Ottawa’s Shopify expands on-the-job learning program to York University

tobi
Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke. File photo.

After three years piloting the degree program in Ottawa with Carleton University, Shopify is expanding its workplace learning concept to York University in Toronto.

Dev Degree, as it’s called, offers students enrolled in a post-secondary institution’s computer science degree the chance to do roughly half of their studies on the job at Shopify’s offices. Shopify matches students with the e-commerce giant’s developer teams to align skills learned in the classroom with real-world expectations.

Students are compensated for their work, of course, and enter the rapidly growing tech firm’s recruitment pipeline at a much earlier stage in their career. Shopify’s senior vice-president of engineering Jean-Michel Lemieux tells Techopia that the Dev Degree has allowed the company to integrate students as young as 18 years old into the team.

That compares to the traditional route of hiring a graduate or co-op student after they’ve graduated, which can take anywhere from a year to 18 months of on-the-job training to fill in the skills that were missing from their traditional computer science education.

"I think we were seeing a two-to-three-times-faster developer onboarding and education."

“I think we were seeing a two-to-three-times-faster developer onboarding and education,” he says.

The concept has proven popular, with applications to the program up 500 per cent this past year compared with the first class. Fifty students – half of whom are female – have joined Shopify’s Dev Degree to date, with York University’s first cohort beginning this fall.

Lemieux has brought the concept to other universities in Canada, and while he usually has to pitch them on the Dev Degree, he says he was looking for a partner to develop the program. He found that in York University president Rhonda Lenton.

“I think I kind of went thinking that I have to pitch her, and instead we ended up brainstorming on how it was going to work,” he says.

Lessons learned

The past three years have taught Shopify a thing or two about, well, teaching.

The program began by integrating students into teams as soon as possible, but Lemieux says there was a “bigger gap than (they) thought” in terms of students’ background in coding. A lot of the programming instruction has since been moved up in the curriculum to teach the basics before throwing pupils into the deep end.

Shopify has also waived the need for students to have pre-existing experience in computer science before entering the program, an attempt to make the Dev Degree more welcoming to women and other underrepresented groups in tech. Instead, Lemieux says they’re looking for creativity and the desire to build something – natural talents that Shopify values over pure coding skills.

Much of Shopify’s influence with students has been psychological, Lemieux says. For example, whereas youth are taught in school to make a project as close to perfect as possible before handing it in, businesses actually benefit from sharing progress and getting feedback.

Lemieux says they encourage students to “cheat” – as in asking a friend for their answers, not committing fraud or something – as often as possible during their time in the Shopify offices.

“Actually, when you ‘cheat’ in business, you get way better results,” he says. (Again, not endorsing fraud.)

The program appears to resonate with the participants, too. Adrianna Chang, who spoke to Techopia when the program was first announced back in 2016, wrote a blog post recently about her first two years in the program. She writes about how the degree changed her perception of computer science and her own capabilities.

Chang
Adrianna Chang, one of the first students to take part in Shopify's Dev Degree. File photo.

Lemieux says Chang’s story reflects most participants’ experiences in the program to date.

“I think our biggest problem is we have to convince them to leave the office,” he says.

Canada-wide ambitions

Partnering Canada’s tech industry with its post-secondary institutions was one of the key recommendations in a national digital strategy report released Tuesday. The report comes from Canada’s digital industries table, chaired by Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke.

Highlights of Lütke and co.’s first report include recommendations to improve Canada’s internet infrastructure, increase digital access to government services and implement a “Hypergrowth Passport Program” that fast-tracks high-potential startups for government funding and mentorship opportunities.

In a series of tweets sharing the report’s recommendations, Lütke championed his firm’s Dev Degree as having higher skill retention rates than industry averages and pressed the need for better computer science education in Canada.

Lemieux says the end goal of Shopify’s work in post-secondary education is a Canada-wide expansion of the Dev Degree, whereby other tech firms and universities can implement the open-source concept. After four years of running the program, he expects to have a “blueprint” of how universities and companies can prepare themselves for a similar program with instructions on how to navigate logistical issues and align curriculum expectations with workplace education.

“It’s really simple: We’re gonna take the Dev Degree, create a blueprint and donate to the rest of Canada, so they can copy it and everyone can benefit,” Lemieux says.