Information technology in the modern world is ubiquitous. From social media, banking on the go, to the shop in your pocket, everything just seems to be effortless. Every time you pinch a photo, swipe a story or scroll through the infinitely expanding digital universe, there is a little bit of code running to make your experience seamless.
Behind the user experience there is an array of talented technical and creative individuals who have to imagine, think and write the software that the world is now dependent on. Every app, website, and business that relies on technology is written in code, often combining several technologies that are continuously changing and evolving.
One of the biggest challenges facing tech businesses is finding the right talent to actually deliver this software and one of the innovators in this field can be found right here in West Yorkshire. Northcoders, known as ‘the coding bootcamp of the North’ and based at Platform in Leeds city centre, is training the software developers and coders of tomorrow.
Northcoders was established in 2015 in Manchester and opened its doors in Yorkshire earlier this year. Since its inaugural course four years ago, the business has helped over 400 people switch career into tech on average starting salaries of £25,000.
The diverse backgrounds of its graduates – who range from 18 to 56 – span everyone from people who have worked in retail, driving forklift trucks in warehouses, to engineers, accountants, lawyers, and sales people as well as stay at home parents, football coaches and refugees.
One of the first things that Amul Batra, Chief Partnerships Officer at Northcoders, was keen to tell me as soon as we sat down was the company’s passion for promoting community. “The cornerstone of Northcoders is building a community that is based on our core values of inclusion and quality. Whilst northern spirit, hard work, grit and determination along with humour and fun all play their part.”Northcoders was established by Chris Hill who, at the time, was working for Sky in Leeds. Amul explains: “Chris felt there was an obvious disconnect between the skills that computer studies graduates were coming out of universities with, and the skills that employers actually needed. He started to think about how to bridge that and researched the subject, using the proven success of coding camps on the US West Coast as his inspiration.”
Eventually Chris staged the first course and Amul, whose background was in the music industry, and who had become interested in tech opportunities, was on it. Fate played its part and Amul invested in the business. He said: “They took us on that journey, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.”
He claims he knew the company “was onto something” when the first Northcoder graduate got hired within just a few days. Nine of the first cohort of students went on to get jobs in software development, while Amul began to market and develop the business.According to Amul the two biggest challenges were, particularly at the time before Northcoders was established, to get people to commit 12 weeks of their life and to ensure that Northcoders had the ear of every company that had already realised (or was yet to realise) the need to embrace digital transformation.
Northcoders now works with over a 100 different companies across the North, including some of the region’s biggest employers like Jaguar Land Rover, BAE, Barclays and First Direct as well as with major brands like On The Beach, Moonpig, Moneysupermarket, various start-ups, consultancies, agencies and tech businesses such as Thoughtworks, InfinityWorks and Apadmi.
Using the latest technology and best working practices, a world class curriculum is being constantly developed. On this Amul said: “After a while we decided to make the bootcamps more modular and manageable, splitting them into four, three week blocks, graduating students every three weeks, and allowing them to move between the blocks if they hadn’t quite done what they needed to do.”
That ability to evolve and be nimble is what seems to set Northcoders apart along with its unwavering commitment to its three guiding principles: to build a community of brilliant, well trained developers that understand technology and can learn technology as quickly as we can teach it; to make this community as diverse, inclusive and representative of the population as possible; and to never compromise on quality.
Northcoders’ move to Leeds, initially with a 1,000 square foot campus, was – according to Amul – “always our plan but the timing had to be right as Leeds and the wider Yorkshire region has a dynamic and exciting tech community so we wanted to add to that mix. It’s important to us to build collaboration across the Pennines.”Amul is keen to revisit and expand on Northcoders’ commitment to promoting diversity in tech. He explained: “Traditionally, coding and software development has attracted a narrow slice of society which has tended to be white men who have learned software at university, but that’s not a true reflection of the UK. Brands have realised that developers need to be engaged with their business so they have the ability to create the very best code and technology that will actually resonate with the end user.”
Currently women make up around 32% of Northcoders students, compared to an industry average of 17%. Over the last few months it has launched scholarship schemes and a deferred payment programme aimed at women and gender minorities, as well as those who identify as BAME or LGBTQ+, have a disability or have had limited access to education, to help address diversity in tech.
Whilst Northcoders welcomes anyone to become part of the coding community, Amul realises that coding isn’t for everyone, and that is a demanding challenge. He said: “We have a rigorous selection process, which is about our potential students finding out if they really want it and if they’re prepared to put the effort in to get the rewards. We start by providing them with some coding materials to work through in their own time, which takes about 20-30 hours.We then challenge them to assess how well they have learned those materials, and if they are successful, they receive another 50 hours of pre-course materials that will bring them up to ‘course ready standard’. About one in four people who apply for our course get a start date.”
This means that everyone on the course is at the same level, has gained enough knowledge to be able to begin their studies which is where the real hard work begins. Our selection is tough because we don’t want to take people on this journey if it’s not right for them. But if it is then the opportunities are there.”
A coding bootcamp is full-time, fast-paced and intensive. Over the 12 weeks, students cover full stack web development that includes fundamentals so they can pick up any programming language, as well as back end development, the structure and logic parts that you don’t see when using an app, and also the front end which are the things you interact with as a user. They are also taught workplace practices, such as Agile Principles, so they can go work in modern tech teams. The final element is a two week self-driven project where students are expected to learn a new language or technology.
Northcoders’ unique approach to teaching is something that Amul is most proud of: “When teaching a new language, framework or technology, our approach is to say if you learn it in this way, when it comes to learning a second language, you will know how to pick that up quickly. This is a very different approach to a traditional university or school environment.”
He went on: “It’s the way we teach technology that is so appealing to companies, because these people can really pick up new technologies quickly. What is seen as really hard on the course is really just training the mind to learn very fast. We don’t teach people to code, we teach people to teach themselves to code.”
Northcoders also liaises closely with the 100+ companies that it works with who are always keen to advise on and feed into the curriculum. This is a massive advantage according to Amul: “We are not a university that might have to wait a few years; we can do it quickly, to make sure we are delivering what business actually needs.”
Technology, of course, moves at a real pace. The average shelf life of a new technology is two and half years, so the ability to pick up new languages quickly is really valuable asset for them and their employers as Amul explained: “Our students are taught to reinvent themselves continuously, so they stay up to date and can pick up what is new.”
After being selected as one of the country’s brightest tech stars in the hugely respected Creative England’s CE50 list and being named Business of the Year at the 15th Annual Chamber Business Awards, it certainly seems the future is bright for this tech innovator.