This story was written for WRAL TechWire Advisor partner Momentum Learning.

Many companies tout a “workers first” mentality but don’t necessarily strive to do things that propel that mission forward. Here in the Triangle, though, local companies like Spoonflower are walking the walk — not just talking the talk.

Spoonflower, a Durham-based software company that produces custom fabric, is putting its money where its mouth is by investing in its employees through a partnership with Momentum Learning, a coding school in Durham.

“We’re starting to see an increasing trend of companies taking on the responsibility of training their employees for the work they need done,” said Jessica Mitsch, Momentum’s CEO and co-founder. “I believe it’s critical in this day in age that companies own their part of developing the workforce they need. I’m proud to watch companies in our area see investment in employees education as part of their ethos and development.”

Spoonflower’s vice president of engineering, Anjana Mohanty, said before the partnership with Momentum began in 2017, the company had internal programs in place for people who wanted to explore development careers. But partnering with code schools like Momentum gives employees the opportunity to delve deeper into the learning and understanding of development.

Another perk of sponsoring employees that are funneled back into the company? They already have an inherent understanding of the product they’re working on.

“Having that industry- and domain-specific knowledge about the business … and then teaching, instead, the coding piece of it or the development piece of it, rather than the other way around,” Mohanty explained. “We’ve enjoyed taking people who are deeply rooted in the existing business knowledge and teaching them the coding perspective.”

Mohanty said another benefit is the cost savings since internally training someone takes away time and energy from other employees on their existing development team.

“[Code school] is very different than carving out several hours in a day to really teach brand new concepts to a student versus being able to sponsor tuition where a student can go to an existing program that has a set curriculum and set projects,” she said. “The overhead to create that same level of instruction internally is a lot higher than to partner and pay for tuition with a third party like Momentum.”

Sharon Luong, the team lead of the co-engineering team at Spoonflower, started off in the factory and then worked in customer service before becoming a developer.

“We were basically taught on the job,” she said. “It was a big lift for the engineers that were already in the department.”

Spoonflower realized that outsourcing the education for its employees was more prudent, but it needed a way to identify good potential developer candidates. That’s when the team formed an idea for an internal internship.

“We’ve iterated on it multiple times,” Luong said. “Before, we were largely very hands-off. It was very self-driven. Now we rotate mentors from existing engineers in the company; we check in, we help them develop their projects. But at the basis of it, is it has to be voluntary. The person has to voluntarily go through the entire process to the end, for us to consider to send them to code school.”

The 12-week internship program is open to anyone, and people from all over the company in different departments spend the weeks with mentors learning. The internship culminates with a presentation of a final project of their choosing that’s related to Spoonflower.

Based on the project presentations, select employees are chosen and sent to Momentum.

Spoonflower currently has 14 developers, six of whom were sponsored through the Iron Yard before the coding school shut down. Momentum graduated two of Spoonflower’s most recent additions to its development team over the summer.

“We sponsored two students in the past cohort that wrapped up over the summer,” Mohanty said. “The motivation for us as a company is to continue to try and proliferate what the diversity on our dev team looks like and to continue to have career development opportunities for our internal employees.”

Spoonflower Crystal Free

Crystal Mackey Free was made a developer at Spoonflower after graduating from Momentum Learning. (Photo Courtesy of Momentum Learning)

Crystal Mackey Free is one of those recent Momentum grads and is currently working as a Spoonflower developer. She began her career at Spoonflower “cutting fabric and shipping it.”

“Then I printed fabric,” Free continued. “Then I did customer service. And then I participated in [the] internship that Spoonflower holds.”

For her final project presentation, Free took her experience in customer service, and formulated a project that was a customer-focused attempt to sort the DIY blogs on Spoonflower’s website by fabric size. She built a separate website that pulls information from Spoonflower’s blog, which redirects from a DIY project a user clicks, that tells a user how many squares of fabric would be needed to complete the chosen project.

“It was basically a railed project that used HTML, CSS and JavaScript,” Free explained. “I was very drawn to the problem-solving aspect of programming. I worked in customer service, so I was constantly hearing about problems that our customers would have, but I would have no way to correct those problems because I didn’t know how to fix certain stumbling blocks on the website or in the experience.”

Free started teaching herself how to do “very simple things” in her off time, and when the Spoonflower internship presented itself, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“I was really excited to be one of the people who was getting to go to Momentum,” she said. “I was absolutely ecstatic to go to code school. I felt really supported the entire time, not just from the staff at Momentum — who are amazing and extremely supportive — but also from Spoonflower. It’s very rollercoaster-y going through code school because it’s this full immersion thing and you’re learning so much so quickly.”

Free is referring to the 480 hours of instruction at Momentum over the course of its 12-week program. And while rigorous, the curriculum is designed to help students immediately transition into a developer role — a perk for students like Free who already have a developer position waiting for them.

“I felt like I was learning so much —  not just programming, but how to work on a team, how to project manage, all of these great skills that I don’t feel like you can get in traditional computer science courses,” she said.

Mohanty agreed, saying the magic of Momentum is in the “intangibles” that don’t necessarily come from teaching someone how to write a query but from Momentum’s emphasis on becoming a continual learner.

“It’s more so [about students] coming with a mindset of being ready to absorb new information [and] learn from the people around them, [and] going out and finding answers for themselves,” she said. “I think that Momentum fosters that.”

Added Free, “More companies should do what Spoonflower does, and that’s [to] promote from within. You can teach anybody to code, but to already have someone who understands what you do in your day-to-day processes — who have experience with your product and customers — it’s more valuable to have that experience plus coding. I think [Momentum] is really expanding and elevating and educating the workforce that we already have here.”

This story was written for WRAL TechWire Advisor partner Momentum Learning.