TJ interviews: Sidetrade’s Luke Hennerley
We talk all things AI with Luke Hennerley.
Reading time: 10 minutes
Recruiting humans for the AI sector may seem like an oxymoron to some but it’s rapidly growing – tell us what type of roles are available in the sector.
I’m of the view that artificial intelligence (AI) is very much there as an assistant for people, whether that’s daily life, leisure or the workplace.
As AI tools are introduced into the workplace, staff time is unlocked to do more value-added work, leaving AI to do the repetitive, transactional work.
I think AI is there to help employees improve their productivity, accuracy and value.
All that means businesses become part of the AI sector as end-users, who can use AI in business as a case for increased hiring – AI augments what a team can do, meaning each new role includes that AI value-add.
That’s true of roles across a business, from C-suite chief finance officers, to marketing and sales executives, investment managers, transport planners and clinicians in medical settings.
Wherever AI can be applied, its value-added benefit can be felt. In this sense, jobs we’re familiar with and perhaps have even done ourselves, now have AI baked into them.
For tech firms, that means continual hiring of traditional tech roles, like software engineers, data engineers, Java developers, people skilled in C#, .NET, and SQL but applied to AI operations.
I’m a lead application engineer with an AI firm, and The Code Academy we run provides the technical and workplace skills needed for entry-level data and software engineers, who can work towards full-stack roles (developing both client and server software).
I can happily say the team is growing rapidly, with a new, bigger office just about ready for us to move into. The Code Academy has proved an outstanding way to hire top talent.
The second way is in the field of research and development, both in academia and business. Algorithms, machine learning, neural networks, AI-powered facial and voice recognition, and natural language processing have been, and continue to be, conceived, developed, tested, and deployed by people.
Like other areas of technology – from computers to mobile phones – the sophistication and capacity for AI to do more, do new, and do better will be driven by people.
The capacity for AI to do more, do new, and do better will be driven by people
Industry analysts and large consultancy firms, and even a browse of job listing websites, are throwing up all sorts of new jobs, like chief data scientist down to junior level data scientist, machine learning engineer, AI research scientist, AI architect, AI product manager and AI ethicist.
These are all newly emerged roles in the sector, both within AI firms, and within business.
The third way is jobs creation around data, which is the life-blood of AI, as it needs data that has volume, variety, and velocity (lots of new data coming in).
AI trains on data, and is deployed on data, to give value to a business by unlocking new patterns and insights and making recommendations and predictions.
To that end, we’re seeing chief data officer, data engineer, big data business analyst and data model designer roles being created and advertised.
It’s important to encourage diversity in tech – how would you go about this?
Diversity is a big topic in tech, and for STEM subjects and sectors more broadly. AI is certainly part of that discussion.
A lot of focus, understandably, has been on creating paths for female applicants into the industry. We see that with universities when it comes to applicants for degrees, and within business, around student and graduate placements, workplace support and mentoring, and pledges to increase the number of females at more senior levels.
I’d draw on my own current example with The Code Academy, as it’s a real life and recent example that enriches what diversity done well can look like.
Of the 12 candidates selected, five were women. That started with us being proactive in encouraging female applicants to apply, and all applications going though the same process and standards. We have women in the tech team, and we’re looking to increase that number.
But there are other sorts of diversity. First, we opened up the academy to people who either didn’t have a degree, or perhaps had a degree in a non-computing subject.
We offered places to people with degrees in physics, sport science, video game design, and business, alongside people with degrees in data analytics and computer science.
It’s about intellectual diversity, and actively bringing fresh minds and fresh eyes in the tech sector; it drives innovation.
There’s a perception that tech is for ‘nerds’ who spend their time in front of computers day and night, but that’s not the case
Ethnic diversity is also important. Our group this year had six people from a BAME background, including two who haven’t lived long in the UK, so there’s all the life and work differences for them to learn.
We also reflected that diversity in the make-up of the Sidetrade team who delivered the programme.
We also welcomed a range of personalities. There’s a perception that tech is for ‘nerds’ who spend their time in front of computers day and night; that’s not the case, and part of the programme was about workplace experience – team talks, stand-up meetings, coffees and lunches together.
It’s a way of showing that cultural fit is a factor, and that the culture is one that’s OK with how you are, and can still be part of the team, which is a massive focus for us.
We work in teams on projects were each person needs to be able to contribute and support their team as and when.
We also offered the programme free of charge. If you’re a business and can do that, it’s another, perhaps less obvious way of encouraging diversity.
It means those without the money, for whatever reason, don’t feel prohibited from applying and succeeding.
For those struggling financially, the chance to get a quality, free programme can be life-changing, and of course our programme has at least four new jobs attached to it.
For those who don’t want to apply for one of those roles, or don’t get an offer, I arrange for a specialist recruiter for tech jobs to support them in their job search.
There are lots of coding bootcamps out there, but very few who are doing what we do in terms of making it free and creating jobs.
How can you set up an in-house project like The Code Academy, and what are the challenges?
First, I’d say you need to have a person, or be the person, with the passion and drive to create and deliver it. For me, The Code Academy has been something I’ve thought about and wanted to do for years, soon after finishing my own apprenticeship, in fact.
And, be willing to bring together others in the company who share your passion. Don’t try to do it all alone, which can be a temptation as you have the vision of how you think it should be done.
Coming back to the team aspect, your colleagues will bring valuable ideas and time to make it a reality.
It’s also essential to have the support of someone in the C-suite, an internal sponsor, who can give you the go-ahead, update senior staff on progress, and allocate you the time and resources, especially time.
For me that was our CTO, Mark Sheldon, who has been really supportive throughout.
My preference is to train for a role rather than only teach a skill, as the skills needed for roles in tech are always changing, sometimes quickly
Budget, obviously. You’ll need money for things like room hire, purchasing infrastructure like a cloud environment, software licences, online forums for trainees and staff mentors, additional hardware like laptops, and spend on meals and refreshments.
That’s not a proscriptive list, as it might be the case that trainees can slot into existing software, hardware, staff learning resources, and communication tools.
Plan your advertising, applicant process, number and type of sessions, materials for teaching and learning, range of support, workplace skill sessions, and assessments. Make HR a partner at the planning stage.
But, do this with the end result in mind: what do you as a company want from this, and what do applicants want from this.
Some bootcamps focus on pure skills training, while others, like The Code Academy, are more focused on training for specific roles, which is my focus and preference.
It’s also important to celebrate achievements. Sure, the end of the programme is a big deal, but also along the way it’s good to build in some assessment, to measure how people are progressing and allows you to recognise when they’re doing well.
Depending on the initial experience of the trainees, some of the content of the programme can be challenging, especially when done at pace, so you need to be able to pick up on that and fix it quickly.
You created a ‘rapid’ approach to executing this – how was it done and what are the benefits?
The rapid approach was achieved thanks to several methods. First, we did a pilot in 2018. We trailed the programme, the teaching and learning content, assessments and delivery mode. We got feedback and reflected on how it went for us and the candidates.
We used that to redesign the programme for year one in 2019. The pilot year was slightly smaller with 10 trainees and three jobs created, so we created 12 places and four jobs as a minimum this year.
Second, it was achieved by focusing strongly on training for a role, rather than just teaching a skill. Bootcamps are normal in tech now, whether that’s in the form of coding cafes, or four-month training programmes.
A lot of these focus on teaching a skill, which can be a lot of theory and all sorts of technical info that isn’t required in current job roles.
Third, we created the right sort of environment. We took on candidates who demonstrated to us their dedication and focus, which is what we look for.
We also made sure that all the technical infrastructure was in place, as technical problems can slow things down.
The level of support was a huge factor too; making sure there were the right number of our more-experienced staff available for the trainees throughout the programme. As it’s delivered at pace, we didn’t want anyone to fall behind.
As mentioned above, my preference is to train for a role rather than only teach a skill, as the skills needed for roles in tech are always changing, sometimes quickly.
It means an in-house programme needs to be agile and quickly react to these changes.
It also means that an intensive, rapid approach is easier to deploy more often, depending on the needs of the business; a rapid, four-week course is easier to deploy several times a year, than a four-month version.
A period of rapid expansion can’t wait for the programme to run next year if it’s a slow, long programme.
The skills needed for a role change as new programming languages and tools come into popularity and others become less used.
B2B Tech firms are also client focused, and the expectations and business needs of clients, particularly enterprise, can change in the race to stay ahead, so you want an in-house programme that can react and fit with client needs too.
Another benefit is that you have lots of time to get to know the trainees, and they have a chance to get to know the business and the staff. It helps when it comes to interview and job offer and means you’re more likely to hire people who stay long-term.
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