Nerd U

Calling All Tech Talent

Germany is sorely lacking tech talent. Source: Jens Kalaene / DPA

Thomas Bachem felt he needed to apologize straight away at the beginning of what would prove to be a long night. He was wearing a tuxedo over a white t-shirt and sensed that he was overdressed for what was about to unfold in the re-purposed factory. Surrounding Mr. Bachem were nine young men and a woman, most of who were dressed in sneakers and hoodies. The task at hand: Those present needed to prove their chops by surviving individual interviews and by completing a series of rigorous tasks together. The contestants were told to work until two in the morning that night and to return to the tasks again at nine the next morning.

“Don’t be afraid, we won’t check to see if anybody’s working during the off hours,” said Mr. Bachem. To bolster their strength, the applicants were provided with pizza and energy drinks.

Fast food, energy drinks and a night shift: That was how the first test for potential students at the Code University of Applied Sciences – a private college in Berlin where, starting in October, up to 100 students will study software engineering, interactive design and product management – went. Mr. Bachem will serve as the college’s chancellor; the college’s laid back co-founder, Manuel Dolderer, will serve as president.

Welcome to a college which is as strange as it is in demand.

According to Bitkom, there were 51,000 unfilled positions in the sector at the end of 2016.

So far, 400 potential students have applied for the program. Financial backers, including many Berlin start-up scenesters, have thus far invested €5 million in the college.

Mr. Bachem’s brainchild was born of dissatisfaction with public colleges and universities and what he views as a bottleneck in the supply of homegrown tech talent in Germany. A talented youngster with a knack for writing code, he was dissatisfied with the computer science programs offered at German public universities. He instead chose to study business administration at a private college, the Cologne Business School. Parallel to his studies, he started growing his own tech businesses, selling one of his developments – an internet platform which formats resumes and CVs – to the online professional network Xing. By the time he was 30, he was a millionaire.

It was always difficult for him to find enough good programmers to help him though. And he wasn’t alone in this problem: Germany is sorely lacking tech talent. According to Bitkom, the German Federal Association for Information Technology, there were 51,000 unfilled positions in the sector at the end of 2016 – that is 20 percent more than in 2015. In other words, the problem seems to be getting worse, and that in spite of the fact that more than 40,000 students start studying computer science every year. But as Bitkom has complained, this number is only increasing slowly and says nothing to levels of high dropouts.

Mr. Bachem’s solution: Found a degree-granting, English-language college capable of connecting software development and product development by encouraging students to gather practical experience at companies during their time studying. He’s not the first in the country to question the suitability of the traditional public university and college format. Over the past three-plus decades, 120 private colleges have come into being in Germany. Mr. Bachem’s original plan – to open the college in 2015 – was delayed on account of an arduous accreditation process.

The new college’s price tag has opened it up to criticism.

German universities and colleges offer free tuition. Students are eligible for generous state loans which are to be paid back in small increments once they graduate and join the workforce. By comparison, Mr. Bachem’s college will charge tuition to the tune of €27,000 for a three-year bachelor’s program, a sum which can be paid back in monthly installments of €747, significantly higher than the average payback rate of €520 per month at Germany’s other private colleges.

The new college’s price tag, in combination with its “practical” approach to learning – students, after all, are expected to work on 10 projects at various companies throughout their studies – has opened it up to criticism. In response to a query about how “scientific” the college can consider itself to be, Mr. Dolderer responded: “To methodically approach a problem and to reflect on the solution afterwards: That is scientific work.”

It could well be that Mr. Bachem and Mr. Dolderer are onto something. The buzz they’ve created and the official support they’ve received so far is not insignificant. Unfortunately the potential numbers of graduates, at least compared to the overwhelming demand for tech talent countrywide, are.

At the end of the long night of the audition, it seemed the principal challenge involved seeing who could stay up latest and work most frenetically. Mr. Bachem himself spent the wee hours with his legs up, watching the show unfold.

This story first appeared in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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