Upskilling’s Greenfield Problem

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Upskilling initiatives suffer from the greenfield problem, and nowhere is it more pernicious than in tech. Instead of teaching and assessing competencies based upon real world, messy, brownfield stacks and processes (which require debugging, authentication, version control, container orchestration, and/or virtual machine setup), the education portfolios of both vendors and vendor neutral foundations (often distributed by means of bootcamps, certifications, and badges) are sterile, rudimentary, best-case, and, well, green.

Let’s start with some definitions. By greenfield I mean a new project developed from scratch. It is a term adopted from the financial sector: “The term ‘green-field investment’ gets its name from the fact that the company—usually a multinational corporation (MNC)—is launching a venture from the ground up—plowing and prepping a green field.” Folks in IT use greenfield and brownfield to differentiate projects that are built upon (brown) existing code, infrastructure, and other resources from (green) new systems. Unsurprisingly, most organizations are loath to throw out the baby (business logic) with the bath water (legacy infrastructure), meaning that brownfield engineering tasks are more plentiful than greenfield. Updating a CMS by integrating new modules is surely preferable to building and implementing a new CMS—that is, until it becomes unusably aged.

For hiring managers, the greenfield problem is the most significant barrier to legitimizing nontraditional educational programs (certifications, bootcamps, badges). Although prominent Silicon Valley voices also question the value of accredited 4-year degrees (consider Peter Thiel’s The Thiel Fellowship and Marc Andreesen’s comment “the value of that four-year education program is primarily in the signal of the diploma, as compared to the actual education”), directors of engineering continue to be skeptical of nontraditional upskilling avenues. Structured curriculums will always focus on theory rather than messy scenarios taken from real life, but, for good or ill, economists like Beth Akers have shown that companies prefer to hire candidates with undergraduate educations.

This is a significant problem as vendors like to trot out their educational portfolios as a means to overcome the skills gap. Certifications are frequently cited beside statistics concerning the dire lack of technology practitioners in the workforce. According to the Future Jobs Report issued by the World Economic Forum, by 2025 half of all employees will need reskilling. Companies’ efforts to train up new developers are delivered as feel-good stories. They are often included in ESG reports or as part of the opening remarks during a vendor’s flagship conference. They are also usually, although not always explicitly, tied to DEI initiatives, and feature people of color and women.

The learning paths offered by many organizations in the tech upskilling space—however well thought out—tend not to align with the rigors that employable positions in engineering departments (devs, sysadmins, DBAs, etcetera) demand. Indeed, practicing in sandboxes and multiple choice exams leave all junior developers (recent CS grads, bootcamp grads, and certification recipients alike) unready to grapple with a tangled, legacy hairball. That’s what job onboarding is for (a subject my colleague KellyAnne Fitzpatrick and I are speaking about at this year’s GlueCon), and onboarding failures deserve their own post. At worst, educational assessments demonstrate a candidate’s ability to get to “Hello World,” only with additional steps, overhead, and cost.


“Nobody Hires Junior Developers”

Beyond the marketing spin which surrounds these programs, what concerns me about connecting upskilling programs to the skills gap is that certifications and bootcamps churn out junior level engineers, when companies are looking for mid- and senior-level engineers. Indeed, the complaint that “nobody hires junior developers” seems to be ever present in the watering holes where engineering practitioners gather. If nobody is hiring junior developers, then why are so many companies treating certifications and bootcamps as the answer to the skills gap?

It is no secret that IT and developer certification programs are positioned as a means to upskill relative novices in the industry. As Lydia Logan at IBM expresses it:

We’re helping people get started. They start with us. They may earn some badges and then they may go to one more step. We want to make sure they’re on a journey and they continue their learning.

In fact, many certification issuing organizations admit that the competencies upskilling programs claim to impart don’t ensure a candidate’s preparedness for the rigors of the position. The Red Hat podcast Compiler recently aired an episode interviewing Jameel Alston, a delivery driver who studied for and passed the AWS Cloud Solutions Architect certification exam. This is a huge accomplishment. Alston worked hard and took the exam twice before passing. It also wasn’t cheap. Today, the Associate level AWS Cloud Solutions Architect exam runs test takers $150 USD. However, even after passing his exam Alston has no delusions that this certification will get him a job. He still expresses a need to complete labs and build up his portfolio. According to Kim Huang:

He’s still working as a delivery driver for now. But he’s doing what a lot of other aspiring tech professionals do. He is learning how to get his foot in the door. He doesn’t have any experience. So he has to kind of build all of that up from scratch.

Certifications represent just one part of a comprehensive upskilling strategy. A candidate’s portfolio of apps, their Stack Overflow reputation, and public PRs on GitHub are all better signals for employers that an individual is actually ready for the position of engineering professional.

And yet folks looking to use certifications and bootcamps as a means for switching careers must be forgiven for assuming that these upskilling vehicles alone will result in a job offer. The segment from Google Cloud Next 2022 concerning SoulCode Academy is particularly moving (see my discussion with KellyAnne about it). However, it advances the narrative that certification === job. Sure, some folks are able to step straight into a junior level position, but it is not guaranteed, or even typical.


Circumvent the Greenfield

I have connected with several bootcamp graduates over the years (a problematic for-profit model Tressie McMillan Cottom explores). Many reach out to me owing to my own nontraditional career path from academia to frontend engineer. All are looking to translate their investment into a job. I tend to advise folks to abandon the cookiecutter portfolios they produced as part of the bootcamp curriculum. Instead, they would do well to:

  1. Build something
  2. Participate in an open source project

The first point forces aspiring engineers to be creative and understand the full stack. Instead of relying on a pat assignment with clear guardrails and an obvious solution, constructing an app from scratch means that the builder must dig themselves into and out of a series of holes. Before succeeding, they will fail repeatedly and in a variety of ways. They have to read the documentation, scrape Stack Overflow, and generally bang their head against the wall. By the end, this experience will enable this engineer to speak eloquently about the process of software development.

My second point of advice combines soft and hard skills. By submitting a pull request to an open source project engineers gain the experience of writing a PR, interpreting feedback, and responding to criticism. It also exposes participants to using production-grade tools and following standard SDLC processes. We recently spoke with Alyssa Rock, staff technical writer at VMware, community manager for The Good Docs Project, and coordinator for the Write the Docs Quorum program, about the career advantages of contributing to OSS. Although Rock focuses on technical writing, the virtues attendant to becoming involved in OSS carry over for all folks interested in making the shift to a career in tech. Contributors have opportunities to build mentor-mentee relationships through the project’s Discord and Slack chat. On occasion, OSS can even lead to a job offer from companies affiliated with the project. Although the free labor model of OSS is problematic, if treated as part of an upskilling curriculum this real world experience can teach important, extensible lessons that certifications and bootcamps cannot.

Can online educational content teach engineers soft skills by simulating a brownfield project? Wilco thinks so. Wilco’s catalog of quests imitates the experience of engineering work by having participants onboard, set up a development environment, and submit a PR with very little help from the droll automated chat bot. The quirky dialog and retro interface not only makes Wilco’s quests fun, it also teaches brownfield skills like fixing a bug and finding the root cause of a drop in the user funnel and eliminating it.

Some might argue that the greenfield nature of upskilling programs in the technology space does not represent a problem. Many certification programs are intended to ensure customer success or serve as lead generation. Moreover, certifications and bootcamps are intended to reach beginners. As Adam Duvander explains in Developer Marketing Does Not Exist, the best way to reach developers is by means of educating them, and “much of your documentation and content is focused on the early developer experience.” However, confronting the greenfield problem does represent an opportunity for orgs interested in upskilling learners at all experience levels on their technology. That said, it shouldn’t be invoked as a panacea to the skills gap.

Disclosure: Red Hat, VMware, IBM, GitHub, and AWS are RedMonk clients.

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