3 saplings with leaves drawn as HTML tags

Where are the skill gaps in tech?

Udacity’s Nanodegree programme developed with tech giants like Google and Facebook reflect the skills they currently need. But don’t automatically assume it’s all about the hard stuff.

“Redwoods grow in damp, foggy forests. They collect a lot of their water from fog. And in the process, they help keep the surrounding environment wet…” says Cameron, one of the course instructors. Standing under the deep canopy of a sunny forest in Santa Cruz, California, he is completely dwarfed by the leafy and thick-trunk vertical giants! Redwoods are the tallest and largest trees in the world, living up to thousands of years.

A sapling with leaves drawn as HTML tags

They might be giants! Every big old tree started as a small sapling.

No, I am not on a dendrology course. Cameron is a senior content developer at Udacity and I am checking out their Front-End Web Developer ‘Nanodegree’ online course.

There are other established websites that offer very good distance-learning courses in coding and programming. But Udacity has a USP that simply kicks ass! The Nanodegree is a portfolio of paid courses (consider it a career investment) developed with hip tech employers to bridge in-demand industry skill gaps. Meeting certain conditions ((At the time of writing, the job guarantee only applies to certain courses (machine learning engineer, data analyst, Android developer, iOS developer, senior web developer, full stack web developer) and you must be eligible to work in America. Read Udacity’s small print.)), they’d even be so bold as to guarantee a job within six months of completion. Perhaps as a result of their career outlook, the Nanodegree courses also feel slightly different…

A sapling with leaves drawn as paper and scissors

Diving in, there’s no ‘how to do’ yet, but it’s all about ‘how to think’; emphasis on problem-solving, or strategies to overcome inevitable difficulties when grappling new skills. Teaching to build a webpage from a flat design layout, Jessica (another instructor) didn’t start with writing codes, but with cutting up physical pieces of paper using a pair of scissors. For those taking their first baby steps into coding (Introduction to Programming course), they divulge an irreverent trade secret – “…computers are stupid” – to help students understand how machines ‘think’ differently to humans. (Sorry, advocates of Strong AI!) What about the redwoods? It’s an analogy for the tree-based branching structure used to visually represent data hierarchy.

But why do these little things matter anyway? Because they reflect an attempt to impart some soft skill qualities, whereas other online courses focus merely on the hard skills.

A sapling with leaves drawn as ones and zeros

In my own experience working with people who’ve studied computing as a specialism, many tend to think in a binary way. Ones and zeros. If this, then that. Black or white. In the workplace, in business, in collaborations and in innovation, success is entwined within many shades of greys — lateral thinking, creativity, intuition, negotiation, human empathy… the palette continues. And I think there lies the big hidden skill gap in tech!

Helping students to diversify their thinking and offering multiple (and not always obvious) solutions are good starting points. What can also help is a pre-requisite curiosity for life, for how things work, whether in machines or in nature. Why wouldn’t you be interested in a bit of dendrology in a coding class?

Codes are amazing. Trees are amazing.


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