After unsuccessfully seeking a software developer job for months last year, Brock Lubbers realized he needed more than a high school programming class on his resume. A self-taught coder, the 22-year-old couldn’t meet the minimum requirements for an entry-level position. He wasn’t sure how to get over the twin barriers of lacking both experience and a college degree.
Brock isn’t alone. For many people, some jobs are out of reach because they don’t have traditional credentials, such as landing a job as a software developer. Koch hopes to eliminate that barrier — and change a lot of futures — through a collaboration with Catalyte, a company that identifies and trains overlooked tech talent.
The new pilot program, launched in October 2020 at Koch’s headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, uses advanced algorithms to identify candidates with the aptitude to become software developers – no formal training required. The goal is to identify potential and create access and opportunity for nontraditional recruits to leverage their innate abilities and drive transformation, for themselves and Koch. It’s connected to the company’s Market-Based Management® (MBM®) philosophy, which focuses on creating value for society and an environment for individuals to thrive.
“At Catalyte, we know that aptitude is equally distributed but opportunity isn’t,” says Jacob Hsu, chief executive officer of Catalyte. “Our technology is designed to bypass traditional measures used in hiring, like resumes and degrees, to see someone’s true potential for becoming a software developer."
The Koch-Catalyte program invited 12 individuals to train through a self-guided course to become software developers. And to imagine the possibilities where this career transformation could take them.
Ana Wagner was looking for a way back into the workforce after leaving her job eight years ago to take care of her two boys, now ages 8 and 6. Although she’d previously been in quality assurance, Ana was interested in software development and thought she could teach herself to code. But as a full-time mother to small children, she rarely had time.
“I've always been interested in logic puzzles and solving problems,” Ana says. “I'd been wanting to get into that field, but I hadn’t worked in a long time and I didn’t have any programming or development experience.”
The Koch-Catalyte program, with the likelihood of a job if she graduated, seemed like a not-to-be-missed opportunity. After exhibiting the natural aptitudes for software development in the entrance screening and a series of interviews, Ana started the program in October 2020.
To identify students for the training program, Koch deployed Catalyte’s proprietary artificial intelligence algorithm to assess innate talent for software development. Ana, Brock and other applicants took a two- to-three-hour online screening, broken into several sections, that looks at skills such as problem-solving instead of credentialed abilities. While it features some advanced mathematics, deducing the correct answer is not the point.
“It’s more about the AI predicting how well you solve problems, analyzing your approach and considering how you deal with stress when you get in a situation that you don’t have an answer to,” says Michelle Small, learning partner, who leads the program at Koch Industries.
Graduates are guaranteed a full-time software developer position at either Koch or Catalyte. That pool of qualified potential hires, which Koch has not had access to previously, represents a huge benefit for the company. Many of the ideas embodied in the program — from removing barriers for nontraditional job hunters to opening unique avenues for finding talented workers — mirror long-term Koch initiatives. The Koch-Catalyte program gave them something that could be accomplished here and now, says Kristin Webb, vice president of Koch Learning Systems.
It wasn’t just outside talent who applied for the Koch-Catalyte program. Isaac Baker, a Koch security guard at the time, learned about the program. Isaac was also a self-taught coder looking to break into the industry. He wanted a higher-paying job to support his five children and to get off night shifts, which he’d been working for 10 years.
“I wanted something more personally fulfilling, something that gave me better options for the future,” Isaac says. “I guess Koch’s push to strive to do more and transform yourself leaked into me, too.”
The response from people interested in the Koch-Catalyte program was overwhelming. Catalyte’s website saw unprecedented traffic in the days following the program announcement. In fact, so many people took the test that the team ended its paid recruiting advertising after just three days. “Everyone recognized this as an opportunity that will benefit the entire community, and that’s clearly a powerful motivation,” says Rob Carlton, director of communications and marketing.
Students spend 40 hours a week for about 26 weeks training to be software developers. The accelerated, self-paced program is free to trainees and in turn, helps create a significantly deeper and more diverse pool of talent maximizing their potential. The program also can help Koch meet future needs for talent as it digitally transforms by enabling current Koch employees like Isaac to retrain or learn new skills for in-demand jobs.
Isaac, who will graduate in early May, worked full-time at Koch when he “took a leap of faith” to focus entirely on his training through the Koch-Catalyte program. He’s looking forward to the opportunities software development has in store for him and his family. “I’ve been running errands with the kids and they say, ‘Hey! You’ve never done this before.' That’s why I’m doing this," Isaac says.
The class meets at the Koch facility in Wichita, on a floor set aside to create a socially distanced learning space. Each student receives a laptop, which is theirs to keep when they graduate. In addition to coding, students learn to problem-solve, tap into their innate tech abilities and develop strategies for learning and comprehending new concepts faster.
“These are skills that will benefit them forever, in their careers and life,” Kristin says.
In March, the program celebrated its first graduate — Brock, who now works as a software engineer at Koch Business Solutions in Wichita. Although nervous about his three interviews, Brock was prepared in advance by the Koch-Catalyte team, who helped him draft a resume and learn to tout his achievements. Having been on the job for just two weeks, he says he already really enjoys the work and the people. The one drawback: He had to buy new clothes for his office job since he’d previously been mowing lawns and cleaning pools.
Ana is excited to have graduated and to be considering two job offers. Her 8-year-old recently told her he, too, was looking forward to her starting a new job — especially if it means they can resume their time spent playing Clue and Minecraft together.
Hear more from Isaac in this episode of The Picture, a Koch Industries Spotlight Series telling inspirational stories from Koch's hometown, Wichita, Kansas.