Close To Home: Global Investment Changes Lives in Rural Communities

June 15, 2016

Matthew Chafin grew up on the family farm near Lebanon, Virginia. They grew tobacco, raised cattle, and had horses. Sometimes, even though they had a tractor, he liked to hitch up the horses and use them to plow, instead.

“I grew up very ‘rural’, you could say,” said Chafin.

Given that background, many people might be surprised to find out that in June, Chafin marked his eighth anniversary as a senior consultant with CGI Group, the global information technology (IT) and business process services company headquartered in Canada, with a large presence in the United States. But as it turns out, farming and writing code share a common thread: finding solutions to problems.

“Regardless of what I do, whether it’s working ‘inside’ or ‘outside’, there’s always a problem to solve,” said Chafin.

That’s what attracted him to math when he was a student. It might also have been what appealed to him about the DOS command line on his first computer when he was young, or fooling around with HTML on the Windows PC he had in high school.

So when Chafin saw in the local paper that CGI was coming to Lebanon and bringing information technology jobs with it, he was intrigued but still unsure.

“I liked computers, but I didn’t really know what such a job might entail,” he said. “I thought I would probably never have the ability or education or be intelligent enough to do something like that.”

But the right seeds for a career writing software were planted when he heard about the state’s Fast Track program; an accelerated set of coursework offered through community colleges and designed to give students the skill set they needed to find jobs in specific fields. One of the companies supporting the Fast Track software program was CGI.

“I went to Virginia Highlands Community College and was in the second cohort of the Fast Track program,” said Chafin. “That was August 2007 to May 2008. I interviewed at CGI, and started work on June 16, 2008.”

The languages and skills he learned at Virginia Highlands – logical thinking, Javascript, Java, C++, object-focused programming – were exactly the skill set he needed as a new software developer. In fact, some of his instructors at the school were CGI employees. It was a natural partnership.

“I think that helped drive the curriculum – tech companies were directly involved with the program – it was ‘real time’ learning,” Chafin said. “I feel one of the great things about the Fast Track program was learning a lot of computer languages that businesses were actually using.”

For John Lewis, a software developer at CGI’s campus on the outskirts of his hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, the company not only offered him a chance to further develop the coding skills he learned in college, it also was his ticket back home.

After graduating in 2009, Lewis couldn’t find a coding job near Lafayette.

“I had a choice of working at Walgreen’s or Bed, Bath and Beyond,” he said ruefully. “Being able to practice my craft and work close to home just didn’t match up.”

After about a year he found a software coding job in Houston, Texas, and soon he had a better job offer in Virginia. He moved there, planning to spend two years and then come back to Louisiana – but again, he couldn’t find anything close. Then one day his father, whom he calls Pops, called him.

“Pops said, ‘There’s this new company moving down here, CGI,” Lewis recalled. “I looked on the website and didn’t see any openings for Lafayette, but Pops said apply anyway.”

He did, and in August 2013, he moved back for a job with CGI that put him near his Pops and saw his career continue to develop at a company that’s interested in making use of his potential.

“You have the opportunity to touch a lot of new things,” Lewis said of working with CGI. “They really try to use all of their resources to their full potential. I came in as a Java developer, but because of my previous job, I had some expertise in Ruby (another computer language) and they had a project using Ruby. On that project, I was able to broaden my skills, using Ruby and Javascript, and also do more database management.”

And it’s that progression of learning that keeps Lewis engaged and enthusiastic in his job. Chafin, as well, said CGI is making sure his skills stay relevant to the projects he works on. And it all goes back to the Fast Track program at Virginia Highlands, which he credits “100 percent” for preparing him to step into a career with the company.

“Fast Track was a great program. There wasn’t anything I did as far as course work that I can’t apply to my job now,” he said. “It gave me the basis to get started at CGI, and CGI gave me the experience I wanted. I continue to learn and grow every day.”