The Only Way to Close the Skills Gap: With Teachers

Jessica Lin
Mar 14, 2016 · 6 min read

I recently worked with Seema Shah, Director of Tech and Innovation at LaGuardia Community College, on a pilot session of a “Teachers’ Tech Tour” at Work-Bench.

Seema has done a phenomenal job developing unique partnerships and opportunities to expand technology-related programs and services at LaGuardia, which serves nearly 3,500 students a year in over 160 degree and certification courses, making it one of New York City’s largest, and most affordable, providers of quality technology education.

I sit at a unique intersection, both as Community Director at Work-Bench, an enterprise-focused venture fund and community, as well as a longtime GED educator for adults in Boston and New York City.

From my work with our fast-growing startups here in New York City, I can see that employers are looking for talent, but having often a very difficult time filling jobs and positions.

From my work as an adult educator, I can see how many of my adult students need jobs — especially ones with opportunities for growth — but struggle with landing them.

So it is clear there is a gap.

Yet I have found that in most skills gap discussions around employers and students, there is a critical component missing in the conversation — and it is that of educators.

We know that educators are incredibly powerful. We know that a powerful learning experience doesn’t happen without a great teacher. Teachers play an integral role in learning, and connecting dots to the greater world. They are the keys to scale, who can reach hundreds of students at a time. If we want to close skills gap, we need to employ the most powerful resource: teachers.

Yet I have seen few resources around how educators can close the skills gap, especially around professional development.

How can we give teachers an understanding of the demands of the rapidly changing technology workforce and landscape, i.e. jobs like data scientist, mobile applications developer, UX designer that did not even exist five years ago?

How can we ensure that educators are given the tools and exposure necessary to shape curriculum, syllabi and projects in the classroom?

Studies have shown that connecting content to a desired real-world outcome and practical application can be a much more effective way for students to learn. Is there a way we can incorporate some more the real work and real jobs application into the classroom?

We decided to start with a small experiment with one simple objective: we would invite educators in to “shadow” startups, to learn about the newest and most in-demand jobs in technology, and to have an open discussion with technical members of our startups around what technologies they were building, what tools they were using, and what were the critical skills needed to be successful working at a startup.

Working with Seema, we identified two terrific LaGuardia Community College computer science professors to participate in our pilot: Professors Andi Toce and Yun Ye, who brought insights, feedback, and most of all, great commitment to their students and work. From Work-Bench, we sat down with technical team members from Cockroach Labs, Socure, and CoreOS.

Our conversation touched on:

1. What is the primary focus of these companies?

2. What kind of skills do these companies expect from new graduates? Both Cockroach Labs and CoreOS are open-source companies — what does that means from a languages, platforms, and tools-perspective?

3. What were these developers’ own journeys to how they ended up at startups? Each of the developers we spoke with had a unique path — one was self-taught in computer science, another was a recent grad from a prestigious 4-year computer program, and another spent many years at Google.

4. What are they seeing most in their interviews? What do they ask?

5. What changes do these companies recommend regarding the current curriculum?

Below were a few high-level outcomes and brainstorm ideas that came from our session:

A platform to connect educators and employers:
Really productive and tactical discussions can happen when teachers and employers come together in a room together. For Professor Toce and Ye, they wanted to be able to better collaborate with companies on project assignments and curriculum design. How can we enable both educators and employers to find one another better? We will be sharing out an initial database shortly.

Open source is democratization for students who want to be involved:
Nowadays students (and anyone) can see how software is written, committed and shipped — via Github and Reviewable. While it is by no means a substitute for an internship or experiential education, open source technology can help level the playing field by giving both teachers and students exposure and access to how software is built. Two open source repositories to check out of Work-Bench member companies: Cockroach Labs (a scalable, survivable, SQL database)+ CoreOS (open source projects for Linux containers).

Portfolio is key: Even for students who do not have many years of coding — it is absolutely crucial for developers to have a Github account. For all other fields — a personal website — created on a ready-made site like Tumblr or Squarespace — is a place to define one’s mission statement and personal brand: what are you most passionate about? What is your story? What are you looking to pursue? These are all questions that teachers and educators can help discuss and provide guidance. Resources around determining your personal brand.

Employers sharing real work:
Would employers be open to sharing actual real work projects? Students often don’t understand how much of the theory they are being taught in computer science — i.e. flattening a binary tree — is actually relevant to work they would do in a job. In fact, many tech companies actually give theoretical questions to answer and solve for in your interview, as well as in practice on the day-to-day job. There could be interesting applications for this, in incorporating real work projects into course assignments. For Professors Toce and Ye, they found the information on the coding project resources provided by the companies to be most helpful. It shows the students where to practice their programming skills. Platforms that do a bit of this now include: Hacker Rank, Coderbyte, MindSumo, Real Work Project.

Opportunity for Operating Guides:
In the New York Times, comedian Samantha Bee recently shared:

“[her producers]…created an application packet for prospective writers to show them what their submissions should look like — down to the formatting, margins, abbreviations and lingo to use — so that no one would be penalized for inexperience.”

Is there a way to do this to equalize opportunities in tech as well? Can we author similar operating manuals for students, whether it is in your cover letter, resume or more — to remove bias? Resources include 50 Ways to Get a Job, Beyond Coding.

If this piece resonated with you, please consider
sharing or click “❤︎” and help spread the word. Whether you are an educator or employer — we’d love to hear your feedback, perspectives and insights, as we look to do more of these sessions and potentially at scale.

A big thank you to my collaborators, Seema Shah and Kevin Alster, on this pilot; Professors Andi Toce and Yun Ye; Pablo Abreu of Socure, Vivek Menezes of Cockroach Labs, and Jimmy Zielinksi of CoreOS.

Disclaimer: No, I don’t believe everyone should work at a startup, as Ernest Shackleton said (or may not have said) it best.

Key Resources for Teachers:

· GithubSetting up Github

· Hacker News — top startup news (with a focus on technical)

· Angelist — one of the most comprehensive databases for startup jobs

·, Hacker Rank — platforms employers use to conduct technical interviews.

· A few of many great articles on how to get jobs at startups: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Getting a Job in Tech; How to Get a Job at Startup; Hustle and Getting Hired by a Startup

Jessica Lin

Written by

co-founder & VC @Work_Bench | GED educator | rethinking work

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