Combating Tech Talent Scarcity wth a New Kind of Learning

By Silicon Allee |

This is a guest post by Benjamin Kampmann and Rachel Uwa of OpenTechSchool

Silicon Valley’s ecosystem is often quoted as the key factor in making it such a great place for startups. Investors in particular emphasise the importance of the local higher education institutions – not only do they encourage entrepreneurship, but many graduates go directly to work for startups. Universities and colleges teaching tech-related subjects are a key part of avoiding what’s dubbed the ‘Tech Talent Scarcity’ (TTS) problem.

But with an always-expanding tech sector they can struggle to keep up, and that is certainly true in Germany. Local Berlin initiatives like RailsGirls and OpenTechSchool have been founded to fix the problem directly within the tech community. Not only are they addressing TTS, but also issues of gender balance and diversity as well as the steep financial investment that usually goes hand-in-hand with acquiring quality higher education. What started here in Berlin has become a global movement in little more than a year. How can this alternative approach to education help the local tech scene in future? Can the ambitious goal of fixing the Tech Talent Scarcity problem be met?

If you ask any Berlin founder about their biggest single issue facing them, they will likely name finding a CTO as their top priority ahead of topics like growing the business or acquiring funding. Berlin has a Tech Talent Scarcity problem, and yet another job portal won’t change that.

The problem isn’t that people can’t find each other, the problem is that there aren’t enough software developers and hackers to go around. Which is a fundamental problem for a supposed globally relevant tech startup hub. Only when these startups are founded with the right expertise can they actually push the boundaries of technological innovation and move society forward. And only if enough experienced talent can be hired can these companies grow.

Struggling to Keep Up with Demand

The link between talent and innovation for any startup hub can’t be overstated. A key factor in this are the local educational institutes and programs to foster tech and entrepreneurship. For quite some time, investors of all trades have pointed out the importance of Stanford for Silicon Valley and MIT for Route 128. But as technology, and in particular software development, has accelerated over recent years, even these prestigious institutions are struggling to keep up.

Not only are these institutions unable to train and educate enough people to meet demand, but the gap between what they are teaching and what is needed in the field grows year by year. It is no surprise that for the last couple of years, breakthrough research in software development is coming from companies like Google and Facebook. But even as they are pushing the boundaries of research, institutional education isn’t able to keep up with the growing need for tech talent.

This isn’t specific to tech startup hubs, either – tech talent is increasingly needed in just about every field. In less than 20 years, our society has computerised and connected almost every garage and plumber with the Internet. Though that has solved many problems and saved tons of money, it has also created issues of its own. How many of us are familiar with the idea of going home for Christmas to fix our parents’ computer problems?

While industry and institutional education aren’t able to keep up, the private sector has stepped up to the plate in an attempt to fix the problem. With coding schools and ‘bootcamps’ cropping up all over the US promising to get anyone without any prior knowledge a position as a programmer within three months, and online courses transferring the classic lecture model into a scalable video transmission, it’s no wonder that investors everywhere consider education as one of the next hot topics. And though many have been going strong for a while now, there remains the suspicion that in many cases, the drop out rate is rather high. Meanwhile, we can see the first cracks in the programmer bootcamps appearing as well.

Sustainable Approach to Tech Education

But now an alternative has emerged in the shape of community movements and grass-root initiatives based upon the values of the hacker ethos, coming right out of industry and organised by hackers themselves. For a long time, initiatives like RailsGirls, RailsBridge or CoderDojo had only a narrow focus on technology and their communities, which gave them time to explore and develop good and sustainable learning formats. With more general (and non-language specific) tech education initiatives like OpenTechSchool building upon these formats, an alternative and sustainable approach to tech education has become possible.

OpenTechSchool started in April 2012, inspired by a visit from the RailsGirls, and quickly put on its first workshop, a full-weekend event focusing on giving total beginners the opportunity to learn to code with Javascript. Run completely by volunteer coders who want to share the fun of coding, the focus remains on workshops with hands-on, self-directed learning. The last part means that there are no classes or presentations given in front of the group. Instead, the learning material is hosted online, giving individuals time and space to learn at their own pace. Coders mostly stand on the sidelines, helping whenever help is needed.

The format has proved a success, attracting those not usually present in tech circles. Around half of all participants have been female from the very first event. Workshops followed on other languages and technologies, like Python and Git/Github, Android and Arduino, while other formats have included the earners meet up, a language-agnostic tech learning event, and other targeted events like a Kids Hackathon organised together with Hackidemia and a one-week App Summer Camp for youngsters in grades 8-10.

Using an open-source approach whereby anyone can take the brand, community and resources and put them to use in their own locales, OpenTechSchool is now present in ten chapters across four continents, without a cent being spent.

Lfe-Long Learning

But tech education requires more than one-off workshops, and so two new formats have been introduced based around how life-long learning can work on the same self-directed, hands-on learning principles. Continuous learning groups meet once a week after working hours, with learners working on their own projects supported by OpenTechSchool coaches, gaining skills without having to quit their current jobs.

The other format is called Hackership which recently finished its first experimental Batch-0 at betahaus in Berlin. Hackership is a 12-week full-time coding programme and masterclass for advanced and experienced developers who want to acquire new skills or become better at what they already do. What is remarkable about the program is that there are no tuition fees up front – rather, hackers who participate make a pledge to donate a percentage of their next year’s income to the project.

While the experimental Batch-0 has been a great success, the funding for the next batch is currently uncertain. As the projected payment system only kicks in after the programme has run and people have settled into their new jobs, the OpenTechSchool non-profit is currently missing funds to equip a space of its own and offer the next edition. In order to fund this, we are reaching out to the tech community to raise the money through an Indiegogo campaign. The first space that we will run will be in Berlin, and it won’t only be home to the new full-length Hackership programme but also the workshops and other events.

In this way, we want to keep fostering the city’s tech skills through hands-on experience, allowing the startup scene here to continue to grow and innovate and to avoid that Tech Talent Scarcity that so annoys virtually every entrepreneur in Berlin.