Three months ago, I walked into Partnered Solutions IT to start my summer experience at Elevate Lane County.
Little did I know that six weeks and 10 companies later, I would be professionally and personally changed by the experience with the local tech community. I was inspired by their stories and wisdom, and deeply grateful for everyone’s commitment to help the youth in our community find their way to high-wage tech jobs in Lane County.
My goal was to interview as many people as possible in the 10 tech companies, and to take what I learned back to Thurston High School, where I work as a counselor and teach a college and career readiness class.
I wanted to find out how employees got into their positions, what they did every day, and what qualities or skills are needed for their work. I also asked employees for ideas on what students should be doing now or later to help them gain skills and knowledge for such careers.
My generous hosts were Partnered Solutions IT, Waitrainer, Toba Capital, Emerald Broadband, IDX, Palo Alto Software, Sheer ID, Lunar Logic, CBT Nuggets and Revolution Design.
I conducted 106 formal interviews during the six weeks in the tech firms, spending one to two days at a time at each business. The people who sat down with me from anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours were generous with their time and open to sharing ideas and information about resources. Most importantly, they were excited to share insights, experience and knowledge to help students and educators better understand their world.
As a counselor for 23 years, these authentic conversations are what I crave. I loved every minute of them. I took notes, sometimes wishing that I knew shorthand to better record all the great stories and ideas.
Each of the 10 technology companies are thriving businesses. They need many different types of people and positions to help their business succeed, not just people writing code. SheerID CEO Jake Weatherly will tell you that they have four other employees for every programmer. At both IDX and CBT Nuggets, programming is very important, but customer experience, sales and marketing are just as critical for their robust businesses.
It became clear early in my interviews that I was not going to interview programmers exclusively. During the six weeks, I interviewed developers, engineers, quality assurance leads, system administrators, product and project managers, user experience designers, social media strategists, content writers, customer service support specialists, sales development representatives, human resource specialists, CFOs, CEOs and many more.
As you can see, there were many job titles. Many I had never heard of before. But I benefited from learning about what they did and how they contributed to the company. I also began to think about how our students could begin to develop the skills needed for these unique and innovative positions.
Each job requires specific technical skills. A programmer, for example, must know code deeply and have an understanding of multiple code languages, such as Java Script, Python, etc. A social marketing specialist must understand search engine optimization. Besides these and other technical skills, employees need certain personal qualities and characteristics to thrive in tech firms. No matter if employees were in marketing, sales, programming, finance, or management, there was a consistency in the message from tech industry managers — they want people who have a deep sense of curiosity, strong verbal and written communication skills, the ability to adapt quickly, and a team-oriented mindset.
Getting a close-up view of those values at work was inspiring.
And consistently hearing about the desirability of those personal characteristics will help focus our work as educators. The message further emphasizes the importance to create learning units and projects that allow students to communicate clearly within a team while they face complex problems. In that way, students will have to think deeply and adapt quickly.
Our students need to be developing and practicing these skills that are so vital in tech firms. The good news is that these skills are assets in any industry, even if a student doesn’t want to pursue a career in tech.
A teacher who participated in Elevate Lane County said she will use a slogan in her classroom that she learned during the summer: “Make sure to beat your head against the problem for at least 10 minutes before you ask for help.”
As educators, we can help ignite curiosity in students by letting them beat their heads against the wall for awhile.
We have a tendency to help students if we see them struggling with a problem, or if we want to move on to the next step in the lesson plan. But the struggle is where learning happens. I spoke to several tech developers who said that patience is required to solve complex problems. Sometimes that means leaving the problem for awhile, trying out-of-the-box solutions, or “Googling” ideas.
I look forward to learning how it goes in the teacher’s classroom during the 10 minutes before students start asking for help.
Now that the summer experiences are over, Elevate Lane County is creating a career pathway document to share this fall with counselors, teachers, students, families and the greater community. The document will include career opportunities in the local tech industry, a list of needed skills, required training and education, and ideas and resources for students to use so they can gain the skills.
Earlier in the summer, I asked Robert Steck, CEO of Partnered Solutions IT, for ideas if I had a student wanting to start in the tech industry after graduation. He said to me, “Why are they waiting? They should be starting now.”
I laughed, but realized that I didn’t know what to tell such a student. Thankfully, now I do know what to tell students because of my experience at his and the other firms.
And we have a list of free online resources, books, internship opportunities, and community groups that students can rely on for information.
Finally, I would like to share insights from my 106th and final interview, which happened to be with Chloe Shaughnessy, a former Thurston High School student, who works at Revolution Design. I was her counselor for four years, so it was special to speak to Chloe last.
She worked hard in high school through many challenges, including the death of her father. When Chloe graduated, she went to Lane Community College and then transferred to the University of Oregon to earn a journalism degree.
Chloe had to basically work full-time while in college so she could afford to attend the UO. I would often see her working nights or weekends, and she would fill me in on her progress toward her degree.
Now she is digital media specialist in an innovative, exciting industry in the community, and doing very well. I couldn’t be more proud of her.
With the knowledge that I gained over the summer, I can give better information to students so they can make informed decisions about their futures. Chloe’s interview and insights will help with that. She will be giving back to her Thurston community immediately. It was a perfect way to end my summer tech industry experience.
And it came with a big hug.
All of us connected with Elevate Lane County hope we can help open more paths for students.
With teachers’ in-depth experiences and my individual interviews, we have expanded the opportunities to talk specifically with students about technology industry opportunities, the skills needed, and steps they can take right away to get on a career path.
We hope you will likewise be inspired and look for the career pathway information, as well as to follow the Technology Association of Oregon’s strong, intentional work in our community. By helping spread the word about the dynamic partnership between education and the local technology industry, you, too, can help youth find their way to high-paying, creative, and rewarding careers here in Lane County.
Amy Stranieri, an educator for 23 years, is chairwoman of the counseling department at Thurston High School in Springfield.
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