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Coding: an opportunity for everyone

Covid has encouraged people to reskill. Joanna Hodgson argues that, for businesses, this is a perfect opportunity to demystify coding and open it up to everyone.

While Covid has hit many industries hard, increasing unemployment numbers and job uncertainty, the demand for technical skills is greater than ever. According to FT analysis nearly 800,000 additional jobs were created in computer programming and related services.

Red Hat launched new research, which found that one in 20 (5%) of more than 30,000 respondents across Europe have chosen to take up coding as a new skill since the pandemic. Two thirds of them (65%) said their motivation was to reskill for a new job or career.

Interestingly, the research also found that the majority of those learning to code come from a non-technical background – 79% had not previously worked in technology, while 71% did not study a STEM degree. This would imply that a large proportion of new coders might be looking at a complete career change. Aside from there being high demand for computer programmers, it’s also a career that’s rewarded with good pay (the average tech salary is now £53,318), flexible hours/locations (something particularly coveted since the pandemic), and it can lend itself to multiple industry sectors and focus areas.

This is a trend that tech businesses should embrace wholeheartedly. Practically speaking, having access to a fresh talent pool has the potential to help plug the growing digital skills gap (costing the UK £63bn a year), especially considering that hiring technical talent traditionally comes at significant cost. And from a cultural and business perspective, it has the potential to improve the diversity within technical teams.

To support people transitioning into this career from a non-technical background, we need to dispel the out-dated stereotypes that still exist around who has the ability to become a coder – like the fact it’s seen as a discipline that’s purely mathematical rather than creative, or one that only lends itself to geniuses or antisocial types. 

Coding is actually a very creative discipline by virtue of the fact you’re creating something that doesn’t exist yet. It involves logic, problem-solving, precision and design – skills that can be transferred from all sorts of disciplines. This explains why, in recent years, the industry term “STEM” has been expanded to “STEAM” (to include the Arts), to indicate the value of including skills from the arts to technical disciplines. However, the term is yet to make its way into the mainstream. 

Having studied music before becoming a computer scientist, I’m walking proof that coders come in all forms, and experience tells me that hiring people who studied an arts or humanities degree, or didn’t go to university, has no discernible impact on their aptitude as a coder, but in fact brings different skills and ways of thinking that complement those from a more traditional tech background. We need diversity among teams to create technology that’s representative of all backgrounds (and avoid biases being written into software), a team with diverse educational backgrounds, experiences, and thought processes are examples of how to achieve this.

For businesses, there is both an opportunity and a responsibility to help demystify coding as a career and make it accessible to a new generation of coders, starting with three key considerations:

1. Hiring for potential and passion over skills

When it comes to coding, this means testing for logical thinking and an interest in solving real-world problems, rather than looking exclusively at the subjects they’ve studied. If job specs aren’t restricted to traditional STEM subjects, it will help to broaden the pool of candidates and guard against people hiring in their own image.

2. Internal reskilling

Since hiring technical talent has become increasingly expensive, there is also an economic argument for developing diverse talent and helping people reskill from other disciplines within organisations. Companies should dedicate time to creating programs designed to engage with employees who are curious about coding or interested in transitioning into a more technical role, whether it’s running ‘lunch-and-learn’ sessions or hackathons and coding clubs. 

3. Engaging with the wider community

In addition to partnering with relevant initiatives that help people get into coding, companies should direct people to open source communities. Participating in open source projects allows new coders to develop their skills by working on real world projects and learning from industry peers, and resources like Fedora are available to help new contributors know how and where to start. It’s a great way for applicants to showcase newly acquired coding skills on their CV, where they may not yet have relevant work experience.

We know that software is used by a diverse group of people, so needs to be created by a diverse group; we also know that the pandemic has sparked fresh interest in people learning to code but that it’s still a difficult world to navigate. If businesses seize the opportunity to help a more diverse talent pool break into this career, it’s going to be a win-win for employee and employer alike.

Joanna Hodgson is Solution Architect Lead UK&I at Red Hat.

Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com

© Business Reporter 2021

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