Clare Streets was cleaning Airbnb rentals and working hotel night shifts when she chanced on an ad that changed her life.
It was seven years since she had returned to Birmingham to have children after crossing the world’s oceans as a crew member on luxury superyachts, including two years working on one owned by Carlos Slim, the Mexican tycoon.
Like many young mothers in the UK, the 41-year-old was struggling to return to the workplace with a stable job. “I couldn’t even get interviews because I still wanted to be a good mum and work flexible hours,” she said.
Until, that is, she stumbled on the School of Code, a start-up offering 16 weeks of free training at a “boot camp” for computer programming.
“It started as an experiment: could we take anyone and get them a job in the tech industry,” said Chris Meah, the 30-year-old entrepreneur who set up the school to break down stereotypes about computer “nerds” and prove that “anyone can be a coder”.
“In the real world you have plumbers and architects. Coders are the plumbers and architects of the virtual world,” he said.
Mr Meah, who graduated with a doctoral degree in artificial intelligence from Birmingham university after studying computer science, said his friends thought he should have focused on “earning megabucks” writing algorithms to help tackle the questions of life and death. Instead he made it his mission to address the startling lack of diversity in UK tech.
“Money you can earn but it is also important how you shape the world and the creativity you can unlock,” he told the FT.
The industry is dominated by men: 81 per cent of the workforce are male, according to a recent survey by Tech Nation, a business network for IT entrepreneurs, a figure that drops slightly in the boardroom where 77 per cent of directors are men.
“You can expect to pay between £8,000 to £16,000 at a mainstream [coding] boot camp. That is a massive financial barrier,” said Mr Meah. Added to that, conventional courses consist of about 300 hours of online learning.
Mr Meah’s school, in contrast, is free and more hands-on in terms of the project-based learning he oversees. He has also made applying for a place quick and simple to attract as wide a range of candidates as possible.
He got started by securing company sponsorship for space he rented in a former Birds custard factory in Digbeth, the old industrial quarter of central Birmingham, which now hosts the city’s thriving start-up culture.
He has developed the business model by charging companies that employ his trained coders a recruitment fee and has secured further sponsorship for the courses that he gives, which includes one for homeless people.
The School of Code has generated a lot of interest. In the first year, there were 300 applicants for 19 places, in the second 500 people applied for 24 places.
He is now sifting through 600 wannabe coders with the help of an interview app. He selects his students on a balanced gender ratio and with an eye to reflecting the demographics of one of Europe’s youngest and most culturally diverse cities.
One of the big attractions of coding is that it is relatively well paid. “We take people who are earning very little and get them on to a basic salary of typically £27,000. That can go up to £30,000 or £40,000 after a year — the demand is just so high,” Mr Meah said.
Among recent graduates gathered to meet the FT at a downtown café were two formerly demoralised schoolteachers, a theatre company director in search of a change of life, and several young mothers including Ms Streets, who had been struggling to make use of university degrees. All of them are now working as coders.
“By removing the financial barrier, you get a ton of different people,” said Ben Lee, a jazz guitarist who completed Mr Meah’s boot camp and is now his teaching assistant.
The school claims to have a success rate of more than 90 per cent securing jobs and has 70 companies from the West Midlands that have registered interest in hiring new graduates. The unsated demand highlights the UK shortage of trained programmers.
Five of his graduates are now working for the Economist magazine and three are with Santander, the high street bank. Ms Streets has escaped the gig economy and is a director at B13 Technology, a Birmingham tech company, which offers the flexible working hours she craved. She also sits on the digital skills board at the West Midlands Combined Authority — the regional mayoralty.
“The economy is losing billions of pounds a year because qualified people are taking lesser skilled jobs or dropping out,” said Ms Streets. “I was part of that statistic and it was not OK with me — it’s a ridiculous waste.”
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