Electronics Point interviewed Bernard Mordan, a software engineer coach at WhiteHat, to better understand the company’s mission and the advantages of the apprenticeships it offers.
Over the past few decades, the job market has become increasingly competitive, making it harder for young people who do not have a university degree to enter specialised fields that they are passionate about. WhiteHat, a tech startup founded in 2016, provides an alternative to university designed to allow talented non-graduates to make their way into their fields of interest, without completing specialized courses.
Essentially, WhiteHat works by matching non-graduate talent with high-quality apprenticeships at companies and other professional services, offering young people the opportunity to learn directly on the job and from experienced professionals. Through WhiteHat, young applicants can currently access apprenticeships in a variety of fields, including digital and social media marketing, software development, project management, data analysis, customer success, accounting and entrepreneurship.
In addition to gaining valuable work experience, apprentices receive high-quality training from expert coaches at WhiteHat, which is designed to equip them with skills that will help them to thrive in the workplace. Through the startup’s platform they can also access networking events, meetups, and influencer programs, or can join societies and sports teams aligned with their interests.
One of WhiteHat’s priorities is to ensure that talent does not go to waste and that young people from all backgrounds who cannot afford to complete a university degree are still able to pursue careers that require specialised training. Bernard Mordan, a coach at WhiteHat who trains apprentices in software engineering, explains how the startup could help to foster diversity and empower young generations.
Ingrid Fadelli: Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about how and when WhiteHat was created, what its key mission is, and what your role is within the company?
Bernard Mordan: WhiteHat is a tech startup on a mission to create a diverse group of future leaders. They are doing this by building an outstanding alternative to university through apprenticeships.
WhiteHat focuses on three core areas: giving employers a framework for measuring potential outside of academic and work experience through their platform, bringing incredible content from around the world into applied learning programmes; growing an apprentice community to enable young people to build social capital and strong professional networks. In the U.K., WhiteHat enables companies to use the apprenticeship levy to train a diverse group of future leaders on the technical skills they need.
IF: How long have you been working for WhiteHat and what are your main responsibilities?
BM: I have been working at WhiteHat for the past 6 months. My main responsibilities are to guide and coach our young apprentices through the Level 4 Software Engineering Apprenticeship.
This means delivering the equivalent of 3 months worth of technical tuition over 18 months and coaching apprentices to capture and document their competencies and experiences on the job. I work with the apprentices’ line-managers to ensure they have the space and opportunities they need to work and train on the job.
IF: What was the intention behind providing an alternative to a university degree, particularly in the UK? Is there a need for this new solution?
BM: Today, if you want a great career, the assumption is you go to university; but spiralling costs of higher education, lack of diversity in leadership positions, and a major global skills gap in digital and tech are all evidence that this model isn’t working.
At WhiteHat we’re building an outstanding alternative to university. The apprentices in our program get the job they want, the training and qualifications to succeed, and a coach to help them excel, all while earning from day one. All this without debt, wasted time, and with the opportunity to learn relevant and desirable skills.We believe that this is the future of work and education.
In addition, the UK government has recognised the value that apprenticeships can provide and in 2015 it introduced the apprenticeship levy, meaning that all large employers with a presence in the U.K. must invest 0.5% of their overall pay bill in apprenticeship training or forfeit the money as tax.
IF: How could this alternative benefit the UK workforce, particularly engineers?
BM: Our programme produces Junior Software Engineers, juniors with a structured technical education supporting them, 18 months of actual engineering experience, and a professional habit to reflect on and develop their practice. For the UK workforce, that means that we are raising the expected standard of a junior developer.
IF: How could WhiteHat’s work affect engineers and what makes it an appealing option for them?
BM: The idea of being coached through the first 18 months of a person’s professional life is very appealing. At university you receive content and instruction with some support form tutors, but nothing as personal and intimate as your own coach. Software engineering is hard, so having a guide who encourages you to learn particular things because of their insight into the profession, makes our curriculum very practical and relevant for today’s workplace. After a degree, a graduate still has a lot to learn about being a professional developer, but our apprentices already have that knowledge.
IF: Considering the current job market, how do you plan to make this alternative to education appealing for engineers and why do you feel that it might be sufficient to form highly-skilled professionals?
BM: Highly-skilled professionals are made from tackling real life software problems, not academic study. Traditionally, engineers study computer science. Studying computer science is awesome. How much of the degree’s syllabus you’ll be using in the first few months of your first job, however, would be an interesting metric to collect.
I know at WhiteHat our young developers are given a structured basic technical understanding and practical experience of actual development, which makes them effective juniors the moment they graduate the apprenticeship. After graduation, there is time to learn more about more specialized computer science topics and grow their knowledge, but whilst they produce code and earn money; without having to service a £50,000 (the average cost of a university degree) debt.
IF: What do you feel have been your greatest achievements or milestones in establishing yourself as a European startup?
BM: We’ve had the success of what we’re building recognised by a number of awards, including the Best for Assessment & Feedback and Best Training Provider at this year’s School Leaver Awards and the Diversity Award at the 2019 Tech for Good Awards.
In July this year, we were also really excited to announce $16 million in Series A funding from one of the world’s leading venture capital firms, Index Ventures.
We now deliver placements and innovative training to apprentices at over 250 world class employers, including BP, Facebook, Salesforce, Publicis, Santander, Kantar and Clifford Chance.
WhiteHat has over 750 apprentices, 65% of which are from BAME backgrounds.This summer it also launched its free coding summer school for young women across London who are looking to pursue careers in software engineering.
IF: Could you explain what your collaboration with employers, particularly engineering and tech companies, entails/will entail?
BM: Hiring is resource-intensive. In my observations of the companies that I work with, they all find that there are only so many suitable developers in the market at any one time. When there is a pressure to scale, this becomes a bottleneck. Employers working with WhiteHat have a steady flow of new talent entering their company.
WhiteHat does a lot of specialized work, finding diverse candidates that are motivated and have demonstrated great potential. We are collaborating with our employer partners to grow a more sustainable and scalable approach to talent curation through the WhiteHat pipeline.
IF: How does the alternative you provide enable engineers to be accepted for employment and meet the expectations that UK employers typically have from applicants with specialised degrees and qualifications?
BM: The alternative to specialised degrees is applied learning. The juniors complete our apprenticeship and graduate with a Microsoft Technical Associate certificate, which is an industry standard qualification. This essentially means that they have proved to a 3rd party assessing body (BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT) that they have the specialised skills and experience to be a software engineer.
Their skills were also proven in a professional setting, in actual software teams, solving real world software problems. A degree can only prove specialised knowledge. Graduates have no opportunity for on the job training and are typically unable to gain relevant work experience during their studies.
IF: What are WhiteHat’s next steps and what is its long-term vision?
BM: At WhiteHat we’re growing fast. We want to open our apprenticeship programmes to a new cohort of top employers looking to plug their skills gap, hire diverse and high potential talent and develop existing employees. Currently, our apprenticeships are only available in London, so our next step will be expansion across the UK, starting with Leeds.
Our long-term vision is that our apprentices will go on to be the next generation of leaders.
The high cost of graduate and post-graduate education is currently making it difficult for many young people in the UK to chase after their dreams and realise their potential. This results in a large pool of talent going to waste, as well as in a lack of diversity in leadership positions.
By connecting talented non-graduates with competitive apprenticeships at UK-based companies and supporting them in their professional development, WhiteHat hopes to open up new paths for young generations from all walks of life, so that they can make their way into fields that require specialised skills.
In years to come, the work carried out by WhiteHat and similar initiatives throughout Europe could have a huge impact on the engineering and tech landscape, helping to increase diversity and forming highly-skilled professionals who have both a theoretical understanding of the field they are entering and hands-on experience in a competitive work environment.
You can find out more about WhiteHat and the apprenticeships it offers on their website.