How one company could help Australia address the tech skills gap.
In August of this year we asked the question, Is the Australian technology sector on the brink of a Talent Crisis? We took a data-led approach to understand the size of the technical workforce and the volume of roles being advertised to that workforce. Whilst we were surprised to find that there were only 3.8 software candidates for every advertised role, deep down we’d kind of known for a while that this was becoming a real problem.
With TAFE & University enrolments and course completions in decline, the underlying problem for the industry is the lack of new workforce supply. Simply put, the demand for these skills is nearly outstripping supply and there isn’t enough new talent coming into the industry.
Our overarching commentary was that Australian companies need to build, not buy, talent. Our aging technical workforce poses many risks and simply hiring people from other companies is unsustainable.
A new way of learning and teaching.
Recognising a similar trend in the US, one education company is taking a unique and contemporary approach to addressing this problem.
Founded in 2016 in San Francisco, Holberton School (named after Betty Holberton who helped create what would later become modern-day software engineering) has found a way to address the supply issue whilst offering pathways into the industry for those equipped with the right attributes.
The underlying ethos for Holberton is “to empower motivated and talented people, regardless of background, age, experience, or financial capacity, to succeed. There are multiple challenges with the current system.”
Central to the Holberton approach is the concept of learning by doing as opposed to learning by teaching. Computer led learning coupled with peer group problem solving and solution finding are aimed at not only embedding the knowledge and skills but also more closely replicating the real-world work-life experiences of collaboration and cross-functional team approaches.
The traditional methods of entry to the industry have worked reasonably well up until now, however, the rapid digital adoption that’s occurred as a result of the global pandemic has changed this forever. Supply and demand are out ot sync like never before.
Whilst TAFEs, Universities, MOOC’s and the growing number of private, for-profit education organisations address specific skills. There seems to be a consensus that learning the skills in and of themselves, isn’t enough. The founder of Holberton, Julien Barber noticed aspiring software engineers would “devote years to studying, sometimes accumulating over a hundred thousand dollars of student debt, and would still not have the skills necessary to find a job in software engineering”
Learning to solve business problems, not just to write code.
The Holberton model has several immediate differences from the traditional methods of learning tech skills. Firstly, the admissions process is completely “blind” and designed to remove human biases. It was created specifically to identify smart, motivated people and doesn’t take into account previous education, work experience, gender, ethnicity, or age. There are no prerequisites for university courses, qualifications or ATAR scores. This system also removes a certain degree of privilege from the process.
Prospective students are required to undertake some challenges designed to assess their pure problem-solving capability and their ability to rapidly acquire new skills and concepts.
Successful applicants then enrol into a 9-12-month course where they not only learn how the software works but more importantly, why it works that way. Holberton describes this as getting “under the hood”.
It’s also here that the Holberton model breaks from tradition. In their own words, “Rather than teaching a lot of theory and having you occasionally apply a fraction of your knowledge on a class project, we do the opposite. We give you increasingly difficult programming challenges to solve with minimal initial directions on how to solve them” Students become each other’s mentors at different stages with an aim that collaborative discovery becomes collaborative learning.
This differs vastly from the traditional teacher-led lecture and memorisation method of learning that most of us are familiar with. This clearly isn’t suitable for everyone, however. So this really highlights the importance of the admission process in order to only enrol those students for whom this learning process is best suited.
Students can learn contemporary Full Stack, Back-End or Front-End software engineering. With courses also available in Machine learning, VR/AR and Blockchain, Holberton seems to be well-positioned to cater for the demands of industry.
Solving industry-wide problems.
The Australian technology sector’s biggest problem is that its software engineering population is one of the oldest in the world. This presents several challenges both industry-wide and at an individual organisational level.
One of the gripes from the industry in recent years has been the time between hire and meaningful contribution for brand new junior hires. This is impacted by the necessity to have other staff guide and mentor these new hires which in turn impact their workload. At an individual business level, we’ve argued that this is a solvable problem, however, it’s one that requires thinking about in a different way.
Holberton’s model has 3 distinct factors that make it a potentially vital ingredient in the recipe for overcoming this challenge.
- Removing traditional barriers to entry.
- Reduced time frame for meaningful learning. 9-12 months instead of 3 years.
- Reduced time to meaningful contribution for new hires.
Does this model solve the supply and demand problem right now, here, today? No, it doesn’t, however, these 3 elements could well be the start of a pretty major impact on the industry.
Another benefit of Holbertons model is the impact on diverse representation within the technology sector. With a purely merit-based admission system, we could reasonably assume that socioeconomic and cultural norms would no longer be factors in gaining admission to the course. And with pricing for students coming in at a fraction of the cost of a university qualification, it’s also reasonable to assume that another barrier has been removed.
The merit-based admission should also see more experienced workers enter the sector. These will be the people who’ve previously found this transition challenging without a degree but who also find a 3-year full-time course impossible to undertake later in life. The mature student market is a small proportion of the total university population. However, it’s hard to see a downside in hiring someone with life and workplace experience who’s proactively moved into this space and spent 9 to 12 months learning how to do the job.
An industry-backed approach.
Career transitions into Software engineering is a challenging proposition for anyone that’s been bold enough to undertake it. But transitioning with the same employer is pretty much unheard of and almost too hard for many organisations to work through.
Holberton’s scholarship model however could be a way to solve this problem. Rather than have high-quality people leave the organisation to pursue a technical career elsewhere, putting them through a Holberton course would seem to make much more sense. Aside from the retention benefit, the employer brand in the market could be seriously enhanced.
The scholarship model doesn’t have to be used for career transitions, there is an ability to sponsor places in a future cohort and meet those students through their course with a view to hiring them. There’s a philanthropic element to this that we could see many of Australia’s larger-scale tech employers embracing.
Australian launch in 2022
For 5 years, Holberton has been refining its courses, admission processes and business model. In that time, graduates have found jobs at LinkedIn, Google, Tesla, Docker, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Pinterest, Genentech, Cisco, IBM and more.
With local tech heavyweights REA joining as the launching partner for Melbourne’s new campus, the first cohort starts in Jan 2022, we’re expecting others to follow suit.
The Australian tech scene needs to be more proactive in solving its supply and demand challenge. And whilst there’s no single fix for it, this is a positive first step and one that needs to be taken.