Mark Hurlburt, 40, is a founder and president of Prime Digital Academy, an industry-supported learning program that has launched 500-plus tech professionals since 2015. He previously worked in software development and as part of the executive team at the Nerdery, one of Prime's founding supporters. Hurlburt, a biology graduate of Macalester College, said Prime trains "smart, motivated" adults for entry-level jobs in software engineering.
Q: What is Prime Digital Academy?
A: Prime is an accelerated, full-time immersion tech learning program [or boot camp]. Our 18-to-20 week programs help career changers land high-paying, in-demand jobs in the tech industry. We founded Prime in 2014 as a response to the talent gap in the local community that I saw as an executive at a local software development company, the Nerdery. Our students ramp from sometimes no technical skills to a level where they can help tackle that talent gap by becoming entry-level web developers and user-experience designers in as little as five months.
Q: Why is this important?
A: Minnesota was recently named the fastest-growing state for tech jobs in the United States. MSP TechHire, citing state figures, predicts that there will be more than 200,000 tech jobs available in Minnesota in the next decade. Competition for talent is already at all-time highs. This has encouraged employers to embrace nontraditional sources for talent and discover the benefits of building a team with more diverse backgrounds. Prime is part of MSP TechHire that is working to help Minnesota develop the talent … and create opportunities for "underrepresented" groups.
Q: Has Prime been successful?
A: We've got a strong foothold in the tech community. With nearly 600 Prime grads working for more than 300 companies in Minnesota, we have the local connections, reputation and relationships to help students break into the industry. We've helped place hundreds and hundreds of grads all over the state working at everything from startups, like Brightpeak Financial, to the big companies Minnesota was built on, such as 3M, Target, Best Buy. What also makes Prime successful is our focus on career development. Our instructors coach students on interviewing strategies as well as … feedback from industry recruiters and local mentors — who also come in as weekly guest speakers, giving students a peek inside the industry.
Q: What are the before-and-after metrics?
A: Eighty five percent of our students land jobs in the field — most within six months of graduating. The average salary for a Prime grad's first job is $55,000 and it can go up quickly after just a few years of experience. Collectively, our grads earn over $14,000 more annually relative to their pre-Prime salaries.
Q: How much does Prime cost?
A: The cost of our program is $13,750 for students who write a check. While we don't offer traditional federal student aid as we want to keep our curriculum more nimble and reactive to industry demand, we partner with specialized lenders so students with low credit scores can still get financing including a stipend to cover living expenses. Students have to quit their job [to complete] 60-plus hours a week in classroom work.
[DEED] workforce-training grants can be applied. We also work with MSP Tech Hire, which unfortunately is out of scholarship funds for this year. Scholarships are based on demographics and financial need. We also work with two third-party lenders. The rates are reasonable.
Q: What is the demographic/racial breakdown of Prime graduates?
A: Thirty seven percent of Prime graduates are female, 20 percent are minorities, and several of our developers and designers identify as LGBTQ. Those are stats we'd love to see matched in the industry. There are also more than 40 years separating Prime's oldest students from the youngest.
Q: What is the challenge?
A: One of the biggest challenges we're trying to tackle is making the program accessible to more people. That includes working to continue scholarship funds from programs like MSP TechHire … and the Veteran's Administration and the workforce center system. We're always seeking to connect with businesses looking to grow their tech teams, whether that's to introduce them to program graduates or to talk about creating scholarship opportunities.
Q: What does it take to be admitted and what is your graduation rate?
A: Our application includes a coding or design challenge, short essays and some logic puzzles — all of which will take about 10 hours to complete. Once students submit their application, they'll meet with a member of our team to talk about the program.
We want to make sure we're a good fit and help them answer any questions about logistics, financing, the job search and other things they'll face as a student and an alumni.
Ninety seven percent of accepted students graduate the program — a product of our thorough application process.