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Deep Dive graduates charging forward

Eric Debelak and Josh Garcia report a steady stream of web development business since graduating last bizO-RobinsonAvila_Kevin_BizOyear from the Deep Dive Coding program at Central New Mexico Community College’s STEMulus Center Downtown.

The two met as students in the 10-week “boot camp,” which provides intensive, crash-training for web developers. They then formed their own company, 11Online, to help small and medium-sized companies grow their businesses through online promotion and services.

Since launching, the partners have managed nearly 100 contract jobs, including everything from small five-hour tasks to lengthy web construction projects. In fact, business is so good, they recently hired a part-time administrative assistant and they expect to hire a new full-time web developer in January.

“We’ve had a lot of clients,” Debelak said. “We’re both living off the business now.”

John Mierzwa, director of STEMulus initiatives, says most of Deep Dive's graduates have launched startups. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

John Mierzwa, director of STEMulus initiatives, says most of Deep Dive’s graduates have launched startups. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Their success is a shared experience among many program alumni. About half of the 49 Deep Dive students who have graduated since last year have launched startups individually and collectively, said John Mierzwa, director of STEMulus initiatives. Most others are either in good-paying jobs or are freelancing out their services.

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“The majority of our students have started web development companies in teams of two to four,” Mierzwa said. “The boot camp itself shows them the possibilities for launching startups.”

In that sense, the program embodies the heart and soul of CNM’s STEMulus center, which opened last year at First Galeria Plaza Downtown to provide hands-on training programs that inspire people to either start their own businesses or develop the skills they need to get good-paying jobs in today’s modern, tech-based economy.

Apart from Deep Dive Coding, the center runs the Ignite Community Accelerator, which offers training and mentoring to help aspiring and existing entrepreneurs launch or grow businesses. Compact courses are also offered in computer networking and cybersecurity, plus fast-tracked associate degrees in business.

And the center provides a “maker’s space” with prototyping labs for innovators to build and test things with modern technologies, such as 3-D printing. Users have access to equipment for metal working, wood working, textiles and digital media.

Students in the Deep Dive program are pushed through two years of material in a 10-week program.

Students in the Deep Dive program are pushed through two years of material in a 10-week program.

Through Deep Dive Coding, STEMulus alumni are finding a solid foothold in Albuquerque’s emerging startup community.

Four students from the latest boot camp, who graduated this month, are building a new web development business, Design by Ninja, that is already catching local and national attention thanks to a new “Punctuality App” that they’re building to help people better coordinate busy schedules. The team won a place at Tech Cocktail’s three-day conference for tech startups in Las Vegas, Nev., in October, where they will compete for a chance to pitch their Punctuality App to investors while manning a booth for networking with conference participants.

The team also won a $200 second-place prize at this year’s New Mexico Pitch Fiesta on Sept. 17 at the Standard Diner Downtown. And their company just signed its first contract to build a personal website for a client.

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Design by Ninja co-founder Charles Sandidge said Deep Dive Coding provided the tools that he and his partners need to succeed.

“The program lays everything out,” Sandidge said. “It’s basically two years of college courses stuffed into 10 weeks. It’s intense. A lot is thrown at you really quickly.”

That’s by design to make fully qualified coders out of novices in less than three months, Mierzwa said.

“You see the participants start out as wide-eyed students trying to assimilate a fire hose of information coming at them,” he said. “But as they progress and reach the last weeks of the program, the class sounds like a software development shop with students talking in terms that only developers understand. It’s an amazing transformation.”

Participants are taught all the basic front- and back-end development of a website. That includes the ins and outs of everything that constitutes the user interface and experience when navigating or managing a site, plus all the fundamental coding that goes into constructing the site from the ground up, Mierzwa said.

“Best practices” are woven into lessons from start to finish, such as including secure coding in everything, detailed documentation at every step when building a website so the creator and managers will always know what was constructed and how, and unit testing to evaluate and re-evaluate code as the developer moves forward.

“We also teach an ‘agile’ methodology that approaches web development as an iterative process done in little bits,” Mierzwa said. “Students learn to not plan everything up front, but rather, do some steps, assess them, tweak them and then move on. That creates milestones that make it easier to explain things to clients about how they’re progressing.”

The course work is imbedded in real-world web development that includes each student building their own personal website, plus a “capstone” team project where groups of three to four students work together to build a fully functional website with commercial applications from the ground up. That includes everything from membership and inventory control sites to food and restaurant review sites and parking application sites.

One student group, for example, built the CNM STEMulus Center’s parking permit site.

“We contracted the student team to build it for us,” Mierzwa said. “It’s fully functional and we’re using it now. A visitor can go to the site, request a parking pass, print it out and then put it on their dash with city enforcement officials fully on board.”

The last three to four weeks of the boot camp are mostly devoted to the capstone project, which frequently turns into something the team continues to pursue commercially after graduation.

The program culminates with “demo day,” where students are expected to present their capstone achievement at a special event with entrepreneurs, tech professionals, employers and job recruiters. Demo day and other networking events throughout the boot camp aim to help students personally brand themselves, interact with potential employers or customers in the real world, and prepare them to hit the ground running in web development careers upon graduation.

The center is now preparing to hire a new employment coach and liaison who will help connect students with potential employers and track student success.

CNM is also partnering with private foundations and public agencies to make the program more affordable and accessible to low-income and minority populations. The boot camp is already one of the best such deals in the country, with the $5,495 price tag for in-state students and $6,495 for non-New Mexico residents about one-half the price of most similar programs in other states, Mierzwa said.

Students from Central New Mexico are eligible for up to $2,500 in tuition assistance under the state Workforce Investment Act. And the Kellogg Foundation has provided a three-year, $975,000 grant for full program scholarships for disadvantaged people, such as students from lower-income families or people with single kids.

Humberto Perez Perez, a Mexican immigrant who owns a small store in Albuquerque’s South Valley, said a Kellogg scholarship paid his way in the latest boot camp. The program allowed him to add e-commerce options to his long-standing brick-and-mortar business. Now, he plans to start a nonprofit to help more South Valley residents either launch new technology businesses or incorporate e-commerce into existing ones.

“I want to open a center for a new generation of technology businesses here,” Perez said. “I started this program blind with no Internet skills and it opened my eyes. It gives you real vision and makes you think on a much bigger scale.”

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