Jon Marcus, Wired.com
“[There's] the massive problem of conventional higher-education institutions that largely operate at a 19th-century pace trying to keep up with the fast-changing demands of 21st-century employers”
Traditional education is struggling to keep up with the demand for digital product design skills. We've been working together with partner agencies to offer an alternative way in to the industry: Flipside - a 12-week programme that gives students unparalleled access to industry and a starting point for a bright career.
by Charlotte Hillenbrand & Tom Harding
To misquote Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged by women and men across the digital product industry that diversity is good for business. It’s good for the people working together to solve problems, good for the products that are made, good for clients seeking new markets. And it’s good for everyone already working in digital product to pop the monocultural bubble.
Creating opportunities for upcoming talent
Attracting diverse talent to the industry is a long play, however, and whilst we’ve seen significantly more diverse applicants coming to Made by Many’s door in the past year or so, there is always more we can do. We wanted to be part of the groundswell that’s committed to changing the face of the industry, so we signed up 18 months ago to work (pro bono) with London Legacy Development Corporation to develop a new kind of training programme.
Aimed at 18–26 year olds from the four boroughs surrounding the Olympic Park, Flipside is a hands-on 12 week programme that enables young people to learn the basics of digital product design in a professional industry environment. The London Legacy Development Corporation is supporting the collaboration to align to the Mayor of London’s Digital Talent Programme and develop a pipeline of diverse talent into jobs at Here East, the former Olympic Press and Broadcast Centre housing a mix of innovators and digital makers. The programme is designed to enable businesses to access the wide pool of creative talents available in east London.
Curriculum design at the speed of industry change
The change we all want to see won’t happen unless industry competitors come together, put aside the usual agency rivalry and play nicely together. Over the course of a year, we've collaborated closely with ustwo, Beyond, Sennep and Sarah Vick (ex-Reading Room and ex-Siberia) under the direction of Ada College for Digital Skills and A New Direction to devise an approach that would give young Londoners a headstart in the digital industry. Our logic was that there are hundreds of online courses available to anyone looking to learn to code, but if you want to learn the essential skills of a Digital Product Designer, it’s harder to find relevant training. And with the growth of design thinking as a core capability in many businesses, it’s a solid choice for young people to invest their energy and future career potential in.
Traditional education - whether Further Education or Higher Education - struggles to keep up with the pace of change in industry. In the US, more forward-looking universities are rapidly getting with the programme by tying curriculum design closely to known talent gaps in industry, for example, the rapid evolution of Eastern Washington University's data analytics course, created using Microsoft training materials.
In the digital industry, technology moves fast, but so do working practices, and being able to keep pace with the dual track of developments in technical skills and the soft skills required to apply them effectively is something best done in the thick of it. That means learning by doing, in real- time with experienced practitioners and in close connection to real users.
Academia works to an average two-year planning cycle in curriculum design - which means in a space that changes every few months, it’s nearly impossible for universities and colleges to maintain relevance to what’s happening in the industry. Some institutions are working hard to address this, to create more flexibility and space in their curriculum design so that there’s room to adapt as practices change and technology evolves. Our Design Director, Tom Harding, is currently consulting on the design of the MA in User Experience Design at UAL - with the explicit aim of bringing the course content much closer to current industry practice.
Building awareness and creating access
The internet, digital, technology-enabled business -- however we describe this -- is a relatively new space to develop a career and it’s because of this that primary and secondary school educators don’t have the same understanding of digital careers as they do about other industries such as retail, construction, healthcare and finance.
Organisations like A New Direction (disclaimer: I’m a non-exec volunteer trustee) are making strides to bridge the gap between school, FE, HE and employment in the creative and cultural sectors. In our Silicon Roundabout bubble we read about how digital is thriving and jobs are being created faster than ever, but the reality is that awareness of careers in digital are fairly minimal and narrowly defined (software developer, graphic designer). With the Fourth Industrial Revolution comes a swathe of opportunity and new roles, (VR development lead, data scientist, product manager, agile coach, emoji translator…), but for anyone whose family and friends are mostly in low paid work, the barriers are already up. The chances of being aware of these opportunities, what it takes to work towards these specialisms, let alone being able to connect into the right networks, are minimal. What’s needed is a joined up approach between education and industry that will blow open the walls of businesses to give greater access and shape understanding of what career development looks like in the 21st century.
One Flipsider recounted how she used to work at Liverpool Street and would walk past ustwo’s studio every day, wondering what went on inside. She was blown away by the fact that companies like ours exist doing the things we do, and this was coming from someone who was already switched-on to digital design.
Teaching the fundamentals
Our aim is to set people up for entering the digital industry in the right way, teaching the ways of working that are fundamental, regardless of career destination, as a designer, developer, strategist, data scientist or product manager. In that sense, there’s a strong emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, growth mindset and communication skills.
This is only a 12 week programme but we wanted to offer something different from universities, Hyper Island or General Assembly do. When it comes to collaboration and teamwork, there’s really no comparison to learning on the job in a real studio environment — as we all know, those first few years of any career, that’s when you really learn. --- soft skills + hard ---- the lights come on when you’re in that specific working environment.
Flipside programme: 12 week bootcamp
Flipsiders were given a live brief by agencies, to deliver within five weeks (there were two projects over ten weeks). This was a really rapid immersion that gave students a good grounding in the craft, tools and techniques of digital product design. From defining a good problem to solve, teams of four devised their own primary research programmes, recruited interviewees, ran user interviews to generate insights, took those insights into idea development, iteration and testing on to making prototypes and putting together their final pitch presentation.
Here’s what a few of the Flipsiders had to say, part way through the programme:
The first cohort of Flipsiders graduated just over a week ago and already 30% of them have secured jobs or work placements in the digital industry. It’s a small beginning, with great potential to grow and Made by Many is really proud to be part of making change happen.
The first pilot completed a couple of weeks ago and we’re currently in reflect and learn mode, with a view to improving the programme for the next cohort late 2018 / early 2019.
This programme not only gives young talent a headstart, it's also a great professional development opportunity for people inside agencies to train and mentor others. If you want to find out more or get your agency involved in Flipside, head over to the Flipside website.
Longer term, it would be fantastic to see Flipside grow into a national programme that’s Open Source for any agencies to deliver in their city. But for now, we're planting small seeds and helping them flourish.
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