My journey from self-taught coding ninja to creator of a brand-new career path into the UK’s AI industry

Sidetrade Labs
Oct 17 · 3 min read

By Luke Hennerley, Lead Application Manager at Sidetrade.

At the age of 14, I took a keen interest in programming, and by the age of 16 I was learning Java to work on my own version of a popular online game.

Self-learning and apprenticeships instead of a degree

Then it was time to launch myself into the big wide world. We were always told during our school years that we had to go to university to do well. However, I didn’t want to spend three years learning what I’d been teaching myself for the previous two.

I discovered that Microsoft UK had just launched their first ever apprenticeship programme. I applied and was lucky enough to be selected.

So, instead of three years of uni study, I spent one year on an apprentice salary before becoming a full-time junior developer. It was an amazing opportunity window for me. I was a Microsoft Apprentice of the Year finalist and got to meet then Prime Minister David Cameron, and senior Microsoft staff. A bit later on, I was also invited to speak at a Microsoft UK Partner Summit.

But I still believed that this workplace training could be done quicker.

A good work story, but what about other tecchies?

Fast-forward eight years, and I’m now working at Sidetrade’s office in Birmingham, as a lead application engineer. I spend my day working with data and software engineers and data scientists, and a supportive CTO, who is also an AI entrepreneur. It’s a great place to work.

I’m a good news story, but it’s not the case for everyone. Reports from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Times Higher Education have reported that the unemployment rate in the UK for students with computer science degrees has been among the highest compared to graduates with other degrees. It’s clear that there is an issue bridging the gap between graduation and securing a job in the tech sector.

My new, fast track into AI

My passion to show young people an alternative route into the industry still burns bright, and luckily my employer shares the same belief. Sidetrade has given me the freedom to be able to express this by launching The Code Academy, which started on 14th October 2019, following a pilot last year.

The 12 successful candidates were drawn from a pool who applied for this completely free 4-week, intensive training course, following a demanding assessment day on 25th September.

After the assessment day, we offered a selection of candidates a place on the course. The material, content and structure are delivered in such a way that we bridge the gap between theoretical learning and the practical nature of the supremely fast paced industry that we operate in.

Being part of an amazing AI community in the Midlands

Sidetrade facilitates an environment for those who may consider themselves a zero when it comes to coding, and turns them into heroes.

This is done by re-using our own resources, allowing students into our offices one day per week, and using the industry experts at our disposal to share our culture and knowledge.

New coders are also set study and practical tasks for the rest of the week, and encouraged to do lots of self-learning, again, supported by an active Slack community featuring the Sidetrade R&D team, should they ever get stuck.

The final day of the academy is the culmination of a whirlwind four weeks, that sees each of the candidates address a challenge by designing, building, and presenting something they have built, before an audience of their classmates, Sidetrade staff, and guests. It’ll be a proud moment for me and my colleagues.

Some candidates will move into full time employment — we offer four data and software engineer jobs at the end — while others are better equipped than they ever were to progress their career.

The Sidetrade academy is an extremely innovative solution that demonstrates our recognition of the current skills shortage in the UK when we talk about tech, and that young people across the country are ideally placed to fill it, without necessarily having to spend between 12–36 months learning how to do so.

Sidetrade Labs

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