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Williams and Huang house - exterior

1131 W. Copper Street in Butte is pictured here. A former convent, the home was built in 1917. Mike Williams and May Huang are renovating the building, where they hope to launch a pilot program for a coding immersion course.

Annie Pentilla, The Montana Standard

Part-time Butte residents and Silicon Valley veterans Mike Williams and May Huang say they want to establish a pilot project for a coding immersion program in Butte.

But first, they'll need the green light from the county's Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Williams and Huang will ask the zoning board Thursday night for a special use permit to launch their pilot project in the former convent of Butte's Immaculate Conception Church, 1131 W. Copper St., which also once served as a facility for Safe Space.

The couple needs the permit because the convent is in a residential area.

The two said Friday they want to use the space for seven months to test the feasibility of the immersion program and would move their operations to another site in Butte if the program is successful.

If approved, their special use permit would expire Dec. 31, 2018.

Williams and Huang are calling their enterprise Montana Powered, and it's an effort they hope can attract and retain young professionals in the Mining City by presenting them with a gateway into the tech field.

"It's to keep the college graduates in Butte and give them the choice to stay in Butte if they want to — that's it," said Williams when asked for an elevator pitch. "Make it so they don't have to leave to seek really good career opportunities."

Some might call Montana Powered a coding boot camp, but Huang and Williams say they see their 12- to 14-week course as an immersion program.

The program promises to be rigorous, and students will mostly likely need to devote 60 hours per week toward the program, including instructional classroom time and self-study away from the facility.

What students will be learning is an array of skills in a field known as "DevOps," and by the end of the course, students will be prepared to take exams for four professional certifications.

As the Montana Powered website puts it, DevOps manages the interaction between the people who build applications and the people who run and maintain them.

"DevOps is the field of intersection of software development...and IT operations," Huang explained Friday.

The convent where Williams and Huang want to host their pilot program is a 5,000-square-foot, two-story brick building that was built in 1917.

The two hope to instruct a maximum of 20 students with a staff of four to five instructors. There will be one instructor at the facility at any given time, and hours for the facility would be 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Students will not be living on site, Huang and Williams said.

Huang and Williams said they see Montana Powered as having both a business and social mission, but not everyone is on board with their plans.

Planning Director Lori Casey said she received two calls from neighbors who wished to express opposition to the project and said they wanted to present a letter to the zoning board. As of Monday afternoon, they had not submitted a letter, Casey said.

Similarly, zoning board staff cited the project's potential impact on parking as concern.

In a written report, staff estimated that the facility could bring anywhere from 14 to 24 vehicles per day, causing neighbors to have to compete for parking.

However, Williams and Huang have said they'll encourage students to park at the new Uptown parking garage on Park Street and will provide transportation for their students to and from the garage.

Zoning staff has recommended approval of Montana Powered's application with several conditions, including that Williams and Huang follow through on their plan to provide students transportation from the garage.

Huang and Williams said they anticipate starting their first course in June and a second in October.

The total cost of the program is $12,500. Students will need to put down a $2,500 up front payment and pay the remaining $10,000 from wages upon completion of the course.

Williams and Huang say salaries in tech meccas like Silicon Valley for pre-certified professionals can range from $90,000 to $100,000 per year.

But Huang and Williams said they don't want to see their students move to Silicon Valley, they want them to stay here in Montana.

Students who complete the program have the option to work for Montana Powered when they graduate, the duo said, providing services for companies that want to outsource their DevOps work.

"Our primary purpose is to build that talent base and provide those services in locations like Montana," said Williams.

Meanwhile, students who choose to take their skills elsewhere will pay an additional $10,000 fee.

Williams and Huang are no strangers to the tech industry.

Williams grew up in the Silicon Valley and has served as chief financial officer for several companies, mostly in the realms of software and video game development.

Williams's parents grew up in Butte, and he has memories of visiting family in the Mining City. Butte is endeared to him, Williams said Friday, and he would like to contribute to the town's economic development.

Huang also grew up in the Bay Area and has built a career on the product end of software development.

She has launched several businesses, including one in Butte — M&M Trading Company, a pre-fabricated stone countertop business that she launched with Williams in July 2017.

Williams said a salary at Montana Powered would be around $60,000 a year.

The salary is modest when compared to what one might make in Silicon Valley, but Williams said it affords a higher standard of living when one takes into account the sky-high cost of living in the Bay Area, which boasts some of the highest rents in the country.

And that's part of the company's mission, Williams said, to provide professional jobs in places where people can afford to live.

Huang and Williams envision establishing a Montana Powered office in another location in Butte as early as October, but those plans hinge on the success of the pilot project.

"This is a six-month trial," said Williams. "(To) figure out whether this works and whether it works in Butte."

If successful, Williams and Huang said, they want to replicate their Montana Powered model in communities similar to Butte – places like Hilo, Hawaii; Columbus, Ohio; and Battle Creek, Michigan, to name a few.

"There's a lot of people who grow up in communities like this who love the communities they grew up in but don't have the opportunities to stay," said Williams.

Butte's Zoning Board of Adjustment meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursday on the third floor of the Butte-Silver Bow Courthouse, 155 W. Granite St.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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