Shifting the way we see tech talent

Should qualifications cease being the priority when assessing applicants for tech roles?

Claudia Harris, CEO at software engineering bootcamp Makers, and her colleague Haylee Potts Events Lead & Head of Diversity Initiatives explain their ‘people first’ recruitment process and how it could make the tech sector more innovative and inclusive and open to those willing to retrain.

Minorities getting into tech face barriers on two fronts; firstly, there’s poor representation (less than one in five of UK technology workers are women or BAME), and there’s digital transformation where skills requirements are changing so rapidly how can underrepresented groups, already at a disadvantage, hope to break in?

Widening the scope for tech recruitment

Makers want to prepare the next wave of tech talent for roles in this changing climate: “Technical skills are really important, but what companies really need are people who can work effectively and collaboratively in teams and are able to connect technical skills to the understanding of the business challenges,” says Harris.

They look for candidates that are pivoting into software engineering from other sectors, and assessments are based on “aptitude” as well as motivation and engagement. Her ideal choices are those that “better represent the society that companies serve,” where they select talent “from real-life backgrounds.”

“We’ve never looked at qualifications,” adds Harris.

Not only does she recruit more diverse candidates in terms of identity, but she also looks for diversity of education and experience where “technical engineering skills” aren’t a prerequisite. The focus, she adds, is on finding candidates who are “really strong on EQ”, also known as emotional quotient (emotional intelligence): “We provide them with those technical skills and the ability to continue to build their skills over time, and we work with them on developing those deeper team collaboration skills.”

Making role models

At Makers, female graduates account for 37% of their cohort, which is above the industry average of 17%, while BAME graduates make up 26% compared to the industry average of 11%; showcasing that by putting less emphasis on qualifications and more focus on candidate potential, the tech sector can diversify and upskill its workforce and rise to the challenge of digital transformation.

The Makers approach to assessment and analysis of candidate potential has ensured their robust retention rate: “They have to write a short statement, and we give them a few questions to answer, and following that they have a call with our admissions team that provides most of the information,” says Harris. “Over the years, we’ve become really good at identifying people who will succeed, and we have a really low dropout rate; we’ve also had great success in terms of people progressing in their careers once they move on.”

One example of a Makers success story is Chiaki Mizuta, a Japanese woman who worked as an English teacher then pastry chef before turning to Makers after being recommended by a friend. Over the years, she battled depression and experienced sexual assault while looking for a fulfilling career. After the course, she got her first engineer role at London-based digital retail agency Holition and a number of Makers graduates, where the firm sponsored her visa. Today, she is a Software Engineer at P2P firm Funding Circle.

Diversifying the tech talent pool also leads to business gains, adds Potts, who says that “diversity of thought” through talent from different educational backgrounds can create new perspectives that help companies serve more diverse groups of customers: “If you’re constantly working with people who are from the same computer science backgrounds, that’s really going to shut down a massive opportunity because they’re really only getting the perspective of a specific subset of people.”

While Makers has a London base, like many organisations, they had to pivot to remote operations during COVID-19, but this, Harris and Potts agree has improved course inclusion and accessibility: “We’ve been able to support people from across the UK, and we’ve found that applications have really gone up from other cities,” says Harris.

“In terms of inclusion, we’ve found that remote learning does actually work better for some people’s learning styles or if they’ve got different home commitments, so it’s great that we’ve been able to accommodate that,” adds Potts.

Creating a more diverse talent pipeline

Another impact string to their bow is their partnership with Coding Black Females, a non-profit organisation that helps more Black women become developers: “We offer a programme of free events for their members including coding workshops to help provide almost the same support that we do with Makers but before they join in the hope to inspire people and just provide extra support where we can,” says Harris.

This goes along with their scholarship programme where selected candidates from diverse backgrounds will gain “completely free places on the course” and will, Harris hopes, become ambassadors: “It’ll be something that they then give back to the community to create a kind of ecosystem.”

While Makers are trying to make tech a more diverse and equitable place, what changes should others be making? Should there be more opportunities to learn on the job and vocational tech training, or is highlighting role models more important?

“I think you need many different things to change,” says Harris. “Role models are a huge part of this; if people don’t look up and see people like them, then it can be rational for people to believe that big organisations aren’t planning to recruit people like them, so organisations need to signal that they are serious. But there’s also a need for education to change. At the moment, very few women take Physics A-level or further Maths, and that’s again to do with role models.”

Another lesson all businesses can learn from Makers is to avoid age or ‘experience’ discrimination when recruiting for roles, where those that are switching sectors and have a desire to learn new skills shouldn’t be met with suspicion but welcomed: “People who come to Makers have already left education, and they’ve generally had one or two jobs, we think this is a really powerful moment for people to switch careers because they know themselves. They know what they’re good at, and they know what they care about, so people have a really strong sense of ownership when they make the transition into software engineering; they really progress quickly and can become real changemakers in the industry.”

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