Dev Degree: Behind the Scenes

On April 24th, we proudly celebrated the graduation of our first Dev Degree program cohort. This milestone holds a special place in Shopify history because it’s a day born out of trial and error, experimentation, iteration, and hustle. The 2016 cohort had the honor and challenge of being our first class, lived through the churn and pivots of a newly designed program, and completed their education during a worldwide pandemic, thrust into remote learning and work. The students’ success is a testament to their dedication, adaptability, and grit. It’s also the product of a thoughtfully-designed program and a high-functioning Dev Degree team.

What does it take to create an environment where students can thrive and develop into work-ready employees in four years?

We’ve achieved this mission with the Dev Degree program. The key to our success is our learning structure and multidisciplinary team. With our model, students master development skills faster than traditional methods.

The Dev Degree Program Structure

When we set out to shake-up software education in 2016, we had no prescriptive blueprint to guide us and no tried-and-true best practices. Still, we embraced the opportunity to forge a new path in partnership with trusted university advisors and experienced internal educators at Shopify.

Our vision was to create an alternative to the traditional co-op model that alternates between university studies and work placements. In Dev Degree, students receive four years of continual hands-on developer experience at Shopify, through skills training and team placements, in parallel to attending university classes. This model accelerates understanding and allows students to apply classroom theory to real-life product development across a breadth of technology.

Dev Degree Timeline - Year 1: Developer skill training at Shopify. Year 2, 3, 4: New development team and mentor every 8/12 months for 3 yearsDev Degree Timeline

While computer science and technology are at the core of our learning model, what elevates the program is the focus on personal growth, actionable feedback loops, and the opportunity to make an impact on the company, coworkers, and merchants.

University Course Curriculum

The Dev Degree program leads to an accredited Computer Science degree, which is a deciding factor for many students and their families exploring post-secondary education opportunities. All required core theoretical concepts, computer science courses, math courses, and electives are defined by and taught at the universities. Students take three university courses per semester while working 25 hours per week at Shopify throughout the four-year program. All formal assessments, grading, and final exams for university courses are carried out by the universities.

Dev Degree Program - 20 Hrs/week at Carleton or York and 25hrs/week at Shopify
Dev Degree Structure

While the universities set the requirements for the courses, we work collaboratively to define the course sequencing to ensure the students are exposed to computer science content as early as possible in their program before they start work on team placements at Shopify.

In addition to the core university courses, there are internship courses that teach software development concepts applicable to the technology industry. The universities assess the learning outcomes of the internship courses through practicum reports and meetings with university supervisors or advisors.

The courses and concepts taught at Shopify build on the university courses and teach students hands-on development skills, communication skills, developer tools training, and how to contribute to a real-world product development team effectively.

Developer Skills Training: Building a Strong Foundation

One of the lessons we learned early in the program was that students need a solid foundation of developer skills before being placed on development teams to feel confident and ready to contribute. The first year at Shopify sets the Dev Degree program apart from other work-integrated learning programs because we immerse the students in our Shopify-led developer skills training.

In the first year, we introduce the students to skills and tools that form the foundation for how they work at Shopify and other companies. There are skills they need to develop before moving into teams, such as working with code repositories and committing code, using a command line, front-end development, working with data, and more.

The breadth of technical skills that students learn in their first year in Dev Degree goes beyond the traditional university curriculum. This foundation allows students to confidently join their first placement team and have an immediate impact.

We teach this way on purpose. Universities often chose a bottom-up learning model by front-loading theory and concepts. We designed our program to immerse students somewhere in the middle of top-down and bottom-up, allowing them to discover the fundamentals gradually after they develop base skills and code a bit every day.

Due to the ever-evolving nature of software development, we update the developer skills training path often. Our current courses include the following technologies:

  • Command Line Interface (CLI)
  • Vim
  • Git & GitHub
  • Ruby
  • HTML, CSS, JavaScript
  • Databases
  • Ruby on Rails
  • React
  • TypeScript
  • GraphQL

Team Placements: Working on Merchant-Facing Projects

After they’ve completed their developer skills training courses, students spend the next three years on team placements. This is a big deal. On team placements, students get to apply what they learn in their developer skills training at Shopify and from their university courses to meaningful, real-world software development work. Our placements are purposefully-designed to expose students to a wide range of disciplines and teams to make them well-rounded developers, give them new perspectives, and introduce them to new people.

Working with their placement specialist, students interview with teams from back-end, front-end, data, security, and production engineering disciplines.

Over the course of the Dev Degree program, each student receives:

  • One 12-month team placement
  • Three 8-month team placements
  • Four different technical mentors
  • A dedicated Life@Shopify mentor
  • Twenty hours per week working on a Shopify team
  • Actionable feedback on a regular cadence
  • Evaluations from mentors and leads
  • High-touch support from the Dev Degree team
  • Access to new people and workplace culture

By the time students complete the program, they’ve been on four back-to-back team placements in their final three years at Shopify. This experience makes them a valuable asset to their future company. It also allows students to launch their careers with the confidence that they are well-prepared to make a positive contribution.

It Takes a Village: Building an Impactful Program Team

Creating a successful work-integrated learning program requires a significant commitment of time and resources from a team that spans multiple disciplines and functions. While the Dev Degree program team is responsible for the bulk of the heavy-lifting, including logistics, mentorship, and support, the program doesn’t happen without expertise and time from other Shopify subject matter experts and university stakeholders.

Dev Degree Program Team

The Dev Degree team are the most actively involved in all aspects of the program and with the students from onboarding to graduation. They are responsible for ensuring that the program meets the needs of the students, the university, and Shopify.

Program Leads

The Dev Degree program leads are the liaison between Shopify and our university partners. We have a program lead to represent each partnership, and they keep this ambitious program on the rails, including working with educators to define the curriculum and developer skills training courses. They are also responsible for hiring and evaluating student performance.

Student Success Specialists

Many of the Dev Degree students come to Shopify straight from high school, which can be daunting. In traditional co-op programs, students have a couple of years of university experience before starting their internships and being dropped into a professional workplace setting. To ease the transition to Shopify, our student success specialists are responsible for supporting students’ well-being, connecting them with other mentors, helping them learn how to become effective communicators, and being the voice of the students at Shopify. This nurturing environment helps protect first-year students from being overwhelmed and underprepared for team placements.

Placement Specialists

Team placements are an integral part of the applied learning in the Dev Degree program. Placement specialists are responsible for coordinating and overseeing all four 8-month placements for each cohort. This high-touch role requires extensive relationship-building with development teams and a deep understanding of the goals and interests of the students to ensure appropriate compatibility. To ensure that development teams get the return on investment (ROI) from investing in mentorship, placement specialists place students on teams where they can be impactful. They also support the leads and mentors on the development teams and play an active role in advocating for an influential culture of mentorship within Shopify.

Educators

The courses we teach at Shopify are foundational for students to prepare them for their team placements. Dev Degree educators have an extensive background in education and computer science and are responsible for building out the curriculum for all the developer skills training courses taught at Shopify. They design and deliver the course material and evaluate the students on technical expertise and subject knowledge. The instructors create courses for a wide range of development skills relevant to development at Shopify and other companies.

Recruitment Team

As with all recruitment at Shopify, we aim to recruit a diverse mix of students to the Dev Degree program. Our talent team is actively involved in helping us create a recruitment strategy to engage and attract top talent from a variety of schools and programs, including university meetups and mentorship in youth programs like Technovation.

Mentors

After four years of having Dev Degree students on teams across twelve disciplines, the program is woven into the Shopify culture, and mentorship plays a big role.

Development Team Mentors

Development team mentors are critical to helping students build confidence, technical skills, and gain the experience needed to become an asset to the team. Mentors are responsible for guiding, evaluating, and providing actionable feedback to students throughout their 8-month placements. Mentorship requires a strong commitment and takes up about 10% of a developer’s time. We feel it’s worth the investment to build mentors and invest in a culture of mentorship. It’s a challenging but rewarding role, and especially helpful to developers looking to grow leadership skills and level up in their roles.

Life@Shopify Mentors

In addition to placement mentors, we also have experienced Shopify employees who volunteer to mentor students as they navigate through the program, their placements, and the company on the whole. These Life@Shopify mentors act as a trusted guide and help round out the mentorship experience at Shopify.

University Stakeholders

Close relationships between the universities and Shopify help integrate the theory and development practices and deepen both the understanding of concepts and work experience. We’re fortunate to have both Carleton and York University as part of the Dev Degree program and fully engaged in the model that we’ve built. The faculty advisors play an active role in working with the students to guide them on their course selections, navigate the program, and evaluate their internship courses and practicums. Without university buy-in and support, a program like Dev Degree doesn’t happen.

Dev Degree is Worth the Investment

Building a new work-integrated learning program requires a big commitment of company time, resources, and cost, but we are reaping the benefits of our gamble.

  • Graduates are well-rounded developers with a rich development experience across a range of teams and disciplines.
  • 88% of the 2016 cohort have been offered, and have accepted, full-time positions here at Shopify.
  • Students who accept positions at Shopify have already built four years of relationships and have acquired vast knowledge and skills that will help them make an immediate impact on their teams.
  • We are building future leaders through mentorship. 

While we are excited about how far we’ve come, we still have room to grow. We are looking at metrics and data to help us quantify the success of the program and to drive program improvements to take computer science education to a new level. When we started this ambitious endeavor, we wanted to mature it to a point where we could create a blueprint of the Dev Degree program for other companies and universities to adopt it and evolve it. There’s interest in what we’re doing here. It’s just a matter of time before we help make the Dev Degree model of computer science education the norm rather than the exception.

Additional Information


We're always on the lookout for talent and we’d love to hear from you. Visit our Engineering career page to find out about our open positions. Learn about the actions we’re taking as we continue to hire during COVID‑19