Rather than waiting for the education system to catch up, tech firms are taking the initiative on training
East London’s tech startups are on a roll. There is a steady stream of new companies being created, the existing startups are growing and established tech companies are moving into the Silicon Roundaboutarea. All of this is making it increasingly hard to recruit great software developers, and developers are the lifeblood of every technology startup.
Startups are picky when it comes to hiring. In a team of five or ten, one bad hire can have dire effects. It’s not just that a significant percentage of your team isn’t productive, but one person who isn’t pulling their weight can badly damage the morale of the rest of the team. Tech startups are fast moving environments that require a high degree of technical skill and a real commitment to success.
If Britain is to grow its entrepreneurial base – and we need it to – then we must significantly change how computer science is taught at schools and universities. This is not an easy fix. It takes several years for a change to the education system to be developed and for students to make their way through the improved system. So changes are not going to fix the immediate hiring situation. If the education system is not the short-term answer, then surely startups can do something about it and train their own staff, instead of expecting the rest of the world to solve their problems for them?
Many startups believe they don’t have the time to help their employees improve; you always feel that if you don’t ship this feature right now, you will fail. But startups are about building great companies for the long term, as well as great products for now. Great companies are built on their teams and culture – so startups have to think about how they build for the long term.
Learning not training
In typical startup fashion, at Songkick we emphasise learning over training. People learn best when they have a personal motivation to do so. We provide an environment where everyone in the company has the time and support to improve themselves.
All new developers go through a mini “bootcamp” during their first week, when they get a thorough introduction to all our technology and products. They have a mentor who takes the week off to work exclusively with them, and by the end of their first day they will have made at least one change to our website.
Beyond the first week, we are constantly helping our team to improve. We have weekly Developer Talks where a member of the team talks about an item of interest – either some challenge they’ve tackled or more general talks on technology. We’ve recently had a series on best practices with CSS from Marc, our client-side architect. We also bring in guest speakers to discuss technology topics – most recently, Spike Brehm, lead engineer from Airbnb, spoke to our team about the Rendr framework they have developed.
We also support the team in formal and informal learning. Every developer gets 11 days a year to work on anything technology-related they like. This might be attending or speaking at a conference, working on an open source project or working on one of our internal hack days. Many of the team do online courses together; groups have worked on machine learning and cryptography courses from Stanford and MIT. A group of us have recently started working on Nand2Tetris which builds a fully functional computer capable of running Tetris from the most basic electronic component the NAND gate. We also support learning by giving every employee an annual stipend to help pay for courses and conference attendance.
We also organise regular coding “dojos”. A dojo is a meeting where coders get together to tackle an interesting technical problem. The group shares the task, with a pair of programmers working at the only computer for a short time and then passing duties on to the next pair in the group. By rotating the pair and keeping each pair’s time short, everyone gets practical experience while the rest of the group help from the sidelines. We’ve recently held dojos on the APL and Go programming languages – the former just for fun, but we’re using the latter in our everyday work. Our dojos are open to all Songkick team members and we often have guests from other local startups join us too.
The learning culture of Silicon Roundabout and beyond
It is not just individual companies like Songkick that encourage active learning. Several new learning organisations have arrived in Silicon Roundabout in the last couple of years. General Assembly was a huge success in New York, and chose to come to London at the end of last year. They now teach dozens of courses about technology and general startup business techniques. The Makers Academy is a home-grown success, that helps people learn to program in an intensive 12-week course.
Most encouragingly, startup-focused courses are spreading beyond London. Just two examples of many: TechHub is offering a course in 3D computer modelling in Manchester and in Leicester a group of startup developers are organising a regular meet-up to help others learn programming.
All over the country, people are finding new ways to learn the skills needed to be a software developer at an entrepreneurial company. This is a hugely encouraging sign for the health of the startup community and for British entrepreneurialism.
A better future through education and learning
Despite the pressures of startup life, we put significant effort into helping our developers learn and improve. We know this is good for the people who work here and good for the long term growth of the company. People with broader and deeper skills help us get better and improve our chances of becoming a world class company. They also raise the overall level of talent available to all UK companies and will help Britain become one of the great tech nations of the future.