Career Nav #38: Tech Education for Software Engineers and Data Scientists
Tell us about Academy, its mission, and why we're talking about education and upskilling today.
Academy was founded to tackle the growing skills and diversity gap in tech. When I refer to that gap, I'm speaking about the UK, but I think that does apply to the US and globally. Academy works closely with employers who have essentially recognized this gap and the issues this gap creates. They've dedicated themselves to being agents of change to diversify the tech industry.
Academy works with businesses by sourcing, selecting, training, onboarding, and growing diverse talent, specifically from non-traditional backgrounds. We've developed what we believe is the most scalable way to build high-performing tech teams that reflect society. We aid employers by screening people into their business based on potential rather than experience.
That's sort of the mission at large. Academy was founded by Ash, who is currently our CEO. He previously worked at a business called the Hut Group, a tech-retail company in the north of England. Throughout his 8-year tenure there, he scaled the headcount from 100 to 5000 people. That was essentially the basis of the methodology for the current Academy.
Can you talk briefly about what a non-traditional background looks like for Academy?
I see it in two pillars. If you look at the gender representation in STEM subjects, it's 80% men. We should have a more diverse influx of people into tech roles. I think that hiring managers are just harassing the same pool of computer science grads rather than looking for potential. The non-traditional background is hiring from subjects other than STEM, women, people from low socio-economic backgrounds, and minorities. We're taking this double-pronged approach about who those people are, but the commonality is that potential is abundant. They're just not in the places where we're traditionally looking.
Can you tell us about your application process? How can someone prepare?
To be able to test for potential and to be able to open up that pool, we can't be just looking at COM SCI grads. We need to take a step back and look further. We've developed a 60-hour assessment. It's very in-depth, allowing us to identify high aptitude in tech for people with little or little prior coding experience.
We focus on IQ, EQ, and drive. We want to allow the funnel of people to mirror society. We support candidates throughout the admissions process. We take a human approach from the get-go. They have a call with our talent team. The talent team informs them what they're applying for, ensuring they know the differences between full stack data science, back-end, etcetera.
We then start with Thrive, which is our psychometric test. This is to get more of a scope of the person's personality rather than a pass or fail as to whether they will make a good coder. For example, Thrive may show us that this person struggles to work autonomously, so when we interview them in follow-up, they'll be asked about a solo project.
Often we find that candidates might have struggled previously, but they have coping mechanisms as to how they can work better alone. The second part, which I think is awesome, is a block coding test that we've established called Blockata. It allows us to test for logical reasoning and problem-solving capabilities without the participant ever having to have come across code.
What were the motivations, and what results do you see from this assessment?
Regarding accessibility, once a person has entered the admissions process, we're pretty flexible with when they sit their Blockata. We want to ensure that they are entirely comfortable with how that block coding works. They're given as much time as needed to familiarize themselves. They're sent resources that they can go over themselves.
We know that people learn in different ways and at different cadences. There are video and written tutorials, and we give the candidates a few time slots. If they want to return the test, they can tell us when they're ready to take it. Humans are reading the submissions. Say someone hasn't created a working function for a particular answer but got close to it, or they've shown sturdy logical reasoning as to why they've submitted the response they did, then they will still be awarded points. It allows flexibility. Our approach to admissions is very personable and very human.
What would you say the difference is between a traditional boot camp and an incubator?
Academy is unique because we have developed this proprietary assessment, allowing us to test for potential. We delve into the actual person. In the incubator program, we pay our scholars while they train. It gives them the ability to focus on learning. We hone in on those 15 weeks of training. That's where I would see it as unique from boot camps, which may be shorter, and you pay for them.
Something that we are focusing on a bit more at the moment is the fact that anyone can use Blockata to test to see whether or not there'll be a good coder. I love this idea. Internal ability pathways are a hugely influential offering for a business to say, "Hey, look, like we don't want to make you redundant, we want to keep you in our business. We know how valuable you are. Your current role isn't needed right now, but we can move you elsewhere, and we could see your potential elsewhere."
How do you create buy-in in the corporate world?
It starts with the intention of the business to want to cultivate a more diverse workforce. They need to be invested in creating that change. Without that desire to facilitate change, it will not be fed in from the top. It will not be fed in from the people supporting the integration of those engineers and data scientists. There has to be a desire to reflect the diversity of society in their business. Once you've got that, it’s easier to say, “What size cohort are you looking for? What tech stack are you looking for?” We build that out. Cohorts are business by business.
We've now moved towards exclusively working with businesses to create custom cohorts. A vast piece that enables the success of those cohorts and those people when they move into those roles is up-skilling the managers of their teams about how to work with diverse people from non-traditional backgrounds. We do a lot of leadership training within the businesses themselves. Once our people have gotten into their roles, they have the support of a mentor.
What are some challenges you see people having in getting their first job, and any strategies you've picked up in your conversations and work?
When entering a new job, people can ask, “How do I act in my team? How do I act with my manager? How do I take accountability for my learning and my job responsibilities?” It's getting them to hit the ground running as an employee. Their day-to-day in their 15 weeks echoes their data and role. They're doing sprints, stand-ups, moving their way through tickets, and resolving bugs. We want to make sure they see the issues that might arise and the rituals of day-to-day tech roles.
As you scale Academy, what are some of the challenges?
For every 1000 people that we screen, we take on 10. We're very realistic throughout those 60 hours about who we're taking on. We've had such success with the people who've finished the course and the roles they've moved into. It's hard to tell as a young company. What will happen if we scale those cohorts much larger? They're still minimal. Does that correlate to lower success rates at the end of it? I don't think so, but it's hard to say.
Scalability is unlimited. We can run multiple cohorts at a time. It's making sure that we have the right faculty and the right programs to be able to ensure that. Our scholars are the most important piece of the puzzle. We want to ensure that they have the best possible experience.
That's why I wouldn't see the size of the cohorts we're training expand, but rather the number we're running simultaneously expand. I also think that with larger businesses who are looking for, say, 100, 200 additional hires. Then they're not going to be looking for 200 full-stack engineers. They're going to be looking for a division of roles. You could create cohorts around the different sorts of required tech stacks. These are my hypotheses about where I see the future of the business. The hardest bit is getting people to want to change the status quo.
Please share some challenges you have faced.
The leading blocker I see in the UK is gender pay gap reporting. People know they need to change and increase diversity in their workforces and salary brackets, et cetera. There is an awareness that change needs to happen. Regarding variety and the digital skills gap, which I see hand in hand, it's a massive beast of an issue. People look at it and don’t know where to start. Academy is trying to position itself to be looking after this for you. We can support businesses and offer diverse talent from non-traditional backgrounds.
Guest: Florien Pickering, Partnerships Manager at Academy
Host: Anna Shur-Wilson, Program Manager for Career Navigation at Women Who Code
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Press and Digital Media