After getting his first taste of computer programming while in the US Air Force, Donald Walker brings his passion alongside his years of experience to the Arkansas Coding Academy, where he began his role as director on June 3.
ArCA is a non-degree granting training school offered through UCA’s Division of Outreach and Community Engagement to prepare students for careers in information technology. The academy is the brainchild of multiple organizations including the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and was founded in 2016. It currently offers both part-time and full-time options for attending classes.
While the young program, which is rooted in workforce development, is succeeding at its main job of helping graduates get hired into valuable positions, there is a lot of growth in store.
“There is a need for people who know how to work with data,” Walker said, “From data types to working through Excel doing basic formatting, data cleansing, moving all the way up through relational databases and report writing and data visualization - there’s a need for that in the workforce that we’re analyzing and trying to come up with exactly how to fill [it].”
As the needs of the industry evolve, it is Walker’s hope that the program expands along with it.
“The vision is somewhat larger than where we are now,” Walker said, “It’s called the Arkansas Coding Academy and that will always be a foundational skill, but there are other skills that the workforce in Central Arkansas would benefit from a non-degree seeking organization like this that is run as inexpensively for the student as possible.”
While the cost of the program is relatively low at $6,500 per student, providing opportunities remains a priority of ArCA and Walker, a veteran who is already working towards taking the actions needed so that other veterans can use their military benefits to complete the program.
“I’m working with the University Veteran’s office to get my program documented sufficiently [for students] to use the GI bill,” Walker said, “[The program] would be a huge return investment for the veteran.”
It was a non-degree tech school much like ArCA that Walker attended while he was in the military. He began as an electronics technician and then moved into computer programming, not enrolling in college courses until later in his life.
After receiving a degree in Management Information Systems, Walker attended officer training school and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the software engineering career field. After USAF began shifting away from developing its own software in house, Walker began working in network engineering and went on to receive a Masters in telecommunications.
Retiring from his 30-year USAF career in 2012, Walker began traveling across the United States and then decided to return to the field and complete his Doctorate of Computer Science.
“It is deadly serious that in the military, the first job of a leader is to make new leaders,” Walker said.
In the culture of the military, Walker said each individual is always being prepared for the next job and the next level of responsibility. “I just carry that mindset forward. I’m here to work with people and hopefully positively impact their future.”
ArCA will host a Demo Day, also known as graduation, on August 9 at UCA Downtown for class of students currently enrolled in the course. For the graduates, the course culminates in a final product and on this day, they will provide a demonstration of a written computer program application and also be given the opportunity to network with local companies and industry partners.
For Walker, who didn’t begin higher education until later in life, he knows there is no one-size-fits-all pipeline into the workforce.
“There is a difference between education and training. This is training,” Walker said.
In the coming months, he will continue to promote new initiatives, such as a possible commercial certification, and continue to uphold the initial focus of ArCA – providing the valuable service of helping everyone, from medical school dropouts to employees struggling after being laid off, back to work.
In the UCA press release announcing his acceptance as director, assistant vice president for Community and Workforce Development at UCA Amy Whitehead said: “With extensive technical and managerial experience in software development and management information systems, [Walker] is prepared to take the academy to the next level.”