Opinion: UK coding training needs a revamp to solve developer shortage

UK developer shortage

The UK is crying out for more developers. The sheer pace of digital innovation means that software development skills have never been more in demand. Businesses of every shape, size and sector are competing to recruit developers with the skills to drive their rapidly evolving transformations agendas – but there just aren’t enough to go round.

Demand for development skills outstripping supply is not a new phenomenon in the UK. But Covid-19 has created a mismatch on a new scale. As a society, our reliance on technology and expectations for seamless digital experiences have rocketed. Just about every service we consume, often without thinking, is underpinned by software development.

Something as simple as ordering a takeaway has the fingerprints of developers all over it – from ordering through the app, to making payments, to tracking the delivery.

As a result, there is a greater understanding and awareness of the transformative value that developers bring to organisations. Attracting and retaining the right talent – and critically, establishing an environment where they can thrive – can be the difference between businesses finding a competitive advantage or losing their edge. That only increases the demand for talented developers.

There is no quick fix for the UK’s developer shortage. Rightly, there has been a major focus on the long-term solution through education and the promotion of STEM careers. Let’s not forget that the UK was the first nation globally to mandate coding at primary and secondary schools. The Treasury also injected £100m into training 8,000 computer science teachers National Centre for Computing Education.

These are major steps. But addressing the developer deficit in the UK is not purely about the quantity of developers the country’s education system can produce. It should be about the quality of the developers we produce and how well we equip them to thrive in the workplace.

UK developer shortage: it’s more than coding skills

At risk of generalising, it is my opinion that the way we are currently teaching coding and training students is not setting them up for success in an industry that evolves at breathtaking speed. The difference between how a skill is taught and used is vital to understand.

The future of the UK development industry will be on much surer footing if students are encouraged to engage in a framework of critical thinking, as well as learning technical skills. While learning to write lines of code is critical to students and their future employers, the ability to think like a coder will see them adding significantly more value. We need to equip people not just with technical coding skills, but with the ability to problem solve, think creatively beyond the confines of projects and work collaboratively.

The rise of open source plays an important hand in this shift. The modern world is built on open source, with 99% of software projects now containing an open source component.

GitHub added a huge 16 million-plus new users in 2021 alone. Open source hinges on collaboration and problem-solving. It is a community of like-minded people, innovating at great speed by coming together to collaborate freely, share expertise, code and reuse workflows. And as organisations increasingly harness the power of open source to drive digital transformation, they are putting in place DevOps – and DevSecOps – processes that are based on different teams coming developing together for one shared goal.

Being able to adapt to this new and demanding environment is an absolute requirement for developers, not a nice-to-have. Technical skills will always be a prerequisite for any developer, but it can’t be the only string to their bow. It’s vital that young people develop the soft skills and techniques they need to be an asset to employers, the development industry and the wider economy. They also need access to real-world tools to put the frameworks they learn into practice and prepare themselves for the road ahead.

It might be a long-term way of tackling the developer shortage in the UK, but rethinking how we teach the next generation is critical and it needs urgent action now. That way we can produce both the quality and quantity and talented developers the UK needs to power our next wave of technological growth.

Nigel Abbott is the regional director for Northern EMEA at GitHub.