Coding camps

Houston startup aims to arm the energy industry's workforce with coding skills

Daytum exists to train coding experts in oil and gas. Getty Images

Nearly 2,000 miles separate the energy industry of Houston and Silicon Valley where startups have cropped up to help manage the thousands of data points collected on oil rigs each day. The different geographies have developed their own dialects: data scientists on the West Coast talk about how operations should be, according to their models, while the lingo of Third Coast engineers and technicians centers on oil-specific operations.

Last year, while working in natural resource investing from Houston, Kunal Rayakar realized he had heard from a number of students who could, uniquely, speak both. The reason: They knew coding languages, which meant they could analyze their own data and bridge that gap between the coasts. When Rayakar followed the trail of students to the University of Texas at Austin, he found two engineering professors, John Foster and Michael Pyrcz, who were teaching their students data skills as part of the curriculum. They started talking, and eventually Foster and Rayakar founded daytum — and soon after, Pyrcz joined, too.

"The intention is to give people more awareness of the data that comes through, so they can make faster decisions," Rayakar says.

An education program for workers in the energy industry, daytum hosts workshops and an online learning network for technicians and engineers to better understand the data they're working with. This, Rayakar says, helps them exercise more control over the work — especially for those whose preliminary training in the field was before data became indispensable to the job. The professors and Kunal host two– or five-day workshops, and just a few weeks ago, they held both introductory and intermediate courses at the University of Houston.

The professors teach Python, a common programming language. Although there's a learning curve to studying Python, it's not as confusing as some of the tools, like MATLAB, that engineers studied in their undergraduate educations. But students don't actually have to become Python experts at all — instead, they use Jupyter, an online digital notebook that can import Python packages, which are large and ready-made coding sequences.

Often, these are free and available to download on sites like Github. Daytum professors teach packages that are useful for analyzing and visualizing the data they work with in the field, and students leave having a usable workstation on their computers, ready to be installed and implemented in their work.

"People really enjoyed the courses," Rayakar says. "We were really happy."

But right now, daytum's main goal is to continue to grow its workshops — including introducing Austin bootcamps, to engage people in learning, and to empower oil industry technicians to navigate the industry's digital transition more smoothly.

"By building longer-term solutions and cultures, we can build better educations," Rayakar says.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. Getty Images

It's been a little over a year since Houston lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid and left the city pondering its approach to innovation. Houston is known for taking risks and bouncing back from adversity. We're known for growth and entrepreneurship. But are we still known for innovation? Are we positioned for growth as a creative class and digital skills city?

It's my belief that we need to invest in the professional skills of our local workforce and ensure we can attract companies that will help our city and Houstonians thrive. Amazon pointed us in the right direction. It highlighted our need of more professional upskilling programs and increased investment in the city's innovation infrastructure.

At Rice University, we listened, and launched fast-track, intensive tech training programs designed specifically for working adults to help solve these problems. We launched a pilot program in late 2018, a data analytics boot camp in partnership with a national workforce accelerator called Trilogy Education. It was met with such an enthusiastic response from students that we are expanding the initiative by adding programs in cybersecurity and other high demand fields later this year.

These tech boot camps are designed to augment Rice's other efforts to foster innovation in our community like a recent $100 million investment in a new innovation hub for all of Houston and an already ambitious innovation and technology ecosystem, highlighted by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Combined, we hope these efforts will help Houston to secure its position as a magnet for technology employers and workers alike.

By many standards, Houston's tech industry is booming. Digital middle-skill jobs — the kinds that provide a stepping stone between lower-paid non-tech roles and high-earning careers in tech — represent 42 percent of overall job postings in Houston. And these jobs are on the rise. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Houston job postings requiring web development skills rose by 57 percent, earning the city 6th-place ranking among the top 10 U.S. cities for coding job growth.

With numbers like these, it's easy to grow complacent. But Houston is by no means immune to the widening digital skills gap that is holding back business growth nationwide. And unless we create programs to support upskilling and career mobility, even the people currently driving Houston's tech renaissance may struggle to keep their skills sets up to date.

These programs help us address Amazon's core area of critique: innovation. This is something Houston has historically been known for; in 1969 alone, we helped put the first astronaut on the moon and the first artificial heart in a patient. But like all important skills, innovation must be regularly nurtured, enhanced, and relearned.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. These employers are starting to look beyond traditional degrees for people who can simply prove they have the skills for the job. The relatively lower barrier to entry for a technology boot camp opens the door for candidates of all races, genders, and walks of life to bring their unique perspectives and insights to an industry sorely in need of more diversity.

As one of the country's most racially diverse metros, Houston reflects the nation's demographic future, and can make a unique contribution to the diversity of our workforce. We already rank among the top five best U.S. cities for women in tech (number four, to be exact). And if the demographics of Rice's earliest boot camp enrollees are any indication, a widespread rollout of these kinds of programs may be a part of Houston's ability to garner the number one spot in coming years. Among our boot camp students to date, 35 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are African American, and 23 percent are Asian. Women made up 25 percent of our first class, a good start that we plan to improve.

Houston has the potential to become a nationwide leader in tech innovation. The problems we face in getting there are complicated, but like all equations, they can be solved with resilience and hard work.

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Robert Bruce is the dean of Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.