Discovering the tech talent of the future


By - Wednesday 18th June, 2014

Andrew Easter looks at the Croydon Tech City movement from a slightly different perspective


A panel discuss the future of Tech in Croydon at the recent summit.
Photo by Fluid4Sight, used with permission.

As an experienced software engineer, and long time member of the technical community, I’m well aware of the present shortage of technical skills in the technology industry – this is a situation that, as technology becomes increasingly ingrained in our lives, is only likely to deteriorate in the longer term, thus further widening the gap between the demand for programmers and the supply of them. It’s vital therefore that the industry not only does more to fill the short-term skills shortage, but more importantly seeks to identify methods to address the longer term skills quandary.

Fortunately, there are some very passionate and dedicated groups well aware of the future issues facing the industry and are actively doing something to address them. A well-known nationwide initiative called Code Club, and its very generous volunteers, is tackling the issue by bringing introductory coding lessons into schools for the 9-11 age group. In the Croydon area, the Future Tech City initiative (a spin-off of Croydon Tech City) has teamed up with Code Club with a vision to roll out these lessons to every primary school in Croydon. So far, Code Club has made great progress, finding its way into around 25% of the 95 primary schools within the borough.

Whilst there’s absolutely no doubting the obvious benefit of such initiatives, I do think it’s important to address any misconceptions about the upshot of their existence. Whilst I’m naturally biased about what is my own trade, I do think what is being lost in the message is that software engineering is a highly skilled profession, one that can take years, if not decades, to master. And that’s ignoring altogether the fact that insatiable developments in technology mean mastery is never a realistic outcome anyway – a career as a programmer is one of life long learning.

I think it’s important that we don’t seek to trivialise this skilled profession as, in the interests of every single direct and indirect consumer of technology (all of us), we must not lower the benchmarks for what defines a capable programmer. Commonly recited clichés, such as “anyone can build an app”, are typically taken out of context. Like any creative discipline, anyone can have a go, but that doesn’t mean everyone will achieve great results, especially when tackling anything more than just the most basic of software products. I’m certainly capable of touching up a few imperfections using Polyfilla, but if I endeavoured to completely re-plaster every wall in my house, I would inevitably wipe a great deal off the value of my property in the process! We can turn to the late, great Steve Jobs to gain some insight into just how wide the skills spectrum is for programmers – he claimed that one great programmer’s productivity is equivalent to that of twenty mediocre ones.

The more kids you expose to coding, the more likely it is you’ll ‘discover’ the ones with a natural aptitude for it

The more technology becomes part of our lives, the more we’ll rely on its quality and stability. Lowering the expectations for those claiming to have the necessary coding skills would only lead to an increase in potentially serious software failures. Just because demand outstrips supply, it doesn’t follow that benchmarks should be lowered in order to plug the gap – we wouldn’t accept that in mechanical engineering (think building skyscrapers), so why would we do it for software engineering?

For these reasons, I think it’s worth understanding that initiatives like Code Club should be seen not as a way of ‘developing’ talent but a way of ‘discovering’ it instead. This, in my opinion, is somewhat analogous to grass roots sports initiatives. Nobody would seriously suggest that encouraging more British kids to play tennis would mean we’d suddenly mobilise a whole army of Andy Murray clones. Grass roots initiatives are primarily about exploiting statistics – in the case of Code Club, the more kids you expose to coding, the more likely it is you’ll ‘discover’ the ones with a natural aptitude for it. If kids don’t even try coding, how would they ever know if it was for them or not?

So, in summary, let’s get right behind initiatives such as Croydon’s Future Tech City and Code Club, but let’s be sure we remain clear on the ultimate purpose. Yes, your next door neighbour’s daughter probably does “do websites”, but then she’s probably built sand castles in the past as well – it doesn’t make her qualified to build a real house. Unlike some other creative disciplines, there’s a hell of a lot more to software than what you can see on the surface.

In many ways, the more we celebrate the skills required to become a great programmer, the more attractive the profession may become.

Andrew Easter

Andrew Easter

Andrew is a Co-Founder at Unroutine. He is an experienced (10+ years) technologist and software engineer/architect, formerly the Lead Platform Engineer at Gumtree.com. An active tech blogger and tweeter, you'll also be sure to find him engaged in many a debate on tech mailing lists, covering, amongst other things, framework implementation and software design principles. When Andrew is not writing code, and obsessively researching the best ways to build software, he'll probably be cycling, playing tennis, doing something musical, or watching Formula One.

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