An interview with CodeClan CEO Harvey Wheaton

Harvey Wheaton is the CEO of CodeClan, Scotland’s first digital skills academy dedicated to coding and software development. They are supported by the Scottish Government, ScotlandIS (Scotland’s digital technologies trade body) and Skills Development Scotland.

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Harvey Wheaton CEO CodeClan

Tell us a little bit about CodeClan and how you became involved with it?

CodeClan was initially set up as an initiative supported by the Scottish Government to address the skills shortage in Scotland’s digital economy through the formation of a digital skills academy. We offer a highly immersive 16 week course, in which students are exposed to a combination of instructor-led lessons, lab work and team-based projects to quickly develop transferrable skills in coding and software development. We’re aiming to have new courses running every six to eight weeks to make it easier for as many people as possible to get involved.

My own involvement in the project came about almost by accident. CodeClan started out as a project team, which was in the process of putting together a business plan and hiring for key roles when a colleague of mine came into contact with them. He found out they were looking for a CEO and sent me a job spec, which immediately caught my interest, so I applied and here we are!

My key focus at this stage is helping the company to transition away from a project-based approach and turning it into an operational business– securing premises, getting staff hired, creating a business plan etc. We only opened our doors in September 2015, and our first set of students are in their eighth week now, so we’re very much in the thick of things!

In your company mission statement you talk about tackling the shortage of around 11,000 skilled digital professionals in Scotland. Why do you think this skills gap has developed?

I think on one hand it’s a classic supply and demand problem. Scotland has been incredibly successful at creating demand from companies that want to move their business operations here because of the opportunities and the talent that are available. We have a fantastic education system, a network of highly regarded universities and a strong and supportive business community, all of which are very appealing to start-ups and established companies alike.

I experienced this myself back in 2000 when JP Morgan – who I was working for at the time – was setting up a new tech operation in Glasgow. We started with a team of around 20 people, now I believe they employ around 1,200 full-time staff.

The other side of all this growth is that the supply of digital talent is struggling to keep up with the demand. Across the whole of the UK we’ve seen a drop of around 20% in graduates coming out of university with computer science degrees over the past decade. Consequently, we’re not getting as much fresh blood into the marketplace. When demand goes up and supply goes down, the result is a skills gap.

"The number of UK computer science graduates has dropped around 20%over the past decade."

What kind of people would you say your course is aimed at? Is there a particular trend regarding the type of people who apply for the course?

Ultimately, the course is open to anyone. But what we’re finding is that the target market tends to be people who are already in work, who in many cases already have degrees – though not necessarily in computer science. Many of them are interested in technology, but haven’t found a route into it yet.

Others are in careers that they’re perhaps not enjoying or don’t feel are making the best use of their talents, so they take our course to broaden their employment prospects. The typical age of our graduates tends to be around the 25-35 range, though we welcome students of all ages and backgrounds.

One important thing to note is that we’re not trying to compete with the universities, or necessarily attract school leavers. The package we offer is more geared towards people who already have workplace experience and want to develop a useful set of skills to further their careers.

How do students tend to react to your immersive learning structure?

On the whole they respond to it really well. It’s fascinating to watch them in the first few weeks, as they’re coding from the moment they walk through the door and they’re introduced to an awful lot of new concepts very quickly. It’s quite intensive, and by week two some of them look as though their heads are ready to explode!

But the pacing is very deliberately designed to encourage them to absorb a lot of information very quickly. The best students relish the challenge and want to put the work in, because it’s an opportunity to push themselves that they may not have had elsewhere. By the third and fourth weeks, they’re generally really starting to get their heads around it, and in the final weeks you see just how far they’ve come. So it’s a little stressful, but they really love it!

How was this structure developed?

It’s based on a fairly established model that many code academies use around the world. The key difference is that our course is a little bit longer than most. Most code academies run for 10-12 weeks, whereas we extend ours to 16. This is to make sure that our graduates are really ready for employment by the time they’ve completed the course.

We take a very cycle-based approach, with a clearly established timeline for work that takes place over the day, the week, and through the duration of the course. It’s about constantly introducing new concepts, trying them out and then applying them to skills you’ve already developed.

Harvey Wheaton CEO CodeClan

What are some of the most rewarding moments you’ve experienced so far in running CodeClan?

One of the most rewarding and surprising things for me has been seeing how the students have developed not only as coders but as people. The course is a sort of exercise in intensive community building – they’re all in a room together, helping each other out and sharing this very intensive experience. It encourages people to be good all-rounders and to work as part of a team, which is, of course, often an essential factor in employability.

I think the best example of this is our open evenings. We run these regularly, and it’s fascinating to see how students who began the course very shy and unsure of themselves are not only introducing themselves but really raving about the experience. It’s a complete transformation, and that’s something I find really gratifying.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

We’re still quite a young company, so at this stage it’s really about knowing where to focus when there’s so much demand for what we’re doing. For example, in addition to our core course, we’re looking at setting up an apprenticeship scheme, launching some more specialised courses and expanding our operation into other parts of Scotland such as Glasgow. We have so many opportunities; the challenge is to make sure we’re directing our resources into pursuing the right ones.

Is the UK digital economy too London-centric?

I’ve heard that argument before but I don’t necessarily think its true, particularly of Scotland where we have a fantastic infrastructure and so much amazing talent.I think the rest of the UK just needs to have the confidence to be a little less insular and really shout about the opportunities they can offer to digital professionals.

"We’ve lost a couple of generations to the world of coding due to anoutdated and uninspiring ICT curriculum"

Last year the Scottish National Curriculum for computing was updated to place a greater focus on coding and digital literacy. Do these changes go far enough, or is there more the government needs to be doing?

I think the updated curriculum is absolutely brilliant – I think we’ve lost a couple of generations to the world of coding due to an outdated and uninspiring ICT curriculum. Now we’re finally waking up to the fact that digital skills are critical to the economy, and that the demand is only going to keep growing.

Of course, it’s always possible to do more but I view this as a very positive step in the right direction. I think it could only really have happened relatively recently due to advances in technology, we have so many excellent tools available now that make coding more accessible to everybody – those simply didn’t exist back when I was first learning to code.

What can business leaders be doing to support, attract and retain talent?

I think one of the most important things is to create the right working environment to encourage your employees to stay with you. There’s a lot of temptation these days to offer a lot of gimmicks to attract talent, but in the long run common sense and good management will be a lot more effective. Giving your employees opportunities for personal and career development will always trump flashy perks.

I’d also say that businesses should be aware that there are alternatives to traditional recruitment when it comes to sourcing talent. Coding academies and apprenticeship schemes can play a key role in employee development. When you find talented people, it makes sense to invest time and resource into helping them to achieve their potential.

"To actually see people using software that you’ve written isincredibly rewarding."

In a nutshell, why should people learn how to code?

My personal experience is that while coding can be technical, it’s also a highly creative and empowering thing to do. You have the opportunity to invent things, work as part of a team and to get a clear sense of the difference you’re making to a project. To actually see people using software that you’ve written is incredibly rewarding.

What sort of tools do you use on your course to teach coding?

We want to give our graduates familiarity with a variety of different languages, and to empower them to transfer their skills from one platform to another. For that reason, the core of the course is in Ruby – not because we’re trying to create Ruby specialists, but because we think it’s a great language for introducing people to a lot of the core concepts of coding. It’s a very user-friendly programming language and you can pick up the essential skills relatively quickly.

We also touch on general web development skills via languages like CSS, HTML and JavaScript, to ensure that whatever work environment our graduates go into, they’ll have the tools they need to pick up the required skills. We’re aware that the market changes all the time – the dominant coding language this year might be something completely different next year. That’s why our focus is always on core skills and concepts.

"We need to bridge the gap between the people who are actually doingthe coding and those who are catering directly to business needs."

Finally, what innovations would you like to see in the coding space in the next few years?

It’s already happening, but I’d like to see even more tools that make coding as accessible to people as possible, regardless of your age or background. In addition, I’d like to see a more joined up approach at every level of teaching coding and digital skills. We need to bridge the gap between the people who are actually doing the coding and those who are catering directly to business needs. There’s still a bit of a gap there, and I think it’d benefit us all if everyone was speaking the same language.