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(Pictured L to R) Alec Engebretson, Chad Michel, and Doug Durham

Filling the Gap: Doane and Don’t Panic Labs form partnership to create Nebraska Dev Lab, a pipeline program to address the tech talent shortage in Nebraska

In a time when millions of Americans are losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one industry that still has a drastic job shortage. The only problem? Not enough people are aware of this.

According to the July Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the unemployment rate in America was at 10.2 percent. This was down from an alarming 14.4 percent in April, a month after COVID-19 first hit the United States.

Now consider this -- according to code.org, there are more than 375,000 computing jobs open in the United States (as of mid-August). In Nebraska specifically, that number is 2,280. Growth in the computing industry is outpacing the number of people educated to work in the field in every state, including Nebraska, where state colleges and universities produce around 570 computer science graduates per year.

The need for computer science-related jobs is not new, though. A few years ago, Doug Durham, CEO of Don’t Panic Labs, a software development company based in Lincoln, was approached by local business leaders to create a code school to help fill the gap locally.

“I told them to train the type of people we would hire, a code school wouldn’t go deep enough,” Durham said. “We would have to create something more similar to what an individual would get in a four-year computer science college program.”

Durham and Chad Michel, Senior Software Architect at Don’t Panic Labs, instead started a professional software development class for people already working in the industry. The class was well-received and got Durham to ponder the bigger picture.

“I started thinking about bringing in people that don’t have any background in computer science and train them to become an entry-level software developer. I knew that there were intense, one year programs out there in different professions. I figure if it takes someone a year to become a nurse, we can do that for software developers.

“If we could also do something to bring in more females and underrepresented minorities, we’re helping fill that gap as well. If we can get gender equity in the computing field, I don’t think we’d have a job shortage.”

Durham and Michel began pitching their idea of an intense, one-year computing program to colleges and universities across the state, recognizing this concept would need an educational partner. The two visited with representatives from a number of different schools. Each school showed some level of interest, but they were looking for a strong commitment up front. Once Durham and Michel visited with Dr. Alec Engebretson and Dr. Mark Meysenburg, both Professors of Information Science and Technology at Doane, they knew they had found their partner.

“Alec’s enthusiasm for this concept was great,” Durham said. “He was all in. Within a few months, he was granted a sabbatical to pursue this program. I thought that showed great commitment from Doane and confidence their leadership placed in us.”

Engebretson and Meysenburg conceptualized the idea with Durham and Michel. They landed on creating a one-year pipeline program that would take individuals with little to no experience in programming and turn them into entry-level software developers upon completion of the program. Don’t Panic Labs would provide the office space and a portion of the instruction, while Doane would provide the other portion of the instruction.

The Pipeline Program is the first offering of the Nebraska Dev Lab, a subsidiary of Don’t Panic Labs where Doane is the sole subcontractor to provide instruction to the students.

In order to generate interest from individuals with no software development experience to want to take a leap of faith, start a one-year intensive program, and subsequently changing their career path as a result, the trio realized there needed to be a hook.

What they came up with is very incentivizing.

Students in the Nebraska Dev Lab Pipeline Program will not pay tuition to take part in the program. Instead, a sponsor organization, oftentimes their current employer, will cover their program costs. For the students who are employed, the company they work for will continue to pay their full salary. Once the student completes the program, they will then transition to a new role, expected to be an entry-level software developer, within the company.

“It’s like getting a full ride to college,” Durham said. “The students don’t have any financial burden.”

For the first cohort, six students were chosen from a large applicant pool of more than 80 people. The sponsor organizations for the first cohort are Nelnet (sponsoring two students), Allo, NRC Health, Doane, and Don’t Panic Labs. The student Doane is sponsoring is a recent graduate from Doane’s College of Professional Studies and has aspirations of pursuing a masters degree after completing the pipeline program. One of his key roles in being sponsored by Doane is to provide feedback from a participant perspective of how the program can be improved.

Nebraska Dev Lab received a generous grant from the Nebraska Department of Labor, which offset a large portion of the cost of tuition for the sponsor organizations. Nelnet, Allo, and NRC Health are continuing to pay the wages of the employees in the pipeline program.

“The cool part to me is that all of these students aren’t coming in and having to find a job after the program,” Michel said. “They are on a fairly known path to success. They certainly have to take a leap of faith to start this endeavor, but they aren’t saddled with a lot of debt as a result.”

Jenny Nielsen, a marketing specialist at Nelnet, is one of the six students in the cohort. Nielsen was born and raised in Seattle, studied chemistry at the University of Washington, and began her career as a project manager for Apple and a telemedicine company in Seattle. She says she had entertained the idea of working in development but didn’t have the means or motive to pursue it.

“But when the opportunity came up in Nelnet to be a part of the pipeline program with Doane and Don’t Panic Labs, I was hooked,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen and the other five participants were selected after a thorough interview process, which local human resources consulting firm Talent Plus assisted with. The six students began the program in January in stage one, the first of four stages:

Stage 1: Provide a foundation of programming and problem solving skills
Stage 2: Provide skills necessary to become entry-level software developers
Stage 3: Hone skills learned in stage two, complete capstone project
Stage 4: Hands-on application with the sponsor organization

Dr. Engebretson led the instruction for the first stage, laying the technical foundation that allows the students to become software developers.

“The first month was a whirlwind,” Nielsen recalls. “The first three weeks in particular were a bit overwhelming but also very exciting. It’s like learning a new communication language.”

Engebretson, who has been a faculty member at Doane for 30 years, is a prime choice to work with students in the program the first few months together. While Durham and Michel can provide real world applications for students based on their professional experience, Engebretson can provide the critical teaching skills needed to help students quickly learn and pick up what is being taught.

Nielsen works on an assignment in Don't Panic Lab's space in the HaymarketHoner works on an assignment in Don't Panic Lab's space in downtown Lincoln    

Alec is the perfect instructor for this program,” Nielsen said. “You can tell that he’s taught this material, is a good programmer, and is a great teacher. That combination, in addition to his warm and welcoming personality, makes him a wonderful instructor for the first stage. Coming into this group, starting something brand new -- new field, new skillset -- having Alec as the instructor made it more manageable and created a welcoming environment. He for sure made it less intimidating.” 

Heather Honer, another student in the pipeline program, echoes Nielsen’s sentiments about Engebretson.

“I really enjoyed having Alec as an instructor,” Honer said. “He took the time to make sure we really understood the fundamentals. We always had the opportunity to go to him if we were struggling. He made it fun and it didn’t feel like we were rushed through things, even though we were on a timeline.”

Engebretson said he has been very pleased with the effort the students have shown and their commitment to getting better each day. In a 12-month program with a lot to cover, there is not much room for error.

“It’s impressive to see their evolution,” Engebretson said. “It can be easy to forget they were beginners just a few months ago. They were getting exposed to challenging concepts in stage two that would be challenging even for established developers. Through the first 12 weeks when I was heavily involved, they performed exceptionally well.”

Currently in stage three, the students are in a project-based capstone experience, working with local non-profit Nebraska Suicide Prevention Coalition to develop a mobile app that will be used primarily by high school students to help improve their mental health and coping abilities.

Stage four will conclude at the end of the year with students receiving hands-on experience working alongside software developers at their sponsor organizations, preparing to step in and work in that capacity full-time in 2021.

“I have friends in Seattle that have done code school or boot camps that aren’t nearly as intensive or thorough as we’re experiencing,” Nielsen said. “Not only were those programs not as good as one year of the Nebraska Dev Lab Pipeline Program, but they would have to quit their job, pay for the program, and not have a guaranteed job after it.

"Having the job security, education, and rigor of the program makes this an unheard of and incredible opportunity.”-Jenny Nielsen

While the first cohort of NeDL is only six students, the hope for Durham, Michel, and Engebretson is to eventually hire full-time staff to support this program and begin cohorts of around 10 students every three-four months. This would mean NeDL would produce around 40 new software developers in the area annually, playing a significant role to fill the gap of the tech talent shortage.

“These are devoted students who have come a long way,” Michel said. “I think some of our students will stand out long term for organizations. We’re producing high-quality developers in a short amount of time.”

Regarding the long-term viability of this program, don’t expect the need for software developers to decrease any time soon.

“There is virtually no industry in America that has not been touched by software technology, whether they wanted to or not,” Durham said. “It’s not that there are new companies that only do software, it’s that every company has become a software company in its own way.”

“For companies who are struggling to hire developers, this program seems like a no-brainer for companies to invest in,” Nielsen said. “To get a qualified developer that’s had hands-on experience and has worked within the company, you’re likely getting a better candidate than someone you might find on the job market.”