As Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of this global media platform, I was delighted to have the opportunity not long ago to be introduced to Toni Warren, Co-Founder and President of The Academy at Suncoast Developers Guild, whose Mission is to provide those seeking an education in software development with the technical and soft skills they need to pursue rewarding careers as programmers. They also seek to promote a sense of community among local technology organizations, supporting members in a way that strengthens their community and promotes the common good. Learn more about The Academy as we did during our recent inspiring interview with Toni below ⤵︎
We’d like to hear about your professional journey before launching the Academy.
As many of our students and alumni, I shifted into the tech field when I was looking for more rewarding and challenging work, creative workspaces and teams, and a more balanced and sustainable career. I was in operations and marketing for the hospitality industry for over seven years and decided to invest in myself. I used my MBA at the University of Tampa to lead and then co-found the only not-for-profit code school in Florida.
I was recently featured in the The Business Observer 40 under 40, and the article does a nice job of helping answer this question.
Tell us about Suncoast Developers Guild and the inspiration behind us.
Suncoast Developers Guild provides code education to adults that are career starters and career shifters. We provide in-person, intensive education at our campus in Tampa Bay. We also provide a community tech innovation hub hosting over thirty tech organizations.
We operate on student tuition revenue, which is $14,900 for a three-month full-time program. The ROI is incredible for those looking to skill up and get valuable and competitive workforce skills as web developers and software engineers. On average it takes our graduates one to three months to secure a job in the tech field with average starting salaries between $40,000 to $60,000. In 2020, the US will have 1.4 million more software development jobs than applicants who can fill them, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What’s unique about your nonprofit?
This is a disruptive education model transforming the tech workforce, and we are the only immersive code school in Tampa Bay and the only not-for-profit immersive code school in the state of Florida. We are revolutionizing tech education right here in St Petersburg, FL.
When did you launch and what’s been your biggest challenge?
It has been almost two years since The Iron Yard, the largest national code school, announced it was ceasing all operations and shutting down fifteen campuses nationwide. At the time our campus in Tampa Bay had the highest enrollment and job placement and was operating successfully with a team of seven employees and ~150 alumni. Although the announcement took us by somewhat of a surprise, the code school industry is still emerging and navigating the path to a successful model. The community asked our team to step up and keep the initiative moving forward.
The biggest challenge was raising funds as a not-for-profit school without being able to start teaching and generating revenue due to the regulations around career-based educational programs in the state of Florida.
I hope to be able to help change these restrictions to be more supportive rather than restrictive for new education models in Florida. This will allow us to be at the forefront of delivering quality, innovative education.
Any noteworthy surprises or ‘A-ha’ Moments along the way?
Never give up on building something that benefits the community. As an educational startup in Florida, there are barriers to entry that can deter an organization for even getting off the ground. We had a proven model, outcomes, and dedicated team and it still took us nine months to get approval to launch by the FLDOE. It was a challenge, but when we had our first alumni placed as a software developer and deliver an education that has the opportunity to change people’s lives, it was worth it.
How would you describe your typical day?
The code school industry is evolving quickly and there is no typical day in the education field. A typical day includes connecting students, businesses, and community. As the brand ambassador of Suncoast Developers Guild, I’m out championing our alumni’s skill sets and spreading educational awareness about the benefits of a code school education to potential developers and employers.
What about your “social impact?”
If we have a diverse class, we help create a more diverse workforce giving ALL people the opportunity to help bridge the digital skills gap.
Suncoast Developers Guild wants to make this education more accessible to all community members regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, creed, age, disability, military or veteran’s status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or gender expression. We are actively working towards decreasing the diversity gap in the software engineering industry. As educators in the community, we look at our role in the ecosystem as providing professional development that empowers people to pursue careers that allow them to positively contribute to the economy. If we have a diverse class, we help create a more diverse workforce giving ALL people the opportunity to help bridge the digital skills gap.
In the 2018 Stack Overflow Developer Survey of 100,000 software engineers, less than 3% of software engineers were black, less than 7% were Hispanic, and less than 7% were women. The demographics of our students in 2018 were similar. With this grant, we will provide diversity scholarships to help bridge this gap and make our tuition affordable by providing two $10,000 diversity scholarships to candidates. We hope that this grant with the Greenhouse will be the first of many collaborations between the city and school to show the community support for investing in our people.
What’s the next big thing/challenge for the Academy?
As an educational startup in Florida, we are not able to offer traditional financing options to students looking to invest in themselves. We sought out multiple private financiers to help fund our students, but we still need to make this education more accessible and this is the start of a model that is proven to work in other markets. We hope to be able to begin the efforts here in St Petersburg with the collaboration of the Greenhouse.
As an entrepreneur, what’s non-negotiable for you?
Not delivering on the mission. It’s my north star and what keeps me guided and moving forward. The Academy at Suncoast Developers Guild is a code school that serves people, not profit. We are changing lives and teaching people to be the best software developers they can be. If I’m not able to deliver on that, then I’m not in the right role.
How can our readers learn more about and help the Suncoast Developers Guild?