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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

Beyond Coding: Gamifying the Link Between Education and Industry

As the Product Manager, you better be ready to convince other team members to help you on your task list. (All images courtesy of Open Clip Art.)

Product Launch: The Game

“I really think we should build a new system backend.”

“No! Then you won’t have any more weeks left for any of our other projects.”

“I agree. Instead I think we should build a site walk-through to showcase our new app features.”

“But that will only increase our quality score by 3, rather than 4.”

No, this isn’t from the middle of an intense, all-hands product meeting. This was an excerpt from a group of CUNY students playing, Product Launch: The Game, a board game-esque simulation of team collaboration at a typical tech company.

Here’s how the game works:

The objective: Help your fictional gaming company, MoonQuest , beat the top competitor in the app store, Mercury&Me, by delivering the highest quality product over an 8-week development cycle. On teams of five, you each play the part of a different functional leader (product, marketing, engineer, sales, and design) and choose how to best allocate your time and financial resources.
The constraints: Building out your product requires each team member to execute tasks from a menu of options, each of which will earn your team additional quality point. Some tasks require you to “use” weeks of time from other team members, and some tasks cost money to complete. Get the highest quality score given the fixed timeline of 8 weeks per player and an overall team budget of $500,000. Oh, and each player has a “top priority” that, if completed, earns your entire team an additional point.

At the end of the game, each team described how they approached the collaborative decision-making process. Through this discussion, we learned that some teams focused on the “top priority” of each player (e.g. “Spend the least money out of anyone else on your team”), whereas others focused on allocating their budget first. In the end, the two winning teams had landed on the same high score through two very different processes and sets of priorities.

The moral of the story? Building products takes collaboration, teamwork, and yes, sometimes even admitting that your personal priorities aren’t the most important thing for the company overall.

At last week’s course on “Big Picture and Strategic Thinking in the Workplace,” which we taught at USV, all of the students teamed up in groups of five to play Product Launch: The Game.

Embedded within a 20-hour program, this 30-minute exercise represents just one piece of Beyond Coding, an industry-led educational program for students entering their first, full-time jobs working with code.


Why do we need this?

  1. Currently, there are 300,000 tech jobs in NYC’s ecosystem that aren’t getting filled fast enough.

  2. The demand for software developer jobs is increasing at a rate more than double the average in all other industries.

  3. Finally, no matter how fast CUNY, or NYU, or MIT, or any other engineering school can alter their CS curriculum, there’s no way they can continue to educate students at the same pace that new programming languages are being developed.

When I founded Beyond Coding with six incredible employer partners in 2015, we knew only that we wanted to contribute to building a stronger tech community in NYC, ultimately more people enter this industry. Unfortunately, Stack Overflow (where I worked at the time) and many other companies in our peer set found it difficult to commit to hiring entry-level developers directly. We just didn’t have the internal bandwidth and resources to provide the appropriate level of mentorship and coaching that we knew would contribute to their success in the role. Things were moving too fast already.

So we put our heads together and asked: “What are we seeing as hiring managers and recruiters that is missing from student skill sets upon graduation? And is there any way we can offer a lightweight training to share some of what we’ve learned from the startup side of things?”

From that, with the assistance of many HR professionals and some advice from top-notch educators, we launched our v1 training course. I like to think of it as the, “What I wish I learned in school” class that helped to level up and accelerate the on-ramp to a full time job as an entry-level developer.

This year, 100 CUNY (City University of New York) students are pairing their summer internships with a weekly does of professional skills training.

Degrees aren’t enough

Programming is a “keep learning on the job” kind of job. So much so that in Stack Overflow’s survey of 64,000 developers from around the planet, 90% said that they are at least partially self-taught.

In other words, for most developers, the knowledge you have upon graduation won’t be sufficient to sustain you throughout your programming career. Knowing how to code is only the entry point to your career as a developer.

The tech industry moves fast. Things break. Processes change. New tools launch. Innovative protocols can change the entire landscape overnight.

There’s no way that schools can (or should) be expected to innovate their curricula at the same rate that companies innovate their products.

The core competency that an education provides is a foundational baseline in a particular subject matter. Learning how to learn is important, but it takes somebody who’s actually working in the industry to know the difference between what they are learning in school and what they are doing in the real world.

While there is inevitably always a “knowledge gap” between what’s taught in schools and how industry professionals function on the job, this gap isn’t as wide in industries that innovate more slowly.

But if you’re a professor at a college teaching highly technical topics, your knowledge of the industry will become obsolete faster than in other industries. And if you’re a student whose only exposure to technology has been through your coursework and school projects, that puts you at an immediate disadvantage compared to your peers who had more early exposure and opportunities to engage with industry professionals.

In other words, there’s a missing link between what’s taught in schools and what ultimately drives career success in technical fields.

This is the exact skills gap that Beyond Coding is striving to address.

Beyond Coding

Now in its third year, Beyond Coding helps expose students to engineers, hiring managers, developers, and recruiters at prominent tech companies across New York City. It’s an offshoot from the NYC Tech Talent Pipeline initiative, the Mayor’s commitment to level up the tech IQ of our local residents and businesses.

A photo from our 2016 kickoff event of Beyond Coding, which we hosted at Tumblr, last year.

The program participants are all CS students hand-selected by Code to Work, a Grand Central Tech incubated startup that has recently been absorbed into the CUNY ecosystem. Each year, Code to Work vets and places students in engineering internships at companies within the Grand Central Tech incubator and other NYC tech companies.

About half of these students are entering their senior year of school, but some have already graduated and others are as young as entering their sophomore years. All of them are relatively new to working in coding jobs outside of their academic coursework.

Each week, these students visit a new company in New York’s tech ecosystem. The five host companies use these 3-hour blocks of time to highlight what they know best. Whether it’s an overview on agile development (from American Express) or understanding internal communication from an engineer’s point of view (at Foursquare) to really breaking down what candidates need to know about the tech recruitment process (at Meetup) or teaching how to keep learning once you graduate from the classroom setting (at Stack Overflow), our hope is that by the end of six weeks, these 100 students will be better prepared to embark on their careers with confidence.

At the end of this summer program, we invite all students to participate in a hands-on setting to practice what they learned. During this evening workshop, which will be hosted at Etsy this year, students will get one-on-one experience with leading engineers, recruiters, and hiring managers in the tech industry to get coached on everything from whiteboarding technical interviews to cold email best practices and resume writing tips.

Later this year, we will be partnering with CUNY to recruit more industry partners in offering other courses and training modules to help bridge this gap between coursework and “on the job” work even more.

Until then, feel free to try to top their high score in Product Launch: The Game, by downloading a PDF version of the game here.


Want to get involved in Beyond Coding?

We’re looking for volunteers to commit to joining us on August 17 for our conclusion workshop event, to assist in career training exercises like resume reviews, technical whiteboard interviews, or practicing a 30-second elevator pitch. Fill out this form to sign up.

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