Feature: Shopify, Carleton partnership hopes to create ‘exceptionally career-ready’ students

shopifystudents
Adrianna Chang and her classmates have made Shopify their classroom. Photo by Mark Holleron.

In September, Shopify announced a partnership with Carleton University to put their students to work.

For the past three months, 11 students enrolled in Carleton’s Bachelor of Computer Science (BCS) program have been splitting their time between the campus and Shopify’s offices for a hands-on education at the e-commerce firm.

The program is unique in Canada. By the end of their four years, students will graduate not only with a BCS, but with four years of on-the-job experience. They still take classes and attend lectures, but many of their days and afternoons are spent entirely at Shopify learning the basics of coding. In the coming semesters, students will join teams atShopify and give input on the company’s projects – and get paid for it.

“It couldn’t be better. I love spending time here,” says Adrianna Chang, one of the students enrolled in the Shopify-Carleton program. “I love going back and forth between Shopify and Carleton. The workload has been really manageable and the work has been really fulfilling.”

Chang says that the practical elements of the program caught her eye when she was applying to schools. She knew of Shopify when she participated in an event sponsored by the company in high school, and figured working with the company would add a great deal to her education.

“It was definitely a big factor, taking into consideration which program or school would prepare me for the workplace, because at the end of the day, that’s really what matters,” she says.

One of the unexpected positives in the program from Chang’s perspective was the diversity of students in the program. She says she was expecting an experience similar to her high school computer science classes, filled largely with males. The Shopify program’s cohort is more than 50 per cent female, though, including older returning students and a few international participants from Colombia and China.

Professor Douglas Howe, chair of Carleton’s Computer Science Department, sees this as an unprecedented opportunity for students.

“These students will be exceptionally career-ready,” he says.

Howe says that while traditional co-ops can sometimes be random in terms of where students end up and what they end up learning, the Shopify program is better aligned with the Carleton curriculum. Shopify’s external education team takes a look at what BCS students learn and places students in projects and roles where they can acquire the requisite skills and knowledge.

“Students get the opportunity they can’t get anywhere else, to work and earn money, work with high-end developers solving real-world problems and at the same time get their BCS. It’s a really attractive package,” Howe says.

Gail Carmichael leads Shopify’s external education team, where the broad mandate is to “make learning computer science better for everyone.” When Shopify was looking for a partner on a project like this, Carmichael’s connections as a former lecturer at Carleton led her to believe the university would be willing to try something new.

“I’ve always been very passionate about computer science education, and trying to see if we can use a lot of what we know about learning and pedagogy and apply it to situations like this where you don’t necessarily have the restraints of 200-300 people classes. So that really excited me,” she says.

Shopify benefits in two ways from running the program, Carmichael says. Primarily, it gets students into Shopify’s pipeline earlier, and grooms them for roles in the company as soon as they graduate with their BCS.

At the same time, Shopify sees it as a responsibility to do its part to ensure Canada has the tech talent required to fill emerging roles. Whereas that role may traditionally have fallen to government and universities, the company feels it’s also the private sector’s job to make sure the tech ecosystem is thriving.

“It’s not just everybody else – industry needs to step up as well and contribute to the solution,” Carmichael says.

The benefits are a bit more obvious for Carleton. Howe says this program is a way to attract top students away from other Canadian and American universities, specifically mentioning the University of Waterloo as a notable competitor.

Shopify and Carleton have an exclusive partnership for the next two to three years, but both Howe and Carmichael expressed interest in expanding the program in coming years, and even open-sourcing the model so the program can be replicated in an effort to fill talent gaps across the country.

“Right now we have 11 students. That’s just a drop in the bucket. If we can scale this model across different partnerships, then we can start making a bigger dent,” says Carmichael.