Dev Degree - A Big Bet on Software Education

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
- Benjamin Franklin

When I decided to study computer science at university, my parents were skeptical. They didn’t know anyone who had chosen this as a career. Computer science was, and still is, in its infancy. Software development isn’t pure science or pure engineering — it’s a combination of the two, mixed with a remarkable amount of artistic flare. It's a profession where you grow by learning the theory and then doing. A lot of doing. It’s a profession that’s increasingly in demand. And it’s a profession so new that schools are still learning how to teach it. The supply isn’t matching the demand; not even close.

Our industry is fraught with critical shortages of skills and diversity — software developers are more valuable to companies than money [1]. It’s pretty obvious, we have to aggressively invest in growing and developing software professionals more than ever.

Shopify has figured out an important part of how to solve these problems. We call it Dev Degree — a work-integrated learning (WIL) program that combines an accredited university degree with double the experience of a traditional co-op. The program is already in its 3rd year, and it’s time to talk about why it’s a big deal to us.

The Beginnings of Dev Degree

While living and working in Australia, my company invested in hiring hundreds of graduate developers. The graduates were intelligent and knew their theory, but they lacked the fundamental skills and experience required for software development. This held them back in making quick impacts to our small but growing company.

To fill in the gaps, we developed an internal training program for new graduates. It helped them level up faster and transitioned best practices they learned in school into practical skills for the world of software development. It wasn’t long before I recognized that this knowledge gap wasn't an isolated incident. There wasn’t just one university churning out students ill-prepared for the workforce, it was a systemic issue.

I decided to tour Australian universities and talk to their Computer Science departments. I pitched the idea of adding pieces of our training program to their curriculum to better prepare students for their careers. My company even offered to pay to develop the program. The universities loved the idea, but they didn't know how to make it a reality within their academic frameworks. I saw many nods of agreement on that tour, but no action.

Dev Degree started, in earnest, when I returned to Canada and joined Shopify. The main lesson I learned from Australia was that universities couldn’t implement a WIL curriculum without industry partners in a true long-term arrangement. Shopify seemed born to step into that role. When I approached Tobi with this embryo of an idea, he was on board to make it a reality. Tobi had his own positive experience with apprenticeships in Germany. Our shared passion for software development and Canada motivated us to give this idea another shot, and we started searching for a university partner.

Canadian universities were eager to get involved, but again, most weren’t sure how to make it happen. For many, the question was: how is this different from our co-op program?

The co-op model is straightforward. Students alternate between a school term and a work term throughout their program. In this structure, students are thrown over the wall of academia into an industry with no connection to their curriculum. WIL, on the other hand, requires a structural change to the education system that creates a fully integrated and deep learning experience for the students. To do this properly, we needed to make changes to the curriculum and assessments, fully integrate universities and companies, launch new learning programs, and provide additional student support. This was a multi-dimensional problem.

Carleton University rose to the challenge, becoming the first and founding university partner of Dev Degree. Their team understood the value of WIL and were already exploring ways to incorporate this style of learning when we met. It was clear to both sides that we had found the perfect partner to make WIL a successful reality. We were both eager to innovate and weren’t afraid to make huge structural changes to our operations.

Carleton didn’t just talk about being involved, they developed an entirely separate stream of their Bachelor of Computer Science program that allocated over 20% of credits to student practicums. This required Carleton’s Senate approval, which was granted after thoughtful debate. Our first strong partnership was formed and we were ready to get started.

Inside Dev Degree

The Dev Degree FamilyThe Dev Degree Family

The core of the Dev Degree model is building tighter feedback loops between theory and practice while layering programming and personal growth skills early on. Each semester students take 3 courses at University and spend 25 hours a week at Shopify.

Because K-12 software education is lacking, we wanted to turbo-boost students to be able to write and deploy production software, solving real problems, before they even graduate. Our bet was that this model would better engage a more diverse set of students, empower deeper understanding, and foster more critical thought when building software.

Dev Degree - Hand-On Learning

These types of challenges are not part of the university curriculum — students can only get this experience in an industry setting. Thomas Edison said innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. By that measure, Dev Degree is a real-time training program in experimental perspiration.

But there’s also a strong link to validating that competencies are acquired. The partner university allocates at least 20% of the degrees credits for their work done with Shopify development teams. Students write a practicum report at the end of every term (every four months) and submit the practicum report to the university. In the practicum, the student describes how they have achieved specific learning outcomes. The learning outcomes used in the Dev Degree program were influenced by standards from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the IEEE Computer Society.

During the first two years, we learned a lot. It wasn’t a smooth ride as we ironed out how best to deliver this program with the University, Students, and teams in Shopify. Here are some of the most important lessons we’ve learned.

Key Lesson #1: Re-Learn True Collaboration

During our school career, we learn that the final mark is most important. We strive to deliver the perfect assignment to get that A+. This is the complete opposite of how to get good results in the real world. The best students, and the most successful people, are the ones who share their ideas early, get feedback, experiment, explore, re-compose, and iterate. They embrace failure and keep trying.

The end result is important, but you have to cheat to get the best version of it. Sounds counterintuitive, I know. But by “cheating,” I mean asking people for help and incorporating the lessons they teach you into your own work. Collaboration is a prerequisite for true learning and growth. The Lone Wolf mentality instilled in students from years of schooling is more difficult to change than we anticipated, but working directly alongside other developers, pairing regularly, allowed us to break down those habits over time.

Key Lesson #2: Start with Development Skills

Our first cohort joined Shopify after three months of Developer Skills Training, based on the ACM framework I mentioned. This was quite ambitious on our end, but we hoped it was enough time to prepare them for the real-world work they would do with our teams.

It wasn’t. After the three months, our students still didn’t have enough knowledge to make a strong impact at Shopify. To better support them, our Dev Degree team hosted additional workshops on various developer tools and technologies to get them up to speed, but we knew there was more to be done.

It was clear that we needed to pivot the first year of our program to focus more heavily on Developer Skills Training. Our students needed to be better prepared to enter a fast-paced team building impactful products. Now, Dev Degree students participate in Developer Skills Training for their entire first year at Shopify. By tripling the amount of time they spend in training, we’ve seen Dev Degree students create earlier and more positive impacts on Shopify teams.

Key Lesson #3: Mentorship Comes in Many Forms

In 2016, students were paired with technical mentors once they joined a development team. The technical mentor is a software developer who guides their mentee on a daily basis by giving direction, reviewing work, offering feedback, and answering questions. While this was successful, we identified a gap where we weren’t equipping students with the tools and support they needed to transition into the workforce. We were giving them tons of technical support, but that didn’t necessarily help them conquer the social aspects of the job.

Now, Dev Degree students receive an additional layer of mentorship. Each student is paired with two people: a technical mentor and a Life@Shopify mentor. The Life@Shopify mentor is a trusted supporter, friend, and guide who provides a listening ear and supports the student’s growth. It’s a big leap to go from high school to being a trusted member of a company. We’ve found that this combination provides students with a diverse range of support throughout their time at Shopify.

The Results

To put it bluntly, the Dev Degree model works.

We see above average retention rates compared to traditional academia. Generally, 20-50% of students dropout of their initial program or from postsecondary programs completely. In Dev Degree, our retention rate is 95%. We’ve increased gender diversity in the program, with women accounting for over 50% of Shopify Dev Degree students — a dramatic rise from the 19% of women graduating with a computer science degree.

Companies have been focusing 66% of their philanthropic tech education on K-12 programs, with only 3% on post-secondary programs. But we need to look at the entire education system to solve the skills shortage and lack of diversity in STEM programs. And it needs to happen faster.

Traditionally, new graduates hired at Shopify take anywhere from six months to two years to fully complete onboarding and start making an impact on development teams. Skill acquisition in our WIL program happens three times faster than the average developer education: Dev Degree students become productive members of their teams after only nine months into the program, instead of up to two years after graduation.

We have a lot more to learn, and we’re not done yet. While we’re excited by our early results, a true measure of success will be seeing more universities and industry partners adopt this model. We’re working to scale the program with our partners so that the Dev Degree model starts popping up all over Canada.

That’s why we’re excited to announce the expansion of our Dev Degree program to York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering! Our first Toronto-based students have started their journey with Dev Degree, and we’re excited to see what challenging problems they’ll solve.

None of this would be possible without our academic partners at Carleton and York who worked relentlessly to get Senate approval for new WIL computer science streams and design the model itself. We truly believe that if more universities worked hand-in-hand with industry to better prepare students for the workforce, Canada would become the leader in talent development for years to come.