Bruce Bergwall of Woz U Shares How Companies Can Upskill Their Employees to Keep Up With Technological Demand
At companies all over the world, technology and software development needs continue to grow and expand. The problem: there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill this employment demand. According to Bruce Bergwall, senior vice president of employee success at Woz U, companies must now find ways to upskill and educate their employees to take on more technology-related tasks within the company.
“So the challenge is, do I hire someone who is good technically but doesn’t know the business? Or is it harder to know the business, and I can teach the technical skills? And that seems to be the trade off that a lot of folks are working with right now. And the default seems to be: I’ve got people who deeply understand how this business works. I’ve got to get them the skills they need to more effectively work and make better data decisions,” says Bruce.
Launched by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Woz U aims to help young students and incumbent employees grow their skills in high-demand technological fields like software development, cybersecurity, and data science. Bruce says one of their goals is to make tech learning more accessible.
“There is a better way to teach technology that more people can apply. And those who have strong design skills and strong creative skills are really the key to a lot of the success in these areas,” he says.
“Again, Woz U’s approach is different. But it’s also an effort to try to broaden the base of people and draw more people into it, bring more people into learning how to do technology.”
Listen in to our interview with Bruce Bergwall to learn more about how project-based learning provides education in real-world terms, and how online courses can help fill the employment gap.
Hannah Nyren: Hi, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. And today we’re speaking with Bruce Bergwall, senior vice president of employee success at Woz U. Hi Bruce, how’s it going?
Bruce Bergwall: Good morning, Hannah. Doing well, thanks.
Hannah Nyren: Awesome. So in a sentence or two, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and Woz U?
Bruce Bergwall: What I’m doing at Woz U is focusing on helping employers upskill and build a tech talent pipeline that they need to meet their strategic goals in either service or product creation. Woz U is literally the next generation of online learning. They are actual courses. They are not do it yourself MOOCs. They are not an online library. It’s an actual course that in an enrollee or employee participates in under a prescribed amount of time on a weekly basis. So these are, again, these are actual courses online.
Bruce Bergwall: Talking with employers across the country, every one of them will tell me that the technology and the software development needs continue to expand and grow. At the same time, it’s growing for every other employer. You know, the supply and demand of technical workers is definitely shifting in favor of the employee and not the employer.
Bruce Bergwall: So, some statistics say that there is probably 3.6 million technology job openings, and only about 3 million available workers right now. That shortfall is creating a big challenge for a lot of employers. So they are looking to fill it. And that number, that shift, is only going to continue to grow. So the demand is there. And our goal is to help with that supply side of it. Help to upscale both incumbent employees as well as helping new people get into the field that traditionally they may not have thought about or considered or thought they were able to be involved with.
Hannah Nyren: And what’s the mission of Woz U? Why was Woz U created?
Bruce Bergwall: Woz U was created to help individuals gain the skills they need to secure the positions that are just growing by leaps and bounds in the economy today. Namely the technology jobs that employers are seeking. Woz U also has recognized that one of the greatest challenges is that there are many people don’t believe they can do these jobs. For some reason they feel they don’t have the proper math skills or the technical skills, and they pass on these opportunities. One of the core tenets of Steve Wozniak was to democratize and show that, no, there are many people who have the skills. In fact some of the most important skills for being successful in these technology fields are skills in design, or skills in problem solving, and skills on collaboration and being able to work well with others. The actual coding skills can be taught. But the ability to do these other things are critical. And many people have them. So really Woz U was designed to help bring more people into the tent of technology opportunities. And provide a means and a way that they can learn these more quickly and more efficiently than ever before.
Hannah Nyren: So how does Woz U you work with students and employees to build their careers?
Bruce Bergwall: The approach that Woz U has is a very high-touch, high level of engagement. If you’re going to be good at this topic, you’re going to understand it, there is a certain amount of rigor that’s required. You have to commit to taking a certain number of hours. Whether it’s 40 hours a week, or 20 hours a week, or even 15 hours a week. You have to make a commitment to participate and to consistently participate in order to persist and complete the program.
Bruce Bergwall: You’re not going to learn how software code by doing an hour or so every week, drop it for a few weeks and come back. There has to be rigor. So they are very specific, very prescriptive. But also they are online and include synchronous activities with mentors as well as asynchronous instruction and many projects. And again, the project-based format is really the key in terms of how the curriculum is actually designed.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah, and project-based learning has become really popular lately because, you know, many believe that it’s more a more effective method of learning and that it’s more realistic.
Bruce Bergwall: I think also Hannah, adding to that, the Woz U approach it’s a hands on online approach that is very project-centric. So people are working from projects, they’re building projects, they’re designing projects. That is the work that you do as a software developer. It isn’t about reading, and it’s about doing things and that’s really a key tenant to the success of the programs.
Hannah Nyren: Can you give an example of what a typical student would go through to get from, you know, not knowing anything, to being in the workforce through Woz U’s programs.
Bruce Bergwall: I think a good example is that what we often find at Woz U is that we have different types of employee segments or different types of student segments, if you will, that are enrolling. So they can run from individuals who are enrolling out of high school, all the way through incumbent employees who are seasoned executives or seasoned workers at a company. So there’s different segments.
Bruce Bergwall: So I’ll start with the latter group, the incumbent employee. What we often find is that working professionals who have degrees and have come back and, you know, their company has indicated that, you know, there was an opportunity for them to do some do a new job or engaged in a new activity. And whether it’s improving their data science skills or improving their software development skills, building a skill set or getting upskilled on the latest newest tools that are out there.
Hannah Nyren: What do you think are the top skills that employers are looking for right now?
Bruce Bergwall: I wish I had one answer. Surprisingly software development skills are foundational and I shouldn’t say surprisingly, there’s no surprise there. But what has been interesting has been the number of employers I’ve spoken with who are really struggling with increasing the data science skills of existing managers, people who have been around 10, 12, 15 years. People who are working in the business and deeply understand the business, but whose technical skills when it comes to using data and building and doing reports and such is lacking.
Bruce Bergwall: The challenge has been that many of them will meet with folks who have good technical skills, newer employees, younger employees if you will, who have maybe only a year or two of experience with a business. They can run circles around the veterans in terms of their ability to work with data and come up with the answers that are needed. But they just don’t have the understanding of the business. So the challenge is, do I hire someone who is good technically, but doesn’t know the business? Or is it harder to know the business and I can teach technical skills? And that seems to be the trade off that a lot of folks are working with right now and the default seems to be: I’ve got people who deeply understand how this business works. I’ve got to get them the skills they need to more effectively work and make better data decisions. So data sciences is an interesting topic. It is actually so broad across so many organizations, especially as employers are starting to realize the importance of data. But more importantly, they almost are becoming data companies. They’re seeing data not as just something, but as a key part of their strategy and a part of their growth going forward.
Hannah Nyren: I find that a little bit surprising that someone would want to train someone internally to be a data science expert, rather than find an expert data scientist and train them on the business. But what you’re saying makes a lot of sense, because everyone really has to be involved in the data science these days.
Bruce Bergwall: I don’t mean to say that you need to become a data scientist. That’s a separate role. But I see, the analogy I come to is that in business you really can’t be a good businessman if you don’t understand fundamentals of bookkeeping, you know, double entry bookkeeping, principles. You don’t have to be a CPA, but you better know accounting. You better know how to read PNLs. You better understand how the cash flow works and such like that. I see that translation. I see that analogy now being in data. Whether it’s data informatics, it’s understanding how to visualize data. It’s learning how to work with large data sets. It’s learning how to be comfortable with the data that’s coming in. Because frankly for most businesses the ability of data in so many different ways is so much greater than it was just even a few years ago. A lot of this is piling up and going nowhere for many firms. But the smart ones are realizing, hey, we have an opportunity to really distinguish ourselves and give us a strategic advantage in our marketplace if we learn how to work with this more effectively.
Hannah Nyren: So how are you working with employers to make sure that this is incorporated in their training?
Bruce Bergwall: There are a number of ways. And it’s really dependent on how the employer sees the training and the skills development for its employees. Many times at the business level, or at the unit level, is where the PNL decisions are made. And so it’s working with individual business units and general managers to help them understand that, you know, they realize they have a talent issue.
Bruce Bergwall: They realize that employee development is a is an ongoing concern of theirs. Many times they have programs that are in place or they’re doing something to try to address this. We’re not coming as Woz U saying hey, here’s something new to solve a problem. They’re already usually doing something, whether it’s with a local college or a local program, or doing something with a local vendor or supplier, something that’s similar. The challenge has been that many times they just are not working as well as they’d like. So what we do is we’re able to find out what they’re doing and, you know, the old expression it’s easier to work with someone who’s conscious of their incompetence than it is to work or someone who’s unconscious of their incompetence. So try to find those employers who are conscious of the problems they have, and they’re really trying to address it. And many times we start small. We go to them we say well let’s try a few. Once they see the results and they see the efficacy of these programs in comparison to what they’re doing, the adoption rate usually picks up pretty quickly, and, you know, moves from there. But again, every company is different. Every approach is different. Every need is different. And of course every person is different.
Hannah Nyren: That’s why they need extra help to make sure that they’re doing the right thing for their company.
Bruce Bergwall: I find most employers mean well when it comes to employee development and professional development of their folks. But it’s not their forte. And any time you can provide an assistance or support their efforts, most are very willing to find out what’s new. And again, Woz U is not by itself. There are many folks out there trying to address this. Many very reputable, many good companies, many that I’ve worked with in the past. For the right circumstance and the right situation, Woz U has an approach that I personally feel is, you know, more effective than others. But that’s why you have many different solutions.
Hannah Nyren: I think it’s really clever that you call it education as a service, because that’s a nice spin on software as a service. At this year’s Work+EDU event, you spoke on credentialing and recruiting in cyber software and data. So what do you think are some of the most in demand credentials in these fields?
Bruce Bergwall: Credentials are an interesting topic, because when it comes to software development credentials are less important than the collection of work that you’ve done that could be shared or reviewed by a hiring manager. Credentials do matter in many fields, many areas. But surprisingly less important in the software development side. Again, I don’t want to say this as a blanket statement. But it’s certainly been pretty consistent when talking with hiring managers. They’re not interested in whatever that credential may be. And I think one of the eye openers for me was, not too long ago, Google used to only hire software developers that came from Carnegie Mellon, MIT or CalTech. And maybe others, but that was the predominant schools you had to be from to work there.
Bruce Bergwall: And within a very short period of time they did away with that and it went pretty much 16 the 60 if you could do a series of algorithms. And that was a real interesting change from what I understood. Partially driven by the growth and demands of the Amazons and the Facebooks and all the other players that were out there. But the really good software developers almost can’t have a credential. It’s something that is almost self-taught. And there are people who learn this on their own. So credentialing in the software development piece, less so of an issue. What really is critical is the corpus of work that you have, not only what you’ve done but why you’ve done it.
Bruce Bergwall: And a key part of what Woz U provides its learners is what we call Woz U Connect. It’s sort of an online LinkedIn-like page where you can put all your projects. And then also have an opportunity to share them with prospective hiring managers. And again, show the work you’ve done, but also show and talk about why you did it, why you chose Java over Ruby. What was the reason behind it. You know was there a logic to the thought process? Because that’s the key to being a successful developer is the why, and why you are designing things a certain way. When it comes to topics like cybersecurity, credentialing is much more relevant and much more important. Because there are tests or are certifications that are required to be at certain levels in a secure environment. And it certainly makes more sense on that side.
Bruce Bergwall: Credentialing on the data science. Again, it can have a little bit more relevancy because there are degrees and there are credentials that could matter. But you can see that even amongst just the three programs we have, we have a range of what credentials matter and where credentials are placed. But the key is what is required to get the job and to be successful at it? And you know we see the slide between less important on the software development to more important on the cybersecurity side.
Hannah Nyren: That’s interesting to see how the need for credentials could really vary from field to field. And I do think that you’re not the first person to point out that a simple diagnostic can’t capture someone’s abilities as well as actually being able to see the work that they’ve done. And I can see how that particularly true for developers.
Bruce Bergwall: It is probably the most important criteria for success and to getting hired is being able to clearly and easily share the work that you’ve done. And share that project that is most pertinent to what that hiring manager may look at. And then be able to talk intelligently about why you designed it and why it was put together. Not that you’re just following a formula, but that you actually put some thought into it. That thinking, that creativity, is critical. One of our tenets here Woz U is that it’s one thing to learn the skill of software coding or learning the knowledge of software coding. It’s something else to have the other three skills that are essential are: the skills of design, problem solving and collaboration. Those are the things that separate just someone who knows how to punch numbers from someone who knows how to be a professional. And if you can incorporate those additional three, which we teach in Woz U, as part of your offering to an employer. It changes everything.
Hannah Nyren: You mentioned something that I think is a bit of a buzz word these days and that’s critical thinking. I don’t think you used the exact word, but the exact idea is there, that a lot of these things require a certain level of critical thinking. And that is one of the skills that many people have mentioned employers are looking for. What other qualities do you think employers are looking for right now and how can you support this?
Bruce Bergwall: One of the core tenets of the way Woz U’s curriculum is designed, again, is that it’s project-based. And we have both individual projects and group projects. And sort of a capstone approach is with a group project that can take anywhere from 80 to 120 hours complete. But it is one of the most critical parts of proving mastery is how effective you are at working with a group of people to build and solve a project. And again, as a student or enrollee in Woz U, you’re working with not only your student or collaborators on a project, but you’re also being watched and managed and tutored by a mentor, someone from the industry who deeply understands what you’re doing and has also been through the Woz U program.
Bruce Bergwall: So there is a lot of careful guidance and making certain that you’re focusing not on ‘am I right or wrong?’ But ‘am I working well with others and are we solving the problem collectively and working together?’ You know, there’s an old expression in the software development field that I’ve heard batted around that goes something like this: Most people know who the best software coders are in the company and most people know who the best people to work with to get something done. Rarely are they the same group.
Bruce Bergwall: Being that it’s so project-focused, teaching those collaboration and the ability to work well with others is a very foundational aspect at Woz U. And it’s hammered home in what we call the capstone or the group project that is part of software development and the data science programs.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah, and I think a lot of students in analytical fields aren’t necessarily taught the importance of communication and teamwork and, you know, working in a group project and things like that, as much as they will need those skills when they actually get into the workforce.
Bruce Bergwall: Hannah, I’ll go further. I’ll say most people aren’t taught those skills, regardless of what they’re working in.
Hannah Nyren: I mean that is true. Most people don’t learn those skills. But I feel like some fields that are much more fact-based and much more analytically focused, they don’t think they need to because, you know, their skills are so valuable. But they’re even more valuable if you can be well-rounded as well.
Bruce Bergwall: The ability to work well with others, I’ve heard over and over, may be one of the single most important and one of the most lacking skills for so many young folks coming into work nowadays. I’m actually struck by that. You know, I’ve done studies on how adults learn while in my previous employment. And looking at Gen baby boomers versus Gen X, Gen Y and Z. And there are some profound differences that are affecting how they learn, how they understand and how they see things. And it’s just remarkable that this ability to work well with others is not one of the priorities, is not something that’s out there. But it is essential to be successful at work, that you work well with others.
Hannah Nyren: So why is the work that you’re doing important to you personally? How do you think that this can contribute to the greater good?
Bruce Bergwall: I have a passion for helping people improve their lives through learning. Both personally, and through my family and through friends, I’ve seen how education and when I say education, I mean it can be anything from getting skilled as a truck driver or a plumber, to getting a degree as a physicist. But I’ve seen how it has changed, for the better, people’s lives in so many different ways. I just think that education and this ability to improve oneself just comes in so many different offerings and so many different ways than it has done in the past.
Bruce Bergwall: Most people have always thought that it’s got to be college bound, college-based and has to be handled in this very distinct way. There’s no question that going to college is important and is valuable for so many people. I would never put that down. But today there are so many opportunities available for people to either gain skills for employment or upskill themselves that do not require a college degree. And there are many others who feel the same way. And I think the opportunity to really impact people’s lives.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah I agree education is a hard industry not to love because you feel, you know, you see your reward when someone learns something no matter how simple it is. So I’m interested to see what you all do next and how what Woz U is doing effects, you know, the greater populace. So really interesting stuff here.
Bruce Bergwall: Well, thank you, Hannah. The world going forward as relates to software development is only going to increase. The opportunities for people to gain employment and see careers that may take them into software development, may take them into other areas. But this is just a skill set that opens up a whole new set of doors. The good news is the demand has just skyrocketing. Good news for the employee side. It’s tough on the employer side, because their growth and their ability to sustain themselves is based on their ability to find folks who can do this work. And it’s just accelerated. So I think folks like Woz U and many others are in a position to really help support jointly both the employer and the employee as we go forward. And our goal is to just make sure that we’re refining that process, improving that process, and delivering the quality instruction that the employees need and the support that employers need help build their operations.
Hannah Nyren: Thanks for speaking with me today Bruce, it’s been great. And I definitely learned a lot.
Bruce Bergwall: Thank you. Have a wonderful day.
Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.