'Every company is a technology company' CodeClan CEO on meeting the demand

Written by Alan Robertson on 22 October 2015 in Feature

Harvey Wheaton, the chief executive of Scotland's first digital skills academy, on developing tech and developing people

Harvey Wheaton’s diary for the day is perhaps the best illustration of the varied career working in the technology sector can offer. This morning the new CodeClan chief executive is in Edinburgh. This afternoon, however, he will be in Helsinki to draw a line under his time with a videogames company he’d spent most of the summer at.

“It’s a cliche but every company is a technology company,” says Wheaton, who was last month named head of Scotland’s first digital skills academy. “We all rely on it, and the amount of software we need to write and maintain to look after it is huge.”

Down the hall are 15 students ready to help lighten the load. They comprise the first cohort enrolled on the software development course being delivered by CodeClan as of earlier this month. “It’s all hands on coding,” says Wheaton.

Within three days of starting a 16-week course that will culminate in a Professional Development Award in Software Development, students have written and are in the process of refining a calculator app. All have almost no technical experience with a few having only “dabbled” – as Wheaton puts it – in tech. “They’re a mixture of excited and scared, I would say,” he laughs.

CodeClan’s intention is to work with 200 students a year, with cohorts of around 20 a time. However, their business plan is not restricted to Scotland’s capital city. An equivalent centre is in the pipeline for Glasgow next year, while another further north is planned for the following year.

Within three years of getting up and running, it is envisaged CodeClan will be turning out 600 students a year to fill a daunting skills shortage. “It may be for a very long period of time but in some ways we’re an immediate answer to a short-term problem that says we’re desperately short of thousands of people every year in technology,” says Wheaton.

As he becomes familiar once again with the business landscape in Scotland having returned north of the border, he points to a “real frustration” within companies that they are unable to hire the talent they’re looking for.

“When I think back to my days at JP Morgan, when we started up a technology centre in Glasgow it was 20 people – its now 1,200 people,” he says. “A fantastic success story but a very large part of that proposition was talent, it was competitive looking against other locations around Europe but it was, ‘come to Scotland because of the access to talent, the fantastic education system, university networks that we can bring graduates in’, which is great.

“But of course on the back of that success, not just that company but [other] companies have been locating here because they know about that talent, and now of course the demand is completely outstripping the supply. If we can’t keep up, people will get frustrated with that and they will start to question whether this is the right place to be, partly because they can’t get the talent [and] when they can get the talent the salaries they’re having to pay is a hugely competitive market.

“You see that sort of overheating that goes on when people start paying more and more money to attract those people and it is just not sustainable, at some point the bubble pops and you’ll find that everyone will retreat. This is about making what we have really sustainable for the future at a really good pace, and just trying to keep up with that.”

Twelve companies are signed up to work with CodeClan as it stands. There is no guarantee of a job once students reach the end of the course, though Wheaton expects at least three quarters to end up placed with employers working with CodeClan. “But we recognise people may go elsewhere or they may set up a start-up,” he adds. “Who knows what they’ll do. As long as they get good employment then that’s our aim.”

As far as Wheaton’s own journey is concerned, his first job was as a database designer and programmer before going on to work primarily in financial services, including three years apiece, first at Cap Gemini then JPMorgan, north of the border.

Wheaton joined Electronic Arts in 2003 where he worked on, among other things, the Harry Potter franchise. It was in many ways a “double-edged sword”, as far as he’s concerned, with the work – though highly enjoyable – immensely draining.

“For games like a film tie-in such as Harry Potter or an annual franchise like Fifa, they’re running to an absolutely fixed date when they have to be in the shops by,” he says.

“However much planning and organising you do, there comes a point when you realise it is not going to get done unless you work a lot harder. And so rather naively – and I know the industry has changed a lot since then – I would spend days sleeping in the office trying to get stuff done.”

Despite opting to do a philosophy and politics degree at the University of Oxford, Wheaton’s own career path was almost inevitably going to end up in tech. His father worked for IBM and as such computers were a permanent fixture of the household.

“It was just what I grew up with and I learned to programme – you had to in those days,” he recalls. “It was an exciting time where stuff appeared and you couldn’t just go and buy a load of applications for it, you had to write them yourself really or go to magazines and type stuff in. I really remember that buzz and excitement that we all had of learning to do that stuff.”

That understanding of what works beneath these applications is something that at least a generation coming through the education system have missed out on, he suggests. “Watching my children go through school, they were taught some really good life skills and employment stuff around using office applications and how to use applications in computers. But they certainly weren’t taught how that worked underneath. That’s what is being addressed all the way through the curriculum across the UK [now], getting computing back onto the agenda in terms of actually learning to programme.”

Beyond content on the curriculum, though, CodeClan illustrates the need for multiple routes into work. Ensuring each of these is given equal value is just as important, however. “I’ve got very frustrated looking at the UK system of somehow feeling that everyone has to go to university,” says Wheaton.

“It’s a fantastic and admirable thing that we want people to be well-educated and come into work, but I don’t think that the rather crude tool of saying, ‘well, let’s put everyone into university then’ really was the answer.

“I think we’re seeing, I certainly saw when I was hiring on the other side of the fence, many people who have gone through university in the expectation of having paid a lot of money they’re just going to walk into a job and it just wasn’t the case because they weren’t on the right course, it wasn’t for them, and of course the courses then start springing up to satisfy the fact we need to put everyone through it that perhaps aren’t as solid as some of the other ones.

“We have created a little bit of a muddle, if I’m honest. A lot of people coming out with expectations we can’t meet, and it was never the right thing to do anyway so let’s go back to saying each [route is given equal value].

“The wish would also be that at the school level we have enlightened and great people that can spot which of those individuals in their classrooms are the ones that are suited to go this way versus that way and really guide them into things that are going to make them do stuff they’re going to love doing.”

Wheaton’s own passion is two-fold: the development of tech and the development of people. It explains why a start-up such as CodeClan was of sufficient appeal to settle down after a career that has seen him coach a number of software teams around the world.

“I believe everyone is brilliant at something and usually when it’s not working out it’s because they’re not in the right position,” he says. “I think that’s exactly what a lot of our cohort are; I’m sure they can be brilliant at something, they’ve just not found that yet and we’re helping them find it.”

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