What is the 'Learn to' brand and how can it bridge the gap from education to a career? WebTalksNI
11th Dec 2018
Gareth: “Welcome to WebTalksNI, I’m your host Gareth Stirling. Today we are here with CTO Kris Jones and recent graduate Ryan Beckett, the founders of ‘Learn to IOS. So, we can start off with you Kris, can you give us some background on yourself; where you came from and where you are now?”
Kris: “It’s great to be here, thanks for having us, I’m the CTO at Secure Broadcast and I have been for the past 18 months. It has been an incredible journey there, I’ve been in Secure Broadcast over 3 years. My background is in IOS development, I started in 2011/2012 and I fell in love with that. I graduated from Queen’s, built a few of my own IOS applications myself and then sought a job in IOS development. That’s what landed me in Secure Broadcast.
I did work in a few start-ups before such as Performance Active. I worked there in a 5-week internship with Fergus Wallace there, it was an incredible experience for me. He taught me to love mobile and IOS development. That’s what attracted me to Secure Broadcast with my experience and love for learn to as well.
Gareth:” I know Fergus, he has some interesting tech down there. Is it aimed towards sports performance?
Kris: “yes, that’s right. I’m very much into sports myself so that massively appealed to me at that time as well. It was a really good experience.”
Gareth:” Ryan, you’ve just had your summer placement year with Secure Broadcast, is that right?”
Ryan:” Yes, so I had finished my placement here with IBM, then I joined Secure Broadcast for some IOS internship stuff and then they kept me on in the final year to build an app with them. I was very happy to go back there after graduation. So, I’ve now been there 4/5 months since I graduated. It has been good.”
Gareth: “What attracted you to IOS development?”
Ryan:” I had a very unconventional route to where I am today. Academically I was never motivated, it was always the side projects stuff. In the first year of university, I joined Kainos, through a friend in Kainos I met Kris. From that I was always an apple fanboy, I always wanted to but didn’t have the skills as such.
Then Kris and I, both with the love of IOS, started talking and working on side projects, that is were the motivation for ‘Learn to’ stemmed from, I’ve never always had the most traditional academic route, I’ve always got to where I am through working with other people and having that collaborating side of things. That is how I got to where I am.
Then once Kris got to CTO in Secure broadcast, he said ‘look, you’ve always had a passion for IOS, do you want to come join us? We are doing some cool stuff”. I went in, saw the project and met the people, you’d be ludicrous not to join – it was an easy choice for me really.”
Gareth: “You just completed the first round of ‘Learn to IOS’, which is an excellent initiative, we only found out about it ourselves a couple of weeks ago. As you know, Northern Ireland needs these types of training courses to attract more people to mobile development. There is a lack of skills set there. What initiated the set up for Learn to IOS?”
Kris: ”The whole concept of ‘Learn to’ came over a year ago, where Ryan came to me with this idea and vision of running a bootcamp. We have both been involved in the tech scene in Northern Ireland with Ryan being involved with NIGMA and setting up Charged, and myself with NSBelfast. We are very much for the community and giving stuff back; Ryan had the idea of coming up with this boot camp idea. We parked it for a bit, then after Christmas, we kicked started the idea, we then came up with the brand ‘Learn To’.
Which we hope will have a very exciting future as well. Then it was the lack of iOS developers in Belfast, we are Secure Broadcast and the network we had were more expert in iOS so we felt a lot more comfortable teaching that from the outset, that fed into Learn to iOS.”
Gareth: “Excellent, you had around 75 applications in total, you widdled that down to 26. How did you come up with the shortlisting?”
Ryan: “Unfortunately, it was due to the number of mentors who were available at the time and of course this is a completely non-profit venture. It wasn’t a sense of teaching someone how to code, it was taking people with a coding ability and showing them how to get into iOS development.
Thankfully at the end of the event, we were able to announce that we will continue on with ‘Learn to code’. Which will be taking someone from no ability, so they can use it as a prerequisite to university’s or to actually supplement their university education. Or to go into another ‘Learn to’ course such as Learn to iOS.”
Gareth: “You’re affiliated with the University of Ulster.”
Ryan: “Yes, that is a recent announcement. Ulster University after the success of Learn to iOS approached us came in and chatted to us. They really loved what we were doing and the reasons why we’re doing it. They wanted to get involved. We can’t say too much about it today, but there is some really good stuff that we will be working within Ulster University in the future. Which is really exciting for us and everyone involved. It is a win for everyone really. “
Gareth: “My degree is IT-based and I think there is a bit of a disconnect of what is being taught in the University verse what Client’s are using. This kind of thing will hopefully address that. “
Kris: “I think they are trying to reach out to the community a lot more and we are grateful that they're doing that. This course to be accredited by a University to allow entry into either Undergraduate courses or can be used as credits for a university degree as well. Which is really exciting.”
Gareth: “What sort of training do you cover over the 8- or 12-week period?”
Kris: “Overall it was a 20-week period. The first 8 weeks were an introduction to iOS and teaching the course fundamentals. We had around 20-26 people every week over summer which was incredible that amount of people gave up 2 hours on a Tuesday night over summer. Especially because the weather was so good as well.
It was 2-hour sessions and there were takeaways from those sessions, so they could go home do a little bit of self-learning and come back the next week. We had a slack channel if there were any issues, they could reach out and directly contact the mentors.
This wasn’t just a lecturer teaching, it was a lot more collaborative session; all coding together and helping each other out. After that 8-week period, they then had 12 weeks to go off and create their own applications. They could come to the mentors with any issues they had.
The awards night being the showcase for that."
Gareth:” You mentioned the awards event which took place last week. Could give a bit of background of the innovation on display of the apps these guys came up with?”
Ryan: “Whenever we got to the stage after the 8 weeks of teaching, a lot of people did come up with their own ideas, we even had some of the sponsors pick an idea. The ideas ranged on the experience of the individual coming into the course or progressing through the course. So the likes of Sapphire who was the most improved.
She came in with very little knowledge, she was able to create an app related to sports which allowed people to register. Someone who has a sport but not enough people to do it, for an example it could have been 5 a side football similar to what we do in Secure Broadcast.
Or the likes of Ben who got technical trial for the most improved. He picked up the Secure Broadcast idea. It was focused around taking an R&D piece that Secure Broadcast that we were interested in. Being able to remotely access one phone from another which is incredible that Ben has gone from a 9-5 job, ben doesn’t actually work as a software engineer, he has gone from that to this was incredible to see.”
Gareth:” You mentioned there that you have a few sponsors involved, is that other mobile app companies like the App Builder, you mentioned?”
Ryan: “We approached quite a few companies, there is a big part which James said in his interview on the Learnto_Belfast Twitter. We are trying to focus on the global and local companies, as you know it is equally important to have the local community involved as well as the bigger companies.
The App Builder is somewhere I had done a summer placement initially before I joined University. Although it wasn’t initially as they work in Xamarin tech and this is iOS, they loved the intuitive and wanted to get behind it. Danske Bank was an obvious choice as they have recently started up an iOS team.
We reached out to people and see who wanted to get behind it for the right reasons.
Never at any stage were we looking to throw money, we never took any money at all as we say it’s a non-profit initiative. Really, we are doing this for the right reasons, we want to improve the community – everyone wins.”
Kris: “We had mentors from different companies in Belfast, we had Jack Sparco from ShopKeep, Moris Kelly from Anomaly, Stephen Brown who is now at HSBC over in London – It was a great group of the IOS developers from Belfast coming together to make this a success. This was very much a community driven event not a specific company driving it.
That is what hopefully is what will make this a success, a group of us from the community wanting this to thrive.”
Gareth: “It is great to hear that companies which have obviously got competition to attract developers but are working together to increase the talent pool. What are the future plans for Learn to iOS?”
Ryan: “We need to sit together and plan that out. We’re very happy to say we’re taking applications for next year – Learn to iOS. We want to keep that going, but as I said earlier.
We want to really focus in on (it’s great for those who have experience) drilling down the people who don’t have experience and how they get there. That is why we are starting up the initiative ‘learn to code’ and from there it can be used a supplement to University or Learn to iOS course. It’s really from zero knowledge to what we would call technical competency.”
Gareth: “There is obviously a lot of work involved concentrating on iOS but are there any plans to look at Android or any of the other disciplines?”
Kris: “Absolutely, the whole idea behind the ‘Learn to’ brand is that it can be substituted for anything’s, so Learn to IOS, Learn to Code, Learn to Android, Learn to React or any technology. Learn to Product, even go into those skills as well. It’s all about creating a brand about community teaching, outreach and helping people develop their skills which is not necessarily costing them an arm and a leg. We have a great community here who like to teach as well, it’s about utilising that to push Belfast forward in that way.
For anyone who wants to get involved in this, we want to try and drive those other initiatives, like learn to Android, Learn to Web or React or Angular. WE very much want to reach out to people and see if they want to get involved in that.”
Gareth: “There definitely is a big market out there. I speak to candidates on a daily basis, even people who might be in a role for 5/6 years have a passion to Learn. At the moment, react is a big thing, Angular is another one, Android and iOS, people sometimes don’t have to opportunity in their day jobs to learn those skills. These sorts of initiatives are highly important.”
Kris: “What sets us apart from the online course, is the mentors coming along each week and talking to people about what they do and their day-to-day job. We help them get over problems, as if you’re doing stuff online, you’re following a script step by step, you’re not necessarily interacting with the community getting to know people and building your network- which is important too. “
Gareth:” The reason why we started this podcast was an aimed at people looking to get into web or software development, but just didn’t have the finances to go to university, or even people looking at a second career. You’re obviously, a CTO within a Software development house here in Belfast. How much emphasis do you put on a degree compared to a portfolio?”
Kris: “I mean a degree is obviously a very impressive thing to get and it’s not an easy thing to achieve, so huge respect for anyone who gets a degree. I think if you look at the likes of Google or Apple who are huge companies, are saying ‘Degrees don’t necessarily matter to us anymore’. For me, I’m more impressed by someone who can say ‘look what I’ve done’ and I can see what they have achieved and accomplished. That shows real drive and passion, if someone can show me their abilities, how good they are and how much they actually care about things then a degree absolutely does not matter. “
Gareth: “That is certainly reflective of what our other clients have told us and the likes of Reflex Studio have said the same thing. Which is good, that’s what we are trying to do - get more people into this area. The people I talk to on a regular basis, the first thing they say is ‘look I don’t have a degree’, they need to know it’s not really important, if you go to these events and you become part of the community and you’re willing to learn, you have every chance in the world to get a job.”
Kris: “I think that is so important, all the meetup groups we have here in Belfast are so good and you can easily build a good network of people. People who will very much help you out and push you in the right direction of you should try this course or you should learn this. If you jump in with two feet, get involved and do some self-learning – putting the time and effort in.
If you’re willing to do a 9-5 job and then go home to Learn to Code as well, that says a lot about the person you are. I think that is really important, it shows you care and have the passion for this. “
Gareth: “Again, that is very reflective of our client base, that willing to learn and passion is what they are looking for. You just graduated there, Ryan, you mentioned you went through a bit of an unconventional route to where you are today. That has inspired you to come up with the likes of Learn To iOS.”
Ryan: “Absolutely, it really follows on from what Kris said, growing up in a family where you go to school and you do your GCSEs, A-Levels and go to University. That whole plan went out the window with me, didn’t do well at GCSE, I had to leave and not do A-Levels, I went to tech. For me, education never motivated me, I always felt like it was missing the mark, it wasn’t assessing people in the right way. This is what Kris picks up on, it’s your passion. If you look at me and you see my work in Secure Broadcast from what I did in University, it’s two different things and always is.
The Learn To initiative is an obvious thing, it’s building the community around you who have the same passion and drive of want to do something, they want to build something cool with Apply products. For me, it’s simple, I’m surprised no one else has picked it up, it was just an obvious thing to do. We are all fighting the same fight and if we can help each other out then it’s the best we can ask for really.”
Gareth: “That is a good note to end on, thanks again guys for coming through, we’re looking forward to the next programme.”
Kris: “Registration is open now, you can follow us at @Learnto_Belfast and it will be taking off again in May 2019. Keep your eyes open for Learn to code announcements and registration processes for that.”
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