Makers Academy: Helping firms to address diversity recruitment woes

Training provider Makers Academy has helped firms such as Tesco recruit work-ready and diverse software engineering talent

Makers Academy often receives requests from firms to provide software engineers from minority groups in a well-meaning but misplaced attempt to address the lack of diversity in technology.

The organisation’s 12-week software engineering training course uses an inclusive but selective process to give those seeking a career change the skills they need, not only to code but to learn and develop continuously to cater to the fast-paced world of tech.

But as Ruben Kostucki, chief operating officer and founding member of Makers Academy, points out, just hiring diverse talent does not solve the underlying reasons why employers don’t attract this talent in the first place.

Rather than asking for female engineers, Kostucki says firms need to “make female engineers feel like they actually want to work” for them, which requires a change in processes, environment and attitude across the board.

At least half of what Makers Academy aims to provide for its partners, apart from talented workers, is advice on how to make an organisation more inclusive and welcoming to a diverse tech workforce.

Kostucki says: “The amount of work that we do on this front is obviously not seen because it involves us actually going into a company and fixing the way its engineering culture works, fixing how they write a job description, fixing how they do their interviews and tech recruitment processes.”

The UK is struggling to persuade young people to pursue careers in technology, but it also has a problem with losing diverse tech talent at other points in the pipeline.

For some, this may happen during the recruitment process because of job advert language or an un-diverse hiring panel, or after they join an organisation due to unconscious bias and a non-inclusive culture.

Most firms say they have less than 10% female staff in their technology remit, says Kostucki, and these may not just be software engineers, making the number of female engineers very small.

Inclusive recruitment processes

To tackle these diversity and skills issues in the UK technology industry pipeline, Makers Academy has made its own recruitment processes more inclusive by ensuring that the marketing language, working environment and applications assessment are “as inclusive as possible”. The firm also provides prospective students with free training materials to try out before the 12-week course to make sure they know what to expect.

“We mostly look for people who are interested in changing their career to become software engineers,” says Kostucki. “We try to be as inclusive as possible. Because diversity is an important part of the things we do at Makers Academy, we care about training a diverse pool of talent – gender, age, background, ethnicities – and the best way to do that is to be inclusive.

“Rather than put arbitrary filters [on the application process], the filter is ‘here are the basics – show us if you can learn the basics’. We would rather the person shows us.”

Makers Academy is extremely selective about who it accepts for the course – mainly to avoid people who will ultimately decide not to become software engineers.

The £8,000 course fees are not enough to finance the venture on their own, so partner firms pay Makers Academy to place the talent it produces. If Makers doesn’t place students with these firms, it doesn’t get the cash.

Only about one in 10 applicants is accepted for the course, and a wide variety of people have gone through Makers Academy’s training, from crane drivers to company leaders.

When people can see role models and others like them in the technology industry, it can make them more comfortable about pursuing such a career themselves.

Each individual who has gone through Makers has a story to tell, and Kostucki says the academy aims to “understand their story, where they’ve come from and where they’re going”, as well as making them visible to others.

As well as its ongoing efforts to appeal to a diverse range of applicants, Makers has also previously offered scholarships and discounts for women and people from other minority groups to encourage them to pursue a career in software engineering.

Fuelling the tech talent pipeline

The course is currently marketed using the phrase “learn to code in 12 weeks”, but needs to be rebranded to better reflect the purpose of the course – teaching candidates to be continuous learners who happen to have tech skills.

But changing this language presents a “conundrum” for the Makers team. Kostucki explains: “Really, Makers Academy isn’t about learning how to code, it’s about learning how to learn. The entire premise of the course is around leading people to acquire the skills that will make them self-led learners. ‘Learn to code’ is not representative of what we do, but the problem is, if we wrote ‘learn to learn in 12 weeks’, people would not come.”

Employers are increasingly demanding people with soft skills, such as communication, creativity and teamwork, to go alongside traditional tech skills.

“The problem with the education system is that it doesn’t train people to be ready for the market where nobody is telling you what to do,” says Kostucki.

Many people point to the number of unemployed technology graduates and the number of roles available for tech professionals as evidence of a disconnect between what universities are teaching tech undergraduates and what firms need from people entering the industry.

Whereas most courses are about “passing tests and exams” much like in the traditional education system, Makers Academy claims to be tackling the common tech industry paradox that requires graduates to have both the technical skills and first-world experience required for a role.

There are technical elements to the course, but most of what the students learn involves throwing them in the deep end through project-based learning, pair working and team working to use software engineering concepts to develop working systems.

This also helps to make the on-boarding process shorter once Makers graduates arrive at an employer.

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Many believe the UK’s computing curriculum should be more adaptable to meet future industry needs, but suffers from an “inflexibility” that makes it difficult to adapt, and Kostucki says the same of the country’s university system.

“They are within a very rigid structure, and changing a curriculum takes time,” he says.

Once a student cohort leaves, Makers Academy has the advantage of being able to change and adapt its course based on feedback from students and the partner organisations that hire its graduates, making it easier to meet the industry’s needs.

Evgeny Shadchnev, Makers Academy co-founder and CEO, says that as well as being inflexible, universities are “not incentivised to focus on employability”, which he says is a “serious problem”.

Because universities are focused on fee-paying students, they are driven down the route of ensuring students pass exams to rank higher in league tables and attract more fee-paying students, which can sometimes leave real skills by the wayside.

Shadchnev adds: “It does work out for some of the best unis in the country, but by and large it’s not a very healthy situation.”

Apprenticeship Levy

In 2017, the UK government announced the Apprenticeship Levy, which requires firms with revenue of more than £3m to pay into the levy while allowing employers to claim back a percentage of the levy to help fund apprenticeship training.

Makers Academy was recently accepted onto the register of approved apprenticeship suppliers, which means firms can spend their Apprenticeship Levy funding with the organisation.

Because employers are in a “much better position” to make choices about what skills are needed, Shadchnev thinks this is a move in the right direction to help solve the skills gap.

“Now we are part of the levy register, we will have more employers working with us – and even more young people coming forward to train as software engineers,” he says.

Tech employers have also expressed concern over whether the Apprenticeship Levy will allow them to spend funds on giving existing employees new technical skills.  “They can and they should,” says Shadchnev.

Parents and teachers often have a negative view of apprenticeships as a career path, and there is also a misconception that apprentices have to be aged between 18 and 34, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Shadchnev says: “If you get an employer making a lot of redundancies in the non-technical part of the workforce while spending a lot of money hiring engineers for its technology team, that’s not healthy.”

Hiring these people or retraining existing staff contributes towards the “culture change” that Makers Academy is encouraging, he says, leading the way to a workforce that is not only better skilled, but also more diverse.

Tesco sold on Makers Academy

Supermarket giant Tesco is one of the firms that has partnered Makers Academy to gain access to its graduating technology talent.

As well as the software engineering skills that graduates acquire, Tesco chose to take on individuals who have gone through Makers Academy because of the training provider’s emphasis on diversity.

People from any background, age group, gender and level of education can apply to Makers Academy, and Evgeny Shadchnev, the organisation’s CEO, says trainees who have already joined Tesco come from a variety of backgrounds, including the army, financial services and digital marketing.

Research has shown that diversity can increase a company’s creativity and profitability, and Andy Hedges, engineering director at Tesco, says: “Tesco has always been a place where colleagues can get on in their careers and fulfil their potential while being themselves. We are excited to be working closely with Makers and are looking forward to welcoming our new software developers to the team.”

As the retail industry battles to meet customer demand and stay ahead, innovation is becoming increasingly important, and can be encouraged by allowing employees to feel comfortable and bring their “whole selves” to work – something that can be encouraged by creating a more diverse team.

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