/ Coding

Cahlan Sharp’s DevMountain is Helping to Close Utah’s Technology Gap

“If something like DevMountain had existed back when I was in school, I would have jumped on it.”

About 10 years ago, 32-year-old Cahlan Sharp was attending BYU and planning to one day become a dentist. Now he’s sitting in a classroom at Camp 4, a coworking space in Provo, talking about DevMountain, the code bootcamp he founded for web developers, just a week after the first students in his inaugural class graduated from the 12-week course.

“Through a series of student jobs, I got exposed to web development and just loved it,” said Sharp. “The more I did it, the more I got passionate about it. At some point, I just realized it was a legitimate career option. In my mind, web development was just so much more exciting than filling cavities.”

If filling cavities is anything like getting your cavities filled, it’s hard to argue with Sharp’s decision to put down the pliers and pick up a keyboard. What’s more interesting, though, is how improbable that decision looks a decade later. Sharp attended BYU at a time when the school didn’t even have a web development program.

“I think that has a lot to do with why I founded DevMountain,” said Sharp. “I couldn’t find a good fit for the kind of education I wanted, which was learning to do web development. At that time web development was still kind of a new thing. It was right after the dot-com boom, so there wasn’t many people making millions of dollars by creating websites. If anything there was kind of a backlash against that sort of thing.”

With aspiring developers struggling to find the right education to meet their career goals in 2013, one can only imagine what it was like 10 years ago.

“At BYU, you could do Computer Science, which was super theoretical,” explained Sharp. “They focused on stuff like C++ and Java, and I just didn’t feel like that applied to web development very well. I was doing HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Flash; there just wasn’t anything at BYU to teach students that type of web development. I wasn’t interested in taking this huge, gnarly core of computer science just to learn web development. So, I ended up graduating from BYU with a Portuguese degree.”

How does a kid with a degree in Portugese break into the tech scene?

“I was getting asked by family members and friends to build their websites. That’s how I learned,” said Sharp. “I built my uncle’s website. I built my dad’s website. As I got better and better, I started getting introduced to bigger clients, actual companies who needed development done for them. That was exciting because I started to think, ‘Wow, I’m a legit developer. I’m building something, and these companies are paying me for it. This is great!’”

The feeling an entrepreneur gets when they first start getting paid for something they’ve been doing for free is indescribable. We’ve all experienced at least one of those moments at some point in our careers. For Sharp, it was no different.

“I can still remember my first paid web development job,” recalled Sharp. “Looking back on it now, it was really an awful job, but back then I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I felt super validated.”

As entrepreneurs (and really as human beings), one of the biggest hurdles we continually strive to overcome is our insatiable need for acceptance. We need to not only personally feel like we deserve to be counted among our peers, but we also want that feeling to be validated by others. That validation is worth more than any sort of monetary value. (Although, ironically, compensation is one of the best ways to boost a person’s confidence and performance.)

After graduating from BYU, Sharp founded a consulting company focused primarily on educational technologies and products. The company was doing around $1 million in annual revenue with a team of 12 people. At that point, it was clear to everyone that Sharp was indeed a full-fledged, full-stack web developer, who just happened to have a random degree in Portuguese.

Sharp did return to BYU, however, to earn a Masters degree in Instructional Psychology and Technology. As he was going through the program, his company took 4th place in the Utah Student 25 competition. “As I was working toward my Masters, I learned about the competition and just threw our hat into the ring and didn’t think anything of it,” said Sharp. “It was kind of funny when we ended up taking 4th.”

Anyone who’s ever worked as a consultant knows the volatility of that type of work. When you’re working on a project as a consulting firm, the final say and the overall direction of a project is up to the client. It’s not easy for creative hackers to follow marching orders from MBA-types who know nothing about custom software development. Whether he found himself in that type of situation or not, Sharp soon lost interest in doing consulting and eventually joined Mick Hagen in San Francisco to work on the startup Undrip, a social media aggregator company that eventually had to pivot away from their original idea.

As Undrip was about to pivot, Sharp fielded a bunch of different offers from a lot of great startups in Silicon Valley. When you’re a talented, known developer in San Francisco, you don’t need to submit your résumé to companies. Once they learn you’re on the market, they call you (which perfectly illustrates how valuable it is to know how to code). After meeting with a number of companies, Sharp eventually decided to join Utah-based Scan, which was founded by BYU soccer player Garrett Gee.

Even after joining Scan, Sharp’s frustration with the lack of a good educational program for aspiring web developers would not dissipate.

“I was watching all of these dev bootcamps pop-up throughout the country, wondering why Utah wasn’t doing anything like Dev Bootcamp and Hack Reactor,” said Sharp. “We have a pretty good tech economy. There’s a lot of talented, up-and-coming web developers in this area. Why shouldn’t we have a solid dev bootcamp? If something like DevMountain had existed back when I was in school, I would have jumped on it.”

After floating the idea to friends and colleagues here in Utah, Sharp was amazed by the overwhelming amount of support so many expressed for starting a dev bootcamp in the Beehive State. He eventually met with the folks at Camp 4, who loved the idea and wanted to host the class in their building.

The logistics of a web development course can be tricky. Especially in a state where so many people interested in technology already have a decent job and a family to support.

“We thought, for the Utah market, it would be better to offer an after-hours class,” explained Sharp. “A lot of people who are interested in enrolling in a course like this are already engaged in jobs or school, and don’t have time to just drop everything for 12 weeks to learn web development.”

The after-hours strategy seemed to pay off. Sharp received more than 60 applications during DevMountain’s initial enrollment period. Only 20 people can be accepted into the course per term, so two out of every three applicants were unfortunately denied entry into DevMountain’s inaugural class.

Once DevMountain received enough applications, Sharp realized, “our next challenge was creating a solid educational experience in 12 weeks, and delivering on the promise we made to our students.”

Tiafau Purcell was attending an online university prior to enrolling in DevMountain, but decided to give Sharp’s course a shot because he understood the value of knowing how to code. Five weeks into the course, Purcell was laid-off from his part-time job. As the father of three children, he was obviously worried about whether he had made the right decision to enroll in the code bootcamp.

Purcell didn’t have to worry for too long.

“I got a job the week of career night at DevMountain as a UX designer at a startup,” said Purcell. “I enrolled in DevMountain because I wanted to learn to code. I wanted to learn to code because I wanted to build products / services that help others. I also love entrepreneurship, and I think the best asset is development.”

“Stuff like that just makes me so excited,” said Sharp. “That’s ultimately why we started DevMountain. Teaching is all about empowering people. Especially when you’re teaching a skill that’s highly marketable. It’s a super fulfilling thing to be a part of — empowering people to better their lives.”

When it comes to selecting a dev bootcamp, motive matters. It’s important for potential students to understand and trust the intentions and goals of a bootcamp’s founders and instructors. Sharp’s heart seems to be in the right place. Throughout our conversation, he seemed to care more about providing an education to those willing and motivated to learn than he did about how to actually turn a profit. In fact, it seems like Sharp may not have DevMountain’s business model figured out yet.

“Our original business plan was to first train our students to become web developers,” said Sharp. “Then we’d turn around and be recruiters by placing our students in different companies and collect a recruiting fee. What we found is companies in this market don’t want to pay recruiting fees. At least not as much as companies in San Francisco that are used to paying recruiting fees to find high-quality talent. So, we’re still trying to figure out the best way to work with businesses.”

DevMountain’s approach during its inaugural course was to invite companies to bring some food and come speak to the class about career opportunities within their organization. Companies like Reddit, BlueHost, MoneyDesktop, and Property Solutions did just that, and a few students actually ended up working for businesses who came and gave a presentation in front of the class.

“For us, there definitely is value in placing students in companies, no matter what the benefit is to us,” said Sharp. “Because that means we’re doing something right, and we’re providing value for our students, which is the most important thing.”

Including Sharp, there were three instructors for the inaugural course at DevMountain. Plus each student is assigned to a mentor, who is an industry expert within the tech community here in Utah. Mentors function as a personal trainer. They review their student’s code on GitHub, do weekly one-on-one coaching, and help motivate the student when he / she is struggling. The role of a mentor is to push the student along to help them solve problems without actually giving out the answers. The point of the course is to help the students figure things out on their own, using a hands-on approach, rather than a more standard lecture format.

“The instructors were awesome,” said DevMountain graduate Brenan Klain. “They are young, but experienced coders that know how to teach only the stuff we really need to learn. No academic minutia. They were super helpful. The mentorship was probably the most valuable element of the class.”

He may not have set out on this path 10 years ago, but Sharp and DevMountain are helping to close the technology education gap here in Utah, which is great for our state’s economy, and probably even slightly more fun than pulling teeth for a living (cue dated “Seinfeld” reference: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”).

DevMountain’s Winter term, which begins on Jan. 7, is already full. Sharp said they received more than 80 applications for the upcoming course. Applications for the Summer 2014 term will open in April of next year. The price for the past two courses has been $3,500, but the cost to enroll in the Summer 2014 term hasn’t been announced. You can visit their website for more information.

Published 12/6/2013