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IT firms create their own developers in-house

Many Hungarian firms find they need to handle their own training to ensure that they have a good supply of programmers with practical skills. Meanwhile, some innovative schools are offering creative solutions that can help improve the talent pool.

The Green Fox Team.

A senior engineer with a degree from a reputable college and several years’ experience at international firms is about as easy to find as a unicorn, according to Judit Radnai-Tóth, talent manager at Prezi, the famous Hungarian maker of presentation software.

Instead of hunting for such a rare beast, Prezi designed its own six-month course, called “Jump”, which is designed to give future coders some practical knowledge. “The two major considerations for the program was to have participants work on real-life problems – and in real-life working conditions [at Prezi],” said Csaba Faix, international communications manager. Of the 120 applicants to last year’s program, with diverse backgrounds in areas like accounting and mathematics, 12 gained admission to the course and all have secured a post as a programmer since.

The “Jump” course is different in that it offers practical, hands-on training in the kinds of skills that employers are looking for – as opposed to the theory often taught by universities. As the supply of good programmers becomes scarcer, other companies in Hungary are following suit, developing their own in-house training to create the next generation of employees. These courses not only seek to correct the insufficient supply of IT graduates, but also to improve the level of job-oriented skills among young programmers.

Being a developer used to involve intensive training in mathematics, but with the appreciation of soft skills like communication, employers take a different approach to hiring. “If we can choose between a level-4 coder who fits perfectly into the corporate culture versus one better qualified but less fitting, we will hire the first. You can train someone to be a level-5, but you can’t change their personality,” said Prezi’s Radnai-Tóth.

Even startups and small- and medium-sized enterprises feel the shortage. “We have realized that, despite our size, we need to do some form of talent management,” said Károly Schramm, managing director of Smartfront Kft., which has 17 employees. The company develops web-based ERP, CRM, web shop and developer framework – “an area where you need to keep innovating”, Schramm noted. They work hard to raise a good employee – seniors usually aren’t aware of the latest innovations, juniors just don’t know the software. “It is not the lack of coding languages we regret, but rather the lack of practical knowledge.”

Outsourced in-house training

For firms that do not have the capacity or desire to build their own training programs, new Hungarian services like the Green Fox Academy and Codecool provide a sort of hybrid between out-sourcing and in-house training.

Green Fox Academy trains a group of students for coding with funding from a sponsor firm. The sponsor promises to hire a certain quota of graduates. Students who take the four-month course agree that they will accept the job offer of the sponsor – or else pay the HUF 1 million + VAT in tuition fee themselves. The monthly salaries of the trainees must be kept at a minimum of HUF 150,000 to HUF 250,000, but given the desirability of good coders, the salaries will probably be more.

Barbara Fazekas (pictured) and her partners at Green Fox claim to have created a curriculum that will turn anyone into a coder. She maintains that learning to program doesn’t require any special skills, and that a lack of mathematics or IT knowledge is hardly an obstacle. For example, she said, many language students end up working as hotel receptionists, frustrated and disillusioned, with untapped potentials.

“Coding is a language too, and understanding its workings can be useful in a project. If you are willing to part with your current profession, reframe your skills, you can become a successful coder,” Fazekas said.

Indeed, talent managers say, coding is only part of the job, and other skills that make people good workers are essential. Firms complain that universities don’t equip students with practical/marketable knowledge. While recent graduates of the Technical University of Budapest are in demand for their general, yet mostly theoretical, knowledge, these graduates are not taught soft skills and do not work on concrete projects.

Competitive schools offer practical skills

Universities that are poor in giving practical knowledge argue that it is not their job to follow every whim of the market. Regardless of whether they are in synch with the needs of employers, the larger, better known universities receive enough subsidies and tuition to make ends meet. Smaller colleges, whose future is dependent on how many students they can attract, are more likely to reform. This is what happened with the IT Institute of Dunaújvárosi Főiskola which, having run a pilot program this year, will use a new teaching method from September.

Graduates are having difficulty adjusting to the needs of a new workplace, according to Vid Honfi, head of department at the IT Institute. Since the seven semesters designated to train B.Sc-level engineers does not allow to cram in both theory and practice, the institute in Dunaújvárosi decided to focus mainly on the practical side. They chose to train Java programmers as, “that’s the type of coder most companies are searching for”, Honfi said. The rest of the subjects are designed to support this aim.

The institute did not dramatically change the curriculum, as that would have required legislation. Instead, it modified the order of subjects. “During the pilot course, students had the ‘aha!’ moment much more often as, thanks to the new order of classes, knowledge synthesized more rapidly,” Honfi said. Around 60 students have enrolled in the new scheme, which is also available in English, as a way to attract more foreign students. Though many of the professors are active in the market, and run or work in an IT firm, the teachers proved most resistant to change, but now they see the benefits, Honfi said.

Push to increase IT graduates

Over the long-term, better solutions are needed if Hungary is going to maintain its position as a competitive center for IT. The number of those applying for IT faculties has decreased from approximately 8,600 to 5,300 since 2001, according to data from the ICT Association of Hungary (IVSZ). Half of the college students dropout, and the remaining 2,000-3,000 who finish their studies can’t meet even the current Hungarian market demands.

“Until recently, the market filled the holes by recruiting from Hungarian speaking professionals from neighboring countries. As salary levels and conditions have caught up in Romania or Slovakia, people no longer come here,” Ádám Horváth, head of the education committee of IVSZ, said.

In order to reform IT education and increase the number of students applying to IT faculties, IVSZ recently compiled a list of suggestions for elementary and secondary schools to accomplish by 2018. Among other recommendations, IVSZ calls for broadband connection of at least 100Mb/s/school or 2Mb/s/student, a minimum of two IT/programming classes per week, mandatory programming of robots in elementary schools as well as mandatory mobile/web development sessions in secondary education. The organization also urges the replacement of outdated equipment (25% per year) and would equip every teacher with a laptop. Rather than banning them, the association promotes the use of smart devices during class, urges the introduction of shorthand typing classes from Grade 6 and increased use of digital technology in classes.

Solid math and physics knowledge in secondary schools is also essential to grow the number of IT graduates. That students score higher in IT (with even lower math results) is misleading, says Horváth, as IT taught in high school has unfortunately nothing to do with the knowledge colleges expect. Universities that recognize this and hold courses to close the gap will be able to recruit more students, Horváth added. Once that is done, they can begin tuition in a reverse order, starting from the practical rather than the theoretical side.