B.C.’s Dearth of Developers

Web developers | BCBusiness

Given the ubiquity of computers, why is coding not considered an essential skill?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is due to retire next year after 13 years at the helm of one of the world’s most prominent technology companies. He has been a polarizing and often-mocked figure during his lengthy tenure, inspiring Internet memes and viral YouTube videos. One video in particular that’s difficult to forget (and was leveraged by Vancouver-based social-media firm HootSuite during a hiring spree last year) sees an extraordinarily sweaty Ballmer on stage pumping his fist fervently, repeating “Developers! Developers! Developers!”

That was seven years ago. And however over-the-top Ballmer seemed then, his notion still rings true today: developers are the linchpin of every successful technology company and product.

Which begs the question: why are there never enough of them?

In Canada, it’s hard to become a developer. Coding can be taught as early as elementary school, but students are still graduating from high school without even the basics of programming. Given the ubiquity of computers, why is coding not considered an essential skill alongside multiplication or writing a sentence?

“Understanding code is becoming a part of general literacy in the 21st century and even if your goal is not necessarily to become the software architect of the next big tech company, in the new age of technology basic coding skills will help people get better jobs, be able to talk to and understand their technical team and become more generally educated,” argues Tea Nicola, the Vancouver chapter leader for Ladies Learning Code, a women-run non-profit group that teaches basic tech skills, including programming, across Canada.

“Canada’s higher-education system is producing plenty of graduates, but too few of them are software developers. Companies are starving for talent and need innovative education platforms to help them build strong teams,” says Matt Gray, a co-founder of Bitmaker Labs, a nine-week boot camp that teaches web-application development in Toronto.

Fellow co-founder Tory Jarmain agrees. After he lost his job in 2012, Jarmain moved to Chicago to participate in a similar program to Bitmaker. In doing so he achieved a “pivotal moment” in his life by realizing one simple truth: “Anyone can learn how to code.”

According to Jarmain, more than 80 per cent of those who have graduated from Bitmaker Labs—which until recently was unaccredited and offered no certification upon completion—have either landed jobs in areas such as web development, or launched their own businesses.

A similar initiative is taking root in Vancouver. Launched by Toronto-based software-development agency Functional Imperative, Lighthouse Labs plans to begin a 12-week “immersive” coding program in January.

“The strength and size of the tech community in Vancouver is incredible. For us, it was never a question of whether we wanted to be in Vancouver, but a question of why we weren’t already there and how we could best get involved,” explains Khurram Virani, a co-founder of Functional Imperative and Lighthouse’s lead instructor, who previously instructed at Bitmaker Labs.

Jay Holtslander echoes Virani’s sentiment. A freelance developer and designer based in Vancouver, Holtslander admits that skilled developers are a “scarce” commodity in B.C., but remains optimistic about the future, noting that Canadian code schools should thrive in the coming years, thanks to a booming tech industry and a wealth of available government support. One reason for his belief is that Holtslander is a part of the team behind TamTon, which, like Lighthouse Labs, aims to make coding education more accessible in Vancouver via boot camps.

With more programs and a little more public awareness, B.C. could soon house a thriving ecosystem of developers.

“It’s not just for engineers,” says Nicola of learning code. “It’s for everyone.”

Robert Lewis is president of TechVibes Media Inc. and editor-in-chief of Techvibes.com.