Propel Aims to Close Tech Talent Gap by Offering On-Demand IT Gurus

A few years ago, when Nick Birch and Scott Jones co-founded Indianapolis’s Eleven Fifty Academy, a nonprofit coding school, they realized their goal of harnessing Eleven Fifty to “close the nation’s growing technology skills gap” wasn’t going to be realized through classroom instruction alone.

Sure, they were teaching people the programming skills needed to compete for IT jobs, but there was another challenge: Many employers were hesitant to give the new graduates a shot because they considered the cost and time required to “onboard” them into the company to be prohibitive, Birch says.

So the pair also created an apprenticeship program that gave graduates the chance to work with seasoned IT professionals in a professional environment. The idea was that junior programmers would work “shoulder to shoulder” with senior programmers and put their new skills to practical use.

“We saw our junior engineers take a rocket ship up the learning curve,” Birch says. “There was something to the idea of having someone there to help you get past those early roadblocks. It created a mentor-mentee, human-to-human relationship.”

Based on the success of the apprenticeship program, Birch and Jones decided to start a new endeavor called Propel late last year with the goal of reducing some of the onboarding friction they encountered. Propel, which is also based in Indy, matches less experienced software engineers who apply through its website with what it calls “gurus,” or experienced IT professionals. The gurus offer professional help, mentorship, and advice designed to smooth the junior programmer’s path to meaningful employment. (When Propel launched earlier this year, it was only available as a business-to-businesses offering, but the company recently opened its service to individual software engineers.)

The first meeting between guru and junior engineer is considered a free trial, where a potential mentee and mentor hang out and determine whether it’s a good match. If it is, they set up recurring meetings—it’s up to each individual pair to determine how often those meetings occur—and each guru sets his or her own price, generally between $50 and $150 per hour. Initially, Propel’s gurus were former instructors at Eleven Fifty, but these days most come via referral. Birch says gurus are welcomed into Propel on an invitation-only basis. “We’re particular about this because we don’t just want the best engineers, we want engineers who are good teachers with empathy and patience.”

Birch feels the arrangement between gurus and junior engineers works best when there isn’t a huge experience gulf separating them. “We’ve seen a lot of success by pairing someone with a few years of experience with a newbie,” he explains. It also keeps costs down. Because gurus set their own pay rate, Birch says the less experienced engineers’ time isn’t perceived to be as expensive as someone who has a decade or more in the industry.

Propel still offers an enterprise version, where a company sponsors its new employees, and Birch says there’s been “huge demand” lately because of all the graduates coming out of coding schools and boot camps. However, Birch feels that Propel clients have a leg up on their fellow graduates because they can tell a potential employer that despite their lack of experience, they’re working with a Propel guru so the company “won’t have to invest as much or risk as much to bring them on,” he adds.

Birch describes Propel as a potential solution to the “current tech talent shortage war.” He notes a global survey of tech companies released over the summer where two-thirds of respondents said finding talented engineers was one of their biggest obstacles.

“That’s why these bootcamps are popping up,” Birch says. “Even with people at the top of the funnel, the technology is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up. How can they keep up with the technology and bring in hungry engineers that can jump right in without tapping their colleagues on the shoulder and asking for help? We give [engineers] a good foundation to grow from, and we help businesses invest in these employees and give them a good start.”

So far, the two-man Propel operation has mostly been bootstrapped, Birch says, and the company has made some money in the enterprise realm. Birch is focused now on keeping its roughly 30 gurus matched with junior engineers, but Propel is also exploring an executive track—where a senior engineer with greater ambitions could be matched with a chief technical officer or other C-level executive—for the future.

“There are so many new tools coming out: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, machine learning,” Birch says. “Software developers are asked to do more and more, but we can help them invest in themselves and create relationships that drive value and help them achieve their desired goals.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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