There’s no doubt that having a job in tech pays but that doesn’t mean the positions are easy to fill. It’s estimated there are over 600,000 tech jobs vacant in the UK, costing the economy around £63 million every year.
In order to fill this digital skills gap, companies are looking to alternative routes into the industry instead of the standard computer science or engineering degree route. One example is the Amazon Web Services (AWS) re/Start programme.
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AWS is the part of Amazon that provides cloud computing platforms to companies such as Netflix, Pinterest and Reddit. It’s the biggest cloud web service in the world, with revenues of $25.6 billion in 2018.
First established in 2017, the free UK re/Start programme provides cloud skills development and job opportunities to underserved populations, such as young people, military veterans and their families.
It all started when Darren Mowry, managing director of AWS in the UK and Ireland, had several conversations with AWS clients who were reporting that they didn’t have enough trained up staff in their workplaces. “The feedback was fairly consistent: we don’t have enough trained, skilled people to help us through the journey from where we are right now, and manage that environment going forward”, he tells the Standard.
A few weeks later, he was at a meeting at the AWS headquarters in Seattle explaining the problem. “And the leader of our businesses [Michael Punke, VP of global public policy at AWS] turned to me and said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t exist then we need to go build it.’”
This year, AWS launched a special youth-focused re/Start programme in conjunction with The Prince’s Trust to ensure that young people have the confidence and skills they need to build thriving futures, according to the organisation’s head of tech partnerships, Lynda McCullagh. The Standard spent some time with four graduates from this year’s programme to find out more about what it was like, the importance of growth mindset, and why the future is in the cloud.
Starting over with AWS re/Start
The AWS re/Start graduates came to the programme from different avenues. Nazar Razak, 25, and Byron O’Connor, 24, both heard about the initiative through White Hat Apprenticeships, founded by Tony Blair’s son Euan Blair and banker-turned-entrepreneur Sophie Adelman.
“I was trying to break into the tech industry around 16 and 17 – I left school and tried to get an apprenticeship and was turned down. A few years later, I started doing markets trading and thought I’ll give it another try,” says Razak.
For Javeriyah Ahmed, 24, a recent creative computing graduate, it wasn’t easy to break into the tech industry even with a degree, whilst Taslima Hekim, also 24, was looking to do a computer course and came across details of the programme.
“My brother was always handling tech stuff and I would always follow him around. But in my society, it’s quite closed off so I didn’t get into tech when I was younger. But my little sister said, don’t think about the people, do what you want,” says Hekim.
It was a long application process. The prospective students were invited to a taster day, where they met AWS engineers and clients like KPMG, before having to do an online assessment and interview. Ahmed says the taster day really opened her eyes to the possibilities. “These developers from Amazon were there, and just talking to them and seeing how passionate they were, it was just like ‘this could be my world too,’” she explains.
A total of 20 students were accepted onto the programme and were thrown into a 12-week programme to learn all there was to know about AWS. Whilst the technical skills were an important part of the course, the first two weeks mainly focused on working on the students’ soft skills such as how to get into a growth mindset, networking skills, time management and being proactive and persistent in their work.
“Every day they would take a topic, explain the definition behind it and we’d maybe watch a TED talk. Then, the instructors would explain how powerful that mindset is so we could take it into technical sessions. It really helped because it set the standard that if you don’t get it now, you will later,” explained O’Connor.
“Because we had all come from different backgrounds and it was a really diverse course, it was good how they grew us from the ground up, how to be in an office, as well as the tech skills,” adds Razak.
The group also say it helped to break down their personal barriers and helped them to bond as friends. Even though they’re not hacking away at AWS anymore, they still all talk on group chats and try to meet regularly. “My favourite part of the programme was the people,” says Ahmed.
Putting diversity at the core
AWS and The Prince’s Trust ensured diversity was central to the re/Start programme. Out of 20 students, 35 per cent were women and 80 per cent came from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds.
“Diversity can mean a lot of things, from gender diversity, to having diverse backgrounds, and cultural diversity,” explains Mowry. “In our opinion, having diverse teams allows us to ask really hard questions be super reflective about what we need to be doing differently.”
This was something the students appreciated. “Everyone came from all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of walks of life. It’s like a breath of fresh air being around different people – and you’re always learning from each other,” says Ahmed.
Leading up to graduation day
Throughout the 12 weeks, the students spent time with their mentors from The Princes’ Trust, who were also instrumental in helping them with interview prep for when the course finished. For instance, O’Connor says improving his interview skills was a particular challenge he felt. “When I expressed that concern, they organised two or three Amazon-authorised instructors to give us mock interviews. Our mentors helped us work on weaknesses and interview style. It really helped.”
That’s certainly proven: the four grads are now working at the Financial Times, Cancer Research, Direct Line and for the consultancy InfinityWorks.
“I was really shocked that those were the types of companies that we had interviews for,” says Razak. “If you told me five years ago I’d be working at the Financial Times I would have said no way.”
Hekim had previously volunteered with charities before so working at Cancer Research is a great fit for her. “Right now I’m just looking to learn the basics and then I’ll see what I want to focus on after that,” she says. The soft skills training helped her in particular. “You can use them in day-to-day life, not just in tech.”
When it comes to the next re/Start programme, Ahmed says she would encourage anyone to try it out. “So many young people don’t think they’re good enough and they compare their day one to people who are 10, 20 years into a job. But everyone has to start somewhere, so just go for it.”
The pull of a big name like Amazon helps too, particularly when it comes to confidence. “It’s a big company and if they believe in me, I can do pretty much anything I want really,” adds O’Connor