Bret Dickey teaches Spokane Community College’s popular software development courses. This quarter alone 90 new students enrolled, and they hail from all over the U.S. and beyond.
So why does Dickey occasionally find himself lecturing to empty seats?
“Because I record my lectures, and students watch when it’s more convenient, like after work,” he said. “If I have a class of 27 students, I may have only two physically present.
“Sometimes there’s no one else in the room. It’s weird.”
But also rewarding for students who survive the tough curriculum and go on to lucrative careers.
Four-year colleges typically teach a computer-science approach to programming.
“We teach what’s calls ‘CIS’ – computer information systems,” Dickey said. “All we do is create applications for businesses.”
During a recent interview, he discussed flying schedules, Flappy Bird and how to overcome a fear of technology.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Dickey: In Coulee Dam (pop. 1,098), about 90 miles northwest of here.
S-R: What was your first job?
Dickey: I worked in a variety store called Ben Franklin all through high school. When I moved to Spokane to attend college, I started selling shoes at Nordstrom and stayed with that all the way through graduate school.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Dickey: Back then, classes weren’t really my focus. I was more interested in the social aspect of school.
S-R: What was your goal when you started college?
Dickey: At first I was geared toward a business career. But at Spokane Falls, I started taking computer classes along with business and really enjoyed the programming portion of those. By focusing on CIS, I was able to do both business and computers.
S-R: Where did you go from there?
Dickey: After getting my AA degree, I went to Eastern Washington University and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science. Then I came here in ’96 and created the Software Development degree program. After teaching at SCC for nine years, I wanted more real-world experience. So I left and worked in industry for 11 years, overseeing a half-dozen other software developers at World Wide Group (a provider of Amway support) in the Spokane Valley. I returned to teaching three years ago when SCC had an opening, but I still do contract work for World Wide and other clients.
S-R: Did any skills learned working in retail translate to teaching computer programming?
Dickey: I think the personal aspect of putting the customer first in retail contributed to a student-first mentality in education. When you’re teaching – particularly in the technology field – and you have 25 students, everyone has a different level of understanding. Our challenge is making sure we’re not boring the students who are ahead of the curve and not overwhelming those who are behind. The best way to balance that is to constantly communicate with the students and be a good listener.
S-R: How many instructors teach the CIS program?
Dickey: We have three full-time faculty, including myself, and two part-time.
S-R: What do you like most about teaching?
Dickey: The students. And I love where we’re at with technology right now, because our entire program is online. Students can come sit in the classroom. Or if they prefer, they can sit at home and watch it live or watch it in the evening when they get home from work. We had a student in Prague who graduated last year.
S-R: Why did someone in the Czech Republic choose your program?
Dickey: I asked him. He said he spent a lot of time Googling degree programs that teach software development entirely online, and we were the most comprehensive.
S-R: What do you like least about teaching?
Dickey: Grading. It’s usually 20 hours of weekend work. I have 75 to 90 students developing applications, and I have to go through line by line to make sure they’re doing it right.
S-R: Are the applications hypothetical or for actual clients?
Dickey: Both. Companies frequently come to us looking for help. They typically start out paying students minimum wage for entry-level stuff – updating content. But once they realize how competent the students are, that work often turns into a full-time position.
S-R: Technology constantly evolves. How do you stay current?
Dickey: Everyone who teaches this program also does contract work. And every year we meet with local companies to make sure we’re teaching the skills they look for when hiring.
S-R: How do today’s students differ from those you taught two decades ago?
Dickey: Students in ’96 were still trying to figure out the internet. Today’s students understand the value mobile applications bring to people’s lives. They say, “I have an idea for an app, and I want to get the skills to create it.”
S-R: Do some of them know almost as much as you do?
Dickey: Definitely. Every quarter I learn from students. The thing with technology is that no one person is smarter than the entire team.
S-R: What ideas are today’s students focused on?
Dickey: I get a lot of interest in phone applications that can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play. The beautiful thing with this field is that students can create a mobile application, upload it and reach millions of potential customers.
S-R: Have any of them hit the jackpot?
Dickey: A lot of students have apps out there, but I haven’t heard of any who came up with something like Flappy Bird, which generates something like $50,000 a month in income.
S-R: Are the jobs your graduates get typically full-time or gig work?
Dickey: I tell students they will have choices when they graduate. They can get hired by a company, go to an office and work a 40-hour week. But there’s also the option to work remotely for any company in the world that’s hiring. Working from home gives you more flexibility in terms of hours, but you lose out on the collaboration you get when you share an office with other software developers. I go into a company office once a week, but the rest of the time I do development at home.
S-R: What’s an example of an app you developed for a client?
Dickey: One of my applications is used by pilots at UPS, Alaska and American Airlines to bid on flying schedules based on seniority and other search criteria.
S-R: How many pilots use that app?
Dickey: Maybe 25,000.
S-R: How long did it take you to develop the software?
Dickey: Oh, jeez … probably two years to get the initial release of the product out. As we’ve grown, we’ve brought in other developers and added related products.
S-R: Did the recession have much impact on employment in the software development field?
Dickey: Not really, because technology is always a driving force behind helping a company grow. What’s likely to have a greater impact is that soon there won’t be enough software developers to meet demand. It’s a challenging field because it’s constantly evolving. Apple, Microsoft and Google spend billions every year making what we know obsolete. Their entire business model is coming out with the next best technology, and developers have to embrace that new technology. So one of the things we emphasize here is how to learn, because this career requires our graduates to be lifetime learners.
S-R: What about the rest of us who are less technically inclined than your students?
Dickey: Manufacturers are constantly trying to make devices more intuitive. Yet a lot of people are afraid to click on anything because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The first step for them is to get the confidence to experiment with the technology – which is really all we do here, only on a more sophisticated level.
S-R: You said classwork didn’t interest you in high school. And now you’re a teacher. Do you find that ironic?
Dickey: No, because I’ve learned to leverage the fact that I’m more of a social person than a lot of people in technology. I take difficult concepts and put them in a way that relates to the real world. And I remind students just because they are going to leave here with much more technical knowledge, it doesn’t mean they have to lose the part of them that’s fun and enjoys interacting with other people.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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