For years now, government, industry, and recruitment agencies have been claiming there is a technology skills shortage.

But what is the real story behind the skills shortage? And what needs to change to improve the Australia’s IT workforce?

In the final part of this series, Information Age considers the importance of education for an IT career.

(Read part one, part two, part three.)

Ben was 30 before his IT career began. Since finishing high school he had been in different jobs in construction material sales and, most recently, as a disability support worker.

Now a couple of months into being a full-time developer for a small South Australian company, Ben is happy to have found fulfilling work.

“I guess the main difference with what I’m doing now is that it’s interesting,” he told Information Age.

“You get a ticket – it might be a bug fix or a feature – and at face value it seems like one thing, then you dig deeper and it’s connected to something else.

“So of the hundreds of thousands of lines in the code base, one small thing might fork out and touch each part of it and just when you think you’ve found a solution and submitted your work, QA comes back and says it broke something else.”

What might sound like a source of endless frustration is what keeps Ben engaged: he loves the everyday challenges that come with being a software developer.

And it took just 12 months for Ben to pick up his qualifications and get into the workforce.

Crash course in coding

Ben started by completing a six-month university boot camp centred on web development and JavaScript after which he began applying for jobs.

Noticing few responses from employers, Ben went back to studying – but this time he didn’t go to a traditional institution, signing up instead for the free programming school, 42.

First opening in Paris in 2013, 42 is a not-for-profit organisation that has opened coding schools around the world.

Prospective students are vetted through a series of memory and logic puzzles. Those who pass are given the opportunity join 42’s 'piscine' (French for 'swimming pool'): a four-week crash course in programming using C that is actually the second entry test.

The few who score highly enough in the piscine may move onto 42’s three-year training program.

“There was a very disparate group of people, some whom had done one or two years of uni, or had also done a six-month bootcamp, and some who had done literally zero coding before,” Ben said about his cohort.

“It wasn’t like they tested you for how much programming you know, rather it was more about your capacity to grind away at a problem, not necessarily even solving it.

“Problem solving skills were much more important than if you could write a bit of logic.”

The course setup is simple: students have all week to get as far as they can through units of a curriculum which involved completing assignments that were looked over by other students before submission. Kind of like a code review.

On each Friday, there is a closed exam (no Google, no talking) where students try to get as far as they can through a set of problems in the allotted time.

Over the weekend, they work on complex group assignments to practice short-term collaboration.

The value of good education

After the final eight-hour exam, Ben went back to applying for jobs and, with his 42 experience added to cover letters and resumés, soon found the job interviews piling up.

“I think 42 made me a much, much better programmer.”

Part of that was the language used in 42’s boot camp: C.

“I can understand why they use C. It’s kind of the lowest level language – you have to handle memory management, garbage collection, it’s full control with nothing automated,” Ben said.

“We had a small list of allowed functions and couldn’t use anything not on that list or built into other libraries.”

The weekend projects also helped Ben understand scope creep and the importance of time management.

“It’s often really hard to predict how long something’s going to take in development,” he said.

“We learned to sit back and take a more investigative approach and ask if it is even reasonable to complete this task in two days – if not, it might be better to spend your time on other parts of the course.”

Education is rarely a one-size-fits-all model and although Ben found 42’s intense training regime helpful, it might not be for everybody.

Lifelong learning

Like Ben, Elona has tried different styles of education, including short intensive courses and a degree in cloud infrastructure she is currently undertaking.

The cloud degree started after Elona completed a 12-week AWS certification course.

“It gave me a taste of everything but didn’t delve too deeply into it,” Elona told Information Age.

“I knew I could finish the course, likely get a job and learn as I go, but I wanted to learn more and figured it would justify a better position later.

“There’s no loss in education. When you start thinking you know everything. then it’s time to learn more.”

Elona is confident her transition into the workforce will be smooth once she decides her learning has completed. She is working on a specialised skillset, has started volunteering for a research organisation, and knows that there is market demand for what she can offer.

“I have been matching my studies to certain roles to get the skills needed and I know what’s expected and how to fill those gaps,” Elona said.

“But I also know that wherever I go, companies need people with tech skills and there are a variety of starting points and diversity among roles – not all of which require a high degree of technical knowledge.”

Final thoughts from the author

Elona’s attitude to learning and Ben’s early career success have been a refreshing end to this series exploring Australia’s IT skills shortage.

That simple-seeming problem is complicated by many factors, not least of which is the expansive and ever-changing nature of IT.

For businesses desperate to fill specific roles, not finding an appropriate candidate is frustrating and can slow down their capacity to grow and thrive in competitive global markets.

But there are also many workers who say they have the qualifications the experience, and yet can’t land a job – not to mention those who have answered the international call for tech workers only to find barriers blocking them every step of the way.

So, how do we bridge this gap between people who want to work in this space and those who are hiring?

That is certainly an ongoing question for government, industry, and organisations like ACS, but sadly there’s no one simple solution.