Software developers make up 7 per cent of London’s labour force today, but demand for their technical expertise has skyrocketed in recent years. Worryingly, according to government figures, only 5,600 students took up computer science at A-level last year, of which only 600 are girls. 13 per cent of computer graduates are still unemployed six months after leaving university. These statistics have all contributed to the bleak perception of a very serious skills shortage in the UK’s otherwise booming technology sector.
But what if we looked at the problem from a different perspective; one that didn’t solely rely on formal education as the solution? Organisations continue to look to universities first for junior tech recruits over those from different backgrounds. This could even be a contributing factor to the sector’s dearth of diversity.
Instead of adapting job roles to match skills in the available talent pool, many businesses still cling onto an outdated approach, recruiting a specific type of candidate to go with what they assume is a specific type of job. Software development is a lot more than that, which is why Evgeny Shadchnev founded Makers Academy, an intense coding training programme that challenges the tech industry’s broken recruitment system.
A new way approach
“Over the years, we’ve worked with a lot of organisations to figure out how to help more people from all walks of life and backgrounds to become software developers. The talent is everywhere but the opportunity isn’t,” he tells GrowthBusiness. “Throughout our history we’ve been trying to figure out how to make the industry better by training more software developers, giving this opportunity to more diverse candidates and building a profitable business in the process.”
Makers Academy was formed in 2013, after Shadchnev went through the motions of getting formal qualifications through the mainstream education system.
“It shouldn’t take three years to become a software developer. I started Makers after I had a few years of experience working as a software developer. This was after two computer science degrees. The one question I had on my mind was ‘did it really need to take so many years?'”
“When I started my job, I realised that a lot of what I learned in university wasn’t applicable in real life. I saw the disconnect between what I learned at university and what was required of me on the job, and that was the inspiration for Makers.”
For Shadchnev, the biggest question in forming Makers was how to get complete beginners with no experience in software development to an employable level in the shortest possible time. “One thing we’ve learned over the years, having trained over a thousand developers, is that formal qualification from the mainstream education system don’t correlate well with success. We screen our applicants very carefully, and we’re always trying to figure out who’s most likely to become a successful software developer after the course. They may or may not have degrees, let alone qualifications in STEM subjects, but that isn’t an indicator of success,” he adds.
The mindset challenge: getting through to underrepresented groups
Very quickly after launching the first course, Shadchnev realised that the tech industry has a significant problem with diversity. “We started offering discounts for female applicants from the very beginning as a message that you don’t need to be a young, white male to have a chance at success as a software developer,” he says.
In order to break down barriers to learning how to code, Makers launched a fellowship a couple of years ago, that essentially offered free places in the programme. “We initially expected a very enthusiastic response from the community, but we found that fewer people than we hoped actually applied.” When Shadchnev started talking to people about the opportunity, some of them said they weren’t sure if a career in tech was for them. They don’t have friends in the sector, don’t know if they can learn how to code, or say they don’t have a science degree—all reasons he sees as irrelevant to their potential success.
“The biggest challenge is changing mindsets. The thing that correlates to success the most is the person’s strong conviction that they can make it. If someone comes to an interview and they really believe that they can become a great developer and are willing to work hard and put all their energy into it, there’s a great chance that it’s going to work out.”
For the last two years, Makers changed tack. Its focus is to send a strong message that coding is for everyone. “We try to speak to the wider demographic. Regardless of your background, educational qualification, gender, age, you can learn to code if you have the interest. Belief in your own success is half the solution,” he adds.
Unfortunately, Makers doesn’t get as many applications from diverse candidates as Shadchnev would like because of this lack of self-belief, he says. That said, last November, the programme had a 50/50 split of male and female students in the cohort, which is unheard of in the tech sector.
The push for gender diversity
“It was a big achievement for us because we never introduced quotas. The way we achieved it is by sending a much stronger message aimed at underrepresented communities. We’ve collaborated with communities of female developers, black developers, LGBT developers—you name it. We looked at different communities in tech and actively reached out to them. Eventually that translated into more diverse course population,” Shadchnev explains.
“Historically if you take our entire pool of developers we’ve trained, about 35 per cent are female; twice as high as the industry average.”
Social inclusion: the financial barrier
In an ideal world, Shadchnev students wouldn’t have to pay to train at Makers. In his experience, it’s been the biggest barrier in attracting diverse candidates. “When people come to our events and say ‘what you’re doing sounds great but there is no way I can afford £8,000 and then maybe another £8,000 in living costs on top of it. How can you help?’ We do work with organisations that can provide credits for education but they’re not always very friendly to students unless they’re already in jobs. So it’s a Catch 22,” he says.
Shadchnev is working on the biggest question on his mind; how Makers can continue doing what it does on a larger scale, and in a way that relieves the cost to students.
“We’ve been looking for a way to minimise the cost for the student, it’s by far the biggest problem. There’s a great demand for developers but the supply of people who’ve got around £15,000 in tuition and living costs to spend on changing their career is limited. It just feels wrong.”
As expected, students who can afford the course and living costs tend to fit the same demographic; generally middle class with similar backgrounds. “We are sending out the message it’s for everyone, but the cost can be barrier and we’re trying to massively change this by finding ways to remove the price while still having a successful business model at the core. This is the best way for us to tackle the diversity and inclusion issues in the tech industry,” he says.
Today, Makers Academy is launching a new fellowship programme, which will be awarded to four students enrolled in their 12 week – software engineering course in 2018. As part of the programme, Makers fellows will learn to code for free, and are almost guaranteed a job as a junior software developer within Makers at the end of term and an average market salary of £32,000 per annum.
“This initiative will not only help to close the fundamental digital skills divide that still plagues this country, but the diversity gap as well,” says Shadchnev.
The ideal student
Formal education may not matter to Shadchnev, but a curiosity and interest in coding and the drive to succeed are crucial. He also looks for strong communication skills and the ability to work and thrive in teams when screening applicants.
“Software developers need to be able to communicate well and work in teams. The course is very intense, so they need to be able to manage time and be dedicated to do well. This is very important for us.”
“We take it very seriously because it’s a full-time immersive experience, people usually quit their jobs to join Makers Academy. If something doesn’t work out, it’s a pretty difficult situation for the student and for us,” he says.
Even though the course is intense —”no one would describe it as easy”— Shadchnev says that past students serve as great examples for potential applicants wondering if they’re cut out for the course. Citing many examples, including that of single mother who went through the course while raising small children, Shadchnev says that Makers is learning from its students. “We’re trying to be really supportive in the process. We have a chief joy officer as part of the team to help our students with their non-technical development,” he adds. “There are many parents who have gone through Makers, and this is important to us. We’re in the business of transforming people’s lives so making it as inclusive and rewarding as possible.”
The December pilot is the first step for Shadchnev. After a disclaimer (“I can’t promise we’ll ever do it, but we’ll try our best”), he explains that Makers is keen to develop a programme that can also pay students the London living wage while they train. “It introduces a financial challenge because paying someone for three months while they’re not working is not cheap. At the same time, if we find a creative way of making it happen, then we’ll be able to really open this opportunity to anyone who could become a great software developer but never considered it because of all their bills to pay,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll get there next year.”
Applications for the new fellowship programme are open from October 23rd to November 1st 2017. “This is open to all applicants, although we will be particularly happy to see applications from underrepresented communities. All we ask in return is for the students to commit a few months of their time working with us after the course. We will invest in their training and place them into jobs with us. It’s a win-win proposition for us and applicants because it removes the biggest barrier for entry,” he says.
“The way I see it is that there are loads of companies that don’t exactly make the world a better place. There are loads of companies and charities that are trying to make the world a better place but they’re always struggling to make money in the process. Makers Academy is in a unique position to do both: good work for the right reasons.”