Episode 65 — Shonna Dorsey of Interface Web School

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Geoff Wood: Welcome to the Welch Avenue Show, Episode #65.

Our guest today is Shonna Dorsey, Co-founder of Interface, the web school in Omaha. Interface is part of a new movement in education that helps people looking to move into technical careers, often as a second opportunity.

Shonna was in Des Moines for some meetings to drop by Gravitate, and we're lucky to catch up with her about what she's doing on the show. The What's Happening Show is a mostly independent production that is funded by our listeners. Huge thank you to everyone who has supported us this far. If you would like to contribute, just go to showtipjar.com to find out how.

Thanks, and now on Episode 65 with Shonna Dorsey. 


Geoff Wood: Well, Shonna, thanks for coming over to Des Moines today.

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: Maybe just start by telling people who you are and what is it that you're building.

Shonna Dorsey: I'm Shonna Dorsey, with Interface Web School, and we are doing web developer training in Omaha, Nebraska.

Geoff Wood: How's that been going?

Shonna Dorsey: It's been good.

Geoff Wood: Interface Web School's been around two years?

Shonna Dorsey: One year.

Geoff Wood: One year.

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: Okay. Where did the idea come from?

Shonna Dorsey: There's a huge need in the midwest, as you know, you're hearing about this "brain drain," etc. It came from the fact that we saw lots of talented developers leaving the market, and we wanted to find a way to train those who are here to learn the skills that are needed in our market.

Geoff Wood: What's a typical class like?

Shonna Dorsey: It's 200 hours approximately, and over the course of 10 to 15 weeks. The students learn web development, front and back end, so we teach them Introduction to HTML, CSS, jQuery, JavaScript, and then one of several languages, including Java, C Sharp.net. We're doing our PHP WordPress course, so this depends on what the topic is.

Geoff Wood: That's pretty awesome.

Shonna Dorsey: Mm-hmm.

Geoff Wood: Where do students come from? Are these college students, or are they professionals, or who do you recruit?

Shonna Dorsey: A huge variety of students. Whenever I look at my class, I always have a variety of folks, including recent college grads, people who have been working for a while who are looking for a change in careers, I've had homeschooled students, ...

Geoff Wood: Oh really?

Shonna Dorsey: ... current college students.

Geoff Wood: Homeschooled, like not yet through high school?

Shonna Dorsey: Through the program, or through the homeschooling program but not necessarily ready to go to college.

Geoff Wood: Okay. That's pretty cool.

Shonna Dorsey: Mm-hmm.

Geoff Wood: Where do they go once they graduate? What's the next step?

Shonna Dorsey: Next step, typically, is to a larger firm. Within Omaha, our graduates have gone to companies like First National Bank, a pretty large firm in Omaha, Nebraska, or a large bank in Omaha, Nebraska, West Corporation, companies like Sogeti, they do software consulting. Some of our graduates have gone on to work for startups or as freelance developers.

Geoff Wood: Very cool.

How did you get involved in this project? Was this your idea, or I think there's some other people that work on it with you.

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah, it was a collaboration. One of my co-founders is Mark Hasebrook, he's the founder of Dundee Venture Capital. I met him in the summer of 2013, and we started having conversations about what the needs were in the market, things that I wanted to do, and we agreed that there was this huge need in tech and there was a creative way to solve it. We just started working on it back in the summer of 2013.

Geoff Wood: Very cool.

We've seen these programs in other cities. I think we mentioned Iowa City has something like that through the university. I think it's called Dev/Bootcamp, is it Starter League in Chicago, kind of like this?

Shonna Dorsey: Mm-hmm.

Geoff Wood: We had Neal Sales Griffin come speak here a couple years ago at a conference about some of the things they were doing. They partnered up with Thirty-Seven Signals, I think, at the time, which was really interesting. 

Is your take different than theirs, or is Interface Web School a lot like those programs? How do you compare and contrast?

Shonna Dorsey: I think it's similar in that we're trying to build a pipeline, and we're doing it in a short period of time, like 10 to 15 weeks, however long those programs are. In that way, I think it's pretty similar. I've been going, we just taught a little bit different, so we do offer a Ruby class, but it's not the only type of offering that we have.

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: How do you think about education today, especially higher education, post high school? Is this the future, these types of programs? It's not trade school, necessarily, but it's really focused, right?

Shonna Dorsey: Right.

Geoff Wood: Is that where you're going, or is this more of a resetting people's skill levels type of thing?

Shonna Dorsey: I think it could be a better path. The way I see it is, I think college is wonderful, so I have a Bachelor's and Master's from University of Nebraska Omaha, and I wouldn't change that. I would change the student loan piece of it, but a lot of us could say that.

One thing that I think that's a huge benefit of a program like Interface is that, as a maybe aspiring college student, you could go through a program like this, learn a skill that is immediately hireable, go work for someone else, then go back to school and potentially have that employer pay for it. I know lots of firms still offer tuition reimbursement, so that's another avenue to pursue, but get some good training and marketable skills that you can use right away.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. I do think with the student loan crunch, between my wife and I, we have student loans to four different schools. I think about my six-year-old and where he's going to be when he's a freshman. If this is an interest he has, or whatever field he has, I would imagine that there will be other programs, not just Coding, to do that. That seems a lot more attractive to at least try what you're interested in.

I don't do anything directly with my undergrad degree. It was more the experience of being in college, I guess, that I value, not necessarily that I got a degree in City Planning. I think it's an interesting course, or a different path for sure.

Shonna Dorsey: One other thing I was going to say is, the type of skills that you develop in going through a program like this, and then working for someone as a young person, 18 and 21, you have pretty limited experience collaborating with a team and working on projects and things like that, but those are skills that are applicable to any type of job that you get later in your career.

Geoff Wood: How does it contrast to the online educational things that we see at this point, the Khan Academies and, I guess, Treehouse, there's something like probably 30 of those [you could name 06: 38].

Shonna Dorsey: Those are wonderful. I think they're great supplements to what we do. We definitely encourage students to use Team Treehouse, Codeacademy, etc., as prep work for what we do, and then as ongoing learning once they're done. We really value the in-class, in-person training and the mentoring and collaboration that comes out of that, and also the accountability that comes out of working with a small group and all of that.

Our classes are typically pretty small, like 10 to 15 tops. Ten is my favorite number, but pretty small groups so that they get that great one on one and attention from the instructor, and develop those relationships as a small cohort.

Geoff Wood: Are you the instructor, or who's teaching the classes?

Shonna Dorsey: No, we hire developers in the community to teach our classes. Our students now meet three nights a week, so our first round of this in 2014, we did ten weeks, five days a week, half days. It's a lot of work, so we switched to three nights a week, 6 to 9, 5 to 9, more like a college semester, but where you're focused on one topic, which is learning how to code. It gives our instructors more flexibility and allows for people who are working full time to go through our program.

Geoff Wood: Yeah, that's how I did my MBA was evenings like that, so I imagine it has to be pretty attractive to people thinking about a career change to be able to stay employed and learn at the same time.

Shonna Dorsey: Yes.

Geoff Wood: A lot of late nights for sure.

Shonna Dorsey: A lot of late nights, but it's such a short-time commitment.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. That's where I developed my over-fascination with coffee, I think, was just trying to stay awake three nights a week for classes like that.
Do you have an education background?

Shonna Dorsey: I do.

Geoff Wood: What did you do before Interface?

Shonna Dorsey: Before Interface, I was in project management in SharePoint, I call it application development, but very lightly, for this company called Sogeti. I did that for about a year.
Prior to that, I worked for a commodities-trading firm doing project management in some SharePoint app development there too, but for three years, I worked at the University of Nebraska Omaha as an adjunct instructor in their Master's in Management Information Systems program.

Geoff Wood: Okay. Education's been your whole focus.

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah. I love it.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. What's next? Where are you going with this program?

Shonna Dorsey: Right now, we're trying to make sure that, number one, the offerings that we are presenting to them are good, make sense. Like I mentioned, we switched from a sole Ruby Web Development focus to a Java.net, and that has allowed us to really raise our starting salary average for our graduates, which has been really important for them and makes this a really great experience.

There's that, and then just figuring out where next, is the thing, but still looking at that.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. Is the starting salary the piece students are looking for?

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah, it's a huge factor for our students. I mentioned this before, not during this podcast, but we've had students that come into our program making eight or ten bucks an hour doing retail type of work. They come to our program, and average starting salary is about $46,000 coming out after about 10, 15 weeks of training, so it's a big difference maker for students.

Geoff Wood: Is that change based on what they did before?

Shonna Dorsey: I think it does matter, so depending on their background, the more experience they have, the higher the starting salary, which makes sense.

Geoff Wood: I'm curious too, what do people like the big companies you mentioned, like First National, do they look at somebody who has a Computer Science undergraduate degree from UNO or something, compared to somebody who has an Interface ... What do you call it when you've graduated?

Shonna Dorsey: You get a Certificate of Completion, basically.

Geoff Wood: Okay. Well, a graduate between two programs like that, do they view those equally, or are you still building. How do they compare those?

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah, we're still building that, and it'll take some time, because that model's been around for a very long time. I think that that's still taking time to develop, but we're seeing that companies are becoming more receptive to bringing on talent from a program like this.

Geoff Wood: It's almost like you're doing the continuing ed for them, so that probably plays into some of the tuition reimbursement. I know you mentioned that. Maybe you can explain what some of these companies are doing.

Shonna Dorsey: In Omaha, we have a few companies that are sponsoring students on the back end. They go through our program, pay tuition, which is between $5,000 and $7,000, which, compared to programs in San Francisco and New York in other markets, we're a lot less expensive. I think you'll see them like $10,000 to $20,000, I'll say, so $5,000 to $7,000 for our program and then employers will reimburse students around, I've seen $2,500 to $5,000 per graduate hired. It's just a great incentive for our students to do well, and employers to participate in a very low-risk fashion.

Geoff Wood: It's almost like a signing bonus if you come through your program, which does sound pretty cool.

What's the biggest struggle that you've had with the program so far?

Shonna Dorsey: I think the biggest struggle that I've had is just continuing to get support. I know that it takes time, so we're building that. The fact that we have companies like Flywheel, and Volano Solutions, and First National Bank continue to partner with us is helping us build our credibility, and we just continue to partner. I think that's been the best way for us to get through some of that struggle, is partnering with firms that are pretty well-known in our community.

Geoff Wood: Sure. Yeah, that's really great.

We don't have anything like this in Des Moines. There's the one in Iowa City, but I have to imagine that there's some interest in places like this, in just talking with folks. It seems like $5,000, or did you say $5,000 to $7,000?

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah, $5,000 to $7,000. Yeah.

Geoff Wood: To upgrade, I guess I didn't do all the math, but from eight to ten dollars an hour to a $45,000 starting salary, that seems like a small investment for the individual if they're motivated to do that.

Shonna Dorsey: Correct, yeah.

Geoff Wood: Yeah, so hopefully, that's something that we'll have access to here, at some point.
You kind of hung out a little bit at Gravitate today. What are your thoughts on Des Moines as you know it, coming from two hours west of here?

Shonna Dorsey: On Des Moines as I know it? Des Moines is pretty big. It reminds me a lot of Omaha, where you have these pockets of activity, and that's pretty cool. I really like this facility. It reminds me a lot of things that are going on in Omaha with the startup scene, so it's just cool to see all this activity happening in the midwest.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. What is going on in Omaha. There's been less news, I think, since Silicon Prairie News went out, we hear less in Des Moines about what's going on there, but you mentioned, there's a building kind of like this called the Wareham Building. What exactly is that?

Is that something you can share?

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah, the Wareham. Interface Web School is there, and then there's several startups on the second floor. We host 1 Million Cups there every week, and then once a month in Lincoln. It's kind of the same feel where we have the opportunity for [inaudible 14: 10] and just meeting different people in the startup community, and lots of opportunities like that. We also have The Master Craft, which is kind of similar, but it's more startup offices and space like that there.

Geoff Wood: Less community space.

Shonna Dorsey: Right.
Geoff Wood: Yeah, did some history there. I haven't been to the, is it Wareham?

Shonna Dorsey: Yes.

Geoff Wood: Okay, I haven't been there yet, but it sounds cool. Shane Reiser's a friend of mine, and he's hung out there some.

What's up and coming in Omaha that you see as the next phase of that city?

Shonna Dorsey: That's a great question. What is up and coming in Omaha?

Geoff Wood: What's the most exciting thing going on, besides Interface Web?

Shonna Dorsey: I think the most exciting thing to me is that we're starting to see, it's slowly coming along, more collaboration between corporations and startups in Omaha. To me, that's very interesting. Before Interface, I had very little exposure to the startup community, so I'm excited to see all that's going on and the opportunities there.

Geoff Wood: Yeah, I think that's a big nut to crack here in Des Moines too, is how we get those together. I think there are people on the startup side, and there are a few on the corporate side or established company side that want to see that. It's just figuring out how do you start it, or what are the interactions. I think something like what you're doing makes a lot of sense there.

Shonna Dorsey: Right.

Geoff Wood: I think that's why we need more of that collaboration, because they're not dissimilar. It's really all technology, or it's all innovation or that type of thing, whether you wear a suit, a tie.

The last guy we did a podcast with was Nathan Wright, who went from renting his own startup to being the social media manager at Hy-Vee. He used to have his office here. It was really weird for him to come and take his tie off, and it's weird for me to see him in a tie. There are some differences in maybe how we present ourselves, between the two, but there's a lot more to be gained from being part of a larger community than being two separate ones.

Shonna Dorsey: True.

Geoff Wood: It's interesting that you identify that in Omaha too. Lack of technical talent here is probably an issue, and it sounds like that is in Omaha. Then there's always the perennial lack of funding. There's never enough capital for what people want to do. I don't know if those have changed at all there, but I think that's two 500,000-person cities in the midwest, there's a lot more similarities than not.

Shonna Dorsey: Technically, and especially on the lack of tech talent side, which is very close to my heart.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. It would be interesting to see, I mentioned this to you earlier today. I sit on a couple of committees with technology associations and looking at the future of the IT industry in Iowa, it's part of what they're trying to do as a membership lobbying group and all of that. I think this is big for what they're trying to do with TAI.

I used to live in Indianapolis from '04 to '09 and did some IT work then, I probably wasn't qualified for, but it was the same thing there, another Midwestern city, bigger than probably Omaha and Des Moines combined to get to Indianapolis, but having the same conversations about, "We need access to this talent," "What's the next generation of IT workforce going to look like?" Programs like yours, I think, are uniquely suited to fill that.

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah, I think so. Another thing, too, is really looking at our younger folks, like our eight-to-ten-year-olds. Even though that seems really far off, it's absolutely not, so just really finding out ways to capture their attention and get them interested in tech at a young age I think is super critical. Those CoderDojos and all of these types of programs are really important, and things that we support in Omaha as well.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. Are you involved with CoderDojo there?

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah, somewhat. I like to provide mentors and things. I wish I could do more, but I do work with AIM too, help out with those.

Geoff Wood: Okay. Okay.

Yeah, there's no CoderDojo in Des Moines. There has been. There's a site for it at the Science Center, but I've never seen it advertised [inaudible 18: 19], but it's huge in Cedar Rapids. [Inaudible 18: 22] Building to have them there, and yeah, I think twice a month maybe, like every other Saturday, to have them [inaudible 18: 27] are amazing, the amount of kids they have coming out to do that.

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah. It's great when you get those kids interested in just going and learning how to code and feeling like they're supported and all of that, it's amazing what they can do.

They're sponges at that age.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. 

I need to figure out if there is one here. I don't want to start something else, but my six-year-old got the Robot Turtles game for Christmas. Have you heard of this, like teach kids to code?

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: He just loves it. We've now played that game so many times since Christmas, but it's probably time for him to do something more with that.

The other thing, at the high-school level here, they have the HyperStream Clubs. That's through TAI. I don't if you have those in Omaha too, but ...

Shonna Dorsey: I've heard of it.

Geoff Wood: ... kind of like STEM-related educational clubs at high schools, like Waukee in the suburbs here. It's one of the huge HyperStream installations they have, so those go on all over the state.

Yeah. Very cool. If people are interested in Interface Web School, where's the best place for them to find out more about it?

Shonna Dorsey: I would say our website is good, but we are super active on Facebook. Yeah, I would say on Facebook for sure, but Interfaceschool.com is our website, and people can always reach out to me. I'm happy to talk to them.

Geoff Wood: Interfaceschool, or Interfacewebschool? Have I been saying it wrong?

Shonna Dorsey: It's Interface Web School, but the site is Interfaceschool.com.

Geoff Wood: Okay, Interfaceschool.com. If people want to find out more about you, what's the best way to do that?

Shonna Dorsey: Probably LinkedIn.

Geoff Wood: LinkedIn? Okay.

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah. Shonna Dorsey.

Geoff Wood: Awesome. Well, thanks for coming in today, ...

Shonna Dorsey: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: ... and for sitting in for [progress 20: 04].

Shonna Dorsey: Thank you.