Northcoders: Addressing The Digital Skills Gap

Learning To Code, Diversity And The Digital Skills Gap

In today’s technology driven world, individuals need the right skills to find continued – and fulfilling – employment. But government and industry have responsibilities too – to make sure that workforces are able to meet the requirements to power future economic growth.

Unfortunately, in spite of our budding domestic tech scene, the digital skills gap is widening. According to Accenture, outdated education and training is threatening a potential £141.5bn of growth brought about by intelligent technologies in the UK, and organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to find the technical talent they need.

Adequate learning and development initiatives, university degrees, and engaging children with STEM from a young age are all part of the digital skills solution, but a further avenue is also evolving. Private courses are springing up in areas such as coding, big data and digital marketing, providing participants with everything from a brief introduction to technological topics to comprehensive training in a specific field.

Coding courses – in particular – can offer their members a fast track route into a highly lucrative career. D/SRUPTION spoke to Chris Hill, Founder and Director of coding bootcamp Northcoders, to find out how they transform complete beginners into much needed members of the tech economy.

Learning to code

Chris Hill founded Northcoders after working in software development and experiencing specific issues with recruitment in the field.

“Getting talented coders in was a huge problem,” he says. “To be honest with you, having graduates come to work with me that had come out of university – they actually weren’t prepared at all for work whatsoever. I also saw the amount of recruiters that were hunting for you if you were a software developer. And I just thought, well, this bootcamp coding model, it works really well.”

Northcoders’ 12 week coding bootcamp takes participants through the fundamentals of JavaScript, how to manage backend services, APIs and website creation. The course ends with a group project phase, designed to get coders working together on an aspect of development they haven’t experienced before. At the end of the course, Northcoders are typically snapped up by employers, with 97 per cent of graduates in work after an average of only 11 days.

One piece of the puzzle

With such impressive employment statistics, and the fact that salaries for computer programmers in the UK average around £30k, courses such as Northcoders are an attractive option for those looking to change career or get back into work.

As Hill states, it is important for Northcoders to sit within the technology ecosystem, providing employers with the kind of workforce they need – whether that be freshly minted coders or reskilled employees.

“We work with around a hundred companies across the north of England, from Liverpool all the way to York,” he says. “They range from fast growth tech startups such as AccessPay all the way through to companies such as BAE Systems and Barclays.”

“We are also working with large organisations like Arup, who are going through digital transformation and are looking for ways and means to get people technically skilled. That obviously can’t be a full time three month bootcamp, but we do have ways that we can chop up the course into more flexible blocks. We can also just look at different disciplines within coding,  such as quality assurance testing, for example, DevOps, or CloudOps. These organisations feel that this is an imperative thing they must do.”

Working together

It’s a stereotype – and an unhelpful one at that – that coders are lone, antisocial, (usually male) types who prefer to sit at their computers and not talk to anybody. Whether or not this was true in the past, these days such an approach simply won’t cut it in most business environments. Employers want developers who can work as a team, communicate, and take on a variety of different challenges. These are driving principles behind the structure of the Northcoders course.

“It’s very drill based, a very practical course,” says Hill. “Literally we just teach people to solve problems and figure things out. The aspect of working together is imperative to us as well. To be able to articulate your ideas and your solutions in a technical way to other people, especially those people who are not as technical as yourself is very, very difficult. And it’s a skill that employers are certainly looking for. Two heads are also better than one – you can miss the tiniest little thing that your partner is probably going to spot.”

In this spirit of community and inclusion, Northcoders also prides itself on the range of people who undertake the course.

“We’re looking to build teams from diverse backgrounds,” says Hill. “It’s pretty much a standard, what a software developer or computer science university graduate looks like. But here at Northcoders we’ve had so many different types of people on the course.”

“We’ve had a busker, we’ve had the captain of England’s Lacrosse team, all the way through to people who basically just need to get a break in life. So people who have been on minimum hours contracts where they’re working overnight, stacking supermarket shelves, now they’re software developers and having great careers.”

A diverse bunch

Diversity – in business and in life – makes us all richer, better rounded individuals. If that wasn’t enough, diversity also leads to greater profits, with companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. For developers, as with the workforce as a whole, diversity of background, age, race or gender brings alternative perspectives – a crucial ingredient of innovation.

Hill notes that the reskilling possibilities offered by coding courses can provide businesses with developers who have unique experiences in their sector, bringing unparalleled insight to their roles.

“We graduated an air stewardess and she’s actually interviewing for a company who are in the air tech space,” he says. “It’s just amazing, the context around the industry that she’s got, the fact that she’s used some of these systems… It’s great to be able to get her into their business now that she can write software. You wouldn’t get somebody with that experience from a university. Having people from all these different backgrounds is what companies want.”

Part of attracting coders from diverse backgrounds is addressing the gender imbalance in tech, with only 17 per cent of the UK tech workforce made up of women. For Hill, this is something that companies are increasingly keen to address.

“This is a huge problem for every company,” he says. “A third of the people who come out of our course are women and they are mostly thanks to organisations who have pushed the women in tech inclusion agenda, because the more people you see doing something, the more likely you are to get involved in it.”

There are things you can do

The lack of inclusion in the tech sector isn’t going to solve itself, but schemes aimed at young girls in schools and scholarship programmes to attract women into these careers are concrete steps that businesses can take.

“The companies that we’re working with come to us because they want us to help them with diversity,” Hill states. “There are ways to do it, there are things that you’ve got to do. We run scholarship programmes – we’re running one for Ernst & Young, and one again with ThoughtWorks this year.”

“North Coders has that one third ratio and we try to keep that. We’d love it to be 50:50 – it’s difficult but we are improving it all the time. For any company that does have a problem with gender balance in their tech teams, we would say just talk to us and there are ways that you can improve that. It’s important not only for yourself, but for the part of the world where you do business.”

Coding courses, all businesses, and the traditional education system clearly have a part to play in future proofing our economy, and making the tech sector fit for purpose in the long term. If these parties are beginning to see diversity as an integral part of this mix too, then so much the better.

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