01 Founders: the coding course where students teach each other

There are several different routes into technology, each posing their own challenges, yet a lack diversity and skills shortages still persist in the UK’s tech sector.

“We guarantee a job to every single person that comes to our fold. We think that companies are the ones that benefit from the talent so they should be the ones to pay for it.” I was told by Kesiah Valkin, co-founder and chief commercial officer of coding school 01 Founders, which aims to tackle the problems with the talent pipeline.

“We are not just another ‘quick fix’ coding bootcamp, we deliver technically excellent, adaptive and well-rounded software engineers.”

When thinking about the current routes into the technology sector, university is the first to come to mind – an expensive option that isn’t open to everyone, exacerbating the lack of diversity in the sector.

One of the aims of the 01 Founders course is to try and increase the amount of diversity in software engineering.

Valkin said: “Software engineering, as you know, is a profession that has been historically typified by white, male and privileged.”

Then, there’s the disconnect issues, whereby topics taught on computer science university courses do not match what companies actually need to fulfil roles – In the past, computing degree graduates have seen high levels of unemployment, and currently companies complain of a lack of skilled workers.

But other options aren’t necessarily fit for purpose either – Valkin pointed out online coding courses often have large dropout rates and no job guarantees, and on-campus coding courses can be expensive and short.

So how does 01 Founders differ?

Valkin explained 01 Founders is developed to achieve “upward social mobility”, so its courses is free, and no previous coding or academic experience is needed to apply.

“This helps us unearth new pools of diverse and unconventional talent.” She said.

My first question after hearing this was around support – how does 01 Founders make sure people from underrepresented backgrounds have the means to take part in a full-time course, regardless of whether it’s free?

“We’ve got certain cost of living supporters,” Valkin explains, so students can apply for bursaries if they need cost of living support.

The coding school is also looking into being part of the apprenticeship levy, introduced by the government to encourage firms to reclaim levy contributions in the form of e-vouchers, which can be used to fund apprentice training.

Around 75% of 01 Founders’ students are from an ethnically diverse background, and around 35% of the talent pool at the school are women – higher than the 22% average in the industry as a whole.

They aim for a better gender split in the future – The course has a rigorous assessment and applications process to ensure prospective students can stomach the course, at which point Hana Abdi, the school’s head of technology and pedagogy said in many cases women drop out because they feel like they can’t hack it.

But, Abdi explained: “Once we have one-to-one conversations with them, they tend to continue on with the course. So within tech, I feel like it’s definitely [a need to know] that the doors open for them and that this is a space that they can be in.”

A majority of the team at 01 Founders are women, and with over a third of the participants women, the culture is very far from the “bro code” attitude often found in coding spaces.

The programme takes two years, where those who take part are trained to be full stack software engineers with skills in JavaScript and Rust, plus the option to learn languages such as Python and C.

Corporate partners looking for talent can also ask for particular skills to be included in projects to ensure students are job-ready – the school’s current employment partners include Snyk, Faculty, Peleton, M&S and Nominet.

01 Founders has taught a variety of people, from former bus drivers to school teachers, who are now able to write algorithms that can solve puzzles.

The pedagogy for the course has been developed by Nicolas Sadirac and tested in over 40 countries, with 01 Founders being the UK iteration.

The twist? The course is dependent on a cooperative, in-person, on-campus experience where there are no teachers – students “quite literally have to turn to the person sitting next to them to figure it out”.

The peer-to-peer, project-based learning makes the programme scalable, because there is no need to hunt for already scarce software engineering teachers in order to expand and cater to more students.

Valkin said based on the outcomes of the other providers of this style of course, the students become “robust” software engineers.

She said: “In the two years, they go through a very dense technical curriculum, but because of our pedagogy, in the sense that no one is spoon feeding them information, they develop very critical soft skills that are necessary for operating in the digital era.”

This also future proofs their skills, as students learn how to tackle problems by using teamwork, critical thinking, and working with a lack of resources.

Questions are also encouraged, and the students are asked to gather and talk about each project, which especially helps the women on the course, as the process holds a “no stupid questions” rule.

“It’s more a philosophy and an ethos that we carry out to bring  about the collective intelligence of the cohort that if you put enough people in the room, you’ll get to the answer,” Valkin said.

“We also help companies upskill and elevate their existing engineering workforces, and we have programmes for non-technical professionals as well.”

These “upskilling” and “reskilling” programmes could be especially useful where technology adoption may require a skills top-up to meet an organisation’s modern needs.

As 01 Founders has been going less than two years – there are around 150 students at the moment, some in their first year and some in their second – Valkin calls these cohorts the “first pancake”.

It needs to be able to scale, and in the future Valkin hopes to add more features like a talent agency to help people find jobs if they don’t want to work at one of the partner companies.

She said: “We’re trying to open up to as many people as possible in a way that companies can feel good about in a scalable way, in an innovative way. I think the boot camps are not working.

“Companies are getting frustrated because they’re getting one trick ponies. Student debt is an issue. So we do we are confident that we are introducing to the UK, something that can really move the needle.”

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