Tech 100: 'Digital doesn’t go away... Every company needs people to do this stuff now'

Written by Staff reporter on 5 December 2016 in Interviews

Harvey Wheaton, CEO of CodeClan, reflects on its next steps after marking its one-year anniversary

CodeClan staff - CodeClan

Harvey Wheaton’s ambition for CodeClan, Scotland’s first accredited digital skills academy, is boundless. “That would be great, wouldn’t it?” he says enthusiastically at the suggestion they run a coding course for politicians based a few minutes down the road at Holyrood. “Yes, we should do that.” It’s fair to say the CodeClan chief executive has a big enough in-tray as it is, though.

Last week saw the Edinburgh-based academy celebrate its first anniversary with the news that an equivalent will follow in Glasgow in five weeks’ time. The first cohort on CodeClan’s 16-week SQA accredited software development course will start working out of the Tontine, an acceleration space for start-ups, on January 9. If all goes to plan, 60 students will pass through the course in the first year.

“We also have our eye on the rest of Scotland so we’ve been talking to [people in] Aberdeen, Stirling, Highlands and Islands, Inverness, all of these different places, about where would be the next place or rather than a permanent place could we figure out a way of running cohorts north of central belt in rotation,” says Wheaton. “We’re figuring that out.”


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CodeClan’s first year in the capital, which has seen 166 students start the course, suggests that spinouts may well follow. Half of those who paid £4,500 to enroll have found work in the digital sector within six weeks of graduating, rising to 86 per cent by the six-month stage, with nine out of 10 jobs in Scotland.

The lion’s share of those have gone to organisations who have chosen to partner with the academy, a number that has increased almost seven-fold after a change in approach. “We stuck on 12, 13, 14 [partner companies] for ages and one of the reasons was that the model we had at the time was a contractual obligation,” says Wheaton.

“You basically had to become a member or part of CodeClan. You were required to sign a contract, which was complicated enough in its own right, and some of the companies were wrangling over the contract. It committed companies to paying £5000 when they hired a student and it was just very slow going.”

In May that was overhauled in favour of a “more trust-based model” that allows firms to access cohorts of students and provide input to the CodeClan curriculum for free before a suggested contribution further down the line. “It is basically a retrospective contribution to the training costs on hiring and it is now a tiered fee by company size,” adds Wheaton. “That has made a massive difference.

“We now have 81 companies signed up, of all shapes and sizes – public sector, private, big, small, start-up, you name it, a really great spread. We’re expanding it all of the time and really need to keep doing that [so that] as the number of students grow the number of employers grow. Quite a few of them come back for second or third hires, which is a good sign.”

Although Wheaton admits “slightly less than planned” is coming from the employer partnership in terms of CodeClan’s funding mix, he remains hopeful that the initiative will be able to run without public funding earlier than the original plan of between years two and three.

“There was always a requirement for them (the Scottish Government), year two there is a reduced level of some support and then by year three there is nothing. I am not going to turn down support if it’s offered quite obviously and actually there is a real positive to that.

“Because of that funding tie the involvement we get from Skills Development Scotland and from the Scottish Government and the civil service is amazing. Without any of that I think we’d almost lose something. On the other hand, to not be dependant on that would be fantastic and I do believe it can be self-sustaining, I really do.”

Anxieties over a daunting skills shortage haven’t necessarily eased, however. “It is definitely seen as a good model,” he adds. “What we can’t do, though, is scale quickly enough to go anything like meeting the sort of gap that there is. Plus, of course, we’re only creating people at a relatively junior end of the scale and where I see the really big shortages are in that mid-to-senior level experience people.

“Companies have to be prepared to invest in the junior talent to grow them on because if you just sit there waiting for the experienced people you’re never going to find them and if you do they are very hard to hang on to because there is so much choice out there for them.

“That is the bit that’s difficult and I suppose over time we will be part of that solution as people come through and develop two or three years experience. But it (skills shortage) is still as big a problem as it was… at least as big if not bigger. Digital doesn’t go away, does it? Every company is needing people to do this stuff now.”  

It’s in that vein that a series of shorter, part-time courses have been drawn up with CodeClan halfway through the first 10-week evening class introducing individuals to programming. “There is a lot of demand out there for people in business wanting to understand what digital and coding is all about,” says Wheaton. Discussions are also under way with the General Teaching Council for Scotland on what steps might be taken to up-skill existing teachers as well as funnel students coming out of CodeClan into a profession in teaching.  

“We have been in all sorts of discussions that I think into next year we’ll really try to accelerate to say can we help teachers, whether they’re computer science teachers or teachers using technology inside the classroom just be more confident, familiar with it and know how to use it. I can see us putting together some programmes to help there.

“What I am really excited about is I think I could see, if we can figure out a way of doing this, is forging a career path for people coming out of CodeClan who want to go and be computer science teachers because there is such a demand and a requirement for that. We could really help in that area

“At the moment they would complete their CodeClan course and then have to go through the same route as anyone else so we’re discussing at the moment and have some meetings set up involving a couple of universities to see, ‘Is there something we could do to accelerate that?’ Even taking 10 per cent of our graduates into the education system from CodeClan each year gets very close to solving the problem for computer science teachers in Scotland. Surely we could do something.”

While Glasgow is the imminent focus, Wheaton has his sights set on much further afield having had inquiries from several parts of the world, including Australia and Hungary, keen to, in effect, franchise the model. “There is got to be something that can be packaged up to offer to people, whether it’s distance learning or in other countries,” he says. “If it’s not in the next 12 months it might be in the next 24 – I can see that. I would love to get involved in that sort of stuff because we have a really good model and a really brilliant course. It would be good to see it elsewhere.”

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