Portland’s Alchemy Code Lab: Bringing Diversity and Opportunity Through Coding

Last week I sat down with founder, CEO, and Chief Alchemist of Alchemy Code Lab, Marty Nelson. Alchemy is a Portland-based technology company that offers a Professional Software Engineering Program that prepares people to launch careers in coding. Among its alumni are people who used to be baristas, folks who had degrees in history or other academic areas, as well as those who were hoping to shift careers and find intellectually challenging work.

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The program, which was launched originally as Code Fellows PDX, has a history of helping its students go from making $9/hour to over $70,000 a year. One of their recent graduates, Brandi “Charly” Welch, won the “Women Who Code” Rising Star award months after entering the tech field for quickly becoming a major contributor at DiscoverOrg where she’s a software engineer.

Alchemy is led by Marty and his wife, Megan, who are deeply committed to bringing diversity to the tech space in Portland. Their student population is currently half female, and they have big goals for attracting African American and Latinx communities. To date, Marty and Megan have given more than $500,000 in scholarships to every single woman, person of color, LGBTQ, and Latinx person who has gone through the Alchemy program. In any given week organizations like Women Who Code use Alchemy office space for administrative purposes, and they’ve just committed $45,000 to ChickTech, which recently lost a major funder.

Marty and I spoke about how Alchemy has allowed him to give back to the community, as well as his thoughts on how he’s using a dynamic teaching environment to help tech companies see the value in diversity.

Kirk: How did you come to own a coding school? What were you doing before?

Marty: It was something of a serendipitous thing that happened. Most of my mid-20s I’d been working in bars, waiting tables, working at a children’s museum, etc. I had a degree in art history from Claremont McKenna College, which is a great liberal arts college that taught me how to think, write, analyze, and communicate. But when I got married and we had our first kid, I didn’t really have the luxury of asking those existential questions like, “Why do we do the work we do?” I had a family to provide for now. I ended up going out on a two-week contract at Fred Meyer for $9 an hour, working on a Y2K project. And I was able to parlay that experience into a pretty substantial job where seven months later I was making $35 an hour.

I’ve never forgotten that transitional time in my life. My wife was able to stay home with our kids for the first 12 years of their lives, we were able to buy a home, etc. I’ve never forgotten the socioeconomic impact that a tech career had on me and my whole family, and I’m committed to helping our graduates experience this as well.

So I got this start in tech in 1999 and did about 10 years of Microsoft .NET enterprise development and had risen to a senior architect level. Around 2008, I started a new role as Head of Architecture. My boss was a senior VP from Oracle and he taught me a ton about software development organizational values and norms he had seen in Silicon Valley. Then around 2013, the company consolidated leadership back to San Diego, but my family and I wanted to stay in Portland. So I asked myself, “What do you want to do now?”

And I realized I’ve never done the startup thing. So I spent some time consulting and doing MVP work in Portland. But I also used this time as an opportunity to pivot and see what else in the industry is cool. I had started with JavaScript and NodeJS back in 2008, but modern frontend JS was really exploding at this time.

During 2015, I started teaching some night classes for Code Fellows and was eventually hired by them as a principal instructor to teach FullStack JS and help them advance the curriculum. They ended up pivoting their business model and offered me an opportunity to take over the Portland school and license their curriculum in 2016. By mid-2017 we took full ownership and rebranded as Alchemy Code Lab.

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Kirk: What about Alchemy sets it apart?

Marty: There’s a couple things we inherited from our Code Fellows days that have become part of our core values. They were the first code school in Seattle. Their program was good enough to get people into Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, etc. And they’ve always been focused on training people to be contributors and asking, “What do we need to do to train people on how to use the technology on the job, use it at scale, etc?”

During my time with Alchemy, I’ve had over two years of deconstructing the tacit knowledge of what makes a good software developer. Sure, I did it for two decades, but watching people struggle has forced me to dig into what makes a great developer.

The other key value has been a commitment to diversity, which is something we definitely brought with us into Alchemy. We are committed to offering in-house scholarships to women and other untapped tech talent, as an incentive to encourage them to move into tech. And it also means sponsoring groups like PDXWIT and WWCode Portland.

Kirk: What about your training helps set your graduates apart?

Rarely does anyone leave here not improved as a human being. Software’s a really tough job to do well, and you need really good human skills. You’ve got to be self-aware. Not just “soft skills” but for actual software development. You’ve got to articulate where you’re at, and you’ve got to be able to toggle between left/right brain activities.

I think we also give our students a sense of space and a supportive environment. And we were very conscious about how we designed Alchemy’s working environment--it’s light, it’s bright. We want it to feel like a tech company, too.

There’s an intentionality to connect people inside the program to those outside our walls. Which is a big reason why we created the App Lab, a place for our graduates to put their knowledge to use building apps for Portland’s entrepreneurs. It’s a really unique integrated learning and work environment that’s overseen by senior developers and allows great ideas to actually come to market at a cost that is more digestible. So we balance student time between classroom training and hands-on development.

Kirk: What keeps you going?

Marty: When I look at Portland, part of our role is to supply talent to people who hire tech. We help developers; we help Portland business hire; we help new businesses start; we help Portland.

A key ah-ha moment for me came when I was watching a video of Magic Johnson at Upfront Summit a number of years ago. And he was talking about his experience with Starbucks. At the time, there were no Starbucks stores in black or latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles. So he reached out to Howard Schultz and said, “Hey, Howard, black people like coffee, too!” In this video I saw how Magic Johnson helped them tweak the menu, offering sweet potato pie instead of scones, for example. And these stores were hugely successful. At the end of the video Magic Johnson said, “If you take a look at America’s changing demographics and you don’t pay attention to that, you’re going to miss opportunities.” Starbucks didn’t lack resources to find opportunity--they were color blind. That clicked for me.

So, today I view engaging diversity as a ladder. At the first basic level, diversity is a social good, the “right thing to do.” Then at a manager’s level, we know that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams. Ultimately though, it’s a C-level and board-level responsibility as well. If you continue to only be able to sell to all white male demographics, your market is going to be shrinking.

I would love to have Portland companies adopt diversity to the degree that they become hyper competitive on a global scale because of what we’re doing. Which is pretty ambitious for Portland. But that’s where I get excited. I’m always into people doing things they’ve never done before. How can we capture markets and opportunities because of our team? Alchemy wants to fuel that.

Additionally, my greatest joy as a teacher is seeing the change in the life of students. When a student comes in with a $32k desk job, no health insurance, and a partner and a kid, and at the end of their time here, it’s a $70k job with full health benefits? That’s the whole family benefitting. And that goes back to my story--I knew what tech did for us, and I believe that you shouldn’t have to go to an expensive liberal arts college or have all the advantages I did to take advantage of what the tech industry can offer.

Nominate a Leader Today

I was first introduced to Marty by Shannon Wolcott, the director of marketing and career services at Alchemy. She sent me a message on LinkedIn and spoke with such enthusiasm and passion about the mission at Alchemy that I knew Marty would make a great candidate for the Have You Met blog. Thanks for reaching out, Shannon!

If you know someone who is trying to give bless people with their good fortune or influence, please don’t hesitate to reach out and nominate them to be featured on Have You Met. (They don’t have to be a CEO to be featured on the blog!)

Kirk Lohmolder