We Don’t Need No (Old School Coding) Education

In the midst of the cost of living crisis and the wake (we hope) of the pandemic, the shift towards a ‘hybrid’ work lifestyle has some long-tail effects – the question we need to ask ourselves just now is, can the UK education system keep pace with the increasing development cadence of technology, software systems and languages itself?

Death by PowerPoint has a new meaning. Being technologically competent is no longer a nice box to check for anyone looking for employment, it is a prerequisite. 

An applicant that highlights ‘proficiency in Excel, PowerPoint and some databases’ on their curriculum vitae may do better looking for a position in Greggs the bakers. Times have changed.

Technology is evolving at such a rapid rate that it is arguably now becoming out of reach for a large percentage of the population. A 2021 survey conducted by Salesforce highlighted in its Global Digital Skills Index that 76% of respondents do not feel prepared for a future that prioritises a ‘tech first’ mindset in the workplace. Of the 24,000 people surveyed, almost 1,000 were from the UK and 1,300 were from Ireland.

The onus is as a result on companies to ‘reskill’ workforces to meet the demands of the ever-changing technology world.

The Focus on STEM

But, as much as politicians like to use down with the kids terminology (think: ‘I get it’, y’know buddy… and them’s the breaks) to ingratiate themselves to us, do the powers that be running Europe’s education systems really understand how much deeper the technical competencies need to run today in the Gen-Z workforce?

At a time of political unease in the UK, education is at the forefront of people’s minds and the annual degree relevancy debate will no doubt be circling through the streets. At the time of writing, Conservative leadership candidate, Rishi Sunak, has already expressed his desire to phase out ‘low paying’ university degrees and put a focus back on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), an idea many believe is the first step to bridging the tech skills gap.

It is not a ground-breaking opinion to accept the world we live in is currently in the midst of a major tech skills gap. In the third quarter of 2021, there were 64,000 UK tech job vacancies, an increase of 191% on the same period in 2020. This will only rise until companies front up and address the problem face on but what is the solution?

Can Education Keep Up with Tech?

The traditional educational institutions in modern society are struggling to keep up with technological advancements. This is evident from statistics in Stack Overflow’s 2022 Developer survey which highlighted that 68% of UK developers learned to code online, up from 11% the previous year. The pace technology is evolving at is too quick for any curriculum to keep up with.

With over 70% of developers learning a new language at least once a year, meaning by the time someone graduates from university, the latest favourite developer language could have changed up to four times.

It is therefore paramount employers offer the right levels of support for continuing education of their employees.

Filling the Skills Gap 

Ultimately, tech companies have a responsibility to close this disconnect between skills and employment. There is a soaring demand for developers with cloud, ML, DevOps, microservices, and cybersecurity experience – employers need increasingly to be recruiting for the ability to learn as “off the shelf” skills scarcity grows.

Prashanth Chandrasekar, CEO of Stack Overflow, expects chatter around the tech skills gap will be persistent as technology evolves, but sees the solution in employers investing more in fostering learning within their organisation. “As I see it, the future of work is the future of learning,” he states.

This is obviously no easy task for employers but there would be recruitment and retention benefits to this investment.

Chandrasekar adds: “Over 50% of developers say that opportunities to learn are important when evaluating both current and future employers. Employers have an opportunity to play a critical part in providing continuing education to their employees. By providing resources and dedicated time for upskilling and reskilling, companies can foster a culture of lifelong learning in the workplace and invest in their employees’ long-term growth.”

Two Churches of Evolution

Dick Morrell, cloud and Linux veteran, takes a different stance. He argues that the issue of skills training is one where there are ‘two evolving churches of evolution’ around skills enhancement. He makes the point that enterprises and institutions have been hit by the loss of talented contractors due to the UK’s IR35 anti-avoidance tax legislation. With the associated loss of core skills as contractors leave, there is a need to reskill existing staff and enhance retention.

“With all that said, open source community resources had always traditionally allowed individuals to learn, train and flourish – but investment from companies such as Red Hat has dropped off significantly. Combine that with the current complexity of paid-for OpenShift subscriptions [Red Hat’s container orchestration technology] as a perfect example and you can feel the current tension. I don’t want to breed apathy, but the growing use of specific, often custom-tailored cloud provider-specific modified versions software tool variants means training can either be embraced or ignored. It’s a tough choice,” says Morrell.

He further points to the leadership shown by AWS with what it calls its ‘almost courses’ on YouTube. These free tutorials are indeed free, but they do not lead to any form of certification. AWS has identified that providing an onramp to emerging online catalogue tools would increase their uptake, this in turn creates a more adhesive relationship with developers in key accounts.

“The question is therefore the focus companies have on championing the individual and a move away from certified courses which often add little to the mix,” adds Morrell.

Skill Gaps Are ‘Features’

If some of this discussion sounds a little dark and foreboding, there are some shards of sunlight peeking through. Skill gaps will always exist, so perhaps it’s a question of how we view them. A glass half full person might suggest that a skills gap is a blank space, a zone to grow… and opportunity even.

“The lack of a certain skill in a company should be seen as a feature, not a bug. With the ever-accelerating rate of change in technology, it’s far more important to hire a team based on its ability, willingness and desire to keep learning. They should be impatient to learn something new,” says Dom Couldwell, Head of Field Engineering at DataStax, a company known for its enterprise Apache Cassandra database expertise.

Couldwell enthuses further and suggests that organisations that are not finding skills shortages on a regular basis may not be evolving the technology they themselves use fast enough.

“Being able to manipulate and manage data in the same way as you manage code will become more and more critical. Organisations can no longer accept a nonsynchronous IT stack that runs on two different speed gauges where the velocity developers can deliver code is out of sync with the team’s availability and ability to manage data. There is a tech aspect to this as well as skills, but Git-centric [i.e., open collaborative repository-based work] style skills for data and all aspects of the IT stack will become more and more important,” adds Couldwell.

The ‘trouble’ with this subject is that it’s a really popular topic. Having had inside experience of both the UK education system and that in a continental European counterpart, Dominic Wellington, Director of Market Intelligence at MongoDB, thinks there are two very different responses worth looking at.

Course Complete, Functionally Obsolete

“The average UK university study curriculum focuses on what we might call ‘marketable skills’ for the most part. But given the pace of evolution across the technology landscape (and the inevitable lag time it takes to get course curriculum defined, agreed upon, adopted and delivered) that plan typically doesn’t quite work out. I learned several programming languages at university in the UK, all but one of which were functionally obsolete only a few years after graduation,” notes Wellington.

Contrasting the UK, the continental European educational systems (generalising wildly across quite a few differences) tend to focus on providing a broad base of general knowledge, which can then be translated into specific skills as required.

Wellington suggests that this creates a situation where new graduates might not have quite so obviously immediately-applicable skills as in the UK, but given time to map abstract theory onto whatever technology is hot and in demand at the time, they can leapfrog British graduates, many of whom received the equivalent of vocational training rather than broad-based education.

A sensible system would probably combine aspects of both, clearly.

“I have been working with one large Italian university, on a course aimed primarily at graduates who have been in industry for a few years and want to develop new skills. Because of their strong backgrounds, they are able to dive in quickly and pivot to take advantage of emerging market opportunities — in this particular case, new use cases at the intersection of real-time operational data and analytics,” explains MongoDB’s Wellington.

Students that complete the above-referenced course will have immediately marketable skills in a burgeoning sector — but these are not shallow techniques learned by rote. Instead, they are techniques that can be applied to the latest cutting-edge technology, but with an understanding of deeper technology concepts already witnessed in different contexts over periods of years.

Hey, Teacher

One thing is for sure, we don’t need no (old school software application developing coding) education, we need a new way of coalescing theory, applied understanding, practical application cognisance and freewheeling open collaborative knowledge exchange and toolset experience.

Hey, teacher, leave that keyboard alone.

Adrian Bridgwater
Adrian Bridgwater
Adrian Bridgwater is a technology journalist with three decades of press experience. Primarily he works as a news analysis writer dedicated to a software application development ‘beat’; but, in a fluid media world, he is also an analyst, technology evangelist and content consultant. As the previously narrow discipline of programming now extends across a wider transept of the enterprise IT landscape, his own editorial purview has also broadened. He has spent much of the last 10 years also focusing on open source, data analytics and intelligence, cloud computing, mobile devices and data management.

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