There has recently been some criticism of the Computer Science degree. A core argument being that it does not prepare students for the real world of working as a programmer. Part of the problem has been that Computer Science courses were designed for the pre-web and certainly pre-cloud and mobile age. They weren’t preparing students for the type of projects that many will find themselves working on. Some of this has been addressed recently and you now see modules on topics such as UX and Agile in many curriculums. At the same time there is an increasing shortage of developers and an expensive 3 year course is not the best way to ramp up the numbers.

So what alternatives are there?

Filling the skills gap, fast

There has always been a percentage of developers who are self-taught and that certainly shows passion, the ability to learn fast and resourcefulness. There is an increasing number of online courses to support this approach. There are problems with self-learning and it’s not for everyone. Therefore it was fascinating to attend an event at Google Campus run by General Assembly (GA) in which their latest batch of “graduates” were plying their new skills to an audience of potential employers. GA is an organisation set-up in the US three years ago which now has a UK operation and this latest group of students is their third to graduate their 12 week course.

Most of the students come from non-programming backgrounds and have had careers in other industries. GA teaches them how to program in Ruby on Rails, JavaScript and popular libraries such as Node.js. At the end of 12 weeks they each produce their own web application. Rails of course lends itself to easy and rapid development but even so 12 weeks is impressive.

What was heartening to see is that the focus is not just on coding. The course includes some Agile techniques, working with a code repository (Github) and deployment to the Cloud (Heroku). Students also have to spend time creating a specification for their application. These are all skills and good practices which are essential in the workplace and that self-taught developers (and some Computer Science grads) are often missing.

Of the graduates at the event a good percentage were women which was interesting and promising to see. The industry has done a lot in recent years to encourage more women to participate. Whilst GA said that this group had the highest number of women so far it is good to see that some of that work may be paying off.

The employers are out there

According to GA their previous 2 groups of graduates all found employment within 30 days and globally their success rate is 95%. So who would hire a developer with 12 weeks training? Start-ups and digital agencies are typical destinations. These organisations are more likely to use Rails and need web application developers. For many employers bringing in a junior developer they are looking for someone who fits the team rather than technical know-how and experience. Let’s not forget that development is lifelong learning anyway. The students that I spoke with found the course challenging but enjoyable and were certainly enthusiastic – the latter a required attitude for many of today’s employers.

Lessons for all

Rails is still a niche technology and it will be interesting to see if GA extend their course to other more widely used languages and especially address mobile. The graduates that I spoke with chose GA for the overall course rather than Rails and one wonders how aware they are of Rails’ limited use. Although some were already starting to look at other languages. Vendors such as Microsoft and IBM could look to this education model in order to support their own stacks.

As industry cries out for more developers it is important to remember that many of these will go into web or mobile. The skills needed are different to more traditional development. These new developers need to work quickly across different languages, tools and technologies, learn new ones rapidly and appreciate issues such as design. I wouldn’t want one of GA’s graduates working on life support machines but that’s not the purpose of the course (the 3 year degree is still best suited for this). They are pushing out developers prepared for organisations such as start-ups and digital agencies. Many organisations require a new profile of developer to that churned out by traditional education and perhaps the GA approach is one possible source.