One of my more enthusiastic coding club students approached me a few weeks ago asking for help in finding a work-experience placement. He’s in Year 10 and he thinks he wants to be a programmer when he leaves school. He’s a savvy kid who is self-motivated and is soaking up coding skills so he has excellent prospects to be whatever he wants to be, and Year 10 work experience is supposed to be an opportunity to try to sort out your options for the future.
The surprising thing is that there are very, very few opportunities available for experience as a programmer / developer. You can spend time on a help desk without too much trouble – but that’s akin to having someone who aspires to be a surgeon spend time on a medical centre’s reception desk – it doesn’t achieve the stated end. It turns out that the big development houses simply don’t offer work experience. At one level I don’t blame them – it isn’t easy to contemplate getting a bunch of adolescent students through your offices sopping up your team’s time to no gain. But on another level, given all the talk about encouraging kids to learn coding, it’s sad to see so few opportunities for the enthusiastic ones who might want to pursue this as a career.
Everyone I talk to about this steers me to the small development houses. The problem there is that they have very limited resources. For the Googles or Atlassians of this world to free up some time for a work experience student represents a rounding error in terms of time and money. For a two-person game development studio to do the same, represents a significant outgoing although there do seem to be some who are willing to contemplate that commitment.
Everyone I have spoken with about this, in person or virtually, has been lovely about it: There’s no lack of goodwill at all. But there is a lack of an established process. I recognise this is a difficult thing, especially finding a way to engage a student for a week in the context of a development environment. But there are a lot of clever people out there and, for the big companies in particular with their focus on outreach, this would be a valuable place to start focusing some clever minds. There are popular venues in other fields which have established filtering processes to ensure they don’t take too many students and the ones they take are the enthusiastic ones who are likely to benefit most (Taronga Zoo and the Sydney Theatre Company are examples with filters and limits). So the process doesn’t have to be open-ended or overwhelming. It’s even the sort of thing where it would be easy to contemplate a number of big players getting together and running this as a single process to reduce administration.
Getting kids learning to code is a great thing regardless of their career outcomes. But for those few who go beyond the basics and are actually contemplating coding as a career, they really need encouragement and nurturing – and a sense of what coding as a career looks like in the real world: That’s what work experience can provide. In an environment where the bumps in the road are smoothed out for so many kids and where they are surrounded by tales of internet billionaires, some exposure to the real world of work is exactly the experience they need.