technology: how to land a job riding the silicon roundabout
The fast-moving technology sector may not be as far removed from your CV as you think. We talk to people who have gained the skills to make a successful leap to IT
Yet when they began to look for a site that would help women date other women they were faced with a slew of sites offering a poor experience or seemingly set up for the titillation of straight men. Exton knew immediately there would be demand for a dating app for lesbians and began planning Dattch while working on a dating account at a brand agency. Unlike Grindr, the app for gay men, Dattch would be less about hooking up for sex and more about meeting strangers for dating or just for friendship. Exton soon found, however, that there was only so far she could take her idea without the skill to build the app itself, which is when she noticed a new company called Decoded opening up near her London home.
She joined a one-day introduction to a coding course in August and in September began a 10-week HTML5 course at General Assembly, another learning-by-doing tech training company. In October, she left her job to run Dattch full time and is now talking to potential investors.
“Now I can build websites and I feel confident doing basic web stuff. And while I contract out programming for the [more specialist] mobile site I can understand the logic flow when I’m talking about it. The course lifted barriers for me.”
Decoded’s founder, Alastair Blackwell, explains that its course doesn’t prepare people to step straight into a developer role, but is more about giving people the understanding and confidence to have better conversations with developers, and to work better as a team, rather than feeling one question away from disaster if they are suddenly asked something about the API (application programming interface).
“You don’t need to be a developer, but if you want to work in the tech industry you need to understand it,” he says. That applies to anyone looking to apply for startup jobs as diverse as HR, PR, marketing, sales and even executive level.
Decoded’s Code in a Day covers the three basic principles of programming for interaction design, information design through HTML and visual design using CSS, and trainees leave with a basic geolocation smartphone web app they build during the day. The course also explains computational thinking as a way of solving problems.
“Developers are often thought of as the people who just build stuff after the creative part has been done, but that’s a very unhealthy way of working,” says Blackwell, who describes “tech creep” – the approach and practices of the tech industry such as agile, iterative development and the open sourcing of ideas – becoming more mainstream.
“Most people tend to think very broadly, but computational thinking is about the nitty gritty, about breaking things down into constituent parts and revealing questions and opportunities that weren’t there before – and you can do it without writing the code yourself. It’s a very logical, rational way of thinking and when married with a creative way of thinking incredibly cool things can happen. It’s something you could list as a skill on your CV.”
He admits that developers were initially pretty hostile to the idea that amateurs could become developers in a day – “It takes 10,000 hours to learn a craft, pah!” – but many also acknowledged that they were largely self-taught and would have valued this kind of introduction. “It’s born out of years of scrapping about on Google teaching ourselves; we want to save others from that path, and devs appreciate and respect this,” says Blackwell.
Now is a very good time for developers in the United Kingdom. According to research by Adzuna, there are 2,935 tech vacancies in startups this month alone, 782 of those in east London, from designers and analysts to business development and marketers. London’s startup scene is flourishing in its traditionally strong industries of music and fashion, but also now in financial services and big data.
The Silicon Milkroundabout recruiting fair in London. Photograph: Tracy Howl
There are other, more specialist skills in high demand in the tech sector. Dr Martin Goodson, in his role as a researcher at Oxford University, developed a Java-based system to help assemble the genome of the puffer fish. His expertise in computational processing methods, including a Bayesian formula for classification of the ultrasonic sounds of mammals, would eventually be a powerful analytical tool for QuBit, one of London’s flourishing big-data startups.
Goodson could only go by a hunch that his skills as a statistical geneticist would be transferable to the startup space and wasn’t sure who to approach. A friend suggested Silicon Milkroundabout, a free-to-attend, increasingly popular recruitment event for startups. Hosted in a suitably quirky exhibition space (fairy lights, cutout trees and a rainbow-inspired bar) at the Truman brewery in London’s East End, Silicon Milkroundabout gives startups a platform to pitch their company to potential staff, while potential employees can approach firms that pique their interest.
At Silicon Milkroundabout last November, Goodson discovered QuBit, which analyses site data to highlight consumer behaviour and trends. Founded by four ex-Googlers, the startup has doubled in staff since Goodson joined and plans to double again by this time next year.
“I didn’t want to go down a well-trodden track,” said Goodson. “I wanted to carry on with a research approach that was about innovation, about new approaches with large data sets that would pose lots of hard problems. I work with great people – very motivated people – and get lots of responsibility.”
Silicon Milkroundabout founder Pete Smith, who also co-founded the live music organisation tool Songkick, says the event opens the startup space to graduates, giving an umbrella benefit to small companies that can recruit together at one shared event. “At Songkick, we struggled to hire great developers, because the ones working at places like Google aren’t looking for other jobs. We wanted to get in front of the best people, including passive job seekers and people who might jump ship from banks,” he said. “It’s not about saying we’re a better place to work, but about creating a category of jobs that didn’t really exist before.”
Since it launched in a London pub in May 2011, Silicon Milkroundabout has grown to host 2,000 attendees investigating 800 jobs at 130 startups. Preparing for the next event on 11 and 12 May, Smith has recruited a full-time team to run it and taken on more space at the Truman brewery. Part of the jobs fair’s mission, Smith explains, has been to attract developers away from lucrative positions in the banking sector.
Silicon Milkroundabout’s approach has not been subtle; one bullish poster for the event pasted monochrome suits with skulls for heads over the slogan Don’t Work for the Suits, more reminiscent of Occupy London than a jobs fair. There is a subtle animosity between the startup scene and tech in the finance sector, not least because startups struggle to compete with the salaries; the current average is £33,927 at a startup, while banking IT roles pay £51,589.
Songkick’s chief technical officer, Dan Crow, says hiring is the most obvious point of contention between the City and the startups. “The City’s institutions still hoover up a lot of talented graduates in the university milkrounds and we often find ourselves in competition with them for great students.” But the rising profile of Silicon Roundabout and the startup space, as well as slower hiring in the City, has begun to work in startups’ favour, though the pressure to compete with finance-sector salaries is a big challenge for startups that want to hire real talent.
But for experienced developers, choosing to transfer to the startup world seems more down to a need for autonomy and experimentation. “At a bank, you’re one of hundreds of programmers, working to optimise some tiny corner of a large system to eke out a few extra 10ths of a percent of profit,” explains Crow.
“At a startup, you get to see how the entire business operates and be part of the decision-making process, so your role is much broader and more impactful. You’re part of a small, focused team working to change the world.”
TALKING IN CODE: The best courses
Offers four one-day courses, including Code in a Day and Social Networks in a Day, as well as a three-day incubator in which a prototype is developed.
Runs dozens of courses including User Experience Design and Digital Brand Strategy as well as online and evening seminars from £20.
Has a comprehensive developer training site which uses community feedback to support each lesson. The School of Webcraft starts with building a profile and develops into more complex lessons.