Kenzie Academy is an ambitious project to bring tech jobs to Middle America

Jon Russell

The most logical thing to do when you decide to step back from your successful startup, which didn't end up in the deadpool like the other 99 percent, is to take some time off. Appreciate things. Enjoy the fact that years of work paid off, literally. Watch your kids grow up, get an expensive hobby, chill.

These are all things that Chok Ooi, co-founder of little-known but lucrative outsourcing company Agility.io, could have done. But instead, the Malaysia-born entrepreneur is throwing himself into a new project that hopes to help battle the tech talent crunch and bring skilled jobs to the middle of America.

That's definitely not a beach house.

Despite his youthful looks, Ooi -- who arrived in the U.S. as a student in 1999 and has worked in Wall Street and at tech startups -- knows a thing or two about hiring through Agility.io.

The company uses an innovative model to outsource work with a focus on quality. Business development offices in New York and Singapore seek out client projects -- for example those wanting to hit the gas right after funding but don't want to wait months to hire a team -- which are then carried out by a team of over 200 tech staff based at the firm's office in Da Nang, Vietnam.

To date, over 120 clients, including Fortune 500 firms and startups in Silicon Valley, have used the services of Agility.io, which utilizes a hybrid model to place its staff remotely into client teams. Most impressive of all, though: The Vietnamese tech team is trained in-house and all started from scratch with no coding ability.

Agility.io's team of coders in Vietnam are the inspiration for this ambitious U.S. project

Work to learn

Earlier this year, Ooi stepped back from daily activity at Agility.io and relocated from New York to make room for his newest venture, Kenzie Academy, an educational project aimed at adapting the Agility.io model to help get Middle America in on the tech boom.

Alongside him are co-founders Rehan Hasan (COO) and Courtney Spence (CMO) who have experience in educational projects like non-profit media company Students of the World and Denver-based gSchool.

The principal idea behind Kenzie -- which is named after Ooi's youngest daughter -- is to address the gap between higher education and the world of employment. That's in the form of a work-focused school that transitions students into the world of work with the skills they need, while helping talent-hungry tech firms fill vacant roles in a more efficient way.

The project starts in Indianapolis -- where Ooi once lived as a student -- with plans to open to an initial cohort of 25 students in January 2018. The options are flexible but the main focus of the program is to equip students with the knowledge and experience to go out into the world and take a tech job while growing Indianapolis and Indiana as a startup destination.

The Kenzie Academy's three founders

The focus is on learning-by-doing, and -- like Agility.io -- the academy will operate its own consultancy that will be powered by students. To prepare for the world of work, the cohort will have up to six months of training from an on-site team and also learn remotely through a network of mentors.

"People will come to Kenzie to work and learn, versus getting lectured," Ooi told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

"Our curriculum is heavily project-based and there is no lecture model. The way we designed the space heavily caters towards that. It's intentionally designed to look like a real startup working environment. There's no lecture hall and students learn materials online -- getting together in small groups to hold discussions with instructors who are more coaches or mentors versus someone who is teaching you," he added.

The first courses on offer include a six-month program to become a junior front-end developer, a year-long course to become a full-stack developer, and a two-year course that covers coding and computer science.

The course aren't free, however, and they start at $12,000 with longer courses offering cash-back for students who take on client work.

Ooi said that Kenzie "tries to monetize as much from the employer as possible" because that is where demand and capital sit together. But it does need a level of commitment from its students.

"We want to make sure the students are as invested as we are in them. We’ve talked to coding schools who said students who got a toll-free ride tended to be the worst students -- when the going gets tough, they quit," he explained.

Academy-based model

Once they are past the learning period, the plan is to transit them to the consultancy where they are assigned projects from paying clients to put learnings into action and provide new areas to focus their learning.

Ooi said that not only does this benefit students who get an authentic taste of employment, but employers too can get to know -- and work with -- potential hires well in advance of any offer of a full-time role.

Placing full-time students is the goal -- Kenzie will charge a fee to employers for each hire -- but it is confident that bringing employer and student together earlier makes the hiring process considerably more productive for all.

"Going through our two-year program, if a student works with the same employers, they will have worked with them for 18 months. Employers [will] know them so it is no longer a question of whether they are qualified, it’s a natural progression to go on and join these companies," he added.

"The traditional way [to hire] is that companies approach recruiters, who send them hundreds of candidates. They do a lot of work filtering the candidates, then the hiring manager spends a lot of time interviewing. In a job interview you have a couple of hours to make a decision whether this person is the right fit or not. After that if you don’t find the perfect candidate you spend a lot of hours training them on the job," Ooi said.

In the case of students hired before they complete the course, the Kenzie CEO is optimistic that employers will allow them to return to the academy to study because it will advance the employee's skills and make them a more valuable asset.

Kenzie eschewed the non-profit route -- Ooi and Hasan said a "mission-drive," for-profit company gives them a "better chance of success" -- so capital is a consideration. The startup raised undisclosed seed money from investors that include former executives at Google and Facebook, but it has also built itself to be sustainable.

That's where the academy structure is beneficial because it brings in revenue that is split between the student and Kenzie. The team hopes that the potential to earn a salary for 18 months will make the course viable for more students than say an MBA. There will also be the potential for scholarships and an interest-free loan further down the line, the company said.

"It’s a very flexible model to be able to appeal to lots of different types of students in different life situations," Hasan told TechCrunch, explaining that students will be able to defer parts of the course, for example if they get a job, and return to complete it later.

The focus on work is strong, and that's reflected in the prices. Those more advanced courses require some knowledge of coding, so those starting from scratch are in the entry-level option.

Talent in demand

Kenzie is so confident it can deliver on employment that it is guaranteeing students that they will have a job if they complete the two-year program.

That's nothing new, of course. Coding bootcamps, often falsely, make such bold claims leading to complaints from students who feel ripped off after investing and then not getting hired.

The startup believes it is the exception to the rule because of its hybrid model using the consultancy, the work commitment -- eight hours per day, seven days a week -- and the roster of startups and tech companies providing personnel and time for mentoring.

Critically, there's also huge demand, Ooi said, pointing to some high-level examples.

One unnamed company local to Indianapolis that is providing coaching said it is looking to hire 50 engineers next year alone, while there are bigger names in the mix, too.

Salesforce, which moved into the city when it acquired ExactTarget for $2.5 billion in 2013, is currently seeking to fill over 60 vacancies in the city while Indian IT giant Infosys just leased office space that it plans to fill with 2,000 new hires.

"Salesforce began moving their operations from multiple states into Indie because they saw the opportunities here. But even taking away these big companies, today there are 2,000 unfilled tech jobs in the state. They already have a deficit because there is a huge skills gap of what the talent here is [versus] what the companies need -- the demand is there, the only problem is we can’t train people fast enough," Ooi said.

Symbolic: The Salesforce tower, opened in May 2017, is the tallest building in Indianapolis

Evidence of that gulf can be found in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, where IBM has failed to hit target hiring numbers since it moved into the region in search of growth potential in 2013.

"It is having a hard time as local schools aren't producing students with the right skills. Now IBM is going directly to high schools to tackle the solution," Ooi said. "That shows the depth of need, and the gap between what higher education is producing and what companies are looking for."

Unsurprisingly, Baton Rouge and Wisconsin -- where Foxconn this year pledged to invest $3 billion -- are two expansions that Kenzie is considering for the future.

Ooi believes that over the next three years Kenzie can grow to handle 300-500 students per year per location with upwards of 2,000 more studying remotely. The company also plans to expand the curriculum to cover courses like dev-ops and digital marketing.

Such progress would be impressive, but clearly one company can't fill every gap across America. Kenzie insists that its objective is to spark change more widely.

"We want to do to education what Tesla did to cars," Ooi explained. "Tesla showed there’s a better way to build cars and now every car company is innovating. They can’t continue to produce crappy cars nobody wants."

Middle America's chance

For now, the focus is very much on building out the startup community in Indianapolis.

"We’re very hyper local-centric. The idea is to train raw talent in the local community, such as Indianapolis, and keep it there," Hasan said. "Our wish is not for students in Indie to get shipped to SF -- those things happen. But our real mission here is how do we build that talent pool in localities that we are actually in.

"We start by going after SME tech startups that are struggling for talent," Ooi further outlined. "Our goal is to essentially get them to move in [to Indianapolis] first. Once they move in and we keep training more talent and [make the community] bigger, then hopefully we make the city and localities a lot more attractive to bigger tech companies that will then consider a move."

Citing, Amazon, which is publicly seeking a city to create a second HQ, the Kenzie founders believe the timing is ideal for Middle America.

"A lot of the top contenders aren’t coastal cities, they’re actually Middle America cities so you see where the trend is. The big companies find that being in coastal cities is actually to their disadvantage because of the talent war and there is a lot of appetite to move to other parts of the country given that they can find enough talent.

"That’s where we hope to come in, to focus on the middle of the country and train up talent so that, in the long term, it becomes very attractive for these tech companies to either relocate there or open up secondary offices there," Ooi said.

Huge tech companies bring money to the table and, while they acknowledge that the education sector can be lucrative, the Kenzie founders said they haven't spent much time thinking about an exit. Ooi raised the potential to pay out dividends in the future, aside from a sale, but for now they are consumed with the first steps of their ambitious objective.

"We are not spring chickens; we’ve been very successful in our ventures and this is a labor of love for us," Hasan said.

"This is very personal," Ooi echoed. "We already made our money so for us it is really about wanting to make a change for this country. We heavily curated our investor list and turned down money that didn’t match our objectives."

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