UIX: This is the 'engine of talent' building Grand Rapids' high tech/high growth future

A partnership between startup accelerator Seamless IoT and coding boot camps run by Grand Circus is funneling local talent into high tech/high growth positions. After a month of focused training, graduates are equipped to enter the tech workforce, with average starting salaries of around $52,000 a year.

Fresh out of school, with aspirations as high as their student loan debt, a newly minted software engineer can land a position that pays upwards of $70,000 a year, according to West Michigan Works' Hot Jobs list.


Their first day at the job, they meet someone who took a different route, a coworker who's developing applications in C# or Java. She has no college degree even related to software development, but she spent eight hours a day for four weeks in a focused training environment learning how to apply computer programming languages to real-life projects.


A talented software developer might call on years of schooling and previous experience in their position, and their experience is often recognized with higher starting salaries, but the same companies are also finding value in "boot camps" like Grand Circus, founded in Detroit in 2013, which aims to place its graduates in high tech/high growth positions, with a median starting salary of around $52,000.


Sustainable initiatives are becoming more ubiquitous in Grand Rapids. Projects like renewable energy sources, waste reclamation, and open sourced air quality data show how they are already affecting areas of environmental concern. The relationship between Grand Circus and Seamless IoT shows how the same initiatives can be applied to business, too.


Coding classes are helping people build skills that are in high demand.

No matter the field, it looks a lot like a circle. A stream of raw materials, or talent, is defined and funneled into a system where it becomes even more valuable. Keeping recyclable plastics from a landfill, and turning them into salable products is one example. Fostering the training and support for individuals who will help build next-generation technologies, who may even someday mentor others who come after them, is another.


The upcoming Grand Circus boot camp, scheduled April 22 through June 28, will see participants honing their C# and .Net skills on some of West Michigan's leading-edge technologies. When autonomous May Mobility cars follow The Rapid's DASH line around this March, they'll be taking in data points that boot campers might be translating into visualizations. Or, they may choose to work with data streams from the 30 air quality sensors now sniffing out the particulate in key points around the city.


Mike Morin

“Priority Health is very interested in that air quality data as it has to do with high risk populations with respiratory disease,” says Start Garden and Seamless IoT COO Mike Morin. “For the same reasons, Mercy Trinity has a tremendous amount of interest. And, Faurecia, as the world's largest manufacturer of exhaust systems, is very interested in how that data might be used to change people's mobility decisions.”


Students learn coding with practical problems and technical instruction.Upon graduating from the boot camp, this cohort will be interviewed by Seamless IoT businesses, including Priority Health, Faurecia, Amway, Steelcase, Whirlpool, BISSELL, and Mercy Health. Ideally, they'll go on to staff the same companies that are contributing to the adoption and capability of public-interfacing technology.


It's an engine of talent, and something you might not find elsewhere.


Morin says the trend of seamless customer experiences between the digital and physical space requires no shortage of technological expertise, as well as product design and distribution. College communities might easily see large populations of one or two of those fields, but Grand Rapids is home to seemingly everyone along even the most complex product design processes.


"The combination of the technical capacity, the manufacturing capacity, and the design capacity that we have in this area is how Seamless came about," Morin says. "Grand Rapids as an applied technology center has great capacity. We don't have a research university and we're probably not going to invent those technologies, but we can take the domain expertise that we have in those environments and find very meaningful ways to apply those technologies, bundle those technologies, integrate those technologies, and deliver solutions. And, that's how we recruit for Seamless."


Seamless builds partnerships between startups and its member global enterprises to run proof of concept experiments for healthcare, environmental, and consumer product markets. Grand Circus' Grand Rapids location, which opened in 2017 at Start Garden's 40 Pearl location, brings potential employers in on a weekly basis to observe and meet students as they present their projects.


This is the first time they will be working together in such a capacity.


John Rumery
"We thought, wouldn't be great if they could work even closer than with the employer network, especially on demo day when the students are creating a capstone project?" says Grand Circus Grand Rapids Campus Director John Rumery. "From that little discussion, we started working with Mike and his team and the whole Seamless organization. This is basically a pilot program, but it's where Seamless will be involved throughout the boot camp with our students."


As a recruiter for Amway, TJ Scott has seen at least three Grand Circus graduates join his company in recent years. Most recently, a boot camp graduate joined Amway in summer 2018.


TJ Scott

"She was actually one of the top individuals that we had interviewed," Scott says. "She brought a lot of skills to the table that she had gotten from the boot camp and from some of her other experiences, but the boot camp played a really large role in her being qualified."


Grand Circus touts an 87.2 percent graduation rate, placing its graduates at such companies as Ford Motor Company, Quicken Loans, Meridian, and others, including those involved with Seamless IoT. At Amway, fresh talent from Grand Circus fits well in an entry level position.


"We know that they're not coming in with four years of software development experience," Scott says. "They're coming in with a very concentrated amount of experience. We know they're going to come in and they're going to need to learn."


One of the coding classes by Grand Circus.

By focusing on C# and .Net programming languages, Grand Circus is preparing its students for modern demands. These languages are used extensively in cross-platform applications where you might need different software architectures to communicate with each other, like a mobile application that interfaces with data streaming in from telemetry sensors, and are ideal for many new IoT ventures.


No one is expected to launch these ventures right after finishing a boot camp, however.


"They're not under any pressure to develop something earth-shattering right away," Scott says. "We know that they're going to need some help with instruction, but that's okay. That's the kind of role that we would hire them for."


Boot camps are preparing the next generation of technological talent at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college degree, and employers are starting to notice. Plain and simple, when a global corporation like Amway is looking for talent, it doesn't matter if that talent spiced up through a typical structured four-year institution, or through a boot camp, Scott says.


"It's not an either/or kind of thing, it's both," he says. "The boot camps help a lot more people get experience in software development, whereas they might not have gotten that experience if they had gone along the traditional path, or gotten into a career that didn't work.


"Individuals who have that kind of background, and don't necessarily need to be taught from scratch, are going to be pretty valuable, even in the near term,” Scott adds.


John Rumery, left, and Kelsey Perdue, right, administer Grand Circus together.

In less than a matter of months, Grand Circus students are being funneled through boot camp and into high tech/high growth positions. They’re working on projects that have a direct impact on life in Grand Rapids, partly funded by public dollars through Michigan Economic Development Corporation SmartZones. The private sector, philanthropic, and public are overlapping where these students are building their new careers.


To these careers, they’re bringing technical capability from Grand Circus, but also soft skills they may have gleaned from years of experience in other fields. Grand Circus students might range in age from 20 to 60 years, Rumery says, with backgrounds in marketing or business, and sometimes the nonprofit sector. Some may be preachers, some may be mechanics.


They’re all changing the future of Grand Rapids, the moment they show up, ready to learn.


Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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