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Stop with the Restrictive Job Requirements Already!

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Appfrica is currently hiring, looking for three developers and an intern. I hope they find what they’re looking for because they are limiting their search to Kampala residents. While none of the positions were the sort of thing I would/could apply for, it was very discouraging to see rigid and inflexible corporate practices in what is still a young sector in East Africa.

The developer jobs demand a “University Degree in Computer Science or at least 2 years of Work Experience.” It’s not the experience I have a quibble with, but the degree.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: some of the best programmers and developers I know are self-taught. They don’t have the degrees, but they do have the knowledge that comes from over a decade of experience at the sharp end of development. Who would you rather have working on your project? A (cheap) fresh-faced graduate who only covered PHP in one module at university, or someone who was coding it when it was still considered a minority language that would never take off?

Another factor the Appfrica recruiters don’t seem to have taken into account is that “Computer Science” is a very broad church. Degrees will vary from university to university, and will also be dependent on which options a student has taken to get their degree. My alma mater, for instance, was very heavy on Java programming, but not too hot on operating systems. To this day, the easiest way to bring one of my friends out in a cold sweat is to sit him in front of OpenSuse and tell him you think you have a virus (I know, I know). And he got a first!

And why must it be a degree? Why not a bunch of W3C certifications? They run the internet, after all. If taking their online exams isn’t good enough for an employer, who’s to say that somebody with a slip of paper that doesn’t even detail what they studied is going to be any better?

It is very easy for employers to rely on degrees because once upon a time, having a degree meant something. Today, with degrees available in surfing studies and golf management, it is increasingly difficult to ascertain the value of one qualification over another. This is especially so for a rapidly-changing field such as Computer Science: technology that was the industry standard when a student begins university could be obsolete within five years of their graduation. And if they have rested on their laurels in the interim, they will be playing catch-up just like the rest of their peers when the operating environment changes.

So I hope Appfrica find a good selection of candidates. They have already restricted their recruitment pool by limiting their search to Kampala residents; I only hope that they do not limit themselves further by ignoring all those who don’t have the requisite piece of paper, too.

[Image by JBelluch]



  1. Jon Gos says:

    @Steph Actually these are all things I thought about when posting the job requirements. I agree that most of the best programmers in the world are self taught. Hell, I’m self taught, At the same time I’ve worked with a lot of students here some aren’t as professional as others. I’ve found in my experience that people with at least two years experience (whether two years as a student, or two years out of school) really is what it takes to take a job seriously. At the same time, we’re not just looking for workers…we’re looking for people to start their own businesses, which requires a lot more focus and experience than most opportunities.

    Thanks for your comments though, we really do take them to heart and will consider how we can make things better in the future,

  2. Stephanie says:

    Hey Jon! Thanks for dropping in to clarify.

    My criticisms weren’t directed specifically at Appfrica, more the sort of businesses that insist on a degree as a matter of course.

    I know what you mean about experience. I’ve met graduates who I wouldn’t trust to tie their own shoelaces without instructions, but somebody saw fit to give them a degree. Then again, I’ve met keyboard jockeys who have been coding forever, but you still need to go over their work with a fine toothcomb.

    I suppose looking for entrepreneurs means that in addition to programming skills you’d also need to find someone with some decent business sense. I am picturing an accountancy graduate who codes as a hobby. Not economists, they deal too much with theory.

    The advantage you have is that you get to interview people before deciding to take them on, once you’ve whittled the list down to a pool of potential recruits. Killer question in the interview would be if you can see a copy of their business plan and ask them how far along they are with it; after all, if they’re really determined to start their own business, they’ll have something in the works already, right?

    Anyway, the blog post wasn’t written with malice. I read Appfrica daily and I respect what you’re trying to do. It was more a jumping-off point to rail against employers who deprive themselves of the best talent by writing job descriptions that are too narrow.

  3. Jon Gos says:

    @Steph I saw where you were coming from, no offense taken. I think everything you said was valid which is why I wanted to clarify. The idea is that we’re trying to build up the private sector by a) employing creative programmers and b) helping them to eventually go on and launch their own start-ups. So while working, they’re also learning business skills, how to draft a business plan, how to pitch, how to logically draft a real world use-case, some basic business skills etc. It’s not quite the Y-Combinator model, but it’s as close as it gets in East Africa.

    Some of the guys we’re working with are ahead of others, but I’ve learned that some of the students just aren’t ready. So when I put out a call for hires I needed to add a few ‘qualifiers’ so that people know this is going to be something they have to take seriously. Rest assured, if there’s a some genius coder out there who knows his stuff but who doesn’t have a degree…hammering away code out in rural Uganda, I’d give him a shot just as soon as anyone coming right out of Makerere University with a PhD in CompSci.

    Also, we’re very small start-up, a private sector organization with very little funding so in order to get people to take us seriously, there’s some things I we have to do internally to prove ourselves.

  4. mainat says:

    A lot of the time, asking for these qualifications is also a way of filtering applications in a job market where supply so clearly is greater than demand.

  5. Stephanie says:

    That is one function, yes. It runs the risks of allowing talented candidates to slip through the cracks, however. And if it is applied wholesale across an industry, it could lead to a highly-qualified but ultimately technically mediocre workforce.

    The trouble with a sector like IT is that the tools needed to learn various programming languages and technical skills are out in the open. You don’t need to go to university to learn them, so a company that ask for CompSci degree is automatically cutting itself off from all self-taught programmers. It helps to ask for experience too, but how do you distinguish between someone who’s been writing all sorts of programs since they were a teenager and somebody who worked on a big project but was restricted to being an HTML monkey?

  6. Nigel says:

    It would appear the company – CompSci is biased to say the least, will not do there PR image any good.

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