This free coding school has no teachers or classes. Can it help solve the tech skills crisis?

Despite being the European capital of startups, Estonia is facing a worrying tech skills shortage. An innovative approach to training developers hopes to tackle the problem.

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Kood/Jõhvi opens its doors to students this autumn, offering a radical new approach to learning to code.

Image: Kood/Jõhvi / source

Later this year, an international coding school will open its doors to students in Jõhvi, a town of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants in Estonia that is located 50km from the Russian border.

There are no tuition fees, no classes and no teachers, and over the course of two years, students learn the skills they need to enter Estonia's job market as full-stack developers.

"We have to constantly explain how a school without classes can actually work," says Karin Künnapas, the 34-year old co-headteacher of the brand-new Kood/Jõhvi computing school. "There is no similar school in Estonia."

Kood/Jõhvi is an initiative from members of the Estonian Founders Society, an organization set up to invigorate the local startup community and empower new startup founders. Among the eight Estonian entrepreneurs involved in the project are the co-founders of two unicorn-status startups: Bolt's Martin Villig, and Wise's (formerly Transferwise) Taavet Hinrikus. In addition to state funding, the school has received €700,000 in private donations.

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Kood/Jõhvi's curriculum is based on 01 Education System, a peer-learning platform developed by French computer scientist Nicolas Sadirac. There are no classes and teachers, and most of the studies are cooperation-based.

Künnapas likens the curriculum to a computer game, with students tasked with solving increasingly difficult problems that allow them to level-up. "The platform has specific instructions on what the student needs to do, for example, code a forum, build a website," she says.

"They need to follow the instructions and do what is asked. About 80% of these problems are solved together in a team, so they need to work with other people and figure it out together." 

Künnapas had been involved in organizing student entrepreneurship at the European Innovation Academy for a number of years alongside colleague Elle-Mari Pappel, when in autumn 2020 they came across a job listing for a headmaster role at a new IT school in Estonia.

The pair applied for the role together, and as of the beginning of 2021, Künnapas and Pappel work alongside each other in joint roles as Kood/Jõhvi's co-headteachers.

"Kood/Jõhvi is a unique type of school with an innovative methodology, so the school also needed a different kind of management model," says Künnapas.

"We knew that our cooperation works well, we know each other's strengths and weaknesses and like working together, so it just felt like a perfect match to take on this challenge together."

An industry in decline

The location of the school, which is situated in the industrial county of Ida-Virumaa, was selected with the hope that it would help diversify job opportunities in the region, where the main industry of oil shale mining is expected to decline in the future.

For decades, Estonia has relied heavily on oil shale in electricity production, but in recent years the country has made efforts to turn towards renewable energy sources. 

The state energy firm, Eesti Energia, announced in June that it will stop producing electricity from oil shale by 2030 and there have been steps taken in that direction already.

All of this is expected to bring sweeping changes to the economy and labour market in eastern Estonia – home to the country's biggest oil shale mines – and a need for new job opportunities for the thousands of people employed in the industry-heavy region.

"Our goal is to support the competitiveness of the region [and] give the local youth and also older people an additional education opportunity either at the start of their journey, or if they want to change their career," says Künnapas.

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To apply to Kood/Jõhvi, students need to be over 18 years-old and have at least a basic education, which means having graduated from ninth grade. While there are no tuition fees, students are expected to commit to their studies full-time throughout their two-year education.

Kood/Jõhvi is not entirely unique. There are more than 20 schools worldwide that are based on a similar methodology, including Paris's École 42, which Sadirac developed in cooperation with French telco billionaire, Xavier Niel.

Despite this, word of Kood/Jõhvi is already spreading, with the school attracting interest regionally and internationally. Its first round of applications ended on May 31; of the roughly 3,000 applicants, 25% were from Ida-Virumaa, with other applications coming from Finland, Latvia, and even as far as Brazil.

To apply, applicants must take a two-hour online test that challenges their logical thinking and memory. The 600 highest test scorers will then be selected to continue the application process in a 'selection sprint', during which, over the course of three intensive weeks, they will learn the basics of programming and solve challenges individually and as a team. In autumn, the 200 best applicants of these 600 will start their two-year journey at Kood/Jõhvi.

To begin with, students will be housed in the Ida-Viru Vocational Education Center in neighbouring Sillamäe, until a modern, renovated building in Jõhvi is opened in 2022 that will house study space, housing, and event space.

Estonia's developer shortage 

According to The State of European Tech Survey 2020, Estonia has four to six times as many startups per capita as the European average, meaning that on a population-adjusted basis, it is the European capital of startups. At the same time, there are growing concerns that the future development of the Estonian IT sector could be jeopardized by a lack of skilled technology professionals.

"A good programmer without a job is really hard to find in Estonia," says Ivo Lasn, the head of the Estonian Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications (ITL). "There are more ideas and business plans in the IT field than the people with whom to execute those ideas. We're talking about a shortage of thousands of people."

The problem is an old one, and over the years there have been several initiatives by state and private-sector companies aimed at promoting IT education among prospective students. The success of Estonian startups in more recent years has had a positive impact on these efforts, and ICT courses are now among most the popular university subjects in terms of the number of applications universities receive.

Older adults are also being encouraged to explore careers in tech. Two of the biggest universities in Estonia have master's curriculums for people from other fields wanting to acquire IT-specific skills and knowledge: Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech) offers a 'Digital Transformation in Business' degree, meanwhile the University of Tartu offers a 'Conversion Master in IT'. 

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Since 2017, more than 500 retrained adults have entered the IT labor market having taken the software development course Choose IT!, which involves six weeks of theory classes and eight weeks of hands-on internship experience at partner companies.

It's not just software developers and testers that are desperately needed for Estonia's IT sector, with Lasn pointing out that non-technical roles – such as business analysts, project managers, product owners, service designers, salespeople, and even recruiters and marketeers – are also in demand.

After all, these roles usually constitute around 50% of the people working in IT companies, Lasn says.

Künnapas hopes that Kood/Jõhvi will help draw more people into Estonia's fledgling tech sector and address the country's widening skills gap. She also believes more education is needed around the opportunities a career in IT can offer, regardless of a person's background or whether they're interested in technical or non-technical roles.

"We need opportunities available both for young people who are finishing high school, but also for people who want to change their career or looking for new opportunities," she says. 

"Learning to code can seem a bit daunting even if it isn't, and we need to talk more about what it actually means to work in the IT sector, to help people understand that there are a lot of different roles that need to be covered."

She adds: "Everyone can find something that's interesting for them."