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Jessica Mitsch is on the front lines of a national effort to get more women into tech careers

Jessica Mitsch is executive director of the Code School of The Iron Yard.
Jessica Mitsch is executive director of the Code School of The Iron Yard. Courtesy of The Iron Yard

Jessica Mitsch recently quit using the term “guys.”

The Raleigh native and executive with the Iron Yard, a training school for software developers, adopted the term so that she could quit using “y’all” when addressing groups outside the South.

But she felt the sting it can carry in a field dominated by men when a young entrepreneur described to her what kind of “guys” he hoped to hire.

“He wasn’t using the word “guys” as a colloquial phrase for people,” she says in a post on the InfoWorld blog. “When he sat down to envision who he was going to hire, he thought ‘guys’ – that is, young adult men.”

As executive director for the Iron Yard coding school, Mitsch’s job is to forge national partnerships, support the school’s alumni and help increase the diversity of its students – putting her on the front lines of a national effort to bring more women into tech-based careers.

The school, which has locations in Raleigh and Durham, has experienced massive growth in recent years, from just three locations when Mitsch started there three years ago to more than a dozen today.

The school offers a $1,000 scholarship to female and minority applicants, and is in the process of launching a $100 million diversity fund in partnership with other schools that will provide full-tuition scholarships to underrepresented groups, including women.

Peter Barth, CEO of The Iron Yard, says the fund is an important step.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution that will increase access to tech education and improve diversity in the workforce,” Barth said. “The Tech Opportunity Fund approaches these issues holistically and coordinates local and national resources to provide students with both academic opportunity and the support system they need to be successful.”

Mitsch says getting women into technology companies right out of fast-track programs like the Iron Yard will help the next generation of female programmers feel at home in a male-dominated field.

“Ultimately, representation is what is going to shape the future of the industry,” she says. “We have to make sure there are more women in there, making it a welcome and inclusive environment for today’s girls.”

An intro to tech

Mitsch was born in Raleigh and spent much of her youth in Cary. Her parents run Pyramid Resource Group, a Cary corporate training company, which she says allowed her to grow up amid the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that pervades the tech industry she now works in.

But her early experiences hardly pointed toward a technology career. As a student at Martin Middle and Enloe High schools in Raleigh, she focused heavily on the arts, taking classes in pottery, art and particularly dance.

She majored in religious studies at the College of Charleston, a small liberal arts college, with a minor in dance – a focus that expressed her interest more than her career ambitions.

“I’ve always been interested in the study of people and humanity,” she says.

She landed a job in the human resources department of Red Hat after graduation, where she worked for three years, including one in Washington, D.C.

The company introduced her to the technology sector, where she felt at home among the largely young and vibrant workforce.

“I love the tech industry and I think it’s partly because it’s having a very positive impact on the world,” she says. “It’s making life more efficient and helping to bridge the divides of time and space.”

It was through her work at Red Hat that she made contact with the Iron Yard. A friend told her to connect with the school, which was looking to expand to the Triangle and could provide training for potential employees.

After getting to know Barth, he asked her to open and run the Durham campus at American Underground, part of the American Tobacco campus.

She started out overseeing two teachers and 21 students, and found support for the program in the many startups and larger tech companies also based on the campus.

“There was a great reaction from the tech community in this area,” she says. “Everyone was having a hard time filling their positions, so we had the solution they needed.”

In the year she ran the campus, it grew to six full-time instructors and about 80 graduates.

Her success in building the school, and in particular corporate partnerships, helped propel her to her next job, where she managed the directors at all of the Iron Yard’s campuses.

In her latest role, she’s also charged with forging partnerships nationwide.

“We want to make sure we connect the dots and optimize things across the country,” she says. “My life right now is a lot of time on the road.”

Pushing for scholarships

The Iron Yard, with headquarters in Greenville, S.C., is one of the largest schools in what’s become known as the “boot camp” industry, which graduated 18,000 students last year, compared with only 2,000 in 2013.

It offers intensive three-month courses in coding aimed at propelling students into careers as software developers. Its courses have long attracted career changers, and more recently students looking for their first career in software development.

Mitsch says their students frequently come from service or sales jobs, though some have come from teaching jobs or straight out of high school.

“They want to do something creative and intellectually stimulating, and many of them have seen what software can do,” she says.

When Mitsch joined the Iron Yard about three years ago, it had only about a dozen employees; it now has 120.

Her role is to work with directors of the school sites through the Southeast and beyond, helping them forge connections with local businesses and also heading a newer arm of the company that works on helping companies train their employees.

A key to its approach is a close relationship with employers. In every city where there is an Iron Yard school, a local advisory group meets regularly to discuss the community’s employment needs and provide ways to connect with students, such as seminars and field trips to companies.

In the Triangle, those board include both technology companies such as Red Hat and others, such as Fidelity Investments, which rely heavily on software developers.

“We have to fit into the broader ecosystem,” she says.

Those connections also provide Mitsch with a chance to promote the idea of bringing greater diversity to the technology industry. So far, about 40 percent of the school’s students received diversity scholarships, but she is working to raise that number and to provide full scholarships starting this year.

Mitsch says that while much of the focus on increasing diversity in technology careers is in K-12 education, the fast turnaround of “boot camp” programs like hers allows them to make an immediate impact.

She rejects the idea that women lack the technical prowess needed for tech careers – and notes that the flexible schedules they allow are appealing to many women.

“Software development is problem-solving,” she says. “It’s a very, very flexible industry that should appeal to women.”

The problems in integrating women into tech workplaces don’t originate from management, she says, but often more subtle interactions among co-workers. She cited the example of one middle-aged female graduate who went to work at a company dominated by men in their 20s.

“It’s that culture of fitting in with a team that looks very different from you,” she says.

To nominate a Tar Heel of the week, send an email with information to tarheel@newsobserver.com

Jessica Mitsch

Born: September 1989, Raleigh

Residence: Raleigh

Career: Executive director of the Code School, The Iron Yard

Education: B.A. religious studies, College of Charleston

Family: Parents Barry and D.J. Mitsch of Cary

Learn more: The Iron Yard holds free evening sessions where the public can try out coding courses. Find dates at www.theironyard.com.

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