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"The only way to close the skills gap is to close the opportunity gap" - the CEO of Revature wants to change how programmers are trained and hired

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 20, 2020
I took a break from writing about skills development - Revature lured me back in with their ambitious plans to close the tech skills gap. My talk with CEO Ashwin Bharath opened up a worthwhile debate on the future of work.


True confessions: I scaled back my writing on skills development, because enterprises aren't on board. Yes, that's an overstatement - but I remain disappointed by how many companies hold back on training investments.

There is still too much hiring based on narrowly-defined expectations, as in "must be certified in version 5.1.1.x." That mentality limits access to talent pools. It keeps aspiring professionals with mouths to feed on the outside.

But we all need a jolt. When I was invited to talk to the CEO of Revature about their mission to fundamentally change tech hiring, despite my recent avoidance of this topic, I said yes.

Why are companies unwilling to hire based on aptitude?

As Revature co-founder and CEO Ashwin Bharath told me, he takes this mission personally:

I was born and raised in India. I went to a good school, but when I graduated, I had zero programming knowledge. A company hired me based on aptitude. They trained me for four months extensively after hiring me. That made a big difference in my programming skills... I became one of the top programmers of the firm.

But when Bharath came to the U.S., it was a cold shower indeed:

When I came here., I saw that was not happening at all. Fundamentally, companies are hiring people only if they have programming skills... Companies are unwilling to hire based on aptitude.

Bharath saw the Revature opportunity:

What I realized was, this country has a huge alternate supply chain of talent. And nobody's willing to hire based on attitude and aptitude. So I saw that as an opportunity gap. Revature was actually founded to fix the opportunity gap.

You have a huge pool of talented people on one side. Nobody is willing to hire them based on their talent, or provide them the skills to do it. I thought, "That's what Revature should do." So for me, the solution for the skills gap is to fix the opportunity gap.

The entry-level programming opportunity gap

Bharath backed up his thesis with these numbers:

  • 250,000 - the approximate number of entry-level computing jobs in the U.S. each year.
  • 70,000 - the number of computer science graduates each year
  • 40,000 - the amount of computer science graduates who actually find programming jobs


So in essence, the computer science degrees are just feeding literally about one sixth or one seventh of the need.

Revature has come a long way in 15 years. The company now has major training agreements with the likes of Salesforce and Infosys. Revature bills itself as "The leading provider of entry-level tech talent powering global leaders." Bharath:

We are LinkedIn-certified as the number one employer of recent graduates in programming... We did that by solving the opportunity gap. We don't have the name of Amazon or Facebook. We did that as an underdog.

Bharath isn't stopping there:

Soon, we will be coming out with a detailed plan to train one million programmers in the next ten years.

Results? Revature cites a 70 percent reduction in source-to-hire time frames, with four times less attrition than the industry average.

Continuous learning is the only way forward

Today, Revature has a range of skills offerings. They train individuals, but they also offer training services to enterprises. There is increased focus on a topic near and dear to me: upskilling. Bharath:

The skill gap is becoming very wide. What we know now is not relevant in the future. Six out of seven future jobs do not exist now... So you have to make sure that you create continuous learning animals. That may not be the best way of putting it, but if you expect somebody to be trained every year to update their skills, that's a problem. You need to give them the ability to constantly learn by themselves.

And how is that done?

One of the fundamental training techniques that we use is called the scaffolding technique. When we teach them, we constantly scaffold them with additional skills. After a certain point, they will be capable of scaffolding themselves with newer things coming into the industry.

Re-skilling is very important now. The skills gap was a problem with recent graduates in the past; then it became a problem for people who lost their jobs. Now the skills gap is a problem, even for people who are in jobs now. If you don't solve it, that's a huge crisis we are talking about. Every company should take that as their number one priority to fix their skills gap.

Of course, upskilling brings its own set of challenges - especially when employees feel like it's being imposed upon them. Contending with IT burnout is a topic Bharath took up in 4 ways to encourage upskilling without burning people out. His four steps for better upskilling?

  1. Identify current and projected gaps
  2. Map resources against employee goals
  3. Manage change to mitigate burnout
  4. Prioritize continuous learning

Bharath hits on a crucial point: diminish the fear of failure.

For some employees, learning a new skill can feel like a risk and can be accompanied by a fear of failure. The truth is, employees might try new tasks and fail – CIOs who understand, communicate, and embrace this will build resilient teams that aren't afraid of change.

As for that skills gap, providing a skills analysis is part of how Revature partners with customers. As Bharath told me, he advises companies to avoid a short-term training mentality:

What you should do is to make sure to not only fix your current skill gap, but how do you make sure that this process is constantly working like a beautiful engine, so that you don't have to take these steps every year?

That means anticipating "frontier technologies," from IoT to AI. What Google/Amazon/Apple are doing today might well be mainstream tomorrow. Revature uses its own aggregate data to help companies prep for what's next:

We tell them you need to have programs in place for new frontier technologies... I work with 70 clients, so that gives a really good sampling of data for me to assess and evaluate and go and tell the client, "Hey, this is the direction this industry is moving." We have good sampling data, from the tech industry, from integrator firms, from management consulting, to finance and insurance, so we can give them valid data on the future and what needs to be done.

My take

I don't expect companies to embrace imaginative approaches to recruitment and training anytime soon. That's why I've come to believe in the need for bridge organizations, to help bring talented folks up to speed with whatever the latest-and-greatest is defined as. Some of these bridge groups may be government mandates; others will be non-profits, others will be for-profits like Revature.

There is a lot to like in Revature's model. Bharath's team turned a passion for bridging skills gaps into a methodology, with their own IP to support it. We do have some interesting disagreements, however. I believe the programmers of the future will need to be much more adept at grasping business processes and working collaboratively with end users. I'm not sure if Bharath sees it quite the same way; we didn't have time to fully hash that. He did talk about the emergence of the citizen developer, and the use of low code tools, which is sure to change the skills outlook for many technologies, including Salesforce - one community Bharath cited.

Agreed on low code, but I reject the idea that pure programmers without business know-how will be enough for the enterprise teams of tomorrow. If I were designing immersive programming training, it would have a heavy industry, design thinking, and team collaboration component, including virtual collaboration tools. I would go further. I would attempt to infuse more liberal-arts-style critical and creative thinking into my engineering curriculum. Programming ethics and the dangers of algorithmic bias would be another component.

Admittedly, I have a pretty extreme view of the need to morph biz and tech skills; I've had a friendly debate about this with Zoho University also. I'm not anti-coder either; I'd like to see every high school student required to code (I'm sure Bharath is with me on that one). Maybe when schools drop driver's education, they can put that in instead.

To be clear, Bharath and I didn't finish this debate, so he and I might have more common ground here than I realize. If you read the inspiring testimonials from Revature students, it's clear they are getting much more than technical chops.

Another area where we clashed a bit is the future of post-pandemic work. Bharath believes programmers need office environments where "community learning" thrives. Whereas I believe the future of work will be more fluid. I also believe that online developer communities, from Slack channels to Stack Overflow, are very impactful, and can replace much of what a physical office has to offer.

Returning to office en masse would be a limiting move that would once again exclude big pools of talent that simply can't handle 9 to 5 commuting life. Bharath sees companies making exceptions for individuals here and there, whereas I think locational flexibility should be the rule. It will be very interesting to see what type of future emerges.

Bharath's view probably outweighs mine on this topic: he believes that entry-level programmers, new to the workforce, miss out on crucial career development if they are stuck at home. I've spoken to enough college graduates to know how much they are struggling to build a career virtually. But again, I'd like to see a more fluid model of work emerge, catered more towards individual needs than locational imperatives.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. One area where I am in total agreement with Bharath: if something isn't done, these skills gaps will widen as the age of AI/automation plays out. Solving that is a pretty good corporate mission to have.

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