As more students want to get into coding, what do they need to know?

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

Feature Earlier this week, survey results from social learning platform FutureLearn revealed that more 18 year olds in the UK want to get into coding and software development as opposed to more traditional professions, such as medicine or law.

23% of A-level students polled said they wanted to be developers, compared with 22% wanting to move into the medical profession, and 16% hoping for a career in law and marketing respectively.

It’s a shot in the arm for the tech sector, with plenty of stories hitting the stands about the dreaded ‘digital skills gap’, be it developers, cloud computing professionals, or general IT. Some people insist it doesn’t exist, others do, but with resources more easily available, as well as communities such as Stack Overflow, it’s never been easier to get ahead in the industry – and this arguably is reflected in the survey results.

Nigel Beighton (left) is international VP technology and product at Rackspace. With CTO experience at a variety of organisations, he agreed that it was harder to get in the door when he was starting his coding career.

“Fundamentally, access to the technology is very accessible,” he tells DeveloperTech. “It’s cheap but not free. There is so much now available on the Internet.

“When I first joined, it was hard to get access to the technologies. If you didn’t do it through a formal education process, you had to do it as a kind of apprenticeship with companies.”

Years on, this is evidently still fresh in the memory.

For Beighton, and indeed other big vendors, it’s about offering an olive branch. Rackspace’s developer program offers cloud services to developers for free to give them a hand up. It’s a trait endemic in Rackspace’s culture – the company announced it was putting £250,000 aside for UK-based startups to get in the cloud last November – and the open source cloud provider is at it again, offering investment and technology for a data science boot camp.

Organisations must do more to support academia and educate students about the opportunities available

Don’t be under any illusion this is entirely altruistic, however. Even though Beighton insists the key is getting this data science and development knowledge out to market, he did admit that if these boot camp graduates were recruited by Rackspace, it would be no bad thing and would make a nice return on investment.

“I’m really interested in people who’ve got that good knowledge and, the more we help to help get them out, that’s great,” he explains. “At the moment I think across the industry in most countries, there’s a shortage of people who understand how to do good data science.”

Derek Britton is director at software firm Micro Focus, which acts as a custodian for the COBOL programming language. He believes that the power is firmly in the hands of the organisations to help students get ahead.

“Students showing interest and passion for coding is certainly a step in the right direction to creating the next generation of programming talent,” Britton tells DeveloperTech in an email. “To ensure the continued development of student coders, organisations must do more to support academia and educate students about the opportunities available to them.

“Investing in academic programs and educational initiatives to help build a new generation of skilled professionals, and providing modern and easier to learn technology, will be necessary to support the longer term growth of coding in the UK,” he adds.

It’s never been easier to learn code, and if you show a bit of aptitude companies will want to give you a helping hand. It sounds too good to be true – which is a dead giveaway that it probably is.

The developer strikes back

Back in 2012, the then-mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg vowed that he would learn code through Codacademy, a startup which offered free web-based JavaScript tutorials. The idea was simple – anyone could code. While the announcement was praised, a section of the developer community railed against it.

If I look at the world going forward right now, there will be for the next 10, 15 years, a constant solid demand for good, technical people

In April this year, however, it was a different message. Bloomberg took to the stage at the Bloomberg Energy Summit to say that retraining coal miners to a more tech-centric jobs landscape, after shutting down dirty coal mines, couldn’t just be done at the drop of a hat.

“You’re not going to teach a coal miner to code,” he told delegates, as reported by Gigaom. “Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them [people] to code and everything will be great. I don’t know how to break it to you…but no.”

The news was discussed on dev forum Slashdot, with agreeing responses. “Coding is not for everyone, and simply putting everyone into tech training is not the answer,” wrote one respondent. “[The] ability to design and write software requires foundations laid down in the fifth and sixth grade of school, mostly math, but also the interest and desire to learn,” wrote another. “Some people get it, some don’t get it,” although adding: “Watch out for those blanket generalisations – they bite back.”

Beighton readily agrees that not everyone will ‘get it’, or even want to get it. He explains his daughter is one of the thousands chewing fingernails and having sleepless nights over their upcoming A-level results, and that she has no desire to follow her father’s footsteps and become a coder.

“Not everybody is going to be a brilliant developer, because there are some personalities and skill sets that are always going to work slightly better than someone else,” he notes.

“Not everybody is going to go out and be coding, but if I look at the world going forward right now, if I look at where the world of containers goes, if I look at where cloud goes in, there will be, for the next 10, 15 years, a constant solid demand for good, technical people.”

Applying skills to pay the bills

Like any industry, there will be those who prosper and those who might not make it despite the best will in the world. But the good news is if you can code, it’ll be extremely valuable for those other, more traditional sectors – such as design, or marketing, where 16% of FutureLearn survey respondents said they wanted to work.

Coding isn’t seen as the preserve of geeks, but a viable way to a great job, great prospects and security

“I look at marketing people now, realising that they can access infrastructure, they can access applications so much easier,” Beighton says.

“You may not describe what they’re doing as coding. They’re configuring and they’re building, but they’re involved in building with technology.”

Ben Reed (left), head of technology at app developer house Mubaloo, keenly argues that knowledge of coding is vital full stop, calling it a “unique era” for the emerging workforce today.

“Over the past few years, development has gone from creating software to creating solutions that are improving the way people live,” he tells DeveloperTech.

Nowhere is this image more acutely observed than at hackathons. Whether it’s sponsor-led to fulfil a brief, or just a meeting of like minds, the melange of styles and experiences meld to create a coding experience that’s quick, relatively easy, and offers the opportunity to truly make a difference. Case in point: a hackathon at the Enterprise Apps World event in June was won by an audio visual technician who’d never properly coded before and hadn’t even signed up as an entrant.

“In any industry, coding knowledge can be applied to help make a change,” says Reed. “Coding isn’t seen as the preserve of geeks, but a viable way to a great job, great prospects and security.”

Britton agrees with this sentiment. “Coding has never been more important, and industry demand continues to demonstrate this,” he says. “This level of interest is good for both the students, where it opens up a plethora of employment opportunities, and organisations that need proficient and willing coders to maintain day-to-day business critical systems.”

Data science and nature

For this ‘plethora’ of employment, one sector is critically understaffed: data science. It’s not strictly coding, yet it requires a similar skill set of an analytical, mathematical, developer-focused mind. Harvard Business Review called it the “sexiest job of the 21st century” in 2012, but to little avail.

This has prompted Rackspace to invest in the Science to Data Science (S2DS) boot camp for future data scientists taking place later this month. Not just anyone could enter – in reality, it’s for PhD graduates in an analytical science – yet it remains an interesting opportunity.

Beighton sees lowering prices as a huge opportunity for data scientists to make their mark.

You’ve now got a solid and easy way to do big data cheaply. What’s missing are the skill sets to make it available to everybody

“If I even look two or three years ago, it would cost a huge amount of money to pull together some very specialised equipment, specialised hardware and software, for a company to just analyse their existing customer base,” Beighton explains.

He adds: “If you were a big retailer and you said ‘I want to understand how many of my customers have bought a type of coat, and also bought a type of hat, and equally had a store card taken out’…those complex types of questions, and they’re not that complex…would have had a huge capital expenditure connected to it.

“Therefore those kinds of questions just weren’t being asked, and therefore, there were not many data scientists around.”

With the prevalence of cloud, Hadoop and open source big data technologies, Beighton argues that crunching the numbers at a knock-down cost alongside adding context, crucially, is key.

“It’s not the sole preserve of the very wealthy – it’s democratised it really,” he argues.

“I think the technology has really started to mature. I think you’ve now got a solid and easy way, with cloud vendors, that you could do big data cheaply. What’s missing are the skill sets to make it available to everybody.

“And that’s where these jobs are coming from, because more companies are doing it”, he adds.

Top tips for young devs

It’s definitely an exciting ecosystem out there, with lots of work available if you look in the right places and lots of demand to take up developer jobs and learn coding skills. But what should budding young developers do to get ahead of the chasing pack?

Britton (left) argues the need for as wide a knowledge as possible, to deal with all use cases and jobs. Not surprisingly he advocates the need for COBOL as key, though with approximately 250 billion lines of COBOL code out there it’s especially good to know for legacy systems – a point the Micro Focus director touches on.

“As these young coders continue to develop, it will be imperative for them to learn a broad range of programming language and skills,” Britton says. “Having experience ranging from the more modern C# and Java languages to the enterprise-entrusted COBOL, for example, will give them a broader grounding and make them more employable.

“The industry will also benefit from having coders who understand and can ply their trade on front-end interface work, or maintaining critical back-end business critical applications – the usual blend you’d find in the major sectors such as finance, retail and insurance,” he adds.

It’s so easy to get the knowledge now – all you have to have is the inquisitive nature to want to learn

Reed disagrees, instead advocating painting fewer strokes but with a broader brush.

“Students who want to become developers should focus on learning the fundamentals of programming rather than a specific language,” the Mubaloo head of technology argues, adding: “This will give them a good base to build from, no matter what language they choose or what languages appear in the future.”

Beighton’s view is similar to Reed, adopting a bits and pieces approach for working across different sectors.

“I don’t think everybody has to write a piece of Python, I don’t think everybody has to write a piece of Node, or Ruby code, but I do think people need to know – and would get so much out of knowing – how to build and put together bits of technology for so many different jobs,” Beighton says.

Yet if there’s one personality trait the Rackspace exec can put his finger on, it’s having a curious streak.

“I think it’s so easy to get the knowledge now – really, all the person has to have is the inquisitive nature to want to learn,” he says. “It’s a fantastic, easily accessible skill set; they’ve just got to be inquisitive.”

What’s your opinion? What skills do budding coders need? Are you looking to become a developer? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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