I'm really interested in the education of young people. A wise man once said to me if you're in a privileged position and you have the capacity to help others get into the same position, it's your duty to do so however you can.
With that in mind, a few months back I set out to help a friend get his university computing and innovation society some exposure to the programming industry (among other things!).
Just a little disclaimer before diving in here; I respect all of the effort that educators put in, be they primary school, high school or university level. If anything comes across as unfairly negative in this post, I want to assure you that I'm not being malicious. I just want to point out places where the education system isn't being as valuable as it wants to be.
Standard Careers Days
I'm imagining that we're all pretty familiar with what the format of a careers days is like, but I'll highlight the key points just in case:
- Professionals from a variety of different careers are invited into a big room (usually the hall/gym/auditorium of a high school)
- Young'ns of varying age groups pour in and do their best to avoid talking to anyone, instead using this precious time out of lessons to chat with their mates.
- Some might compete with each other to try and get as many freebies as they possibly can (and throw them away later, that shit's heavy)
- And maybe some of them take a genuine interest in what you're doing and leave the room enlightened about their future.
The number of young people in the final category is predictably, worryingly, depressingly and some-other-adjective-ly small. I understand that events like this do serve as a valuable first step towards getting young people used to talking to professionals in suits (or not in suits, as it may be with programmers), but the effort to reward ratio feels too high.
One night, I was chatting with a programming friend from high school, now studying at Keele University. He's been getting into programming over the last year or so and I get an increasing number of questions from him (he's been trying to compile a full toolchain from scratch recently, it's getting to the point where my help is purely collaborative!).
A concern of his was that Keele didn't offer any industry ties with programming related businesses. On top of that, they don't offer any sandwich placements for computing courses and their careers office doesn't have a computing department, so pickings are very slim for people interested in computers.
Seems I'm in a position to do something about this. I've worked with the Forward Foundation a bunch of times in the past so I decided to take the idea of an in-house careers day to Michael et al.
Long story short: they loved the idea. The Foundation were mega-helpful to the point where I'm embarrassed taking any credit. Lots of great people spoke at the event. Lots of great young people of a variety of ages turned up. It was an awesome day.
So what did we do?
"Discover a Career in Tech"
There are a billion questions you can't think of under pressure when you're on the cusp of entering the "real world of work", but we didn't want to run a session where we lectured people. We wanted to ensure that nobody was sat down in silence for too long, but we didn't want to ask them what their questions were on the spot either.
So, compromise! Woo! Forward is an umbrella company with lots of tech companies under its wing in one way or another, so we have a large pool of varied and talented people. We decided to choose 6 people from various areas of technology, including programming, design, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Each person would speak for 10 minutes (in an ideal world) and their talk would loosely follow this format:
- What is your role.
- What do you actually do in a given day.
- How much do people in your area get paid.
- How did you get into your job.
- What kind of person would enjoy the job.
- What do you love and hate about your job.
- A list of things an enthusiastic person should do to get into the job.
Not everyone followed this, of course, but those are the main questions on peoples' minds at that age. Given that we had an audience comprising of ages from 16 upwards, and a mixture of people that did and didn't know what they wanted to do with themselves, we felt that this was a good coverage of things to address in a 10 minute slot.
After the talks, we would just let people walk around and chat with the people who spoke (as well as some other generous donors of time and effort) to try and answer their other burning questions. The event ran from 4pm to about 7:30pm when the last people left the building.
So how did it go?
Well, I can't speak for everyone, but I thought...
The main feedback I've heard from people so far is that the event didn't last long enough and there wasn't a wide enough range of speakers. For example, there were people there interested in game development and mobile development. I'm more of a wannabe systems programmer, unfortunately. No-one aspires to that. It would be worth, in future, finding a game developer to speak.
"in future", you say?
Yes! Given how successful the event was, we're definitely wanting to run it again.
I'd kind of like to see more companies doing things like this. Given the poor state of computer science education in the UK (compared to America, we're just embarrassing), this sort of event is invaluable, especially to the high school students. If we could make "Discover a Career in Tech" a thing, that would be awesome.
Photos of the event can be found on flickr.