BUTTE – Scores of computer science jobs are going unfilled in Montana, a former software company executive said here Tuesday, as he unveiled a program to encourage more students at state universities to enter the field.

“Our goal is to expose high school students to computer programming in the hopes they will be interested in pursuing computer science in college,” said Greg Gianforte, the founder and former CEO of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman. “It will wet their whistle a little bit, so they might pursue this at college.”

The program, CodeMontana, is a privately funded, online curriculum that will teach high school students the basics of computer programming.

Gianforte announced the launch of CodeMontana at the Economic Development Summit in Butte, where more than 3,000 people gathered for the two-day event at the Montana Tech campus.

He said CodeMontana won’t teach kids how to be programmers, but will offer $10,000 in prize money and hopefully persuade them to consider computer science as a major at college.

Montana state colleges graduated only 44 computer science majors this year and there are some 400 jobs available for programmers statewide – jobs that pay anywhere from $45,000 to $85,000 a year, he said.

“That is a good Montana wage,” Gianforte said.

He said he’s spoken with executives at several Montana companies that have openings for computer science graduates and that they’d love to hire Montana graduates.

While the demand for computer programming jobs may be there, the state’s university system can’t immediately ramp up to crank out scores of additional graduates, a University of Montana official said Tuesday.

Perry Brown, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UM, said the Missoula campus might be able to produce another five or six computer science graduates, on top of the 18 this year, with its current faculty.

However, if the demand is out there and many more students express interest in computer science, the programs can be expanded over time, Brown said.

Brown also said that UM graduates students in other disciplines, such as geology, forestry and business, who have computer modeling and programming skills specific to their field.

Gianforte said creating more computer science graduates in Montana not only means more high-paying jobs for Montana students, but also can boost the general economy, because high-tech firms hire many people in addition to programmers, Gianforte said.

Still, computer science graduates form the basis of the company, he said.

“Most of the jobs are non-technical, but without computer science people, we don’t have a company,” he said. “The computer science majors are really like the seed corn that allow us to hire everyone else.”

Gianforte and his wife, Susan, founded RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, a software-development firm. Software giant Oracle Co. bought RightNow last year. The company employs about 1,100 people.

Gianforte said he and Rob Irizarry of Startup Bozeman, co-founded CodeMontana. Interested students can sign up on the program’s website, codemontana.org, and will have unlimited online access to the curriculum for 90 days.

Prizes will be awarded monthly based on students’ progress on the curriculum. Gianforte said the program is funded to handle 1,000 students, but is hoping to raise enough money to continue beyond that point.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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