Peer-led learning for an emerging tech-powered workforce.
Dan Sofer, Founding Director, Founders & Coders.
Dan Sofer is the Founding Director of Founders & Coders.
He has been building websites since 1995 for clients that include The Guardian and the BBC. He project managed the build of the official website of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The big change
Founders & Coders is a UK-based nonprofit organization that runs a tuition-free coding academy in London.
“In London, it’s very buoyant, there’s loads of jobs, the quality of developer required for junior roles is just not as high as in many other places because employers are prepared to train their employees up to the point where they’re creating value for the company.”
Students gain professional experience by leading workshops and building prototypes for clients such as charities, nonprofits, and early-stage startups. By the time graduates leave Founders & Coders for full-time employment, they have a diverse portfolio that impresses potential employers.
The ambition for change
The big vision for Founders & Coders is: to democratise learning and to democratise technology.
This is achieved through a community of peer learners supporting each other to develop the knowledge and skills, as well as a portfolio of real world projects, needed to get people into the technology job market as quickly as possible.
A shift in direction
In 2012, finding himself with some spare time, Dan decided to enrol in some courses on the online learning platform, Coursera.
The idea of being able to study at your own pace and in the comfort of your own home was alluring, but actually he got bored. Isolated learning didn’t work for him. In 2013, he decided to try another course, but this time used the website meetup.com to invite others enrolled on the course to work on it together at the British Library.
That experience was the catalyst for a series of meet-ups for a series of courses based around Coursera and the edX platform. Those meetups morphed into a structured course within a classroom that was free, that was based on online materials but was about bringing people together and share that experience of learning. From that Founders & Coders emerged.
Making change happen
1: The start point
Building out from something that excites you
The idea and experience of taking online materials and using them as the focus of peer-based learning got Dan excited.
“It wasn’t so much the idea of it but the practice of it, I just really enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed choosing what I wanted to learn, when I wanted to learn it, and then gathering a group of people around me.”
2: Taking off
Creating resources to support the vision for learning
Dan recognised the limitations of the online resources he had started with. To support a social learning design, he developed a set of resources that worked for the new programmatic approach at the heart of the Founders & Coders offer.
“I got fed up of the online materials I was using and actually found that they were suited for self-study, at home, at a computer. They weren’t really the right thing for doing a full-time peer-led programme. So I dropped all of that and created my own curriculum, based around what I thought would be useful.”
Drawing on the goodwill of people and organisations in your community
Early on, Dan was offered some space by an organisation called Camden Collective, who provide free space to startups. They gave him a classroom on Camden high street, which helped in further developing the peer-learning model. Later, when Founders & Coders was being set up as a Community Interest Company, it relied on graduates of the programme to help crowdsource funding and deliver the programme going forward.
“We just ended up doing a programme that was free at the point of delivery. We didn’t have much money, so it had to rely on its students and alumni to make the programme work. It’s all about building your partnerships and building a constituency of people to help you do what you want to do.”
3. Keeping going
Staying true to the values of the work
While the sustainability issue was the biggest challenge, Dan and colleagues felt that charging for the service wasn’t in the spirit of the values that motivated so many people to volunteer and commit their time.
“If someone turned up tomorrow and put £1 million into our bank account, I don’t think we’d want to change the model in anyway. The lack of funds and the enthusiasm of the core team and the cultivation of the love of learning and the desire to support others in their learning journey, came originally through my own personal need and personal desires, and from that developed this programme.”
Finding the right business model
By committing to a ‘free-at-the-point-of-delivery’ programme, Dan and his growing network of graduates needed to find other sources of finance to be sustainable. Before landing on their employment agency model, they tried other strategies such as setting up as a digital agency, and an agency of freelance developers, but neither model was competitive enough to sustain the programme. Dan recognises that the employment agency model worked for London because of its thriving tech industry and the existence of a skills gap that needed filling. Other localities have different demands and pressures that should determine the business model in that place.
“We developed various models, and in the end the one in London that ended up being the most productive and the one that is largely now supporting us is acting as a straightforward employment agency where we have a number of employers who when they hire one of our graduates pay us a fee.”
Taking change wider
There has been less resistance to the Founders & Coders learning design because they are working outside existing the formal education, training and skills system. It allows them a freedom that often doesn’t exist in traditional learning institutions
“The core programme is about bringing together enthusiastic people – individuals looking for work and employers who have gaps in their labour force – and bringing them close enough together that you can create sparks. Nobody is getting in the way of that.”
The impact of change
- Founders & Coders have recently opened 3 new campuses in Nazareth and Gaza City, providing coding programmes that serve a very different cohort of trainee developers.
- “We’re in the process of building a programme of trying to connect projects in the UK with developers in both London and Gaza. We’re just in the process of developing a programme – Tech for Better – trying to hook up non-profits with developers in London and developers in Gaza, in order to deliver projects. So we’re bringing really interesting Tech for Good projects with nonprofits, funders and our developers in London and Gaza to build software.”
We have graduated more than 200 students on our full-time programmes in London. Over the last two years, more than 90% of our graduates have gone on to work in software or a related field.