“Without “Vali IT!”, I’m quite certain I wouldn’t be in this career at the moment,” said Annika Jõks, an English teacher turned IT expert highlighting how “Vali IT!” changed her life. The mother of four now works as a Technical Support Coordinator at Helmes. She is one of over 700 software developers and tech specialists, previously professionals in non-tech fields that “Vali IT!” has produced in just about seven years.
A 2015 research project by the University of Tartu et al. opened with a pretty interesting statement. “During the past decade, the demand for people with IT skills and knowledge has increased in Estonia. However, there has been a shortage of programmers and several other IT workers, and the problem is not restricted to Estonia,” the study’s opening statement read.
In truth, the shortage of IT specialists was a problem back then, and even now, it continues to be a concern. However, some organisations and initiatives have been making tremendous efforts to tackle this problem. One such initiative is “Vali IT!”, also known as “Choose IT!”.
Highly competitive programme
“Vali IT!” is an intensive 14-week programme designed to retrain non-tech professionals and equip them with the basic skills of a software developer,” said Triin Kangur, Head of International Cooperation at BCS Koolitus. She explained that following the six weeks of boot camp-style study (5 days a week, up to 8 academic hours per day), the participants go through an 8-week full-time internship at selected companies to turn their newly acquired knowledge into hands-on experience. The training is usually completed in one of the following areas: software development, UI/UX design, automation of tests, database scripting, and analytics. Given a 25% acceptance rate, where only about 20 people of all applicants are admitted per cohort, “Vali IT!” is not only an intensive programme but also a highly competitive one. With alums in some of the biggest IT companies in Estonia, there is no doubt that “Vali IT!” is opening up non-tech professionals to beautiful beginnings and using them to solve this shortage of IT specialists crisis.
Back to the beginning
The world regards Estonia as a digital transformation giant, but how many know the whole story? Ave Lauringson, e-Estonia’s CEO, revealed that what is seen now is the product of implementing strategic goals and agendas. At the time, which was back in 2013, she was appointed as the first-ever ICT Skills Coordinator in the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications by Taavi Kotka, Estonia’s former CIO. She explained that her position was created around the period when Estonia had just received the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESI funds). The funds were to be used on diverse projects and initiatives aimed at the social and economic development of the country and, at the same time, were strongly linked with some strategic goals.
“2013 was also a year when the new strategy, the Digital Agenda for Estonia, was finalised. And there was a whole chapter about how we, Estonia, wanted to promote IT studies, IT skills and pilot new initiatives,” she said, relaying that some of the ESI funds were set aside for this particular IT chapter. Interestingly, a working paper by R. Kattel and I. Mergel from the University College London suggests that “starting with the 2004 strategy, the timings of adoptions of the strategies reflect EU structural funding periods (2004-2006; 2006-2013; 2014-2020).”
“So I had the strategic goals, and I had resources,” Ave recalled smiling. Quickly, she set to work using a 3-level IT-inclined strategy targeting all areas of society. This saw the launching of diverse initiatives and projects, including establishing the Information Technology Law degree at the University of Tartu and initiating the” Vali IT!” programme.
Creating the supply for the demand
“The demand for ICT skills and the workforce was very high back then. I am talking 2014, 2015, 2016,” said Ave recollecting how the programme came into existence. She revealed that the idea to establish such a short-duration learning-intensive programme had come from the Estonian Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications (ITL). And then, it took about two years to finetune the idea and project, call for tenders to find a company or companies to develop the retraining curriculum and retrain the participants, and finally, launch the programme.
“2017 was the year we officially launched the programme, and the first retraining group started classes,” said Ave. She then pointed out the programme’s successful launching as “an excellent example of public-private partnership like Estonia has always done.” Indeed, there is no denying that Estonia’s proactive public-private sector collaboration has been instrumental in its emergence as a global digital power.
“The second goal was to train 500 people”
An IT retraining programme for adults with years of professional experience in non-tech fields seems interesting, but could it work? At the time, Ave and the other people involved in the project did not know what to expect. “The first goal was to test whether it was possible or not,” she said.
“The second goal was to train 500 people. Back then, we thought that 500 was quite a big number. While IT was already a trendy sector to work in and IT studies were booming, we didn’t know how popular this kind of retraining program would be or if there would even be a second wave of applicants after the first.” Well, as it turns out, the programme had a large market.
Multiple value points
The number of people !Vali IT!” retrains annually, and the percentage of them gainfully employed and thriving in this sector, is a testament to the programme’s huge market and a pointer towards its impact. Furthermore, Triin revealed that the success of this programme has led to discussions about the retraining model being exported abroad as a solution to high unemployment rates and a shortage of IT specialists.
Also noteworthy is that compared to the high dropout rate of undergraduates in Estonian IT-related programmes, most of whom discontinue their education within their first and second years to pursue their IT careers or found a startup, the rate for “Vali IT!” participants is low. Triin believes this might have something to do with these individuals’ heightened motivation, self-realisation, and maturity.
Everyone can get a fresh start
On Google, some of the most commonly searched questions related to employment include “is it too late to switch careers?” “Can I still transition to a career in tech?” and “how difficult is it to switch to a career in tech?” Also, as Apollo Technical highlights, around 70% of all working-age people are actively looking to change careers, but more than half are never able to do so or to switch to a job they really want.
With “Vali IT!”, the question is no longer, “can I?” Instead, it is a matter of the person’s readiness, passion and commitment. As Rain Tüür, Software Developer and Lecturer, revealed, someone over 50 years old was also in the first retraining batch. Rain himself was also of that batch. A lawyer by training, he spent several years working abroad in other fields before “Vali IT!” catapulted him into the IT sphere upon his return to Estonia.
Lawyer turns software developer
Rain started his career as a junior software developer at Eesti Energia via “Vali IT!”’s internship and gained full-time employment there at the end of his training. He eventually spent almost two years there before being invited to LHV, where he worked until he was scouted earlier this year by BCS Koolitus as a lecturer for “Vali IT!”. It seems that his journey to the IT sector was meant to be as he had always been fascinated with everything IT-related since high school. Although a bump in the road had initially led him to a different career, he picked up programming with self-learning and eventually, with “Vali IT!”, he could find his place in this field.
“I was absolutely convinced that I didn’t want to do anything other than programming. I could come home from work, say three or four o’clock, programme till 2 am and then go to work and the next day do it again. It was something I felt very passionate about,” he said. “But when I came back to Estonia, I faced the same dilemma that most people who come to “Vali IT!” face. A lot of them have already done their uni. Some have even done their master’s degrees.”
Short and intensive
Continuing, Rain revealed that as soon as he returned to Estonia, he started learning Java on YouTube because he knew that Java was one of the most popular languages companies use to develop their software. “And the timing was perfect because around that time, “Vali IT!” came. At the time, it was a very new thing. They were looking to get people to their pilot group; the first group of people retrained,” he noted, smiling.
“As soon as I saw this, I can’t even remember where, I was like, ‘this is exactly what I want!’ Only six, but intense, weeks in the classroom and then eight weeks of internship.” He had thought that even if he learned Java all by himself, it would still be hard to approach companies without any sort of formal qualification or certification.
“So I knew immediately that this would be perfect, especially with the internship. I didn’t want to spend several years trying to learn something before getting the opportunity to work somewhere. I wanted it quick-fashioned, and “Vali IT!” made it happen,” he mused. While prior interest in IT might have given Rain a headstart, Annika Jõks’ story is just as exciting and motivating.
From teaching English to coding
Annika had never thought of venturing into a career in IT before enrolling at “Vali IT!”, but she was never one to get too comfortable at a spot. “By that time, I had been an English teacher for about ten years, and I loved it. But getting too comfortable is not enjoyable for me, so I wanted to challenge myself and do something new, where I could develop different skills,” she said. The road ended up leading her to a career in tech. “IT has great potential for anyone starting in the field and keeps you on your toes.” She pointed out this was why she chose to switch to a career in IT.
Like Rain, the programmes’ short but intensive study format caught Annika’s interest. “I was looking at university programmes for IT study when I stumbled onto “Vali IT!”. Due to its compressed time format and practical approach, I favoured” Vali IT!” from then on,” she said. “The application process consisted of several steps, but it gave me the chance to show my motivation,” Annika revealed. Being a competitive programme, applicants have to go through several application processes and stages and only a quarter of all applicants are admitted per batch. Still, for the selected few, it is worth it.
A job even before graduation
“We started with learning Java and how the web is built up. Then, week by week, we got more practical and complex assignments. After the six weeks of studies in class, we had eight weeks of internship, which I spent already employed at my new job,” said Annika summarising her time at”Vali IT!”. She got a full-time job offer from Helmes before the end of the “Vali IT!” programme, and since the internship was at a different company, she had to run it on the side of that.
As one would expect, Annika had doubts about whether she should switch careers and if she was making the right decision. “Naturally, there were some doubts if it is a good idea to change careers and if this is the right choice for me,” she revealed. Aside from her doubts and the programme’s rigour, she also had to juggle everything with taking care of her family. In this, she received immense support from her husband.
What makes “Vali IT!” so different?
Maybe it’s because most of those enrolled at “Vali IT!” have experienced life differently and realised that a career in IT is what they really want. But, on the other hand, perhaps it’s the soft skills they’ve acquired before participating in “Vali IT!”. “Technical skills can be easily acquired, but soft skills are not just as easy,” Rain pointed out.
As Triin revealed, there has been a considerable increase in companies interested in having “Vali IT!” enrollees as interns. CGI, Datel, PipeDrive, Playtech, Elisa Eesti AS, Ericsson Eesti, Telia Eesti, Scoro, Datanor, and Andmevara are a few of the numerous companies taking in “Vali IT!” students as interns. Also, most interns are either offered full-time employment afterwards or have a couple of offers waiting for them elsewhere before the end of their programme. But although several companies are already with “Vali IT!”, Triin urges more companies to join the programme and recruit the participants as interns.
Probably the reason why “Vali IT!” is making huge waves of impact right now is even some other reason not explored here or maybe the combination of all of the above and more. But, whatever the how or why, it is true that “Vali IT!” is giving adults the chance to write their career stories how they want it, beyond the confines of whatever they might have studied or where they had worked before enrolling for the programme. If more initiatives like this, whether for adults, teens, or women, continue to come up, shortage of skilled labour would stand no chance and neither would long-term unemployment.