to add a data analytics program.
Wark, who dresses casually in sneakers and shorts, laughed when asked how his outlook for the program in 2012 stacks up with the growth and demand the software school has experienced during the past seven years.
“I had no vision that this would get as big as it has gotten,” Wark said. “Seven years ago, we all knew there was a shortage of tech talent. … We knew there would be a need, but whose crystal ball was good enough to see what’s happened to the growth of Nashville’s tech community?”
Jevon Thomas, a West Point graduate, was working as a manager at an Amazon warehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, when his wife told him about a software school in Nashville that had garnered positive online reviews. He was unhappy in his current post, one he had taken hastily after serving four years in the U.S. Army and becoming a father. He had been interested in software since he got his first computer at age 18 and increasingly considered it as a career path.
When Thomas, 32, was accepted at the Nashville Software School in 2017, he and his family moved to Nashville. Today, he is a designer and front-end developer at Factor, a Nashville-based risk management company serving the railroad and transportation sectors.
“The company is great. … They have given me an opportunity to grow,” Thomas said. “It’s like night and day. I couldn’t be happier, and I’m so glad I made the decision to career switch.”
His narrative is similar to that of many Nashville Software School students and alumni. They are former servers, journalists, songwriters, teachers, architects, veterans and sound technicians who have come to chart a different career course. They are seeking work that satisfies them, that compensates them well and that offers long-term opportunities. For many students, including those in the journalism and music sectors, technology has altered their former jobs and now offers a more promising course.
Jimmy Metts, a Franklin resident who worked for two decades in music publishing, is taking courses at the software school at the recommendation of his son, also a Nashville Software School student. After seeing years of declining revenue in the music publishing industry, Metts said the idea of working in a growing, thriving field appealed to him.
“It seems to be a strong job market,” Metts said. “It continues to grow. There was limited opportunity where I was.”
Nashville is often heralded as an education hub, with more than 20 colleges and universities in the Middle Tennessee region. Even so, the area produces a smaller percentage of graduates focused on science and engineering than peer cities, according to a 2015 JPMorgan Chase study focused on Middle Tennessee. In the Nashville metro area, 29% of post-secondary graduates studied computers, math or statistics, compared with 41% in Raleigh, North Carolina, 39% in Austin, Texas, and 38% in Denver.
As Wark and others looked at the issue of tech talent almost a decade ago, a few coding schools were beginning to pop up in other areas, but the concept was still fairly new. With the support of local music tech entrepreneur Mark Montgomery, Wark was able to raise $35,000 from a handful of other business leaders and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to launch the program.
“The new economy is based on jobs of the future, and those jobs are going to be in the digital arts,” Montgomery said. “We really didn’t have anyone filing that huge hole in the market.”
Wark said he and his wife moved to Nashville in part to pursue a more relaxed pace of life, free of creating startups and venture capital raises. He had battled cancer and other health issues in California and needed to “downshift.” His wife’s family lived in Kentucky, so they chose Nashville over Austin and Raleigh-Durham.
“I can’t stay on the stress train anymore,” he said of his thinking at the time.
Once again in startup mode in 2012, Wark pitched in on rent, office supplies and whatever else needed to be paid for at the Nashville Software School as he put together a staff and a board. The program has been self-sustaining since 2015, when Wark began accepting a salary.
“It’s been an important part of the story that Nashville’s tech talent is rising,” Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Ralph Schulz said. “It is tangible evidence that Nashville and its people are investing in tech education.”
While the school has helped develop a new generation of hundreds of coders, the need for more tech workers in Nashville still far exceeds supply as the city’s tech sector continues to grow.
Job growth in the Middle Tennessee region increased 25% from 2009 to 2018; tech job growth was 47%, according to the chamber’s 2019 Tech Workforce Study. In 2018, Nashville had about 2,100 tech job postings a month on average.
The demand for talent translates to greater earnings potential for aspiring developers, a point not lost on many students.
Software developers in Nashville earn about $94,000 annually on average, with database administrators earning $87,500. That’s well above the average salary for servers, reporters and teachers, earning $20,000, $42,000 and $53,000, respectively, and is on par with local financial advisers, biochemists, nurse practitioners and veterinarians.
It often takes a few years for a Nashville Software School graduate to move beyond entry-level positions, but many obtain a starting salary in the tech field that is 20% or 25% higher than what they earned in previous roles, Wark said.
Thomas said when he first started at Factor, his salary was lower than when he left Amazon, but a year later he is earning more than in his previous job. His job satisfaction is much higher.
Adam Sheaffer was hired at the Tennessee Department of Transportation after graduating from Nashville Software School in 2014 at age 26. His starting income as a web developer was more than twice what he earned as a touring musician, and he eventually quadrupled his earnings before returning to the school as an instructor, he said.
“It will go down as one of the best decisions I ever made,” Sheaffer said. “I’ve been at it for five years, and I love every day I write code.”