Michael “Mike” Forster, Chairman of the Mississippi Coding Academies spoke to the Rotary Club of North Jackson at the club’s June 30 meeting. Mr. Forster is an electrical engineering graduate of Mississippi State University. He began his career with IBM, achieving the level of division vice president. He then moved to Munich Germany as President and GM of international operations for Prime Computer. After his return to the USA in 1993, he had two successful experiences as CEO of mid-sized software companies, taking them both to successful exits for their investors.

Mike and his wife, Bettye, came back to their hometown of Louisville, MS, in 1998.  Mike is an elder at First Presbyterian Church, teaches the adult Sunday School class, and is a member of the Louisville Rotary Club.  Mike is an avid pilot with more than 3000 hours in the cockpit, flying his Cirrus aircraft for business, pleasure, and philanthropic work.  

He is currently president of a family-owned company in the helicopter aerial application business. In addition, he serves as president of Louisville’s airport board, and as director and executive committee member of InnovateMS.  He also serves as the Board Chair of a Mississippi-based healthcare-company.

The purpose of his presentation to the Rotary Club of North Jackson was to tell us about an exciting venture that he and fellow Rotarian Rich Sun co-founded, the MS Coding Academies.  

He began his speech by stating the fact that the state of Mississippi graduates fewer than300 Computer Science graduates annually to fill 1,000 open jobs, and half of those graduates leave the state for other opportunities. The purpose of the coding academies is to have high school graduates spend a year becoming coders to address this gap of supply and demand in our state.

Program graduates become what are called “Full Stack” coders. The term “Full Stack” means that students will be working with every layer in the “stack” of a typical web application: user interface, front end (browser), middle tier, and back end (server and database). In addition to coding, the program focuses on teaching the students to become disciplined team players. The program runs 40 hr. per week and takes a full 11-month academic year. There is no homework.

Typical new students are high school graduates working minimum wage jobs, typically in the fast food industry. When they successfully complete the program their base salaries average around $40,000 annually. The program is highly intensive. Potential employers attend the classes and play a vital role in making the educational experience relevant. The Coding Academy Instructors are required to have a “real world” coding experience in addition to their academic credentials. 

Currently, there are three coding academies in the State of Mississippi: Water Valley, Starkville, and Jackson. The program expects to expand into the Gulf Coast region in the next year and will ultimately graduate 80 - 100 new coders annually. The Academies in Jackson and Starkville have graduated 82 coders in the 2017-2020 period. Those graduates have seen cumulative salary increases of $850,000 per year from their pre-academy levels. Most of the enrollees are from a diverse population with females and African-Americans making up the majority of the enrollees. 

Comcast has funded a special program for Veterans that is showing great promise. There is no cost to the attendee to participate in the program, but the full cost is about $17K per year for civilian attendees and about $8k for the veterans’ program.

The academies have created a for-profit subsidiary,  MS CodeW Works, to provide coding resources as an alternative to work that is now outsourced outside the USA The founders envision Mississippi becoming a key outsourcing location competing very favorably with Asia when Code Works is up and running. 

The expectation of the founders is to increase the level of diversity in technical jobs, and to reduce the gap between jobs and talent. Both Starkville and Jackson are recruiting for their next cohort of students with classes to start in August. Currently, there are 60 prospective students in the screening process. 

We thank Mike for his presentation and for his work with the coding academies.