The developer skills lottery

The tech skills gap is an urgent problem. It’s not new and there’s not an overnight fix. In addition, there’s also a real and growing issue over a lack of recognised qualifications and ability to assess a developer’s true skill set.

Why a skills gap?

This is a topic which has been widely debated, and of course the gap is driven by a multitude of things. We know that the number of students taking STEM subjects is dropping. The reasons for this can be put down to a variety of things, but in short, development is a career that’s considered geeky rather than glamorous, and as our recent Skill Up survey showed, UK developers are getting a raw deal when it comes to pay, with a significant difference in average salaries. 

Tech is also failing to attract females, meaning that we’re already starting on the back foot when it comes to bringing the number of people into the industry that we need.

Adding one more complication into this mix, is that in the UK market, we have bridged the gap by importing much of the talent from abroad. We simply don’t know what effect Brexit will have on that policy over the longer term.

A Skills Assessment Gap?

The skills gap is amplified by the fact that there is no meaningful way to evaluate and understand tech skills in a wider and applied context – the context where there are real business problems that need to be solved today.

The challenge is immense – what does it mean when a data analyst claims to have ‘intermediate Python skills’? What’s someone actually saying when they call themselves a ‘JavaScript ninja’? We’ve all seen the CVs awarding ratings out of 10 for specific skills – who gave them those ratings, and how does a recruiter actually verify these skills? Put simply - what value can a developer deliver today?

By using job roles, and specific skill cards towards becoming proficient, a developer can build their knowledge towards core goals. However, from a skills assessment perspective this is unsatisfactory. It’s great that developers have done the reading and are keeping up to speed with the latest technologies, but we need a bit more. While content is crucial for skill development, it’s doesn’t instantly make those skills meaningful.

We know that developers need a diagnostic or benchmarking tool to understand how they stack up in their field and where development opportunities may lie. And while many learning platforms understand this, the assessments currently available are severely lacking. Multiple choice questions have little relevance to the reality of programming. Asking professionals to ‘fill the gaps’ is a quiz; it’s not a way to benchmark.In short, we need an assessment system for developers that replicates the issues they face on a day-to-day basis for their jobs, and informs us how they perform, both in terms of speed and quality of work.

Multiple choice alone just won’t do. Ensuring good theoretical knowledge has a role to play, but not on its own. It’s also reasonable to say that a robust assessment methodology for developers is good for all involved.

For developers, it’s extraordinarily valuable. An assessment system that builds on their theoretical knowledge and asks them to apply this in a live coding environment, means that their learning is embedded. In addition, just because you were skilled 18 months ago, doesn’t mean you are still up to speed if you haven’t been using that language or technology more recently. A tool which allows you to refresh your knowledge and test yourself live means that developers don’t just learn, they keep their skills sharp.

Finally, and crucially, an assessment that truly evidences your skills gives developers a meaningful set of parameters to present to recruiters and managers.

For Managers, you need your developers to stay on top of the latest technologies. The hunger to learn is attractive to anyone who recruits developers, but by being able to test your team on their skills regularly is a great way of keeping those skills fresh. Imagine you’ve had a team member on a specific Python based project for a few months, what better way to ensure they’re up to speed with their Angular than to give them a live test, where they can’t damage anything!

In addition, as you look to identify training and development opportunities for your team, knowing the areas they have tested recently and identifying either refresher training or identifying a skills gap becomes much easier.

For Tech leaders, you need developers to hit the ground running and deliver. Knowing, in confidence, that the developer has the right skills for the job or project you have at hand means you get moving much faster. It’s also crucial for shaping your team. By knowing the skills you have in your team, and by knowing the real skill levels that potential recruits have, you can identify the areas you need and fill them accordingly.

Does this help the skills gap?

No. On that, there’s a real requirement for the industry as a whole to come together and address the skills gap head on and at Packt we want to take a leading role in doing just that.

However, while the gap remains current, developers, managers and CTOs need a much more satisfactory way of judging the talent they have at their disposal or the talent they are looking to recruit. We know that as a business, we have to go beyond providing content to developers, and to help them look at the practical application of it.

In short, the tech industry needs to address not only the skills gap, but also the skills assessment gap. We need 7/10 for Python, 10/10 for CSS, and 9/10 for Pearl to mean something. We need confidence that these ratings will mean the ability to deliver real life solutions as soon as they start work. Although perhaps the less said about JavaScript Ninjas the better!

Oli Huggins is Platform Product Manager at Packt

Image source: Shutterstock/ProStockStudio