Three Observations From Startup Grind Europe 2016 For Students And Startups Looking To Work Together

My work on computing student employability, along with my wider interest in entrepreneurship, puts me in regular contact with companies of all sizes. In recent years, I’ve developed a particularly affinity for technology startups.

Technology startups are useful places for students to work and gain experience. For those students who are willing to take the risk, the rewards of joining a startup in its early stages can be huge if the startup takes off.

I was able to attend the Startup Grind Europe 2016 conference, a one-day event aimed at bringing together startups of all sizes for a series of presentations and what were called fireside discussions (read, structured chat-show style interviews in front of a live audience).

Startup Grind Europe was an interesting experience. I met some cool people, including several wanting advice from an academic perspective, or looking to see if I was suited as an investor.

One disappointment I did have was that I totally failed to encourage any computing students to attend with me. That was a shame, as there were certainly jobs and internships on the table, as well as many tips designed to help students when they did progress to look for employment or to launch their own startup.

I collected some of my immediate thoughts (read my tweets) from the day in this Storify.

There were no shortage of interesting nuggets of information shared, but I want to pick up on three areas that should be of particular interest to students looking to progress their career within the startup scene.

 

1 – The Startup Market For Matching Candidates With Jobs Is Saturated

I keep seeing the same so-called disruptive ideas looking to match candidates with potential jobs come up again and again. I spoke to two main players during the conference who wanted to tell me how this was their business plan. I spoke to another similar startup a couple of weeks back. I also saw a further recruiter exhibiting at the event, although I didn’t capture the details of how their technological solution worked. On top of this, I know of a student who worked in a company moving within the startup space matching jobs and candidates several years back.

The current premise seems to be that data-driven recruitment is the way forward. Now, it’s not long since this type of recruitment just included automated scanning of candidate LinkedIn profiles in order to find those who might be a match for a particular job.

The latest systems are more sophisticated. For example, they use personality tests to recommend companies for people to work for, or they analyse how closely a candidate will fit within company culture based on the information they’ve published on social media.

The main differentiators within these startups seems to be in the size and type of their user bases. These include both people wanting employment and the companies they’re working with who offer employment. For instance, several startups now focus solely on the job-hungry student market. Others focus on a particular type of employers. Marketing employees to other startups also seems to be in vogue. To me, this does rather suggest that startups have more money to spend than I would otherwise have assumed.

There may be a startup market here, but my recommendation is that this area is just too crowded for anything other than for an idea that is really original and tightly marketed.

I also overheard a discussion where people I took to be potential startup investors were expressing the same concern about overexposure regarding dating sites.

 

2 – Startups Are Struggling To Recruit Technical Candidates With An Entrepreneurial Mindset

Several speakers stressed that the first employee of a startup needs to be very carefully chosen and that this person would likely make or break the future success of the startup. Other speakers discussed the difficulty of finding employees who possessed the necessary skillset, generally requiring both technical and business skills.

You might think that startups would provide an ideal opportunity for students, but for many, this is not the case. The challenge here is that most students are not all-rounders and many of the most technically able graduates have no interest in moving into a combined role like the one being requested. The best graduates are also snapped up by the traditional companies. The idea that every student is a potential entrepreneur and is interested in the startup world is often pushed, but it’s a false one.

What that does mean is that students who do want to join leading startups at an early stage, perhaps as a Chief Technical Officer, should be looking to identify their weak skill points and correct them. That may mean gaining additional programming experience, but more likely, this means engaging with the startup culture and developing the skills needed to pitch and present. I’ve covered the benefits of hackathons on the blog several times and these offer an excellent way for students to simulate the skills needed by startups, as well as to provide for CV enhancement.

I did hear one of the speakers demeaning the lack of JavaScript teaching on Computer Science degrees. Although I’m not completely in agreement here that this isn’t covered, I would hope that students wanting to work in startups would be looking to learn additional technical skills for themselves to supplement the core subject knowledge and principles taught at university.

 

3 – Computing Students Need To Have A Developed Professional Online Presence

I was one of the first people in the UK to promote the need for students to have a developed professional online presence and to use this to present themselves positively on social media. Since then, I’ve provided many staff development workshops on the subject, developed podcasts to help students and published findings as academic papers.

For Computing and Computer Science students, the need for a developed professional online presence and portfolio is even greater than for many others students. That’s one more reason I’ve encouraged students to work on open source projects, develop software at hackathons and publish on Github.

During the conference, Leela Srinivasan from Lever listed the 10 sites that she believed best for finding talented employees to work on students.

Students looking to work for a startup or for summer experience could do far worse than reverse engineering this list. As well as being visible online, having even a simple app on an app store demonstrated additional skills and the difference maker mindset that so appeals to startups. Posting valuable technical information online is also a good indicator of student talent.

 

Take Advantage Of Opportunities

I do have to stress how valuable events like Startup Grind are for students and for startup companies, but they are also valuable to others on the fringe side of those movements.

Just tweeting at an event like Startup Grind is an excellent way to grow a professional reach. It helps to share the event with people who couldn’t attend, helps to promote the companies involved and helps with the development of professional contacts. And, I can tell you that the reach from many of my tweets was massive.

I’m continually interested in working with startups, consulting with them, providing access to students and helping students to gain opportunities. For companies looking to share the knowledge that they’ve gained during their startups, student (and academic) audiences are also perfect for that. Feel free to talk to me if I can help further.

Enhancing Student Employability Through The Peer Review Of Professional Online Presences

I’ve previously shared my work on integrating student Professional Online Presences into teaching at various conferences and invited talks, but it’s a couple of years since I’ve provided a research update.

The ideas are now much more accepted and mainstream when they were when I first started working in the field. Many students realise that their digital information is now available to the public and to employers – although that does not mean that they are taking responsibility for the information that is posted about them.

I’ve recently started adding an element of peer review to assess and improve the Professional Online Presences that students are producing. I used Birmingham City University RESCON 2015 to showcase a few of my favourite initial findings (although many more are available and there is further analysis that I would like to undertake before forming this into a formal academic paper).

The slides for the talk are available for access online. These can be viewed on my SlideShare account, or you can also see the slides below.

In the brief time we had for questions, I did receive an interesting idea for further analysis of LinkedIn, to see how closely student profiles match the requirements of industry.

That idea is available as an undergraduate student project if anyone would like to take on creating an automated method of analysis?

Six Lessons From The Development Of My First Set Of Podcasts

As part of a recent project with the Higher Education Academy, I developed a set of audio podcasts looking at how students can create their own Professional Online Presence to aid in their employability.

The podcasts created are available here, and a blog detailing their production is also available.

During the time podcasting, I’ve come up with a set of six lessons which I think will help anyone looking to follow in my footsteps.

Overview of the lessons from developing podcasts for the Higher Education Academy

 

Lesson One – Podcasts should be developed as a series of short audios (10 to 20) minutes

I shied away from the idea of long audios or an open-ended series, since planning out a short sequence of podcasts is much easier. Each podcast can also serve a very clearly defined purpose, so this makes them simpler to record. Any extra ideas are better covered in an additional podcast, rather than making each one longer. Adapting a short section of a longer lecture can work well.

There are educational advantages to this too, since modern learners engage better with smaller chunks (and there is nothing to stop someone from choosing to listen to two or more podcasts together if they feel so inclined).

 

Lesson Two – Don’t just audio record lectures and assume that they will be “good enough”. Repurposing and rerecording parts of existing lecture notes works for some subjects

Much of the research I read suggested that just recording a lecture was a bad idea. My own experience of listening to recordings of live events concurs with this.

I think a podcast is much better thought of as a simplified version of a radio recording. Within education, this will often be without all the “bells and whistles” since this is often being developed for a small audience on one particular course (although trying to make things more widely useful is never a bad idea).

 

Lesson Three – Time needs to be allocated to produce podcasts to a high standard

This is one on the sticklers when using podcasts in an educational setting. Creating good online resources of any kind takes time and this is no different where podcasts are concerned. If these were just requested to be done on top of all other types of teaching, it’s very unlikely that much of use would ever be developed.

Some institutions get around this by just recording audio versions of lectures, which, as I’ve already discussed, I feel is undesirable. A separate time allowance to engage with podcasting and to learn the associated technical skills is needed.

 

Lesson Four – Focus on creating podcasts using information that works in a non-visual format

This was one of the biggest challenges with the set of materials I set to adapt, which were PowerPoint slides. By their very nature, Professional Online Presences are visual and tutorials on areas such as LinkedIn would have benefited from being able to show what the screens looked like. I got around this by keeping the material at a high level, which is probably sensible, since versions of social media sites such as LinkedIn do change rapidly and I didn’t want the podcasts to date.

Otherwise, careful consideration has to be made as to what materials are turned into podcasts. Some material does not require a display at all and so would be idea for podcasting. Highly technical presentations, by contrast, seem unlikely to be suitable source material for good podcasts (but alternatives, such as video presentations, could be considered).

 

Lesson Five – Podcasts do not have to be perfect. So long as the sound quality is good, slight wording errors and corrections are fine

I don’t think anyone expects an unscripted audio to be perfect. This is no more the case in a radio interview or anything that could be considered as an equivalent to podcasts to the masses. It is okay to make small mistakes and then just keep going, or add a small correction where needed.

This is an area that holds people back, but just like people barely notice a mistake in a conversation, it’s the same with podcasts. Even where are multiple mistakes, or you end up at a loss for words, the format of short podcasts as mentioned in Lesson One is also useful, as this means that there is only a relatively short amount of material that has to be recorded again.

 

Lesson Six – Audio recording is simple, but the technical challenge comes from making the podcasts available and getting them listed on iTunes

Although I’m a technical person, this is where I found the biggest challenge with the podcasts. Creating the audios was easy enough and once I had a proper plan to work from (essentially, an edited version of the PowerPoint slides) I was able to talk around them and record the audio. This is where it does help creating podcasts covering material that I’ve taught to multiple groups of students and to other academics.

The biggest technical challenge was getting the podcasts online, getting them working in an iTunes formatted RSS feed, and getting the feed submitted to iTunes. Even using a WordPress site and plugin, there were still parts that just wouldn’t work correctly and took a lot of hours searching for solutions. My considered opinion of this one is that every web host is set up slightly differently for podcasting. There are some paid solutions that will host podcasts and these might be better considered than trying the DIY approach like I did.

 

I hope that this set of lessons does provide some talking points and things to consider if you are thinking about podcasting. I think it’s very worthwhile, but just start off with a short series of podcasts like I did – and don’t worry too much if things go wrong. The second series of podcasts will be much better!