Tech jobs aren't just for people who are good at maths and science
AuthorBad Dinosaur Team
It's something I've been saying at speaking events for a number of years now. But a couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited by Nicola Taylor from ScotlandIS to attend a roundtable event as an industry expert along with 15 head teachers from some local Scottish schools.
The goal was to try and help shape the school curriculum in a way that (hopefully) gets more kids into tech. With my partner being a teacher, this is a conversation I’ve been a part of for many years - from chats about how difficult it is to hire computer science teachers, to me going into schools to try and tell kids about how great (and easy) it is to work in tech.
It was amazing meeting such incredible people running these schools and being able to openly discuss the challenges that they face in preparing kids for a career in tech - it’s something that's really close to my heart. At the event I moved between groups of 5 or 6 head teachers at a time, talking a bit about Bad Dinosaur and how we’ve hired people in the past, what our typical team structure looks like and the different types of roles that we have to paint a picture of how recruitment and teams look in a typical tech agency.
People often think roles in tech require strong maths and science skills so it was a great opportunity to talk through the more non-technical roles that happen around tech (and there are a LOT). It’s also important to bust the myth of these skills being part and parcel of what makes a good developer/technical person. They really don’t. I wasn’t particularly good at maths or science - I think I got a few C’s in my final exams - and I seem to have made a pretty good career out of software development. I spoke at length about how important the softer skills are for a successful career in software development, that for the most part the programming is the easy bit. It’s all about understanding the problem, being able to communicate well with your team about them, and clearly articulating any challenges you face in solving them. Unfortunately in schools where attainment is the measurement of success, the head teachers are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place: It’s a choice between spending time nurturing the development of soft skills or teaching them what they need to get the best result in an exam. This is brought into focus even more so when you are talking about schools which don’t have a particularly strong academic track record and may also be in a more deprived area.
Of course there’s a balance there - we need to focus on both, but it’s important that we’re telling school kids early on that they don’t need to be maths wizzes to be able to work in tech. Neither do they need to achieve a 2:1 computer science degree from a red brick university. But still this stigma seems to persist. It was happening back in the early 2000’s when I was going to university and it’s still very much happening today.
My advice to these groups of head teachers was to spread the word about businesses like ours who will happily employ software engineers or front-end designers based upon what they can deliver, not based upon a qualification. Some of the best engineers I’ve worked with have been self-taught. A qualification (or even years in the field, but that’s too BIG a topic for here!) does not immediately make you a good developer. Whilst I have a degree in computer science, very little of what makes me a good developer was taught in the lecture theatres (I only went to a handful of them in all 4 years at university, choosing to rather stay up all night mucking about on my PC and sleep in till lunch time). It was the hours and hours of playing around with technology in my own time that honed these skills. I used to take anything and everything to pieces just to see how it all worked; I would come across problems that I knew software could solve, and so I’d spend hours learning enough code to solve that problem.
At one point I took over running the bar situated inside our student residence and after being handed over a stack of papers to keep track of everyone's bar tab, I spent the next two weeks programming a stock control and bar tab tracking application in Turbo Pascal (!), building a PC case out of see-through perspex and some spare parts I had lying around. Digital transformation before that terminology even existed!
No one asks to see the paperwork of a good rugby player - they can just show you on the field. The same goes for software development and the sooner we can change that ‘maths and science’ narrative, the sooner we’ll plug the massive skills gap we’re still seeing today. With access to so much information, kids can now teach themselves how to program from an early age, even if the school isn’t there to provide the lessons. Hit up Microsoft Learn or Codecademy to name a couple, and within a few weeks you’ll be on your way learning how to code. It’s that simple but I worry that kids just aren’t being shown the way because they’re not getting the grades that people think they’ll need to be a good developer, so they don’t take those first steps. We can do better.
I finished up the session with this anecdote for the head teachers: At the end of high school we were put in front of career advisors to help steer you in the right direction once you finished your exams. I had taken computer science for most of high school and it looked like the right direction for me to go in so I said I’d be keen on going to study computer science at a university somewhere. The goal being that I can get into some kind of engineering role or something working with computers. Now this was 2001, so important to remember that computers were things that you ‘played’ with rather than did actual work on. The advisor turned to me and said that it was pointless getting into computer science because the market was going to be flooded by the time I finish up at university about 4 years later and I’d struggle to find a job. Fast forward 20 years and we’re still seeing skills shortages in this area and yet we’re still angling kids to study accounting or become a lawyer (two careers, by the way, that have been earmarked as the first to go with the rise of AI and machine learning).
I’m hoping that we can change that narrative and get more kids into tech from an early age so we can solve that skills gap as well as driving us further forward towards the goal of Scotland being a world renowned tech hub.
The feedback from lots of head teachers was that more people in tech need to be going into schools to tell their kids about the opportunities in tech - dropping the crumbs so that they too can follow on the same path. If you work in tech and don’t mind popping along to a career day, please get in touch and we can connect you with some teachers who would love to have you. If you’re a teacher and need some tech folk to do a career talk, reach out to us and we’ll see what we can do - if not me, I’m sure we can find some others who are keen to spread the word!
PS. ScotlandIS is doing some great things in this area and if you're based in Scotland you should check out their Digital Critical Friends programme in this post.
Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/@yankrukov/