A New Program for New Programmers
Appian, a low-code vendor, recently launched a LowCode4All, a scholarship program that will cater to developing the low-code skills of marginalised individuals. The program will be launched in stages, with an initial focus on people with a background in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) or that have outdated coding skills.
Initially, eligible participants will include current undergraduate and graduate students, students who have paused their education, unemployed individuals, career-changers, and military veterans. As the program progresses, additional target groups will be added, such as single mothers, women returning to the workforce and disenfranchised groups. Low-code platforms represent a particularly powerful option for bringing people into the technology industry, and providing education and certification to disenfranchised citizens is both a socially sound policy and a way to directly address the skill shortage in software development.
This round of the program includes distributing 1,000 scholarships to provide training and certification to marginalised communities, teaching them low-code development practices. This not only benefits the individuals receiving the training, but also addresses the critical scarcity of skilled software professionals. Obviously, it also benefits Appian by ensuring a ready supply of Appian-skilled staff.
In short, the program aims at helping people that have historically seen employment opportunities limited to the lowest paying jobs, or who have experienced generational poverty, which may have hindered them from entering the technology workforce.
The fully-funded program includes a training program, trial examinations, mentoring and employment opportunities through the Appian network. Applicants will need to pass a final examination before becoming an Appian Certified Associate Developer.
Importantly, the program also includes post-certification mentorship with the vendor’s engineering and professional services teams to ensure they are ready for employment.
In an interview with IBRS and Appian’s executive, Appian described the plan as a way of ‘democratising access to a low-code career by reducing financial barriers’. Aside from supporting the scholarship recipients’ low-code platform certification, it will also assist them with job placement. IBRS notes that starting rates for low-code specialists average around US$70,000, which is significant, even life-changing for some candidates targeted by the program, but still very cost-effective application development (which is one reason why low-code is gaining such traction). Given that the people being targeted for the program may have been at poverty level wages, such employment opportunities are genuinely life-changing.
Other tech companies have also launched similar corporate initiatives for low-income learners to earn their certifications. For instance, Microsoft offers the Women at Microsoft Scholarship for high-school women and non-binary applicants, while Salesforce has established the Salesforce Foundation that supports global educational initiatives.
IBRS believes that these programs can help improve diversity by nurturing qualified developers. Women returning to work and young women are both targets for these types of programs. In addition, the programs can help address underemployment within the ageing population and low-income communities. They have real economic and social benefits.
Observations and Lessons from Appian’s Proposed Model
During IBRS’s discussion with Appian’s executives, several contentious issues were raised about the structure of the program. While the intentions of the Appian scholarship program are to support vulnerable members of society, especially those whose income opportunities are limited, IBRS raised the following:
1. Educational Mentorship is Different from Career Mentorship
Appian’s mentorship program commences once the applicant gets certified after the final exam. However, a true educational mentorship program fosters prioritising first the development of the individual over his or her identity as a certified skilled worker. This means that the mentorship has to be set right during the practice exams instead of leaving them to figure out coding exercises on their own until they experience burnout prior to the final certification test.
Appian has taken this advice on board and will be expanding mentorship within the program over time.
2. Mental Health Concerns Among Learners
The target scholarship recipients are individuals with stressful backgrounds compared to typical university scholarship applicants. For instance, U.S. army veterans or service members who were recently discharged and intend to go back to the civilian workforce may still have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or simply be facing severe financial stress. Many academic and clinical literature has shown that such stressors manifest in dysfunctions when transitioning to student life.
In addition, the pandemic has affected the mental health of employees who initially took their retrenchment in their stride but have become more distressed by the situation. Anxiety is high among this group of individuals.
IBRS recommends that a combination of tutoring and mentorship, with a special consideration on mental health issues, be instituted to ensure that the trainees can remain committed to fulfilling the requirements of the program. Most educational networks (TAFEs, universities, K12 schools) have mental health professionals that support students in need. Vendor-driven programs - especially those targeting marginalised individuals - will need similar support.
3. Time Flexible
Many of the marginalised individuals targeted by these types of programs will be time poor, or have commitments well outside of their control. For example, low-income, single parents may not be able to fully commit to the training in a given time period. Many of them have inflexible schedules and would have to balance their jobs and training while making time for their children because they cannot afford daycare facilities.
Any programs that aim to support the marginalised will need to accommodate a great deal of flexibility in how and when training is conducted, timing and approach to trial exams, and even the certification exam. This means any mentors involved in the program will also need sufficient training and freedom to work with students at sometimes inconsistent times. A balance must be struck - but exactly what that balance looks like will depend upon the type of training and subject matter.
4. One-Time Examination
In relation to the points raised above, the drawback to an all-or-nothing certification exam is highly concerning given that these students have to deal with non-academic issues and mental health problems. A pass-or-fail mentality can be demotivating since not everyone can be at the same pace in terms of building their low-code skills.
In these situations, the exam may likely have a poor predictive quality if the performance of all examinees are considered on their first attempt, due to anxiety and lack of focus initially, even if students had engaged with practice exams prior to the final test.
IBRS recommends that vendors implementing such programs establish a ‘safety net’ for their students. In its simplest form, students can be assured that they can retake the final examination a number of times to prevent further anxiety around whether they can pass or not. This can be done by requiring them to do some or all of the curriculum again before being allowed to retake the test.
5. Forward-Looking Approach
Such programs need to be evaluated at least annually to assess the quality and success of the program over time. Without formal evaluation, such programs can be dangerous - actually harming marginalised individuals - and the vendors cannot identify areas for improvement.
Appian is engaged in what should be a powerful win-win-win program:
- a win for society by creating new employment pathways for marginalised people, in a way that government programs rarely provides
- a win for the ICT industry that is critically short of developers
- a win for Appian, as it expands the availability of workforce ready talent