[SURVEY] How can France foster and encourage software developers?

By July 25, 2014
computer development

The new-found interest in the job of software developer goes hand in hand with the increasing penetration of new technologies into our everyday lives. However, it is vital to ensure that sufficient skilled people are available to meet the needs. In France training solutions are being provided by entrepreneurs, schools, through competitions and also by major companies.

Managing a world of data

Every time you use your computer, a piece of software, a mobile app or a connected object you unleash a whole series of IT codes, which have been programmed by software developers. It’s a matter of logic. The more we use digital technology, the more we need developers, and greater their contribution and importance at various points in the IT chain.

The other major issue is the exponential flow of data on the web. Using all this data is certainly not without its problems. Big Data resources are immense and making good use of this potential also calls for software developers, experts in computer languages who are able to build programmes designed to exploit this mass of data. This new responsibility is putting the spotlight on these kinds of skills and elevating these people – who not so very long ago were simply seen as technicians working on a given project – to a new position on the web ladder. The software developer is emerging from the shadows.

Talking up the developer’s role

There have been a number of events recently which have served to push software developers into the limelight and forced them to communicate more clearly about what they do. One such event was held on 15 May at Studio 42 in Paris. The purpose of the competition entitled ‘Le Meilleur Dev de France’ (The Best Developer in France) was to spot talented people who are able to respond very quickly to a number of puzzles, which gradually increase in complexity. The person who succeeds in solving the puzzles in the shortest time is declared the winner of the competition. There are also longer term challenges, i.e. an unresolved problem on which the developers work from home at their own pace over a defined period of time. The contestants can submit several different entries and at the end of the time allowed the winner is the one who has put forward the optimal solution, the one that works best.

The French government has also got in on the act of helping software developers. At the request of the French Ministry of Finance, entrepreneur Tariq Krim drafted a report in March entitled ‘Les développeurs, un atout pour la France’ (Developers, an Asset for France). “Unknown to the general public as decision-makers, they are behind all the tools that we all use and behind all the best international companies,” says the report. Tariq Krim is convinced of the talent of French developers and their role as drivers in the digital ecosystem. He points up various French ‘success stories’, sometimes initiated by “engineers trained in our best schools, but also quite often by self-taught people as well.”

In the introduction to his report, Tariq Krim makes the scathing observation that “many IT pioneers are French, but, as has also happened with scientists, France has never managed to get the best out of them, or get them into the news.” He offers a number of solutions intended to reverse this trend.

Government in favour of a ‘developer visa’

In his report, Tariq Krim says that “the authorities would gain by promoting developers to posts of responsibility to drive IT projects.” Axelle Lemaire, France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, is planning to make developers the centre of attention in the reforms which she intends to carry out. In addition, the Ministry of Economy, Productive Recovery and Digital is backing the ‘Hack4France’ group. This hackathon calls on French API (application programming interfaces) developers from such major firms as Total and Bouygues, and also from young startups. The online aspect of the challenge is being used to make it a ‘national event’ in which ‘everyone can participate’. However Axelle Lemaire understands that it is not enough simply to promote talented home-grown people and she has approved the idea of a ‘developer visa’ put forward by Tariq Krim. This special ‘visa’ would allow foreigners to stay in France for a period of four years, a good way of attracting the sort of developers who can “help the French economy transition towards a digital future,” underlines the Secretary of State. Romain Paillard, a co-founder of Le Wagon, a centre for intensive training on coding, sees the developer visa as a “very promising idea, since France has a shortage of developers.”

Learning to code at school?

Nevertheless France also needs to increase opportunities for continuous training in software development,” he stresses. The obvious need for software developers is leading many people to ask whether it would be a good idea to teach programming at school. “Teaching students to programme at school would be a step in the right direction, given that the logic of coding goes way beyond programming issues – forcing pupils to reason, to avoid task duplication and so on,” argues Romain Paillard. Frédéric Bardeau, co-founder of Simplon, which offers six month free training in coding thinks however that “focusing on the national education system misses the main aspect of the problem.” He thinks that people should not turn the issue artificially into a debate on basic teaching in schools by seizing on the now fashionable topic of teaching code. “Mastering the technology doesn’t necessarily mean programming. The most important thing is to know how to do something because you understand how computers work. The debate should go much further – it’s a question of citizenship, taking back power over technology, taking charge of your own thought processes.”

"There is a direct correlation between the need to teach coding and the number of people who want to set up their own business,” says the Le Wagon co-founder. So “learning to code, pursuing the subject, widens your range of options” and being familiar with “the tools of the software development culture is very useful on a daily basis.” Frédéric Bardeau goes even further: “The initiation Simplon offers is about much more than discovering coding. It’s an awakening to that world, it offers a different way of looking at things and teaches you to be creative. If you want to be a player in the digital world and not just a consumer, you need to master the technologies and understand the language of machines.”

Frédéric Bardeau of Simplon, the ‘entrepreneur programmers’ factory’ at Montreuil (east of Paris) – a former factory which now houses the Simplon premises – believes that “in an environment where digital technology is really taking off, programming is much more than a ‘geek thing’, it’s now central to society’s issues and needs.”

Ongoing training initiatives

The well-known French entrepreneur Xavier Niel, who set up Ecole 42 (School 42) in Paris, understands the very well just what is at stake with programming, the business opportunities it offers, and the potential for job creation. Ecole 42 opened in 2013, with the aim of spotting young talented people. At this unusual training space they run a three-year training course where students learn programming skills and the ability to innovate in the IT field. France’s elite higher education establishments have also woken up to the situation. Margaux Pelen, ‘Entrepreneur in residence’ at Paris-based European business school HEC, talks about her experience at the business school: “We saw that the students’ lack of knowledge of programming was a source of frustration. So we forged partnerships with Simplon and Ecole 42. This is all about about making students familiar with programming issues in the hope that this knowledge will find its way into the corporate world. At HEC, we train managers who need to keep abreast of such matters, so they need the tools that will enable them to question what is going on at the companies they end up working for.”

Taking an across-the-board view

“In the United States and the UK, when you embark on this kind of initiative, there’s a knock-on effect for the world of charities, leisure, manufacturing, and so on, whereas in France we focus on schools and the national education system,” points out Frédéric Bardeau. Initiatives such as Simplon and le Wagon have drawn inspiration from the American startup ‘bootcamps’, military-style training camps which are highly intensive and immersive. However the training may also be based on online courses. Recently imported from the US, a French version of Codecademy was launched at the Montreuil library by Zachary Sims. The choice of location symbolises the desire to popularise this programme whose purpose is to involve everyone in digital, in the same way that public libraries are open to all and free of charge. But programming may also serve as a catalyst, explains Frédéric Bardeau, because “you don’t necessarily have to be an engineer to code, learning to programme may be a means to get people into the world of work, as it basically empowers people″. The reason behind the creation of Simplon was moreover to "spread the teaching of programming to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are usually cut off from the digital world, and to train digital social entrepreneurs.” Margaux Pelen agrees that “it’s not just about developers but there’s more of an overall digital question. If you focus on the developer, you’ll tend to see things vertically, whereas we should be looking at the question across-the-board (...) Digital deals fresh cards to economies which were stuck until digital technology was developed.”

“In the US software developers are like rock stars, but in France they are not at all thought of in this way. Programming needs to become more widespread, with more opportunities of obtaining training easily.”

Companies, programming and the transition to digital

Software developers, whom Tariq Krim describes as “drivers of the digital ecosystem”, will little by little gain ground in all sectors. “There are now programmers in Communications departments, in Marketing departments, in HR,” Frédéric Bardeau points out. However, the shortage of trained developers to fill jobs in all sectors is now prompting companies to provide their employees with training in programming. Romain Paillard sets out the advantages of this training. “When a major company gets its employees to understand what programming is all about, this helps to smooth the communication between technical and non-technical staff, which means time saved in relationship-building and improves work overall. This knowledge also allows a business owner to know what’s what when s/he wants to recruit a developer and basically enables him/her to keep an eye on what the dev is doing.” During the courses Simplon runs for heads of companies, “we acclimatise people, raise their awareness of digital technology, and basically help them to be more in tune with the times,” reveals Frédéric Bardeau.

MOOCs and hackathons

In fact companies’ growing interest in programming is also evidenced not only by the fact that they’re increasingly using MOOCs (online courses) to train their personnel but also through the growing phenomenon of digital contests. Companies nowadays often hold hackathons to try to find a solution to a specific problem. However such these contests may also unearth interesting ideas which they had not previously thought about. This was the case with French cosmetics and beauty company L'Oréal, which co-organised a hackathon in March in partnership with the ‘Meetup’ group BeMyApp. The idea was to encourage devs to come up with digital apps capable of revolutionising the customer experience at hair salons. The hackathon threw up two actionable ideas: an app for training hairdressers for the Kérastase brand, and another app designed to track L'Oréal customers on behalf of L'Oréal Professionnel. However, points out L'Oréal Professionnel digital manager Laurence Kerjean, the concept goes further: “A hackathon is a good way of ensuring that our innovation initiatives involve digital technology, even if it’s just one initiative among many.” In fact L'Oréal recently appointed a Chief Digital Officer, Lubomira Rochet, thus demonstrating the importance the French cosmetics major attaches to digital strategy.

Interview with Emmanuel Gueidan, designer, developer and ergonomics expert at FocusMatic: “We’ve all come across an app which prompted us to say: ‘Wow, the folks who invented this are very, very good. This app is brilliant!’ But it’s not all that easy to get from that point to actually understanding the art of programming. For many people, the job of software developer is still rather esoteric, something that happens on computers and is rather difficult to learn.”



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