Project approach: Training IT professionals for Russia’s digital economy

MIPT Director for Distance Learning Programs Alexey Maleev, who also heads the coaching staff of the Russian national team at the International Olympiad in Informatics, talks about new methods for preparing IT professionals, instant education, and hackathons. The original article was published at futurerussia.gov.ru.  

Solving problems here and now

The pandemic has fueled the demand for “instant education.” Many of the people who lost their jobs or faced temporary layoffs decided to brush up their skills or master a more relevant profession. Companies in all sectors of the economy are going through a digital transformation that reshapes both their internal and external processes. Businesses cannot afford to wait for several years for new specialists to graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in subjects that emerged yesterday. The needs of digitalization press for solutions in the here and now.

This is why those who are serious about investing in education today have great prospects for securing positions at major companies in the future. There’s a persistent shortage of programmers, artificial intelligence experts, and other digital technology professionals.

Young specialists, even school students, acquire the basics of an emerging profession in mere months by communicating with other enthusiasts in online forums, exchanging code and datasets for training machine learning models. It is quite possible now to reach the entry level for a career in artificial intelligence by taking a three-month intensive course. And there are all sorts of educational contests for students to put their newly gained knowledge to the test in practice.

One thing these contests are good for is getting the knack of the project approach that is ubiquitous in innovation labs across the world. Basically, small teams or individuals develop their own digital technology-driven solutions for a given practical problem and quickly produce a prototype. The process is competitive in nature, and this gives people more incentive to perfect the solution.

Rapid skill upgrade

Hackathons are an example of such events. These are competitions among teams of developers tasked with proposing a solution to some relevant problem. Hackathons take place over a weekend or some other fairly short period of time. They are held almost every week on diverse scales, sometimes online, and often feature as part of conferences and festivals.

For example, hackathons are the core of the Digital Breakthrough contest held by Russia: Land of Opportunity under the country’s national project for education. Such competitions have grown to be more than just a way to improve one’s knowledge in a given area. This is also a way to appeal to potential employers. No wonder that Digital Breakthrough attracted as many as 250 teams for its recent online hackathon, with more than 16,000 participants signing up for its various IT-related events to date.

Another event focused on intensive training and skill upgrades is RuCode, a Russian nationwide educational online festival for artificial intelligence and algorithmic programming. The participants have an opportunity to try their hand at open online courses for a rapid start in C++, AI, or competitive programming. They can solve real problems suggested by partner companies, such as Sber and Gazprombank. Such competitions are growing more and more popular: This fall the contest had some 20,000 participants, up from 13,000 in spring.

Alternative way and diverse choice options

Companies are increasingly choosing to hold similar events of their own, which offer a chance for participants from anywhere in Russia or even from neighboring countries to delve into the actual problems faced by businesses and propose ways to address them.

Thus, Gazprombank is intending to launch its own educational program before the end of November, which puts the best-performing students on a fast track to working at that company. The course will last nine months at the most. Yandex, too, has a whole team focused on education and hackathons. Projects such as the Yandex School of Data Analysis, Yandex.Academy, and Yandex.Practicum are also well-suited for rapid immersion into novel professions in data analysis, project management, software development, and interface design. It is increasingly enterprises, and not just universities, that offer educational products through Coursera and similar platforms.

This makes for a vehicle for not just rapidly generating ideas that boost revenues or cut costs, but also a way to address the personnel gap. And it works the other way around, too, enabling qualified job seekers living outside the largest metropolitan areas to land a position of their dreams. The benefits for the emerging communications companies are so great that they are among the most frequent partners of hackathons and courses related to new digital professions.

Educational projects that adopt novel formats contribute to closing the personnel gap by giving people a chance to rapidly figure out the basics of a profession in a hands-on setting. The participants can then proceed to work in the area and improve themselves, taking part in more hackathons and registering for other intensive courses. People pick up new stuff to expand their skill set by completing “instant” online courses offered by companies such as Skillbox, Yandex.Practicum, GeekBrains, or SkillFactory.

There is no doubt that the traditional career trajectories that take off with a university degree will retain their importance, but young people are getting more options to choose from. “Instant education” allows people to very quickly get the hang of a profession at a very basic level. This does not catapult a job applicant with a course certificate into a top position. They still have to do internships and put a lot of effort into work in a junior position, and gather experience. It is probably safe to say that such a beginner specialist will find it fairly easy to get a job at a small tech company or a corporate IT division not involved in complex software development. But after a year or two, they might well check in with a major corporation and look for something more substantial.

The world is accelerating, but just like paper books are still with us, traditional fundamental education will remain the standard of professional training. Undergraduate and graduate degrees will still be the primary products offered by universities. Novel educational projects are an alternative fast-track solution to addressing the shortage of digital technology professionals. These projects should naturally be promoted and developed, and that is where the educational expertise of universities is definitely called for.

Alexey Maleev, Director for Distance Learning Programs at MIPT, head of the coaching staff of Russia’s olympiad team in informatics 

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