How hard is learning to code?

In this article I look at whether or not it is really required to have excellent Maths and or Science skills to be able to work in the software development field.

Fidelity, for example, employs designers from training grounds such as NCAD, the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. She says they think purely visually and have not written a single line of code. As the company assesses the skills required by a changing industry, it has identified a trend toward analytics and data visualisation.

“The graduates of colleges such as NCAD make perfect user experience [UX] design specialists,” she said. “They understand where people’s eyes are likely to go on websites. They understand colour and what a colour might mean for one culture versus another.”

Fidelity’s Irish operation has 500 staff working in apps, UX design, financial services, financial investigation requirements, coding and engineering. It added more than 250 employees last year and also revealed its intention to create 200 jobs in Dublin and Galway, including technology posts.

Financial services companies are in their own way becoming technology organisations, she says. “People have no idea how much banks and insurance companies are dependent upon technology. Everything is digital.”

Jobs in technology are not all about the perceived “hard” subjects such as mathematics, technology and science, according to Davenport. Many require only basic maths and good problem-solving skills, she says, and IT employers need to seek out the soft skills and the leadership skills needed for the future. “In reality the industry requires a spectrum of roles. We have business analysts whose analytical and problem-solving skills are invaluable.”

Like many IT and business leaders, Davenport is a liberal arts graduate rather than an engineer. She graduated from Cornell University in the late 1970s, specialising in business and computer studies. Her digital journey began when she started working with insurance companies, bridging the “language barrier” between the technology people and the business people.

“The industry needed people who could speak to both sides of the divide and help to express on behalf of a business person what a tech person needed to understand and build,” she said. “It progressed from there.”

 

One afternoon she received a call out of the blue from her brother-in-law telling her to come to dinner, joking that he had found her a husband. He was right and her husband-to-be turned out to be a young Irishman on a rugby tour of America. In 1982, newly married Davenport arrived in Ireland for the first time and went to work in the nascent technology section of AIG.

After a two-year stint at banking software firm Kindle, Davenport joined Fidelity in 1996 to provide leadership for large-scale IT deployments. Fidelity has been in Ireland, its first offshore location, for 17 years. Ireland’s geographical position gives it a tremendous advantage in bridging east and west, she says. “We have teams engaged in project management and leadership, as well as design, and they are co-ordinating work with an end customer in the US and engineers who happen to be in China.”

Her present role is to develop her organisation to support the global IT needs of the group, a business with more than 41,000 employees and $1.7 trillion (€1.28 trillion) of assets under management. “When I think about what it takes to do my job, I joke with my husband that the technology is the easy part — the hard part is understanding people, their problems and being able to communicate across a geographically dispersed business and keeping teams aligned and engaged. A lot of it is about people and people dynamics and communicating and planning.”

When Davenport arrived in Ireland, she was shocked not just by the bleak economy but also an “old-school attitude” to women. “I remember one day being at a lunch and this genial man who was sitting next to me remarked how it was nice to have a young woman present to decorate the table. You really had to bite your tongue in those days.”

Technology is a career area where more women should naturally thrive and achieve senior management positions, she says. “I can’t speak for other companies but, in Fidelity, 38% of senior management is female, the next level down is 50% female and the next level down from that is 25%.”

Learning to code 1

At graduate level, however, the number of women vying for technology positions is still weak, she says. “When I look at top-level performers, women are well represented but below that, at entry level, they are under-represented,” she said.

She sees a problem coming down the line. “Individual tech companies might be successful at recruiting the talent they need because of their profile — they might be a Google, Facebook or Twitter — but one person’s gain is another person’s loss and the feeder system from universities and colleges in terms of tech roles needs to see more female representation. That problem actually can be solved at primary and secondary level.”

More broadly, the technology industry in Ireland needs to keep an eye on the supply and demand of talent, she says.

“I think part of the solution is improving our partnership with schools and academia. If we can keep an eye on that, and keep the talent coming from the schools and feeding into the colleges and universities and out into the panoply of industries dependent on digital, I don’t see anything but a positive future for the economy.”

On the plus side, Leap, a scheme devised in Ireland 10 years ago, has helped Fidelity meet its employment targets. The six-month programme is designed to accelerate the development of recent IT graduates in business, professional and technical skills.

Fidelity employs more than 650 Leap graduates worldwide, 200 of whom were trained in Ireland, with the remainder trained in Raleigh, North Carolina. Its Leap programme has a global women’s networking group focused on how to interact with primary and secondary-aged girls to get them interested in tech careers.

An emphasis on soft skills is particularly important as writing code will become commoditised, she forecasts. The “real value” lies in the ability to personalise and translate complex financial information so that it is easily understood by ordinary people using devices such as smartphones and tablet computers — and also in being able to anticipate the preferences of users of such devices.

This means being able to work in a team, she says. “Can you work globally and collaborate? Work should be a noisy, interactive, fun place to be, not just sitting quietly by yourself in the corner.”

The world is changing so fast and the digital experience is changing so fast, workers have to be good with change, she adds. “If you like change, there will always be other opportunities for you.”