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As the demand for software developers grows, coding schools in Berlin are experimenting with offerings and business models.

Cracking The Code: Developing Developers

As the demand for software developers grows, coding schools in Berlin are experimenting with offerings and business models.

As a software developer, or as it used to be called ‘computer programmer’, your chances of finding a well-paid job are pretty high. Plenty of companies, organizations and agencies are looking for people who know how to code. Even in a place like Berlin, which attracts talent with such skill sets from all over the world because of the many opportunities the city offers and the conducive lifestyle, the demand for developers is high. 

Traditionally, the universities, polytechnics, and high schools produce qualified graduates in these technical fields. But because of the high demand, private coding schools have become an alternative. As of last count, there were at least 15 such in Berlin, offering a wide range of IT education and training, from full stack developer to specializations in Android, API interface programming, or data analysis. Many of these schools cater to, for example, ex-students who have previously dropped out of university or older people with other experience who are now starting out in the IT field. The idea is that a college degree is not a prerequisite for a tech career.

While coding schools generally teach students their curriculum in a shorter period of time to traditional higher education, with some coding bootcamps running for only a couple of months, there are also courses that can run for a year. Courses may be held in English, and usually there are few or no qualifications required to take part. Costs are usually carried by the participant, with no guarantee of finding employment afterwards. But since employers are urgently looking for suitable specialists in the IT sector with relevant technical skills in, for example, JavaScript or Python, the chances are good. 

To give us some insights into the emerging business models and more in the coding school scene of Berlin, we spoke with expert in the field, Mozamel Aman, whose school StartSteps offers a special kind of pre-seminar as orientation.

Himself a developer, Mozamel Aman is also an entrepreneur. His school StartSteps provides an overview of offers from Berlin coding schools.
Mozamel Aman, co-founder of StartSteps – © Gene Glover

Mozamel, before we start, tell us a little about yourself and how you got into this scene.
Sure. I’m Mozamel, I’m originally from Afghanistan. I came to Berlin slightly more than seven years ago. When I first came, I somehow by accident got introduced to the startup ecosystem here. I started to explore things, and though I didn’t know exactly where my place was, I somehow fell in love with it. I was going to all the different events, learning what was behind all the buzzwords.  

So I came in 2014, and when 2015 and 2016 the refugee crisis was happening in the middle east and a lot of people were coming here, in my head the question was forming, how can we use social entrepreneurship to address some of those challenges. And together with some friends, I founded a job platform called Migranthire. The idea was to focus specifically on refugees and to make sure that for employers we make document recognition and all of those red tape things as easy as possible. And it blew up pretty fast. In the first six months we had 30.000 profiles and 500 companies listing their job postings. A couple of hundred people started to get hired. 

The first person that was hired was a software developer, hired by a Berlin tech giant, and they said to us, “Hey, this is great cause, here’s a €5.000 donation.” 

“If you had some sort of digital skills, you were very likely to get an interview.”

But fast forward. The maths wasn’t working. We couldn’t figure out why it’s not working. People were getting jobs. So we said, “Okay, what’s happening, what’s the problem?” We started to reverse engineer. For the people getting interviews and jobs there was a common pattern. If you had some sort of digital skills, you were very likely to get an interview or even a job. And it made sense. So we realized that we probably didn’t have a platform gap but a skills gap. The people we had on the platform were engineers or nurses or doctors. 

But anyway, I stumbled upon an opportunity to become part of a coding school that was being built. I met a few people building this school and shared my experiences with them and they said that’s great, do you want to come and work with us. I joined as one of the first employees. And the school started to grow pretty fast, because of the demand. In the first four years we saw a lot of people go through the trainings and most of them were getting jobs. 

At the time we started there were maybe four or five ‘bootcamps’ or ‘reskilling institutes’, to use these buzzwords that were just starting. And today only us as StartSteps we have have 35 coding bootcamps as partners. 

Fascinating for me during this journey the first four years were these entry events we did once a week every Wednesday at six o’clock. Every meet had about forty or fifty people, and there were common threads, common questions I would always get. “I don’t want to be a software developer, there are many other jobs. I want to work in data science!” Or, “I don’t want to be a UX designer, I want to work in marketing.” 
Of course, we had always been pushing coding, but there are definitely more jobs in a tech company. 

And the other thing was, we were offering this one type fits all approach of 12 month courses 9 to 5, but there were other places popping up saying, “In 12 weeks you will become a software developer!” And some were saying, be a software engineer in six months. And there is a lot of confusion about what’s going on, who is telling the truth. 

As the demand for skills grows and also there are more offerings there is a need for a place that can create orientation. So we thought, what’s missing here is a one-stop shop. You want to break into tech, how can we make it as easy as possible for you to first of all see what tech means, it’s a big buzzword that can mean a lot of things. And what are the different job opportunities that you have. And what is the fastest and the best way for you as a person. Because we all learn differently, and the circumstances are different as well.

So this is how my co-founder Paddy Hall and I started StartSteps about one and a half years ago. The idea is to, first, orientate people into jobs in tech. Meaning that you come to a bootcamp style four week course Monday to Friday 9:30 to 4:30. It’s a virtual, forward-based, instructor led course in which you try out UX and UI design, web development, data science, online marketing, and a little bit of project management, all those things. And the goal is that by the end of the course you know what is the skill that fits you best.

The next step is, where can you learn that skill the fastest and the easiest and the cheapest. We do this by aggregating all the different training providers and their offerings. We also invite them to pitch and present to you as potential learners and to tell you what are the differences and the requirements.

So that’s how I came to be where I am today.    

So coding schools differ from one another, and also the people who attend them. Can you give a quick rundown of the respective differences?
Well, in the US it started with bootcamps for hackers, so for people who already have an understanding of the tech, and how they could learn and bring themselves up to speed with new developments. So you would go to an intensive 9 to 12 week course where you would be enabled to write your first application or website in a new technology. That’s a very intensive experience. It’s mostly for people who have a solid understanding, or the so-called digital natives, who now want to specialize or move into a specific career.

As this model progressed over time more and more people with zero tech background wanted to break into the scene and start their own journeys. Also the bootcamp and training providers realized that they needed to adapt their offerings to include something for absolute beginners. While there are people who can learn to code in 9-12 weeks, I believe this is not an ideal pathway for everyone. 

“You can’t train someone to go from zero to senior developer in three or six months.”

So the courses started to go from these 9 to 12 week courses to double that time to six months. But the challenge with that was that the companies were saying, we need developers, but we need senior developers. You can’t train someone to go from zero to senior developer in three or six months. So the bootcamps added another three months to this typical model of nine month courses, and then 12 months that many people do now. And this is intensive, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. But while for most cases that’s enough, for some cases, that’s still not enough.

So that’s why we believe at StartSteps that everybody from the requirement and the background is different and there should be a suitable offering for all people. Today we see the type of people who want to start a career in tech are not necessarily the, you know, typical nerds. A lot of people are seeing startups and tech as becoming kind of pop culture. There is a sort of dynamic to it.

Do employers sometimes pay courses to train their employees?
This is an interesting new development, that we see that employers have realized as well that they need to be fast, that the so-called war for talent is growing. Employers have started investing in their employees. There are two types of opportunities that we see. One is that they do internal reskilling and upskilling. So their employees can go through a course. We did a couple of things like this with a big company here, teaching employees to update their data science skills. We are now going through another program with a company where they are reorientating their employees from low-tech to assess what other skills they might have that they can internally promote for other tech roles.

The other interesting part is that there are two business models developing. One is the so-called income sharing agreement, which means the bootcamps have developed this business model: We will invest in you, and once you get a job, then you give us a certain amount of your salary. So they actually go to companies in advance and say, you need let’s say 100 developers in the next two years, we are going to train those people for you, we will make sure the quality is up to mark. So they have an incentive, because if the quality is not there then they don’t get jobs and they don’t get paid. So it’s a good model based on incentives. So that’s not directly employer training, but working closely with employers.

And the other model we have seen is that the employers, maybe specific tech companies, partner with the schools and they say, we don’t specialize in training, we specialize in our products, so we give you requirements for what we need, you go and find a person, you train that person according to these quality measures. If they are up to standard, we will pay for the person’s training. So that’s also an emerging model we have seen, there are two or more of our partners who work with this model.

“Berlin is now one of the biggest hubs in Europe for tech.”

Again, it just highlights that there is huge demand and nobody has figured out how to handle this and everybody is just throwing stuff on the wall to see what sticks.        

How come there are so many such schools in Berlin?
I think part of the reason is that Berlin is now one of the biggest hubs in Europe for tech. We see that most of the big companies are here. Also the emerging startup environment here, new companies, new things popping up. Berlin is also attractive because it brings you a bit more than just a tech city. It’s culture, it’s diversity, it’s a metropolis. You know, the art scene here for example. So all that makes it attractive for people to come here.

So when the question was more about doing bootcamps in person, companies were thinking, if we offer a bootcamp in Berlin we can also attract people from other places to come. Today, that’s not necessarily the only way.

Berlin used to be one of the cheapest cities in Europe, though this statement is I think unfortunately not true anymore. One guy I met from New York said that what it cost him to take part in a bootcamp here including all the living costs was the same as in New York just for the bootcamp, so why not get to live in a different city since the quality is the same.

So I think these are some of the reasons. The tech scene. The culture. The environment here. Berlin as a city and the opportunities it gives you. The relative cheapness maybe. And I think the English speaking part really, really helps.

What is for you personally your reason why Berlin is the place to be?
I didn’t know when I moved to Berlin why this is the place for me to be, but today I do pretty clearly. Growing up in Afghanistan, I never traveled to Europe or the US or the west. So I honestly didn’t know what to expect. But I got lucky that we ended up in a place that is joyful and impactful and meaningful in so many ways.

You see the history, the beliefs, the diversity, what this city stands for. The people here make it exceptionally attractive. I call Berlin home. I mean, never say never, but I think this is going to be true forever. I feel at home here for the way it embraces you, the opportunities it gives you, the type of people that are out there.

Mozamel, thank you for being so open about your journey. We wish you and of course Startsteps the best of luck!

Finally, here is a list of some of the coding schools in Berlin:

Interview: Olaf Bryan Wielk, ideenmanufaktur
Header image: © Gorodenkoff, Adobe stock

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