Have you got what it takes to hack your way to a coding job?

Coders are the clever human component of technology, the ones that build the online platforms, fix the glitches and get your IT doing what you want. So short of laying a trap, how do you find the coder that you need?

Airtasker co-founder Tim Fung wasn’t consciously looking for a computer coder when he hosted a Christmas party a few years ago. All he wanted was a drinks waiter. Using his own Airtasker online hiring platform he found two, but one had planned to bring more than cool drinks to the table.

 

How do you find the coder that you need?

How do you find the coder that you need?

 

“He bids for the job and says, ‘Guys I really want this job because I want to meet you. I’ve already built a front-end version of Airtasker in full mobile responsive design’,” Fung recalls. 

“So he turns up serving drinks, and later pops out his phone and shows us. We interviewed him and ended up giving him a job at 8pm on Christmas Eve. He’s one of the best hires we have ever had.” 

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Fung’s instant recruitment process is hardly typical of companies seeking computer experts, but in the young and thrusting start-up arena, it would barely create a blip. Programmers, software developers and coders are now judged purely on their practical, hands-on ability. Educational background counts for little. 

There is, of course, the formal education route via university IT courses and technical colleges which carry all the academic endorsements and recognised qualifications. One step removed are the highly expensive coding schools – in the US they’re called “hack schools” – which promise digital literacy and even solid job prospects, sometimes in a matter of weeks [see “Going to Hack School”].

Last, but not least, are the natural born coders, self-educated and almost certainly fanatical about all aspects of programming and coding.

Where do they hang out? It’s worth knowing the different cultures. Software developers tend not to respond to recruiters, says Bridget Loudon, chief executive of Expert360, which digitally matches freelance commercial consultants with smaller-sized and/or shorter-term consultancy jobs.

“Hiring developers and coders is different. They’re wired differently. You’ve got to get direct channels to them. You’ve got to go to their environment, their meet-ups,” Loudon says.

Loudon says the best developers and coders don’t even care how much you’re paying them.

“They’re the ones coding all night because they love it,” she says. 

Adam Dong, co-founder and chief technology officer of local services online marketplace Oneflare, says he may initially gravitate towards someone with a formal computer science, computer engineering or IT background, but in the end “education usually is a very small factor”. Either they have the knowledge or they don’t.

“The knowledge is rarely acquired through formal qualifications as it is rarely taught. It is learnt through self-education and experience,” says Dong. 

"The best don’t even care how much you’re paying them. They’re the ones coding all night because they love it." – Bridget Loudon, Expert 360 

South-East Asia, with its expanding incubation hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong, is fast becoming a highly competitive market for good coders, rivalling the traditional US bases such as Seattle and San Francisco. Many of the US-based coding schools are now reaching out to the region with a series of beginner and advanced online courses [see “Going to Hack School”].

Shuey Shujab, chief executive of the Whitehat digital agency, which specialises in all online needs for businesses, says there are obvious questions to ask the would-be coder, which include the language they have coded in and previous work and/or project examples.

“Most people in the start-up industry prefer someone who has done it themselves – they’ve put together a website or an exciting app,” says Shujab.

But ultimately language coding ability is less important than passion and vision, he says. “We want someone who loves creating new and cool things. We’re far more interested in their imaginative qualities than their coding language expertise.”

The next important prerequisite is skill in problem solving. Shujab says everyone has a coding style and those with the greatest speed and innovation tend to get the jobs.

“I’d ask them how they would solve XYZ task. There are plenty of ways to test before you hire.”

Loudon found her head of engineering on free classifieds site Gumtree, her software developer on Stack Overflow, a cooperative Q&A site for programmers, and another coder on AngelList, a US site which connects start-ups and angel investors. She believes a lot of coders are drafted in from abroad to work on Australian and Asian start-ups, but she would not recommend micromanaging tasks remotely.

“When technology is core to what you do, you don’t want to outsource that core part of your business,” she says.

So how did the man from Gumtree graduate to Expert360’s head of engineering?

“I said to him I’d give him A$30,000 to build what I wanted,” says Loudon.

“Build it well and I’ll give you a full-time job in the company.” 

It’s not just about money

Ask Christina Kirsch if university students are disadvantaged by their more formal theory-based education and she brushes the question off nicely.

Kirsch, who coordinates industry partnerships at the University of Sydney’s IT school, says university IT students don’t lack for anything. Indeed, most of them come to the university already with years of coding practice.

“At universities they are exposed to real cutting-edge innovation that they simply wouldn’t be offered in a straight work environment,” Kirsch says.

“There are students working in the biomedical space or on 3D holograms. Many of them are working not just in one area but in a multi-disciplinary environment.”

By Kirsch’s assessment, they are far better equipped than self-taught or code school graduates because their remit embraces far more than the purely commercial.

“They’re not just exposed to the need to create profit, but are being challenged to explore new realms,” she says.

Kirsch says the University of Sydney’s "capstone projects" allow undergraduate students to work with a range of industries over a three-month period. The university also partners with industry on six month paid post-graduate internships, referred to as the "Postgraduate IT Project Placement Scheme (PIPPS)".

“The objective of this scheme is to provide opportunities for outstanding postgraduate and undergraduate (Honours) IT students to spend six months full time in industry undertaking high-level investigative and research projects during the course of their studies," says Kirsch.

"The projects are established with academic involvement through Associate Supervision from the School of Information Technologies.”

Going to hack school

If you want to become a coder but lack the time to complete formal computer programming qualifications, the industry has an answer – hack schools and boot camps. So far the highly rigorous hacker bootcamps are only available in the US, led by San Francisco-based Dev Bootcamp (which calls itself an “apprenticeship on steroids”) and Hack Reactor (which promises a 98 per cent job placement rate 90 days after graduating).

These hacker schools charge from US$12,000 to US$17,000 for a nine- to 12-week course, telling students they will learn the coding essentials needed to smooth their way to well paid web and app development jobs. That’s a starter salary of US$80,000 to US$120,000 – or so the promise goes.

Perhaps the best known global code school is New York’s General Assembly, which has expanded to offices in Sydney and Hong Kong. Legend has it that a pizza delivery guy walked into one of its courses and walked out a coding “ninja”.

Whitehat Agency boss Shuey Shujab mentions several coding schools available online – there’s Codecademy, Code.org and Code School, all of which use online learning platforms to teach programming and web design skills.

There’s even a recently formed Australian start-up for female coders only. Girl Geek Academy in Melbourne (and hoping to spread worldwide) aims to teach one million women how to build apps and create start-ups by 2025. For those purely interested in the games arena, the best known is AIE – the Academy of Interactive Entertainment – with offices in Melbourne and Sydney.

So are the wage promises exaggerated? In Australia, says Shujab, junior coders usually start at A$50,000, but those judged to have a higher level of skill can expect to be paid from A$80,000 to A$120,000. The very best can virtually name their price.

“The start-up community is so glamorised that a business owner who wants the best coders will have to pay very, very well,” he says.

“A salary of half a million dollars is not that unusual.”

This article is from the September 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.


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