What's Possible

Could New Orleans Become the Silicon Valley of the South?

November 8, 2016
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Could New Orleans Become the Silicon Valley of the South?
At monthlong coding boot camps hosted by Operation Spark, participants learn programming fundamentals and develop web apps. Courtesy of Operation Spark
Operation Spark’s coding boot camps are reshaping the future for scores of the city’s disadvantaged youth.

At first glance, Louisiana’s river delta might seem like an unusual place to hold a coding boot camp. For starters, it’s 2,250 miles from Apple’s and Facebook’s campuses in Silicon Valley. But when John Fraboni, a video game designer and jazz musician from Canada, relocated to the area a few years ago, he began noticing untapped tech talent all around him. Knowing that the booming tech industry offers its engineers both high salaries and meaningful work, Fraboni mapped out an intensive training program for at-risk youth called Operation Spark. The goal: Within four and a half months, his students would know how to program a website’s front and back ends, becoming “full-stack” developers, as it’s known in the industry.

Fraboni’s plan worked: Every single graduate from the immersion program now has a full-time job.

Operation Spark offers programming lessons in three sessions. The first, a two-week aptitude test, exposes kids to coding. Since only one-tenth of American high schools offer computer science, tinkering with a computer’s insides is a first-time experience for many. It’s during this two-week trial where, very quickly, “you figure out whether you love it or not,” says Fraboni. For those who do, a monthlong boot camp covers programming fundamentals, as participants build web applications. In the final phase, students immerse themselves in a comprehensive, three-month training on everything from algorithmic thinking to APIs and mobile, for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week.

Initially, Fraboni and just one other employee trained about 40 youth, a little more than half of whom would continue through all three phases. The company, though, is growing, having hired eight more instructors. Their COO, Max Gaudin, who started as a volunteer, is now in charge of expanding the program’s reach. The aim, says Fraboni, is to eventually take the model statewide.

Operation Spark fills a dire need in the New Orleans area, where approximately one in every five young adults is neither working nor pursuing a degree, a category of 16- to 24-year-olds known as “opportunity youth.” The city has the dubious distinction of ranking third in the country for disconnected young people, behind Memphis, Tenn., and Las Vegas. Currently, those 26,000 teens and mid-twentysomethings largely rely on public support and entitlement programs, a 2015 report by Tulane University found.

“There are a lot of people struggling here,” says Fraboni. “The prospects for them are maybe not the same that you and I had. Just think about what it’s like for someone from a low-income situation to figure out what to do in life. Most of us didn’t know what we wanted to be as undergrads, and our parents or our community were able to help us figure it out. A lot of young people in New Orleans don’t have that privilege.”

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Fraboni was inspired to reach out to the city’s young people after moving back to the area three years ago. It was his second time living in the Bayou State. For five years in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he’d played drums in jazz clubs. In 2013, after quitting his job in Montreal designing video games, Fabroni returned to the South. He was grateful to New Orleans for welcoming him during his early concert gigs — “I was accepted despite my nationality, despite my race, and I was able to cross a lot of lines,” he says — and he wanted to give back to the city. After his most recent move, he connected with Tulane’s Center for Public Service and toured the city’s schools and community centers. Seeing kids using mobile apps, Fraboni wondered if he could tap into their curiosity about how the programs were made.

Video games became an entry point to get young adults’ attention. “That was the hook right there. If you have an Android phone, you can write an app with me right now and in two hours, you can show it off to your friends,” says Fraboni, who started teaching rudimentary classes at St. Anna’s Episcopal Church while applying for grants that could fund a more robust curriculum. He wanted kids to “really apply themselves in the way they need to jump from zero knowledge to a job,” Fraboni explains. Eventually, he paired up with Hack Reactor, a coding boot camp, to make that immersive experience happen.

During the last week of Operation Spark’s program, students refine their resumes and write cover letters to send to employers. Many of the newly minted software engineers now have jobs at big tech firms like Mumms Software and Susco, and their starting salaries range from $50,000 up to $120,000, Fraboni reports. Additionally, multinational corporations with offices in New Orleans have been snapping up Operation Spark grads; GE, for example, recently hired six at $70,000 a year. “We’ve had graduates who say, ‘I went from working in a coffee shop to billing $65 an hour.’ That’s not bad for four months of intensive training.”

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But before they get those high-paying positions, Operation Spark encourages its participants to use their new coding skills for social good by developing apps and programs that drive change — some of which have been launched as real initiatives post-graduation. To that end, one group built a mobile app called Backscratch, where neighbors can barter points: a free ride to the airport for help painting, for instance. Another student developed an online platform to help finance microloans, such as for the last bit of funds needed to buy a used car. Operation Spark’s most high-profile project was a collaboration with the White House’s Police Data Initiative and the New Orleans Police Department, a weeklong code academy that even the police chief took part in. Parsing the cops’ crime stats, the students were able to create a few apps, including one that could average the response time to a 911 call based on location, and another that analyzed crime trends during large events, like the Mardi Gras parade.

While it’s been tough for Operation Spark’s grads to find programming jobs in New Orleans that compare to the Bay Area’s prestigious tech positions, more students are finding a way to stay in their hometown. Now that Fraboni’s ready to expand statewide, there will be a surging pool of employees ready to change Louisiana’s startup scene. It’s probably time to begin planning for a Silicon Bayou to emerge.

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This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

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