Episode 11: Closing the Talent Gap
By 2020, there will be over one million computer programming job opportunities, and far fewer computer science grads to fill those roles. As an enterprise with growing development needs, you’re probably more than familiar with this problem.
Thankfully, innovative programs like Minneapolis-based Prime Digital Academy and self-learners are rising to the occasion.
On this episode, Application Developer, Ken Sykora talks us through the various computer science learning methods from four different perspectives. Ken, himself was a traditional 4-year computer science graduate from University of Wisconsin.
We also hear from Fred Sheanan, Education Director at Prime Digital Academy – an immersive, bootcamp-style computer science program to teach the skills necessary to break into the programming field. OST Application Developer, Holly Tuhake is a graduate from Prime and joins us to share her path to computer science and what this program was like for her.
Lizzie Williams: Hey, everybody. On this episode of Ten Thousand Feet, we talk through an increasingly popular discussion: the Talent Gap. It’s projected there will be over one million computer programming job opportunities by 2020 and far fewer Computer Science graduates to fill those roles. On this episode, we explore this talent gap and introduce a few guests who can share their backgrounds, both teaching and learning practical Computer Science.
We have several guests with varied backgrounds including two Application Developers from OST – Ken Sykora and Holly Tuhake. We are also joined by Fred Sheanan, the Director of Student Experience at Prime Digital Academy, and Tony Ticknor, the Director of Technology at Irish Titan. Enjoy.
Ken Sykora: So we’re going to talk today about what it is like trying to get into the app dev business as a new student. So, I am Ken Sykora, I am the App Dev Team Lead here at OST in Minneapolis.
Fred Sheanan: Hi, I am Fred Sheanan. I am the Director of Student Experience at Prime Digital Academy.
Tony Ticknor: Hi, I am Tony Ticknor. I am the Director of Technology at Irish Titan.
Holly Tuhake: I am Holly Tuhake. And I am an Application Developer at OST.
Ken: Awesome. So my goal here is to have a conversation around what it’s like to come into app dev in today’s world. Just a little background on myself, and I kind of picked each of you individually to join me in this conversation for very specific reasons, I came in with a traditional four-year Computer Science degree, went into the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. A great program there at that time, probably, still now, are sponsored by IBM, so, they taught us a lot of Java. But beyond that, we did C++ and all that stuff. What I didn’t feel like I got that I know are coming out as some other types of programs are some of the tools and techniques and stuff that you learn within your first few years but I know a lot of programs are looking to optimize around that. So, Fred and Holly, you both come from Prime Digital Academy, and, maybe, Fred, you want to give me some background on how you got to where you are today?
Fred: Oh, boy. Most of the staff who work at Prime have pretty interesting backgrounds. So my background is education, curriculum development. I started off back in the days in Psychology, Cognitive Social Psychology, and then pivoted into teaching with technology and education. The formal background is a Master‘s Degree in Education from Harvard University. And I did Curriculum Development at one of the graduate schools there in the Boston area and then pivoted out there for a couple of Fortune 500’s here, locally in town. And a lot of what the impetus for Prime is based on is how to disrupt the educational process. It can take an incredibly long period of time. And there are certainly barriers to access for students to get into software engineering. So Prime is very intentionally engineered around how do we take engaged students, engage learners who want this as an outcome, who demonstrate strong, professional skills and capacities to grow, enroll, and get them up to speed in a way that matches the needs of local software businesses.
Ken: Yes. Let us talk about the need of local software businesses for a minute. It is no surprise to anyone at Minneapolis Market that it is hard to find good development talent, right?
Ken: And if you are a developer on LinkedIn, you are getting pinged by recruiters on a daily basis, it feels like. So, Tony, from Irish Titan’s perspective, what is it like trying to recruit development talent from what you see coming in – who are your applicants, what kind of backgrounds do they have?
Tony: Yeah, we get a pretty diverse set of applicants from an experience level, a lot of people that are just getting into the game. And I would say we get less of the very experienced applicants. I see a lot of those potential hires as people who are working with a recruiter or someone who is trying to place them into a role. So if we are looking for someone like that, we are more likely to partner with somebody to help us try and find those people, because those applicants are fewer and far between.
What we have taken advantage of here is we say that we want to bring people in and get them their dream job. If that dream job is with the Irish Titan, that is great. I would love to have them there as long as possible. Otherwise, we want to bring them in under the tutelage of some of our more senior developers and then teach them how to be a developer or whatever their dream job happens to be: if they want to get into management, if they want to get into accounts or project management. There are a lot of different ways they can go. And we are going to get them to that point and help them get that dream job even if it’s somewhere else. And then do it again with whoever is next.
Ken: Awesome. So, Tony, your background in particular. My first encounter with you is at Nerdery where we were developers on the same team. We sat right next to each other, right? But your background was interesting to me, because you, actually, came out of Mankato through a four-year degree but not in any sort of technology area. And then your first job was at the Post Office?
Tony: I had a lot of first jobs. My story is, going way back, I grew up the son of a computer programmer and a teacher. My Mom taught me of love of learning. And my Dad taught me about computers. We got our first home computer in the house in the 1980s which is going way back. I am tipping my age a little bit. But this is a podcast, so no one can see me. I learned those things. And I got really interested in music. And I went to a school for music. I went to get a Music Management degree. During that time, I was playing a lot of music. And I made our band a website. And everybody we were playing shows with, was like, “What is that?” And I thought that was really neat that you could promote yourself on this internet thing. And so I started doing that on the side for work and for learning. Those were the days there was no Stack Overflow at that point. You just go to the library if you have a problem. Find the answer in a book. Figure it out. And so I got a lot of experience working in front-ends doing that. Bands really wanted an immersive experience that was pretty and interactive. So I focused there a lot, got into Flash and Action Script, eventually, kept leveling myself up. My first real professional development all-the-time job was in Mankato for Taylor Corporation working in e-commerce, working on a cold fusion system. Can you believe that?
Ken: I do.
Tony: Yes. And just continued on from there through a lot of places: The Nerdery, Riley Hayes, Optum. I worked at a number of places both large and small. And I have seen a lot of different methodologies for, say, hiring, coaching, mentoring, that sort of stuff. And so this conversation about how people come along as they are trying to get into this business or grow in this business really interest me because I think there is a lot of opportunities here for pretty much anyone that wants it.
Ken: So, Holly, let us touch on your background a bit.
Ken: You came out of Prime Academy, went through that. Can you talk about what the learning process was? And maybe even taking a step back to what your background was going into it–
Ken: what the learning process was at Prime and what it was like trying to go after that first position once you graduated?
Holly: Sure. So I have a background in a lot of things. I have been a licensed Real Estate Agent. I worked in the contracting business. I was a bookkeeper. I worked in guitar pedal sales. I have worked in shipping. I also was a musician and still am. When I was young, I always would try to pick up part-time jobs, so my background is completely varied. I have been to a lot of places. The last job I had though before changing into programming was a Sales Manager at a guitar pedal, effects pedal, company. And I was pretty much making an Excel spreadsheet to become our CRM. And I started realizing how much I like thinking about data and building systems that create efficient workflows. And I also do not have a four-year degree at all. The only degree I have is a two-year degree in Sound Art, whatever that is. I do not remember, I am over thirty, I will not tell your ages here. But I just really could not see myself going back to school for a four-year degree. But I saw that I had, I guess, a knack for thinking in this way and when I started just researching ways to get into computer programming. And I also had a cousin and a brother-in-law who were both encouraging me to do it. Because if you would have told me when I was nineteen that I would be going into a computer-science-type thing, I would have said, “What? You are lying. There is no way.” Because I always liked art and maybe an English degree but never computer programming. That is crazy.
So then when I got to Prime, the one thing I really liked about Prime is there’s no way I could have learned on my own with the way my life was because I have a lot of extra-curricular type of things I am involved in, full-time job. I just do not have the time to be a self-learner completely. I do a lot of things on the side. But to come to this place with a completely new paradigm of thinking, I was like, “I just need to immerse myself in this so that I can get started on that way. And then I can do my own self-learning after that.” And that is what Prime let me do because you certainly cannot have a job while you are at Prime because it’s forty to sixty hours of working and learning and squeezing your brain as hard as it can. And not only that but they do a lot of public speaking and interpersonal-relationship stuff. And I not only felt I had become someone who understood how to program but I think I became a better person. And I think that’s something that happens in college, too, camaraderie. And I think that was really important to experience, because that just carries into becoming parts of teams after that, in the workplace. That’s kind of where I came from and where I am at now.
Ken: Awesome. Fred, can you speak to the curriculum, if you will, at Prime? What are some of the things that you focus on in the limited time you have with the students?
Fred: Sure. It is hard to fit things. Immersion curriculums aren’t as much time as people think they are. We certainly have grown over the last five years. We started with an eighteen-week Full-Stack Software Engineering Curriculum; now, it is twenty weeks. And most of that is you add React in there and the dependencies at the pace at which people can pick it up and build with it and certainly takes more time. Fully half of our curriculum when it is the classroom experience is project-based learning.
So there is a lot of similarities to React. There are dependencies when they can go into effect of problem-based learning. We have cooperative team-based work on behalf of clients that we source in the local community. When you have people who need to work together, solve problems together, communicate effectively, delegate tasks, engage in providing space for each other, there is a problem solved across the myriad backgrounds and perspectives that the team brings to bear on this client-centered, human-driven needs, that requires some of the holistic soft skills. We do not expect that everyone has those on lockdown. When they start, we certainly look for those in the interviewing process.
I remember speaking with Holly a number of years back. And there are very specific things that they would give us the point of confidence similar to a tech hiring manager that someone has the goal orientation, the point of engagement, the intrinsic motivation to get after the skill development that is required in this field. It requires active engagement. And we certainly look for that and provide a range of different opportunities throughout the curriculum for people to practice that even if it’s not hard software skills. And that’s where public speaking comes in, building greater rapport, respect for peers, active listening, conflict management. Those are all things that are part of the curriculum very intentionally because we ante in on the belief that that is going to create far stronger longitudinal outcomes for the students in actual practice fields. We do a job, the script-based stack, of course. We do some deep dives. Like Holly had mentioned, the hours get high in the classroom, sixty, sixty-five hours a week. We do a lot of peer programming and team-based build throughout that process. And then we have people do deeper dives. Weekend projects can take ten, twelve hours. Certainly, when you get into the solo projects and the client-driven projects, four to five team members working together and maybe about four hundred to five hundred hours of development time.
Ken: That is crazy.
Fred: That’s what you can fit in three and a half weeks.
Ken: That is all turn-about cycle classroom, too–
Ken: –in addition to the regular learnings that you do with your instructors that is crazy.
Fred: Absolutely. The goal of that is to ideally provide our students with the proxy for experience, some of those hard-fought-points of learning what the field entails, requires, point of cooperation and communication, client engagement to technical scoping that usually come across within not just that first zero to six months on-boarding into whatever new technology the team does, but certainly those skills that can be critical across the first year to three years.
Fred: When we talk about technical postings that most tech-based environments look for. Most of them have the one to three year-req for those junior engineers on it. So we try to provide that through transferable experiences that are going to be realistic and serve as more of a proxy for that onboarding success.
Ken: Yes. So contrast that for a moment to traditional four-year Computer Science or even like an MIS program. I’ve actually got a list of the CS courses that some of them I took, some of them I did not. Just to touch on a few: database systems, web systems, programming languages, algorithms, computer addition. And keep in mind each of these is a semester-long course, right? To try and cram. And this is the two hundred levels. That’s not even touching the three hundred levels where you get into operating systems and computer networks. Then there’s math that goes Calculus and Statistics along with that for some of the side requirements. So there is a lot that goes into that. But one of the things that struck me coming out was one of the things that I did not have that I feel like a Prime Academy student or boot camp student will have would be the tooling. What is it like to use source control? What is it like to, actually, collaborate on a team-based project for a natural customer? While we certainly did a lot of team projects that are like team projects in school. You get grouped to three or four people and then you get the slacker. And then you get the guy that takes the lead. And then two are just coming along for the ride, right? But there is no actual end customer involved. And you just kind of dedicated to yourself in getting that grade for that. You are not trying to, actually, produce outcomes and try to come along for it. I feel like, in my time, working with some of those boot camp students, they are a lot more motivated in some ways.
Tony: Yes. I would just piggyback on that and say that at Irish Titan, I look for five things when we are hiring people. I look for passion I look for people that take ownership of what they do. I look for people that can work on a team. I look for people that are going to make an impact. And I look for people with skills. But skill is just one of those five things.
Ken: Right. Yes. Totally. And speaking to that, why don’t you talk a little more about what it was like for you? What are some of the struggles that you came up with as a self-taught technologist getting into it? When you would come into a new website you wanted to build and you wanted to try something you have never done before, where did you even start?
Tony: I started when the dancing baby GIF was the rage, right?
I asked the GeoCities Homesteader to copy and paste all the animated GIFs that I could everywhere.
Ken: Under construction.
Tony: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I started off really in HTML prior to CSS existing. So I had the luxury of sort of learning one thing at a time as it was added to the stack which a lot of people do not get anymore. And I recognize that. I think about HTTP and how it’s built off of TCP and things like that. And that is not something that people pick up on right away nowadays. But fully admitting, when I came to The Nerdery, this story, I have not shared with a lot of people, but I have never used source control before. I think I worked the whole, probably, two projects. And I leaned over into a guy named Ben Domar and said, “Hey, Ben. I am working on these projects. Where do these go?” He was like–
Fred: A shared file system?
Tony: “Oh, yes. Yes.” And I was like, “Oh, my source control is the last person to press Save wins.” He was like, “No. That is not a good idea.” And so I got some really good mentorship from Ben. And so it doesn’t matter if you are self-taught or taught in a university setting, I feel if you are willing to talk with the people around you, most people are willing to share a better way to do things. And everyone has things to learn. I still have things to learn. Everybody at this table has things to learn. And just being open to that idea of continuing education through your whole career and knowing that you do not know everything is the key to that.
Ken: Right on.
Holly: I think the access to people to ask questions to, is such a huge thing when you graduate from a place like Prime or I suppose even a University. And I think something that boot camp-type places do for you is that there are limited resources sometimes. So you just have to ask the person next to you and getting used to not always having to go to an authority figure, but actually just asking your peers is such a vital part of programming in general.
And that is definitely something I have learned even starting a new job like, “Okay.” And it is so much digital communication, too, like ask some questions, Slack channeling. Just ask the questions. Someone might know the answer. Just do it. Being willing to admit what you don’t know so that you can grow. One of the best experiences I have had, when I was working at my first company, it was pretty much me and one other guy. And he had run into a problem that he could not solve. And even though it was not the language I knew, he knew I could follow the logic. And he let me help him debug. And I learned so much by doing that with him. And even seeing him code and seeing his habits, I would have never thought I would want to sit next to somebody while they program the computer or a program. And now, I am like, “Oh.” It makes a lot of sense because you are just essentially listening to someone talk when you watch someone program. And that is such a vital piece of learning.
Ken: I want to chat really quickly about what it means to be job-ready in today’s market. I mean, obviously, coming out of a four-year degree, I think my experience was, “Okay. I know a lot about a lot of stuff and I have spent the last four years of my life kind of tuning in some little, mini-project ways.” And I know it is going to be different in the real world but the employers I have been approaching see that I have a four-year degree. And they look at that is a school that is accredited. That is all that stuff. You are qualified. Great job. And they are maybe even looking at your GPA. I know in a lot of cases, they were especially if it was an internship. So in today’s market, that is obviously different. You have a whole plethora of people who are coming from non-traditional backgrounds. Holly, what was your experience like trying to get that first job?
Holly: I was actually quite spoiled because I was hired by my brother-in-law.
Ken: Okay. Perfect.
Holly: Before I graduated. I mean, this is my third job. And I know the first job is the hardest. So I do feel like I cheated a little bit there. But it’s becoming more and more clear to me that the technical skills are very important. But those can easily be taught easier than learning how to make people feel comfortable and communicate effectively.
And I think that is one reason why people with varied backgrounds can be valuable because even when I was running live sound, I had to work with a new team every night. And that taught me a lot about being able to communicate with strangers in a way where you’re already partnering with them. I think that those kinds of skills, I think, just being out working is the only way to learn those things. And having varied backgrounds allows you to be able to communicate with different kinds of people. So I think that is why I have not had to struggle too much. But that first job, I definitely was spoiled. Definitely spoiled in that way.
Ken: Fred, do you see similar stories coming out of the students that graduated from Prime in getting their first job? Any challenges that they see or specific hurdles they have to overcome?
Fred: Definitely. First, the first job is the hardest. And it tends to be because the hiring team that’s out there require some type of proxy for confidence. Without the formalized background at that point, the’are looking for something that is going to serve as a predictor for success across a six-month ramp-up within any given set of technologies. So typically the things that usually resonate most across different orgs, they can look so incredibly different. And there does not tend to be a whole lot of visibility for the applicant themselves. A one to two-page job description is an extraordinarily poor proxy for any type of in-depth conversation with what the team does and why, to what depth and what level. You can have hand-offs on all of those points where it might be traditionally HR, talent acquisition teams who don’t understand the technology itself. So there’s not a lot of visibility that goes through that. That is the hardest part for most boot camp grads universally, nationally. It’s that first foothold position to have that demonstration of formalized experience and trust that a company has made, that someone has all of those things that are going to make them successful in that ramp-up process. For our students, we try to give them that head start, the initial escape velocity on that front.
Before starting Prime, most of the basis for some of the curricular antes that we have done – the holistic skill sets such as professional development, coaching, career development skills – is because when we spoke to local companies, we brought their entry-level job positions to them and said, “We see that there is one to three years experience that is being asked for that. Can you share a little bit more about what that represents to you?” And probably no one in this room would be surprised. But to about eighty-five, ninety percent of it, is professional skills, ability to work in a team, staying adaptable under a dynamic changing condition set or client needs, staying intrinsically motivated, the willingness to engage in continuous learning when the tech changes over or there is a new skill to pick up, being able to communicate effectively, and, of course, time management. There’s never a replacement for getting the tasks done in an efficient way. And sometimes, that looks like the willingness to be vulnerable, to try something, to iterate, to engage in learning, and active hands-on practice, and to ask.
When you are surrounded by a team of individuals who might have thirty years experience combined, forty, or you can get into the decades above that, of course, the efficiency-driven outcome is: ask. Get someone to put a name to the thing that you need to dive into, to learn, focus on, figure out. There’s no value in finding that in all of the web, yourself. I’m old enough, too, to know what that feels like when you have a bookshelf of Flash Books. And you just have to reference the glossary. You don’t have to do that anymore. But you do have to transfer that knowledge. And you have to make an efficient request.
So, a lot of those things are such accelerators that team leads in the interviewing process, even in the phone screen, they ask those questions. They listen for those things. And they are looking for those points of experience. So we think that we set our students up for success by having them have those experiences in a sandbox environment when they build up the community, the trust, the vulnerability and they have those encoded professional behaviors that can really throw people in such a disruptive way if they’re not expecting that on their first job roles.
Ken: Sure. Tony, you obviously had some experience under your belt going into your first job with the band websites, and almost in the self-promotion way, you were able to get more and more, should I call, professional experience under your belt?
Tony: Yes. I was willing to do whatever websites some people would pay me to do.
Tony: I was like, “Oh, you need this? I will figure it out. Sounds good. I will do it for this much.”
Ken: So how did that translate to the first position you were going after? Or even if you had not even considered that first position, your first position was basically a freelancer, right?
Tony: Yes. My first position was my own company, right? It was, “I will do this for this much. Here is the contract,” and I used the knowledge that I gained from negotiating, getting paid in the show, right?
Tony: I had to learn how to do that stuff. So that was my first job. The first professional job came through someone that I used to play shows with, was starting a front-end department, and said, “I have interviewed people. I cannot find anybody who has the teamwork, and has all the things Fred was talking about.” And he said, “I know you know this stuff. Come work for me.” So that was how I got into my first professional thing. It was just a networking thing. Playing in a band is a big network. And you do lots of crazy things with all those people you meet. You go wrestle polar bears or whatever. And you create these bonds where they’re just unbreakable. And you have this trust. And so you really have just those close moments that make it real. And so that’s how I got into my first thing. I never wrestled a polar bear for real.
Ken: I kind of want to hear the story about you wrestling a polar bear. [laughter]
Tony: I wish I had a good one. Yes. Just thinking about getting into a first job for somebody else, it can be really intimidating. I like to encourage people to network. I know that is also part of Prime and part of many of the boot camps that I have seen people come out of. Knowing people and being able to have a network of people to go to, have a mentor; have someone that you can reach out to that has people in the community really does help. I also think, from the business side as somebody who hires people, I encourage my team to talk to people that are just getting into this because if you only ever hire experienced people, you’re never going to change any of the viewpoints that you already have on your team.
Tony: And so you need to bring in some other viewpoints that you can continue to grow your team in a way where they can all continue to learn from not only a technical standpoint but from other people’s viewpoints.
Ken: Yes. A common theme I’m hearing from everyone is that self-motivation, intrinsic motivation, being a lifelong learner is super critical to being successful no matter what your experiences in technology. Soft skills come from where they come from. They can be trained. They can be learned. But they’re super important in addition to the tech.
So I want to get a couple of last thoughts from each one of you. Fred, so OST’s office is actually built in an old board game factory. So, with that, what is your favorite game?
Fred: Oh, boy. If we are going board games here, I’m going to draw from the most recent memory here, 5-Minute Marvel with my daughter. So, superhero it up. Yes. It is card-based, gameplay, simpler mechanics. But she loves it, good arts, fun gameplay.
Tony: My favorite board game for me to play is, probably, just sit down and play a game of chess. But I do enjoy with my kids playing Mouse Trap all the time and setting up all the pieces. And it kind of reminds me of development a little bit.
Holly: I do not play a lot of board games. But I am a fierce Rummy 500 player.
Ken: Oh, there you go.
Holly: They have got custom rules. [laughter]
Holly: It gets pretty intense.
Lizzie: Is it a card game?
Holly: Yes. Yes.
Ken: Yes. I think my favorite game, probably, is Magic: The Gathering. I recently read an article about how they started developing that game and the playtesting process really reminded me of how you build an application. Like, you kind of prototype, you put it on paper. You put it in front of people. They test it. And they use it. And it doesn’t work. You change a couple of things. And eventually, it goes live to production. I guess game development is basically the same way.
I recently also played an awesome game with my kid called Hulk Smash. My kid is three years old now. You build these little cars out of play dough. And you place them strategically around. And when you hit them, they have to give you this giant, green Hulk Marvel, this thing that smashes them onto the ground. And it is wonderful. It’s absolutely brilliant.
All right. I think with that, thank you all for coming. I really appreciate your insights. Great conversation.
Tony: Thanks for having me.
Fred: Thanks, Ken.
Lizzie: OST, changing how the world connects together. For more information, go to ostusa.com/podcast.