Stacking up the odds: the market for software engineers

Software engineers are hugely in demand, but how do companies access them? How many are needed, and what countries are they coming from? And is it true to say that firms are struggling to find the number of quality candidates for jobs they need from traditional universities?

For Robert McGuire of SkilledUp, writing in The Evolllution, ‘companies too numerous to name are in a gold rush to meet the enormous demand for instruction in software engineering, UX design and data science in a variety of online, mentored and bootcamp formats.’ Yet a skills gap has opened up with the demand for high-calibre graduates in these fields outstripping supply. Why is this? Why, as McGuire says, ‘don’t MBA programs prepare [their] graduates for the open positions? Why doesn’t the marketing faculty develop the curricula for its own classes? Why don’t business and computer science departments just admit and train more aspiring entrepreneurs and software engineers to meet the enormous demand and grab some of the market share?’

Answering these questions can be summarised by the speed at which the environment is changing, and the naturally academic approach that universities tend to take, as opposed to the need for experience and hands-on understanding that fast-evolving companies need. ‘Universities move too slowly for what the economy and workers need,’ McGuire says. ‘Job descriptions in the fastest growing categories are filled with vocabulary that hardly existed when the class of 2015 entered college — big data, marketing technologist, app development. Swift, the hottest programming language being taught on platforms like Udemy, didn’t even exist a year ago. In these circumstances, it’s not reasonable to expect universities to ramp up instruction as quickly as needed.’ For McGuire, this opens up an opportunities for start-ups — ‘new companies will naturally rush in to fill the gap.’

For our purposes, it also opens an opportunity for agile, market-responsive and education-to-employment focused institutions to see what traditional universities are not offering, and filling this gap.

McGuire’s second observation is that ‘universities are “too theoretical” for the purposes of their users anyway.’ He argues that ‘the academic model just might not be very good at teaching applied skills. Even if your local state university campus could move at the speed of business and integrate the latest workplace requirements into their curriculum this semester, it’s not clear they should. It wouldn’t be their strength, and most faculties would argue that it would be a disservice to the students.’

In fact, according to McGuire, university faculties have always been caught in this cognitive dissonance. ‘Should [faculties focus on] foundational skills with an abstract value or career readiness courses with a quantifiable ROI? Most faculty are committed to the former (and don’t do a very good job of making their case.) Many students, parents and taxpayers are understandably eager for at least some attention on the latter.’

Uniquely university?

Before we look at some of the potential answers to this, let’s address the elephant in the room that is becoming familiar territory — do you need to go to university at all in order to get a job as a software engineer? The answer, as often with questions like this, is ‘yes and no’.

Writing on Quora, mobile hybrid app developer at BAM Tiago Joel Domingues Ferreira writes, ‘a lot of people do get hired without a CS (computer science) degree. However, most of those people still have a degree of some sorts, most likely in an engineering discipline. If you do have a degree (say, in Mechanical Engineering), Ferreira adds, ‘and you can show programming proficiency (through contributions to open source projects, participating in hackatons, etc.) in your CV, companies will show interest. It will be easier to get hired by a startup, but sometimes bigger companies might find you.’

Employers still like to see university credentials. It’s true that we are starting to see senior figures at companies like Google publically saying that a degree is not the be-all and end-all that it used to be. But, you are disabling yourself if you don’t get a degree in a related field. You might be fine avoiding university altogether; but on the other hand, you might not be.

From the student’s point of view, we might argue that the sweet spot is to find the university that gives you the credentials you need, without crippling you financially. Arguably, not too many people will get hired as a programmer without a degree in a related discipline; maths, engineering or physics for example.

Solve problems, not simply build skills

What’s the solution? A blended university is a good proportion of the way forward. The provider that offers a flexible rolling curriculum, combined with placements in real workplace, combined with placements in bootcamps, is a way to resolve the dilemma between companies wanting to see university accreditation, but not just a bootcamp qualification on its own.

Why does this approach work? Because workplace success is not just about the skills you learn at bootcamp. You also need problem-solving skills, team working skills, decision-making skills and the ability to step back from a problem and look at it objectively. Bootcamps, for all their emphasis on skill-learning, do not tend to offer this.

Abhinav Sharma, CS graduate from Carnegie Mellon University, writes on Forbes that this is the gap that bootcamps do not fill. ‘Overall, [university] changed my attitude to problem solving, I stopped being intimidated by new problems and just got comfortable with asking lots of small questions until I figured out a problem. I’m not sure I would’ve gotten that out of bootcamp.’ His conclusion is telling though: ‘Did I need to go to CMU to figure all this out? Probably not.’

There’s no question that bootcamps are becoming an important element of the education landscape. Ryan Craig writes at University Ventures that their strengths lie in their ‘just in time’ focus — which traditional universities are not equipped to possess. ‘Coding bootcamps — the first manifestation of “Just-In-Time” (JIT) providers — are experiencing remarkable growth. One recent survey projected 138% growth from 6,740 graduates in 2014 to a 16,056 2015 — greater than any other sector or program in postsecondary education.’

So, rather than seeing educational options as having to choose between university or bootcamp — why not build your career by using a combination of the two? And the university that recognises the need for this blend, and builds it in as part of its offering — that will be the university that leaps ahead in future.

In the concluding part of this article, published Thursday, we’ll consider the market for digital professions and how the rise of the stack is shaping the way universities need to respond.

Sources at the end of part two. This article was first published at

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