The Spark We Need
Operation Spark is training local youth and adults for high-tech careers of the future.
“It should be clear as day that the future will be closely tied with computers,” said Kendall Spears, a software engineer for Select Laboratory Software, a North Carolina medical software developer with offices in New Orleans. “I think we have a unique chance to change the landscape for the people of New Orleans and get them jobs that can more than pay their rents.”
Spears is a graduate of Operation Spark, a local organization that presents a fast route for low-opportunity individuals into careers in software development. Upon graduation, participating students, many lacking college degrees, successfully find careers with an average salary of $65,000.
According to Stacey Sharer, Operation Spark’s director of finance and operations, investing in a software economy is a smart bet. For each job created in the high-tech sector, approximately 4.3 jobs are created in other local goods and services sectors across all income groups, including lawyers, dentists, schoolteachers, cooks and retail clerks, among many others. Software engineers’ lifetime earnings are 40 percent greater than the typical college graduate and computing jobs are the primary source of new wages in the United States with 500,000 openings across every industry and state.
“Our track record in providing upward mobility is why Forbes recently cited Operation Spark in an article on restoring the American Dream,” said Sharer.
Over the course of six months, the staff transforms people with zero coding knowledge into job-ready software engineers. Operation Spark casts a wide net by meeting people where they are: in their community centers, neighborhoods, churches and schools.
Over 80 percent of all public high schools in New Orleans currently host Operation Spark coding classes. The organization is on track to see twice as many students in the program next semester.
Operation Spark grads have been invited to attend or speak at White House events six times. One of the organization’s high school students was even named a “White House Champion of Change.”
“Our students are chronically under and unemployed, with many coming from low-income backgrounds,” said Sharer. “Operation Spark is the first nonprofit code school to offer underserved communities a clear, rapid path to upward mobility. While the code school model is widely successful across the U.S., the majority of programs are inaccessible to populations that could most benefit from high-wage software engineering skills.”
All students start out in a two-week session called Prep, which helps them try their hand at coding prior to committing to a class.
In the immersion program students learn how to think like a software engineer and gain all the skills needed to start a career as a full-stack engineer — someone with knowledge in all stages and sectors of software development.
“This program is more rigorous than most educational programs or full-time jobs,” says John Fraboni, founder and CEO of Operation Spark.
High School to High Wage is another Operation Spark program designed to provide an introduction to computer programming and is designed for those with little to no prior experience.
“This program offers low-income high school students, who too often lack the resources to be successful in college, an alternative path to post-secondary education,” Fraboni said.
Frabroni said that while he believes in all the programs, the organization’s youth program is especially close to his heart. He believes the education pipeline for the at-risk, impoverished youth in New Orleans is lacking and does little to end the problem of generational poverty.
“They just can’t keep their curriculum current or keep up with trends,” he said of local schools.
Fraboni is beyond passionate on this topic and with more than 20 years of professional experience in software development, he certainly knows of what he teaches. He’s won the NOEW Education Pitch and 4.0 Schools’ Launch accelerator, and was invited to the White House three times for his work in this field. Fraboni has worked for a diverse set of clients including Tabasco, Tulane University, The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Microsoft, Ernst and Young, Disney and Sony.
The program began in August 2016 with startup funding from Google. Enrollment has since doubled every semester. Operated in partnership with one of the top code schools, Hack Reactor, Operation Spark uses its curriculum, admissions and career support processes.
“Students are recommended by their counselors and they learn how to build mobile aps, websites and video games, said Aaron Schwindt, director of high school programs. “And while they do these things they are also building their portfolios and they earn an Industry Based Certification.”
Not only do the students learn about software, but also, maybe just as importantly, they learn key life skills and professional conduct development. The organization offers the following in its guidelines:
“At Operation Spark, we accept everyone for who they are. We encourage you to be your true self and become whatever you want to be, except a jerk.
Here’s why: Being a jerk gets you nowhere. It stunts your growth, limits your maturity and is poison for those around you. People stop respecting you when you’re being a jerk and no one wants to be around someone like that. As young adults, you are on the verge of having to make your way in the world, and if you can’t show yourself to be mature, trustworthy and capable, people will begin to move away from you, and eventually you’ll find yourself struggling. This will deeply affect your success and our mission is for you to succeed.”
Local companies have been snatching up Operation Spark graduates.For example, GE hired 13.
“Operation Spark is a true disruptor of the classical software engineering education domain,” said Tim Blackmon, CIO of Mumms Software, a local company that has provided software for the hospice industry since its inception in 1989. So far Mumm has hired six Operation Spark graduates.
“Their graduates possess real-world experience in today’s modern technologies,” said Blackmon.
Operation Spark also hires its own graduates such as Kindell, who said he’s “proud to give people in my community the chance to learn new skills and pursue goals that maybe they thought would never be available or obtainable for them. OpSpark has given me the opportunity to be the representation I want to see in the tech industry. It means I get to help change the world. And it’s amazing.”
Kindell is 30 years old and is an instructor and software developer at Operation Spark. He said if anyone had asked him five years ago where he would be, helping others journey into the tech industry would definitely not have been his answer. “But this is where my path brought me and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said. Kindell believes that Operation Spark is a spark of life for the community. “The way they are putting people in better positions in life is really incredible.”
A 27-year old software developer, Kendall Spears said Operation Spark was a springboard in his life. While working for a traffic engineering company and as a bartender for a local bar, Spears said he was doing okay for himself but didn’t see a good future. “I just felt that I needed to be in the software field,” he said.
So Spears started looking into different programs around the city. A coworker told him about Operation Spark.
“It was one of the best pieces of information I have ever received,” he said. “I went there to gain the knowledge I was seeking and gained so much more. Dreams that I thought might have died are opening back up and new opportunities are presenting themselves.”
Maddie & Selena
The vibe at Operation Spark is comfortable and relaxed but everywhere one looks one sees students and instructors focused and engaged. Helping immensely with that process are Maddie and Selena, Operation Sparks’ feline instructors. The once circus cats offer moral support daily via cuddles, kneading and purrs as they encourage students to reach their full potential.
Location: 748 Camp Street, 2nd floor
Phone: (504) 534-8277
Funders: Kellogg Foundation, Entergy, Capital One, Google and AT&T
Employer Partners: GE Digital, Mums Software, DXC, Lucid, iSeatz, LookFar and Revelry
A good Match
For companies who
Can offer jobs, be mentors and/or guest speakers
Success of services
60 people have graduated from Operation Spark’s Immersion Program with a 100 percent placement rate at average salaries of $65,000. GE Digital removed its college degree requirement because they wanted to hire the organization’s graduates. 161 adults and young adults have attended Intro to Programming Bootcamps.
Over 1,200 K-12 students have attended ‘What a Career in Software Looks Like’ sessions and 158 K-12 students and 43 teachers participated in coding workshops.
Over 80 percent of all public high schools in New Orleans currently host Operation Spark coding classes. 85 percent of these students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The organization is on track to see twice as many students in the program next semester.
RESULTS SINCE AUGUST 2016