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Investing in the next generation of tech talent




TECH companies are experiencing an unparalleled – and well-publicised – talent shortage.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Survey 2020 reported that 55% of companies surveyed identified skills gaps in the local labour market as the main barrier to the adoption of new technologies. 

After decades of conversations around improving diversity and inclusion in the tech industry in the United States and globally, many organisations have come to the conclusion that old practices and standards of hiring are holding the industry back from reaching its true potential. The time has come for the technology industry to re-evaluate hiring practices and develop new, more accessible pipelines for talent, to drive inclusivity, as well as generate more sustainable forms of sourcing talent.

GitLab has partnered with WeThinkCode, a South African non-profit coding academy that trains cohorts of future software engineers in a 20-month, tuition-free programme. Funded by sponsorships from local corporates across information and communications technology and other industries, the programme prepares youths from underrepresented communities for full-time employment at tech companies.

Entering the technology field can open up a world of opportunities for young people from marginalised communities, particularly in South Africa where youth unemployment is over 60%. Despite the opportunity that the tech industry presents, in many cases, such individuals are unaware that positions at tech companies are even attainable. Furthermore, it can be challenging for them to gain roles without some kind of university degree, which are often cost-prohibitive.

Although it may seem like a degree from a top college or university is the only way to adequately prepare for a role, the pace at which tech-skilled graduates are entering the workforce is not keeping up with market demand. Today, in the tech industry, there is a new crop of alternative, or non- traditional, education systems, like WeThinkCode which can help to meet the growing demand for tech skills.

It’s critical that tech companies, big and small, begin investing in their talent pipelines at the foundational level. This is two-fold: one, while there is an existing moral responsibility for enterprises to open the doors to the lucrative, constantly evolving and opportunity-filled world of tech, two, there is also a business case to be made when considering how tech companies can contribute to the pool of talent that can someday join their ranks and contribute positively to company growth.

Let us walk through some of the benefits of non-traditional education, how companies can best engage with emerging talent and some of the key pillars of a skills-based training programme.

Benefits of non-traditional background

For years, a four-year degree in computer science was the bare minimum to enter the technology industry. Although a university education can be fulfilling, and provide foundational knowledge for tech workers, it’s important to acknowledge that a significant portion of the industry gains new skills outside of the bounds of traditional education. Notably, a study from Stack Overflow found that nearly 60% of respondents learned to code from online platforms. 

Because technology as an industry is constantly evolving, some level of continuous self-taught instruction is required. Coding academies can take the natural organic momentum of this self-led education and add structure to the process. This helps streamline the wealth of information available online, harness the way individuals naturally learn and help validate the curriculum so hiring organisations understand their candidates’ skill sets.

As the technology industry melds with other industries to create segments like health-tech, fashion-tech and retail-tech, having a non-traditional background can actually be an asset for new employees. A non-traditional tech programme or boot camp allows individuals to build on their existing skill set without needing to start over with a university

programme. In addition, boot camps allow for a more practical approach to learning, as the curriculum is tailor-made to prepare students for employment.

Engaging with new talent

Organisations are often at a loss when it comes to identifying new talent pipelines, whether that’s talent brand new to the workforce or talent that has been circulating in the industry for years. For this reason, partnerships between enterprises and educational institutions are paramount.

Tech companies are at the forefront of innovation, creating new platforms and opportunities for students to learn every day. By partnering with boot camps and other initiatives, they can translate this innovation into educational content that can be used to teach and train fresh talent. This creates an ongoing ecosystem between educators, enterprises and students.  

Despite ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts, many recruiters continue to look for the same patterns in tech workers – often male, with wealthier, university-educated backgrounds. In actuality, there isn’t just one demographic or personality type that can excel in this industry. With baseline traits of curiosity, logical thinking, grit and basic numeracy and literacy skills, an individual can be trained to contribute to an organisation. 

Developing a training programme

The core objective of any educational programme should be to equip individuals with the competencies that are most relevant to a successful career in the technology industry.

When developing a curriculum, educators should clearly identify how the programme can provide the most value both to students and to hiring organisations. In order to make this value chain sustainable and applicable to the modern, constantly evolving technology ecosystem, organisations must start with the end goal: identifying the most relevant skills needed for placement in a specific industry.

The most sought-after skills will continue to evolve to reflect the ebbs and flows of technology industry trends. GitLab’s DevOps in Education survey found the top skills taught alongside a DevOps platform are CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous delivery or continuous deployment), collaboration and communication, and application development and design. Educational institutions should work with enterprises on an ongoing basis to ensure the curriculum is aligned with business and industry needs.

Future of enterprise-education ecosystem

In the seven years since WeThinkCode was established, the institution has placed over 500 programme graduates in tech positions, with a 93% job placement rate post-graduation. As a result, their alumni network has grown into a team of ambassadors advocating for the programme and its students.

One student, Alyson Ngonyama, worked primarily in administrative roles before joining WeThinkCode. During her tenure, she was awarded the Good Fellowship Award and joined the Dotmodus team as a software engineer shortly after graduating.

Ngonyama has cited the programme as “the most life-changing two years of my life”, noting that she has “an expanding career as a software engineer”.

Recently, WeThinkCode participated in a partnership pitch meeting with a potential enterprise sponsor. Shortly into the meeting, a member of the enterprise team paused the pitch to share his own background as a WeThinkCode alumnus. These full-circle moments further validate GitLab’s mission of providing widespread access to the opportunities the tech industry has to offer.

The technology industry is at an important turning point – the past few years have changed the way we think about where and how we work. With the “Great Resignation” passing through the industry, it’s critical that we also reassess howwe hire and how we can better invest in the next generation of tech talent.

The truth is, there is no one path into the technology industry. Individuals with all kinds of backgrounds can find a way to deliver value and innovation within the industry – as long as they are curious and willing to learn. Training programmes like WeThinkCode provide enthusiastic candidates – many of whom have been overlooked by the tech industry in the past – with real-world, hands-on experience that reflects the most current, sought-after skills, which is just as valuable as the theoretical knowledge taught in the classroom.

For those companies struggling with hiring and retaining talent during the Great Resignation, rethink how you seek out talent. The next generation of tech is out there. You just have to take the first step.

About the writers: Christina Hupy is a senior education programme manager at GitLab, an open source end-to-end software development platform.

Nyari Samushonga, a chartered accountant by training, is the chief executive of non-profit WeThinkCode, a South African tech academy that operates in Joburg, Durban and Cape Town.–Mail & Guardian.

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