Digital bootcamp

Cristina Mateos had been a language teacher, a job she had never really enjoyed, for eight years when she decided to set out on a three-month trip to South America to think about her future.

She returned home having decided not to continue working with children but with little idea what to do with her life instead. All she did know was that she’d have to claim jobseeker’s allowance for a while.

Then a friend mentioned a course she’d heard about in automated quality assurance testing, which speeds the software development process, being run by a new IT Academy.

“My friend explained that, ‘It’s a job where you get paid to tell people what they’re doing is wrong’, to which I replied, “I always do this for free anyway!”, laughs Mateos. In fact, the course had seriously caught her attention, “Because I’m a languages nerd and had always wanted to know how computer languages work.”

She signed up for the course and soon felt she had found something special. “I got genuinely engaged by the whole thing and it slowly started to answer the big question mark I had flying above me about my professional future,” she says.

Shortage of digital skills impacts competitive advantage

For Mateos the IT Academy turned out to be life-changing, as it has also been for hundreds of others. Like Begoña Fernández who found a place in the ICT sector after a lifetime dedicated to architecture and design. And unemployed IT professional Xavier Roldán who gained new skills that enabled him to re-enter the world of work in a more advanced technical field.

These are exactly the stories Barcelona was hoping to be able to tell about its big bet on a novel approach to closing the city’s professional digital skills gap.

As a leading international technological and digital entrepreneurship hub, Barcelona had seen demand for digital talent accelerate – by 80% in the two years to 2020. Supply via universities and migratory flows simply wasn’t keeping up.

Our main challenge was convincing the business ecosystem we could convert people from other sectors to IT positions in record time
— Sara Diaz Roig, Director, Digital Talent Development Department, Barcelona Activa

“On top of this, other economic sectors aren’t growing at a good pace and can’t offer the necessary opportunities,” says Sara Diaz Roig, Director of the Digital Talent Development Department at Barcelona Activa, the city’s local development agency. ‘So we had to think about how to reskill people so they can work in the ICT sector, where there’s high demand and more and better professional opportunities.’

It was to address these two issues that Barcelona Activa came up with the idea for innovative, intensive training of highly specialised digital skills characterised by personalised self-learning methods and expert mentoring.

It was also considered critical for this new IT Academy to be distinguished by strong connections to the city’s economic and knowledge stakeholders.

“We wanted to be able to respond to the specific digital skills needs within the city’s business ecosystem of SMEs, start-ups and corporations so we worked closely with them in the design of the training plans,” explains Diaz Roig.

“The daily contact we maintain with a broad range of collaborators and with citizens searching for jobs also ensures that we can quickly adapt our training and incorporate new demands in the sector as soon as possible.”

This approach clearly works well, for everyone involved. One example cited by Diaz Roig is that 50% of the programmers employed by one small IT consultancy in the city have been recruited from the IT Academy.

The IT Academy put at my disposal the knowledge, advice and tools needed to make the professional leap into programming from a field outside tech
— Victor Marin, IT Academy alumni

Getting IT professionals up to speed in six months

The IT Academy was set up by Barcelona Activa in 2017 with a three-year budget of €1 million, 50% of which came from the European Regional Development Fund. It is free of charge and open to anyone interested in reskilling for a new career in the digital sector or already there and keen to move into a more in-demand area.

Whatever students wish to become, from a front-end to back-end or full stack developer to a data science specialist, they have the same fundamental experience: a virtual, blended and face-to-face programme of up to 350 hours of training that’s as much about self-development as skills development.

“All learning is based on methods that help students develop the personal skills that will be highly valued in their new careers, from responsibility to resilience and problem solving,” says Diaz Roig.

“We do this by providing opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, team work and group cohesion and by simulating real-world challenges of increasing difficulty so that students progressively develop along the path to meet the market’s needs.”

But surely, with students starting out with different levels of knowledge and backgrounds, it’s impossible to adapt the teaching to everyone’s needs?

Not so, says Cristina Mateos.

“Even with the distance between the start lines of the 15 people in my group, the lessons were organised in a way that everybody could follow at their own pace – and the trainer was certainly very understanding and patient with my limitations!

The methodology gives you maximum flexibility, learning at your own pace and with the support of colleagues on the same journey and the great Academy team
— Marta Tost, IT Academy alumna

“As someone whose computer knowledge didn’t extend beyond Microsoft Word when I enrolled, and who had always worked in jobs around interaction with people, ‘talking’ and ‘listening’ to a computer was a completely new perspective which was not very easy at the beginning.”

Much of this supportive flexibility comes down to the mentors, who combine teaching at the academy with their IT jobs. Respectful of each student’s situation and ever-present throughout the process all the way to the job search and practice interviews, mentors make the experience special.

“I remember having this fear that I was wasting my time, just having fun with Python and automation, but that nobody would hire a 33-year old teacher for an IT job,” says Mateos. “When this fear surrounded me, my mentors Martí and Xavier were awesome crutches, encouraging me and giving me confidence that things would work out.”

Peer-to-peer learning is an important element of the Academy's innovative approach
Volunteer teachers are professionals with a wish to give something back to society
Intensive training enables students to gain professional skills in six months

City student sets the standard in international company

The IT Academy has trained over 1,500 students so far and 81% of those who completed the course have got a job within six months of their final exam. It has also overturned the opinion of many local businesses that people can’t be trained this quickly to such a high professional level.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that the IT Academy is to become a permanent service in the city – and will continue to scale up, evolve and adapt.

“We aim to train 3,000 professionals between 2019 and 2024, increase the number of female students to 50% and get 100% of our students into jobs,” says Diaz Roig. “We are also very conscious that the skills we teach will need to change with advances in areas like big data, cloud technology, 5G, robotisation and blockchain.”

It’s not just local citizens who will benefit from this pioneering digital skills training model in the future. Having published a manual explaining how to set up and run an IT Academy, Barcelona will enable thousands of citizens in many more cities to have the digital careers of their dreams.

IT Academy alumna Mateos is still in digital dreamland five years on. She’s also doing her bit to embed the academy’s training excellence into her employer’s business.

At the IT Academy they not only provide you with the technical means to train you, they also support you and motivate you not to give up
— Esperanza León, IT Academy alumna

After being offered her first digital job on the last day of the course, she has gone on to step up the career ladder with a senior data quality testing role in an international company.

“I love my job,” she says, “although I was a bit scared when I was offered it. Then I remembered that feeling I had when I learnt to believe in my ability to code – and I accepted the job. Now I spend my days coding, automating tests and bringing all the structured methodology I learnt at the IT Academy to my current team.”

Cities dream, act and lead our future. This example from Barcelona is one of the finalists for the Eurocities Awards, in the category ‘Act together – skills and competencies for the future’. The winners will be announced on 9 June 2022 during the Eurocities Conference.

Tiphanie Mellor