How Scotland’s new national academy is transforming lives… and the employment market

A former fish delivery driver, two Tesco workers, a business consultant for an audio visual company and a digital marketing consultant are among the first 15 graduates of Scotland’s new national coding school.

Following an intensive 16-week course, the first group of students have emerged from CodeClan, a Scottish Government-backed digital skills academy in Edinburgh which aims to deliver graduates to employers struggling to fill roles because of a shortage of ‘job-ready’ applicants.

The crop of graduates, who are predominantly second jobbers or career changers, undertook the intensive five-day, 60-hours-a-week course with a mix of programming or web development knowledge: some had very little experience, others had more, but all had £4,500 and a hunger to invest in retraining themselves for Scotland’s fast-growing digital technology sector.

Neil, 30, and Graeme, 27, embarked on the course after spending 12 and seven years respectively as general assistants at their local Tesco store in Linlithgow. Neil, an avid PC gamer, was restless and was spurred on to make the change after his parents saw a TV advert about the course.

“I was there for nearly 12 years. It was a very comfortable job to do but I stayed for too long.” He let Graeme, who did a computer science degree when he was 18, know about the opportunity and both – having come to a similar crossroads – decided to make the leap. “I just said to him [Graeme], ‘you want to get out as well, don’t you?’”

The friends are now looking forward to taking their first steps in the employment market, with Neil having already secured a position with Glasgow firm Edge Testing, a UK-wide software testing provider. “It’s been a very emotional week and I’m kind of at that drained point, to be honest. But it feels great; the course was breakneck but it was good because it didn’t give you any time to slack off.”

Graeme is also speaking to employers and is hopeful of landing a job, adding: “I just want a job that lets me keep pushing this on.”

The course exposed the students to Ruby on Rails, a software framework originally conceived at the Massachu- setts Institute of Technology in the US, and is used to build web apps. During the HND-equivalent course students completed three practical projects, learning how to create apps and deliver them to market via the cloud-based platform Heroku.

Many chose to develop social utility services for the sharing economy. Iwona, a 33-year-old Polish-born web designer and SEO consultant, worked on creating Expenzeez, an app that helps groups of friends share their expenses, and also worked as part of
a team to develop a buddy car sharing service. “Everything is shared now,” she says. “It’s a great way of thinking, and I think we did it really well; we created a lot of functionality. Users were able to upload messages, take and upload photos, and get notifications and feedback.”

CodeClan has also established a very pupil-focused tutorial system with a one to five ratio between instructors and students. “We wanted a nice, compact number and that’s really what this accelerated, immersive learning experience gives you,” says CEO Harvey Wheaton.

With the second ‘cohort’ of 20 students already well into the programme, and the third starting a week ago, CodeClan is ramping up its activities, and has a target of five groups to complete the course in the first year; from then on it will be 10 a year. “We want 200 students a year from Edinburgh,” adds Wheaton. “And we’ve always been looking to expand geographically, so Glasgow’s on the cards. Around October we’re looking to open a similar centre there, and the year after somewhere further north.”

Underlying the exponential growth is simple economics: Scotland creates around 11,000 digital positions each year, around half of which go unfilled, claims Wheaton, which if populated could drive a £4billion industry to even greater heights. CodeClan will come nowhere near to meeting that shortfall on its own but is part of a government and Skills Development Scotland-led £6million skills investment plan.

Ministerial interest has also opened up space for a wider debate about the potential for Scotland to be a leading digital economy. Edinburgh, in particular, has become a vibrant start-up city in recent years and has an average digital salary of £51,000, third in the UK after London and then Reading and Bracknell, according to a report last week from Tech Nation. CodeClan’s neighbour, CodeBase, is putatively the largest incubator of its kind in Britain, accommodating more than 60 companies and 500 employees in a former government office block at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. More than 2,600 people regularly attend technology meetups in the city, the report says.

As for CodeClan, it is a not-for-profit social enterprise and has secured the backing of 13 employers as partners who pay £5,000 for every graduate they hire from the programme. They also pay a membership fee, which grants them access to the students. “It’s a bit like a matchmaking service,” says Wheaton. “That way we get a feel for which employers like which students, and vice versa. It ends up being like a 16-week interview.”

But the proof will be in the pudding: two of the 15 students have accepted employment offers, there are ongoing interviews, and all are expected to be offered roles in the coming weeks. “We’re really confident we’re going to get them all placed,” Wheaton adds. “But I think success will be when we see them in jobs, doing well and getting great feedback from the employers.”

New Bursary For Students

A recruitment firm has also given its backing to CodeClan – by creating its own bursary for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Be-IT, an Edinburgh-based digital recruitment specialist, has been helping the academy with its selection process to find the right candidates. During that process MD Gareth Biggerstaff came across a candidate who didn’t have the financial wherewithal to fund the course, and so decided to create a scholarship scheme.

“To put something like this together is of course enterprising for our business but also it’s really good to be feeding into the system and to help someone who came through the selection process with top marks, but was unsure about how they would fund it.”

He adds: “The candidate is already highly educated yet couldn’t find a route to channel their skills in the employment market. That is the case with many people who may have graduated from university but have not found jobs, or are looking to return to employment but are finding it hard to translate their skills in the workplace.” Gareth wants his company to forge a long-term commitment to ventures like CodeClan. Its staff have been helping candidates with interview techniques and CV preparation and the initial bursary, which begins in April, will be repeated in August. Gareth stresses: “We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We want to make a difference, and we really support what CodeClan is doing.”


● CodeClan has been steered by Polly Purvis, its Chair and the CEO of ScotlandIS, the tech industry trade body.

● Harvey Wheaton, a PPE gradu- ate from Oxford University, has worked in the technology industry since the 80s, leading the Harry Potter development team at Elec- tronic Arts.

● The academy is based on intensive coding schools such as Makers, launched in London in 2013, Stackademy in Berlin and Flatiron School in New York.

● Students completing the course will obtain a Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) accreditation.