What happens when 10, 15 years into a career, someone suddenly realizes they are on the wrong track? They can trudge through it for another 40-plus years until retirement or they can take a risk and find opportunity elsewhere.
Every year, thousands of people take part in technology education programs, such as coding bootcamps, to carve a spot in the digital economy. Re-education and retraining aren't easy, but many workers who go through such programs are reaping higher salaries and new career opportunities.
Some companies are forging partnerships with higher education, such as Amazon, which recently expanded a fellowship program for research in voice technology. Others are adding an in-house bootcamp, such as WeWork, which acquired the coding academy Flatiron School last year.
Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak entered the technology education space last year with Woz U, an institute to close the skills gap and expand the technology talent pipeline.
The program offers online education, K-12 and educator programs, enterprise training, face-to-face campus-based academies and an accelerator for elite talent. Nearing its one-year anniversary, the company is working to expand to new areas of training, bring more underrepresented populations into the technology workforce and connect new talent to employers.
Taking stock almost one year in
Since its launch in October, the platform found success domestically and abroad, according to Chris Coleman, president of Woz U. Its initial tracks — software developer, data science and cybersecurity — will soon grow to include a mobile developer program first targeting iOS-native development and later Android development.
Software development is Woz U's largest track and includes several programming languages as well as fundamentals and core software engineering. The breadth of the track allows Woz U to tailor the tools in the program to match the demand in a given city, according to Coleman.
Adult education is the largest focus right now: Most of Woz U's students are in the 25-35 year age range, with almost two-thirds already holding a degree and looking for a second career, Coleman said. There's also a lot of opportunity for Woz U to partner with existing institutions that don't have the resources they need to run a technology education program and help fill those needs.
But universities alone aren't producing enough computer science talent to fill all the openings, and with even more digital jobs expected in coming years, alternative paths to recruitment are becoming more popular.
Like many other bootcamps, Woz U works with employers at SMBs, large enterprises and state institutions to find new technology workers a role.
Aptitude and a desire to get things done are often more important than background, according to Kelly Sharp, chief marketing officer at Radial Spark. Candidates can't look at education programs or bootcamps as a quick way to get a job: They need to bring the passion and core work ethic to be built upon.
Radial Spark hires roughly 30-40% of new technology workers from Woz U. Technology changes so fast that even experienced employees may not have the skills a company needs, and bootcamps can often stay up to date on these skills more easily than a traditional, four-year university, Sharp said.
Forrest Carlton, a recent Woz U graduate, started working for Aquent IT Solutions as a front-end engineer this May, coming into the company's hire-to-train program. Carlton started learning to code on his own last year and, after a few months, looked around at bootcamps and enrolled at Woz U, where his learning was split between six weeks of classroom work and a six week project phase.
Bootcamps like Woz U are what students make of them, Carlton said. Students that just go through the motions and expect a job aren't going to get much out of them, but those who work hard reap benefits at the end.
Companies don't expect bootcamp graduates to hit the ground running. A schooling or training period for new hires, whether they are coming from a bootcamp or coming from years of experience in the field already, is typical and can take up the first few weeks or months at a new job, according to Sharp
Bringing underrepresented groups into tech
Adult education and retraining is important to fill short-term demands, but building out the technology talent pipeline will be a generations- and decades-long challenge. Fostering interest in technology careers in younger demographics is a necessary first step.
Woz U's K-12 division works heavily with urban areas and school districts that don't have the resources or opportunity to bring coding programs to their schools, and the institute is also targeting groups that are often left out of technology, Coleman said. The perception of accessibility to a technology career remains one of the biggest challenges.
Young women, for example, often discount a future in technology before the age of 16, leading to dismal gender parity in some fields such as cybersecurity, where only 11% of workers are women.
Almost one-third of Woz U's students are female, and going forward the company is working to improve gender representation. Bringing more underrepresented students in first requires a change in mindset that technology has a place for them.
Potential technology recruits need to understand that the ability to develop a product or solve a problem doesn't require advanced calculus, Coleman said. Critical thinking, deductive and logical reasoning and creativity are hallmarks of innovators and entrepreneurs who just need to connect their talents to the field.
Agility in curriculum is often lagging, and many universities haven't updated their programs in five to seven years even though technology changes at a much faster pace, according to Coleman. Curriculum shouldn't be more than a year old: by building everything in house and updating content weekly, Woz U fights for relevancy.
In the future, Coleman hopes people will have a lifelong relationship with their learning institution, where they can come back when ready for the next stage in their career and continue learning and training. Participating is important, but it will only work if the resources being offered meet business and market needs.