No experience required: Building a new digital workforce
Breaking into the tech sector can be an intimidating process for job applicants. They must consider whether they have the skills, programming knowledge and, most importantly, the college degree employers want.
Akamai Technologies understands that this process shuts out those who lack digital skills, narrowing the talent pool and limiting diversity. Akamai’s Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Diversity Anthony Williams said that his company is broadening its search for workers to bring in new voices, each who contribute ideas and unique problem-solving skills. But finding these bright people without a reliable workforce pipeline to train them would prove difficult.
There are more than 500,000 computing job openings across all industries and nearly 43,000 computer science major graduates entered the field in 2016, according to Code.org. Though there has been a surge of coding boot camps and training programs in recent years, there remains a talent gap that increases competition for this valuable workforce.
“There is a void of talent to meet enough of the demand in tech. There is a huge volume of untapped talent with women and people of color who are not necessarily choosing or being afforded the opportunity, to work in tech. And from the Akamai standpoint, we saw that as a tremendous opportunity,” Williams said.
Akamai and its training partners created a solution: the Akamai Technical Academy (ATA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The academy takes people who may not have the digital skills necessary to fill entry-level positions today but engages their drive to learn with its paid six-month, 40 hours a week training program taught onsite at Akamai.
Upon successful completion of the program, graduates are ready to work for Akamai for a contract period. If the graduate excels during the contract timeframe, Akamai can offer conversion to a full-time employee.
“The program allows us to attract and recruit talent that may not come from a STEM background, but had the aptitude to get into a tech background and have the interest in working in technology,” Williams said.
Takara Larsen of Medford, Massachusetts is an ATA graduate who wanted to make the jump into the tech sector but didn’t know how to reconcile her experience in higher education with the skills she needed. With Akamai and ATA, Larsen was set on her new career path, one that she saw had a better future than the one she left behind.
Innovation Through Diversity
In the omnipresent world of the Internet, Akamai has carved out its place squarely in the middle. Since its founding during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, the company’s workforce and its product line have grown resulting in annual revenue of $2.5 billion.
Andy Ellis, Akamai’s Chief Security Officer said that the company accounts for about 30 percent of web transactions. For example, they negotiate the space between content producer and video consumer and are the connective tissue between customers and their online banker or retailer.
“When you go online there’s a very good chance that instead of communicating with whatever business you think you’re talking to, there’s an Akamai server in the middle,” Ellis said.
From optimizing video resolutions of live events so that each user gets the best experience for their bandwidth to cloud computing and cybersecurity solutions, Akamai strives to “make the Internet fast, reliable and secure.”
The company has grown over the decades and has innovated throughout the constant technological disruptions that have taken place. According to Williams, rapid technological change is forcing companies, and by extension the world, to continuously search for innovative ideas and drive the change.
“Technology is also set up to constantly disrupt itself, which also position us as a society to make sure that we have to continually be focused on developing ourselves, being comfortable being uncomfortable and being focused on continuing to refresh, reinvigorate and look at reinventing ourselves,” Williams said.
The ideal candidate to work at Akamai, Williams said, is someone who can embody this type of “agile learner.” But he said that he believes that the current educational system isn’t prepared to keep up with the change and produce enough of these agile learners to meet the demand. The system, as it stands, favors those who have the resources to go to college or afford a coding boot camp.
People who may not have been exposed to career pathways in technology, or have decided to stay put in their current careers, may not consider themselves qualified or capable of acquiring new skills.
That’s why ATA is asking for people to change their career and change their life. To be eligible for the academy, a candidate must have carried a 3.0 GPA and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent service in the U.S. armed forces. On its website, ATA specifically asks for people of color, women and military veterans to consider a new future with the company. What candidates do not need, is prior experience in technology.
“We’re looking at an opportunity for veterans, we’re looking at an opportunity for women, for people of color. Diversity, it’s just the right thing to do from a business standpoint,” Williams said. “It’s also helping to meet the supply and demand challenges we’re having in technology and that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of about this program.
Larsen said that she never considered the opportunity to become a developer when she completed her undergrad and graduate degrees and moved into a full-time career. She said that she was doing well and being promoted in her work as a resident life coordinator at a college, but felt that there was only so far she could go.
“I was feeling like something different was in store for me. I was getting a little bit stuck in the career, and I came into this program because I wanted to do something different,” Larsen said.
Making the Change for Good
Larsen never pursued a career in technology because there was not a focus on inclusion when she was gaining her education.
“I would have appreciated some of the programs that are out here now for young people, for girls especially, like Girls Who Code, who work with people from a very young age. Growing their skills, but also showing them what career possibilities are out there. I think for me at the time, I just didn’t even think of going into this field as an option for me,” Larsen said.
She felt that gender stereotypes about the tech industry meant that there was no place for her, which led her to study social sciences instead of math and computer skills.
“I had kind of I would say a natural affinity towards those topics, but when I got to college, I think I psyched myself out. I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do it,” Larsen said.
When she felt that she was stalling in her current career, she decided to investigate what pathways there were for her in technology. She began attending local meetups with people in the industry and networked. During this time, she signed up for a mailing list, which sent her an email with information about the academy. Larsen said that she began the application process but never finished it as she focused on the career she already had.
The academy was still in the back of her mind when, the following year, she was contacted by an ATA representative who asked if she wanted to finally change her career and her life.
“I jumped on the opportunity to apply this time around and was accepted to the second class,” said Larsen.
She said the academy was intense and felt that there was a steep learning curve for her because she had been out of a classroom environment for some time. Larsen would pick up on the academy’s fast pace while she learned new programming languages “from scratch,” during her Monday-Friday class schedule. She was expected to work hard each week and move on to the next lesson.
“I had very light experience in those, just due to using software in my previous jobs, but I had no prior background. So being able to pick something up and, in a week, get to a point where I could be able to do a project or to do my work, it was definitely challenging,” Larsen said.
Larsen credited her classmates for providing the support she needed when she struggled with her training. She said that ATA offered a diverse environment of smart individuals from different states and backgrounds. What unified them was their relative inexperience working in technology and the high demands of the academy’s training.
“It was really cool to get to know people who wanted the same thing as I did, was in the same boat and trying to kind of feel their way through this program that was really grueling,” Larsen said.
Instead of getting a broad overview of computer science, the academy trained her for a specific job that she would do for Akamai during her contract period. Larsen learned how to program in SQL and Python and trained on quality assurance software. She gained the skills to become a quality assurance tester and the experience to work on and complete important projects.
If there wasn’t the prospect of a full-time position at Akamai after she graduated last February, Larsen would have the solid resume to land another job in tech. She wouldn’t have to worry about navigating the job market, she was offered a full-time position last August as a quality assurance tester.
Larsen said that she learned things about herself through completing the rigorous program. Though it was difficult and challenging, she discovered that she was tough enough to persevere in a demanding full-time classroom environment. According to Larsen, knowing that a job, and a career, lay ahead of her was what kept her driving toward that end goal.
Williams, who helped create the ATA, said that the program allowed Akamai to learn about Larsen and what she could contribute to the company long-term.
“She absolutely embodies the things that would make her successful here at Akamai. The intellectual curiosity, the problem solving, her ability to be resourceful,” said Williams. “Those things in a very short time period, are already manifesting themselves and positioning her for a very long and successful career here at Akamai.”
Beyond the practical technology skills Larsen gained during her six-months with ATA, she developed the values that Akamai needs to constantly change and adapt to each new technological leap. She said that she has become a lifelong learner and will build upon the skills she acquired as she progresses through her career with the company.
“I feel like there are no limits. I feel like as long as I keep on working hard and performing well, that I can do what I want to do. I’m excited to see where that goes,” said Larsen.
To learn more about the Akamai Technical Academy: Click Here.
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