The drive to boost young peoples’ coding credentials has gathered steam alongside a marked increase in business demand for these skill sets.
According to some estimates, UK employers will need 745,000 additional digitally-skilled workers by 2017, with a further 1 million by 2020. With an inevitable rush to educate young people accordingly, could we be missing out on a swathe of ‘unqualified’ talent?
The government has created a new ICT curriculum to meet demand and most recently they introduced a GCSE that will see pupils learn about cyber-security and app creation. The UK is not alone in the push for a wider tech workforce: in Hong Kong, children as young as six are attending after school computer clubs and the government plans to introduce compulsory coding for children of 11 upwards. Other regions in Asia Pacific, including Australia and Singapore, are also setting up compulsory education in computer programming.
The importance of these skills should certainly not be underestimated: analytics company Juniper Research expects the global market for mobile apps to more than double from $47.7bn (£30.8bn) last year to $99bn (£64bn) in 2019. However, as an employer of more than 85 staff at a fast-growing UK tech company, I believe that an over-emphasis on education programmes to teach coding could negatively impact the talent pool on which the industry thrives.
A formal, mandated approach to digital training perpetuates the idea that a certificate proves you are competent but, in a world where most technical curriculums are out of date even before they’re published, this is simply not true. This approach could well prevent talented and passionate people from taking suitable jobs in the workplace.
Employing staff from a variety of backgrounds has been key to our success and, while coding expertise has been essential, many of our staff are self-taught and have no formal IT qualifications. In fact, the most brilliant developers aren't always those with computer science degrees.
Often, an individual’s attitude is as important as their technical skills and tech companies should always look for flexibility and creativity in their coders.
For example, while the crossover may not be obvious, people who can read and write music can be excellent candidates for programmers. In fact, two of our senior developers joined us with exactly this background and no formal certificate in coding.
Ultimately, programming and music composition both rely on a rigid framework (music has notes and rhythmic structures, coding has data types and operations). Both are about creating something from nothing and figuring out how to get there.
You imagine the end result, either a song or a website, then use all the tools you have to get there.
Coders must also be good at solving complex business problems and people from non-traditional backgrounds may be better placed to do this. Web pages are basically interfaces between people and computers and so developers entirely focused on the computer will miss half the puzzle. The ideal coder will work out how the client, user and problem fit together. Then they will have the creativity to find a solution as well as the technical aptitude to implement it.
Of course, communication skills will be crucial throughout this process (as with any client-focused organisation) and there are many degrees other than computer science that might help develop these abilities.
Technology evolves rapidly and the best coders are those that most enjoy learning new things –
it stands to reason that self-taught coders are more likely to enjoy the process than those who completed a structured learning programme. The government should recognise that, although technology companies write code, their goal is to tackle complex business problems with a coders’ toolkit – a broader skill set than sheer technical know-how is often crucial to achieve that.