Square founder hopes to turn St. Louis into the Silicon Prairie

Tim Lloyd Oct 21, 2013

Square founder hopes to turn St. Louis into the Silicon Prairie

Tim Lloyd Oct 21, 2013

When Jim McKelvey opens the door to his 2,000-degree glass furnace, you can feel the sudden blast of heat.  He sticks a metal pole inside and pulls out a bright yellow ball of molten glass. 

“The glass is just beautiful today,” McKelvey says.  “I like making bowls, so, this will probably be a bowl.”

McKelvey founded the mobile payment company Square four years ago with fellow St. Louis native Jack Dorsey. Since then, he hasn’t had a whole lot of time to spend in the glass studio he built in an abandoned 1950’s service station. 

Square would have had a natural home here in St. Louis, McKelvey says, but he and Dorsey couldn’t find the programmers they needed to grow. So the company set up headquarters in San Francisco. 

To keep that from happening again, Mckelvey is dusting off an old school training model: Apprenticeships. And he’s giving the idea a test run with his new non-profit, Launch Code. 

“I learned to blow glass as an apprentice,” McKelvey says.  “Launch Code uses sort of an apprentice model.  We take people who have the basic skills.  Then, we put them in companies and they’re paired up with an expert.”    

Launch Code is placing applicants at 100 companies, including local heavyweights Monsanto and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The apprentices only get $15 an hour. If they prove themselves though, they’re on the fast track to high-paying jobs. McKelvey says if an applicant has the chops, everyone’s willing to overlook a weak resume. 

“The best artists I work with are self-taught,” McKevley says. “The best programmers I work with are self-taught.” 

At the top of a set of creaky steps in a rehabbed garment wholesale building in downtown St. Louis are the offices of Pushup Social, where Launch Code placed Kegan Myers.

He’s one of the project’s first placements at this social media startup. Though he’s only 20, Myers has been goofing around with basic web programming for years.

“Without Launch Code, I would probably be working some dead end job so that I have a little bit of money to find some way to better myself,” Myers says. 

Launch Code works by pairing up two programmers looking at the same code. Brad Urani, Pushup Social’s chief software architect, says the experienced programmer gets lots of questions. And he’s totally cool with that.  

“More questions are better because that leads to optimizing the way things work,” Urani says. 

Ed Domain runs Techli.com and covers the startup scenes popping up in the Midwest. He thinks Launch Code is a “no-brainer.”

Domain says even if a tech upstart has some cash, it can be slim pickings when it comes to programming talent. With that in mind, Launch Code’s model could solve a big problem for companies on the so-called ‘Silicon Prairie.’

“They can stay home and they can be the next success story for their town,” Domain says.

If Launch Codes works the way he thinks it will, Jim McKelvey is confident he can transition the city from its industrial roots into a tech-hub.

“I believe that we’ll actually create a talent surplus, then you’ll start to see companies moving to this region to take advantage of that surplus,” McKelvey says.

Just like Square, he says if Launch Code’s training and job placement model works here, it can work anywhere.   

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