It’s an idyllic downtown Saturday morning in early June. Even before the bustle of City Creek traffic has arrived, there’s a buzz of electricity on Main Street. Next door to the almost completed Eccles Theater, the historic Ezra Thompson Building at 143 South Main Street (more commonly known as The Tribune Building) is filled with hundreds of kids and their parents prepping for a day of programming at Neumont University, a private institution that grants bachelor’s degrees in three years in computer science and related fields.
Sponsored by Neumont University, Utah Geek Events and a host of other tech-savvy organizations, Kids Code Con is just one of many ways the institution is helping to support initiatives to make downtown the state’s new technology center with Neumont poised appropriately at the epicenter.
Monday through Friday a different set of tech enthusiasts fill the halls and classrooms of Neumont. Around noon, scores of college students flood into the commons area of campus. They stopped noticing the rumble of TRAX long ago. Inside the university, modern minimalist décor with splashes of contemporary and high-tech style showcase the intersection of the school’s technology focus and the building’s rich history: cement floors, exposed beams and steel cables juxtapose the art-deco exterior and the building’s original elevator lobby. Giant two-story windows are less a line of demarcation between where the building ends and the city begins, but more like Alice’s looking glass –a portal to a different kind of wonderland. In this case, it’s a snapshot of Neumont’s larger campus: the urban playground of downtown Salt Lake.
Amidst the sounds of ping pong and billiard in the school’s main gathering place, students are huddled over laptops or noshing on takeout from local purveyors. The unofficial uniform of the school is a hoodie, jeans and Neumont t-shirt with phrases like, “Eat. Sleep. Code.” or “I know your password” across the chest.
You won’t find a fitness complex, a football team or Greek row at Neumont. Instead, shared interests in technology and gaming are manifested through student groups like League of Legends, Magic the Gathering and activities like coding competitions, gaming tournaments and LAN parties (translation: “local area network,” usually formed for the purpose of engaging in multi-player video games). Needless to say, this is not your typical institution of higher education, and Neumont President Shaun McAlmont says that is entirely by design.
“Our curriculum is built on best practices in the industry,” McAlmont says. “We’ve met with and are continually receiving input from educators and employers from around the country about the needs of the rapidly evolving technology industry and tailor our curriculum to those needs. The result is a computer science education that merges academic rigor, exposure to cutting-edge technologies, and relevant professional knowledge through real-world project-based experience in the workplace before our students have even graduated.”
For students who can handle the pace and demand of the program, it often means not just the start of a career, but landing their dream job right out of college. Enterprise Projects are the key and crown of Neumont’s project-based curriculum. Understandably, Neumont leadership keeps the phrase “internship” out of their vocabulary like, “Voldermort.” But unlike an internship where office lackeys are getting coffee or doing grunt work, Enterprise Projects are contracted work between the university and an employer. For 10 weeks at a time, student teams are given a specific project to use the company’s code and solve real-time issues. It’s a win-win for everyone. The companies get help tackling projects, and Neumont students get actual work experience. Both sides also get a chance to ‘try on one another for size,’ so to speak. Some students are hired to work for an Enterprise Partner before they even graduate.
Willis Towers Watson, an international professional services company with a main office in downtown Salt Lake is a great example of the Enterprise Partner program’s success. The global company has hired more than 30 Neumont graduates in less than 10 years at its Main Street location.
In fact, ninety-seven percent of Neumont graduates are hired in their field within six months of graduation with an average starting salary of $63,000. Yes, that’s the average. Graduates taking positions at big name tech-giants can kick off their careers with compensation packages in the six-figure range.
Class of 2015 alumnus Anthony Corbin of Saginaw, Michigan had lucrative offers from both SONY Santa Monica Studio (i.e. Playstation) and Google before he had even graduated. He accepted Google’s offer before his last day of class and then relocated to California with his wife, Brittany Corbin (neé Waite) a fellow Neumont grad.
Like the Corbins, Neumont graduates are found all over the country in jobs at start-ups to companies like Microsoft, eBay, Amazon, IBM, Nike and Tesla. And even though 82% of Neumont students come from outside of Utah, an impressive portion (more than 50%) stay in Utah to take jobs locally – from previously mentioned Willis Towers Watson to companies like, 1-800 Contacts, IHC, Vivint, Novell and more.
Besides Enterprise Projects, McAlmont says Neumont’s faculty is another key to the school’s blueprint for graduate outcome success.
“Our faculty are specifically chosen for their professional experience and expertise current in the tech industry,” he says. “We’re not asking them to focus on research or publishing. We recruit faculty that are passionate about teaching, about helping students and have real-world experience. Our students are interested in much more than theory. They don’t want to sit and listen to lectures about their field; they want to be creating and solving. They want hands-on participation guided by people who are as passionate as they are, which is why everything at Neumont has a tech slant.”
The methodology works, and has seen so much success that many local companies and individuals have asked when the curriculum will be opened up outside of the traditional student. After years of saying no, a solution came via Helio Training – a sister endeavor, under Neumont University’s parent company - housed just a few buildings down from the school.
Helio’s President Aaron Reed, who has worked with Neumont University for more than 12 years holding positions ranging from teacher and university relations manager to chief operating officer, says Helio’s focus is training primarily in the form of coding “bootcamps” and corporate training – the company has already lead workshops for Willis Towers Watson and eBay.
"We recognize that it isn't possible for everyone to take off three years of work and go to school full time,” Reed said. “We needed to find creative ways to help a different group of people improve their skills. We know what employers are looking for – at Neumont we spent years tailoring our curriculum to fit those needs. So with Helio, non-traditional students get an opportunity to learn software development."
While Helio is one of the latest innovations in Neumont’s arsenal of tech education, there’s even more on the horizon.
"We're an educational institution that prides itself on raising the next generation of the tech elite," McAlmont said. “I’ve seen first hand how education changes lives. It’s the key to success.” And he knows a thing or two about success. In addition to his work and leadership roles at Lincoln Educational Services, Brigham Young University and Stanford University, McAlmont ran track for the Canadian National team and to this day, holds BYU’s sixth-fastest time in the 400-meter hurdles. His résumé includes more than 20 years of experience in the field of education and training.
“A passion for coding shouldn't start in college,” McAlmont says. “It's why our students volunteered their time to help elementary students participate in the annual Hour of Code last year and why we offer our building and resources to help host events like Kids Code Con. It's a natural fit for Neumont as we support success in STEM education at every level. Plus it's one more way we can be a force for good in the community.”
While McAlmont took the reigns as Neumont’s president just over a year ago, one of his key initiatives is for the school to be a more vibrant and active member of the community. The result has been even greater participation in events like Salt Lake Comic Con and FanX, Salt Lake Gaming Con, Utah Pride Festival and Eve WinterFest. At his encouragement, staff and students have found other ways to volunteer with quarterly events to help organizations throughout the Salt Lake Valley including the Road Home, Utah Humane Society, and Habitat for Humanity. McAlmont also recently met with Mayor Jackie Biskupski to discuss ways the university can be used to support STEM outreach in the community. Neumont also served as the host site for a meeting of the minds with Downtown Alliance and other tech businesses to talk about more ways to make Salt Lake the tech hub of Utah.
Neumont may not be a household name yet, but with McAlmont at the helm and a student body and force of alumni poised to confront whatever tech challenges are on the horizon (from Pokémon Go to a zombie apocalypse), rest assured this institution will be front and center, leading the charge one keystroke at a time.