Array students and professors gathered around a low table on the fourth floor of the Paramount building in downtown Cheyenne on a recent sunny spring morning.
“Good news, everybody, we have two more job openings out there, and they want you guys to apply,” said Eric Trowbridge, founder and headmaster of Array, School of Technology and Design.
Students nodded their heads and a few flashed small grins. The mood matched the warm light flooding the room from the expansive windows of the 110-year-old brick building.
None of the seven classmates had any computer coding or web design skills when they started in October. One worked on the rails servicing the coal industry. Some sought to escape a cycle of low-wage jobs with little chance of advancement. Now, here they were in March, two weeks before graduation, and two four of their number were hired to high-salary careers. Businesses’ requests for resumes continued to roll in.
“Our number one mission is to put these students back into the Wyoming workforce,” Trowbridge said. “Governor Matt Mead has spoken extensively about bringing the technology industry to Wyoming, and we’re playing our part.”
Array is Wyoming’s first private technology and design school. Unlike traditional computer science degrees from a community college or the University of Wyoming, Array is built to take students with a passion for computers and, in six months, teach them how to create websites, software or games and write the programming languages necessary to make the products fast, functional and secure.
“We aren’t teaching the deep, theoretical level of programming like you learn at UW or Laramie County Community College, instead we are teaching students how to use these tools to get the work done,” said professor Joshua Sanderlin. “This is about getting the skills to make real software for real people.”
Those skills, as Sanderlin put it, are insanely marketable. He pointed to creative firms in Jackson, Casper and Laramie – not to mention multiple state agencies and medical offices, among others – that have shown interest in Array’s first class of students.
An education in programming and design will give these seven students an advantage when applying for jobs of the future.
“This is the literacy of the 21st century,” Trowbridge said. “Two hundred years ago, if you knew how to read and write, you were in the upper echelon. Coders in the next 20 to 100 years are going to get the jobs and move society forward. Those who don’t know how to speak computer – not just use one, but understand programming languages – are going to risk being left behind.”
A new start
The students in Array’s first class are working to stay ahead of the trend and find steady, high-paying jobs.
Kent Tlustos sensed Wyoming’s economic slowdown while working on the railroad in Casper. He decided to make a career change before he faced a layoff and pursued his love of computers to Array.
Classmates dubbed him their coal-to-code student. Soft-spoken Tlustos was confident in his decision.
“I’d dabbled in programming and enjoyed it, but I needed the structure of this school to thrive with it and make it something more than a hobby,” Tlustos said. “I’ve felt super comfortable here, and this is where I need to be professionally in the long run. This has become my passion. It’s what I do in my time off, and this is what I want to be doing and where I want to be doing it in 10 years.”
Tlustos was just hired as a developer for Gannett Peak Technical Services in Cheyenne.
With the help of training grants from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, many of these students took a chance on the new school in hope of finding a better job in Wyoming. Brittany Heaton, a Georgia transplant, wanted something different than minimum wage retail and service work. Now, she is helping a Laramie tech startup design a phone app. She was just hired by Wyoming Newspapers Inc. as an ad designer.
Military veteran and native Sioux David Ewaliko is turning his life around, and already found a job as a developer for the Wyoming secretary of state’s office.Department of Enterprise Services.
Array’s students have taken their varied backgrounds and rallied around each other and their high-energy headmaster.
Making an impact
Trowbridge laughed recalling a class project to create a video game. His students told him they’d drawn the design for the game’s villain. With a smile and a flourish, they revealed a caricature of Trowbridge, complete with spiky bleached hair, a dark blazer, blue jeans and a cigarette resting between the cartoon character’s lips.
That’s roughly the outfit he wore earlier this spring as he leaned his wiry frame against a lamppost, one foot kicked up behind him, and waited for his students to arrive.
The 2931-year-old has carefully fostered a relaxed, cooperative culture at Array. He likes to say it’s not what Array teaches that makes the school unique, rather how it teaches the subject.
After a debriefing with his students in the school’s fourth floor coworking space, he sat down in his office behind a small table that serves as his desk. The table was bare except for a gold quill feather fountain pen and a chessboard.
Like any good chess player, Trowbridge is already thinking many moves ahead for his school. Ask him about Array’s future, and the headmaster’s vision erupts in a torrent of words, his hands tapping the table or motioning in the air for emphasis.
At the smallest scale, Trowbridge wants to help Cheyenne by bringing students downtown where they can shop or eat after class. Some might even choose to live in the heart of the city.
Taking a broader view, Trowbridge hopes to make a statewide economic impact. Take, for instance, the 17 or so graphic designers among the laid off employees at Sierra Trading Post.
Some of those workers are going to become Array students. They’ll take their extensive design skills, update their resumes with the ability to code and program, then have a far higher likelihood of finding a job in Wyoming.
“These are awesome, creative people who, I have no doubt in my mind, would have left the state,” Trowbridge said. “There aren’t going to be 17 jobs for graphic designers open up in Wyoming in July. But now, they’re going to walk away with a deeper skillset and have a wider array of options available to them.”
Wyoming’s tech industry is small, but growing. The state has recruited international firms like UL and Microsoft , video game designer InMotion and data centers like Green House Data in the past five years. The Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, financially supported those successful projects. Those recruits joined homegrown startups like Medicine Bow Technologies, Firehole Composites, Teton Composites and Square One Systems Designs, among others.
Bolstering technology in Wyoming is vital to the economy. Those jobs pay nearly double the average salary in the state, according to the Brookings Institution. The Business Council’s goal is to make technology the state’s fourth largest industry within the next decade.
The possibility of an in-state pipeline for tech workers to make that goal happen has industry leaders excited.
Aaron Sopko, general manager of telecommunications firm Advanced Communications Technology, said companies must usually look beyond Wyoming’s borders for qualified tech workers.
“Even us, we find ourselves outsourcing specific needs, whether that’s social media or what have you. More and more, no matter whether you’re a mom and pop retail store or a hospital or any business, you aren’t going to be able to survive or grow without the availability of resources like what these students are learning at Array,” Sopko said.
He also lauded Trowbridge for introducing a new work culture to Wyoming, one that’s prevalent in tech hubs like Austin or San Francisco but often foreign to the Cowboy State. He called Array’s creative, collaborative, open-minded environment a new way of approaching business that may interest a younger generation of workers.
“Trowbridge’s enthusiasm and excitement he is bringing to the state is awesome, and if he can pass that attitude to just a couple people and pass on that culture, I think we as a state can do nothing but benefit,” Sopko said.
Array of possibilities
The state also stands to benefit if Trowbridge achieves his big dream for the new school. Imagine, he explained, if just one student emerges from this program and creates the next internet giant in Wyoming.
As proof it’s possible, he pointed out that his students learned how to rebuild the platform of Twitter, a multibillion dollar social media company, from the ground up just a few months into the curriculum.
“If just one student starts the next big tech company here in Wyoming, the game is changed overnight,” Trowbridge said. “That’s the long-term mission.”
It’s a mission worth pursuing, according to Neil Benton, owner of marketing agency The BARK Firm, in Casper.
Benton hired the first Array student, Aaron Ortega, after following the school’s social media presence and traveling to Cheyenne. He met young, energetic minds with entrepreneurial spirits.
Benton said his company, which develops websites, ad campaigns and marketing strategies for clients, is growing. That translates into a demand for people with Ortega’s new skills. It’s great for his business, Benton added, but he’s more intrigued by the potential of these students to create something of their own after graduation.
“Maybe they go off and create a new app, or new software. The possibilities are endless,” Benton said.
Back in Trowbridge’s office, the rapid-fire ideas for Array’s future keep coming. Not everybody can afford full-time school for six months, for example, so weekend workshops or part-time classes could be provided. Companies could send employees for a custom weeklong or longer boot camp to learn new skills like system administration or databasing. New classes in 2D and 3D animation, video game design and electrical engineering could be added to the course list.
Trowbridge stopped for a moment and smiled at an idea that really excited him.
One time, two girls showed up during class, he explained. Their dad had told them about the school and they wanted to get an application for when they graduated high school.
“My first thought was how endearing it was, but then immediately it hit me. How do we keep these two girls excited about technology and going to a school like this and staying in Wyoming?” Trowbridge said. “We need this curriculum in schools. Raspberry Pi sensors and circuits, Ladybug robots, there are a ton of possibilities for getting kids into tech and teaching them these skills.”
Grinning at what the future might hold, Trowbridge refocuses his vision on the near future. There’s more to teach his first class of students today. There’s an April graduation ahead. The next class begins in June and the 10 seats are almost full. One student is commuting from Fort Collins after vetting similar schools in Denver and Boulder, Colorado, and finding them lacking in comparison to Array.
It’s important not to grow too fast, Trowbridge explained. The easygoing, supportive culture he has built that is now drawing students from Colorado to Wyoming – instead of the other way around – is vital to the health and success of the school.
The goal, he said, is to become the best private tech and design school in the country.
“We’re going to have fun,” Trowbridge said.