by Alice Bonasio

How doing good can help CIOs do better

Sep 26, 2017
IT LeadershipIT Skills

Bridging the digital skills gap, addressing the diversity problem in technology, and making the world a better place. It’s all good business.

“Technology is poised to create a world of incredible prosperity and opportunity or incredible inequity, so our mission is to democratize technology to the world, and by so doing close the digital skills gap,” says Aaron Skonnard, President and CEO of Pluralsight.

In an environment where the typical software engineer has to re-develop their skillset every 12 to 18 months to keep up with changes in technology, the learning platform that Skonnard founded 13 years ago has tapped into the huge demand for high-level digital skills. A recent report by Stack Overflow showed that developers are increasingly diversifying the way they learn, and that they generally did not evaluate their colleagues on the level of their education but on a well-rounded skill set.

“If you are choosing to be a developer today, you are choosing to be a lifelong learner, there’s no other way to survive.” says Skonnard. “The best developers are the ones who really love to learn and are committed to keeping learning. That’s very true of tech in general, which is what makes this market so unique to us.”

Pluralsight now work with about 40% of fortune 500 companies and boast a valuation of almost $1 billion. Their community of course authors consists of a highly curated group of industry experts working as contractors to generate exclusive content for the platform. “We spearfish for best authors and best teachers in the industry, out of 100 accept only 1 or 2,” explains Skonnard. Their author community is currently about 1500 strong, and they can earn substantial royalties through their content – their top author made over $2 million last year.

I met Skonnard at the company’s inaugural Pluralsight Live conference in Salt Lake City. The area is home to a surprisingly vibrant cluster of technology companies, known as “Silicon Slopes,” but a lot of people had travelled from much further afield to be there, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, who herself has always been a passionate advocate for education.

But in spite of the usual tech conference celebratory mood, the focus of the event was on tackling some the big issues facing the technology industry, and society in general. And in Pluralsight’s vision, the two are fundamentally aligned:

“Bringing together the demand for tech skills and the talent that currently does not have the access to training and resource is the easiest and surest way to break the cycle of poverty. We have to tackle both at the same time and there are no shortcuts,” Skonnard told the 1800 attendees during his opening keynote. “We will create a future for marginalized communities and transform technology learning.”

One of the features announced at the conference that they believe will help towards that goal was Pluralsight IQ, a score (ranging from 0-300) that tells you where your various skills stack up against the global population of developers. There are currently has 45 skill assessments available across a variety of subjects, including Angular, C#, JavaScript and Python, with plans to quickly grow the collection.

“In as little as five minutes and 20 questions, technologists around the world can measure their current skill level and receive a verified Pluralsight IQ, which provides a quantified measure of their current skill proficiency, a timestamp that reflects the relevancy of their score and an easy way for them to showcase it.”

There’s this guy in Lagos, Nigeria who just tweeted about getting his first Pluralsight score, and he got a 238 in Javascript (he was part of the A-B testing group) And that person now knows they’re in the 93rd percentile of all Javascript developers globally, and would be considered an expert. This fellow is a great example of someone who like the companies in the US would know nothing about but there’s a person there who could really be a part of closing the tech skills gap,” says Skonnard. And since the test is free for anyone to take anywhere in the world, this creates a large amount of useful data that businesses can tap into: “We can give CIOs the tools they need to tap into all that experience and brilliance that might have been hidden before. And because of how accessible it is, that really plays into the social impact side too.” he adds.

That social impact half of the strategy is called Pluralsight One, a pledge by the company to dedicate at least 1% of its resources (product, time, profit and equity) to help learning, technology and philanthropy through supporting nonprofit organizations to equip the people they serve with technology skills.

Lindsey Kneuven, the newly engaged head of social impact at Pluralsight, believes the high-speed pace of technological change is introducing new types of vulnerability for those who are underserved or impoverished. “Through Pluralsight One, advancements in technology will now provide these same groups with incredible opportunities to solve complex, global challenges and create solutions for a better, more abundant world,” she says.

There are many successful examples of digital skills being leveraged in this way, such as TechHire Eastern Kentucky which taught coding skills to people in regions struggling with the decline in traditional industries such as coal mining.

“The way we’re going to be able to close the gap is by really reaching out to all those marginalised communities around the world where technology can open up a whole new future to them and we want to serve them. Creating the skills in those communities will increase the diversity across the tech industry and bring a whole new set of experiences and brilliance into it. We can give them the tools they need to develop those skills, and technology can open up a whole new future for them.” adds Skonnard.

This is far from charity in the traditional sense, however. Although it is easy to see the social value of these initiatives, the commercial benefits for corporations struggling to find the skills to execute on their technology strategy is very considerable indeed.

“Right now CIOs and CTOs are in charge of some of the most mission-critical projects in the world and they’re doing it without any real insight into the technological skills of those people, but now our enterprise customers are going to be able to see all this data from the Pluralsight IQ test through our skills analytics and our channel analytics,” says Skonnard, adding that A CIO leveraging such tools would be able to assess the skills across their entire organisation (and even outside it) in real time, and find specific talents which might otherwise have remained hidden.

Skonnard likens this to Moneyball – the story of the Billy Beane – recently played by Brad Pitt in a movie adaptation of the story – the general Manager of the Oakland A’s who propelled his low-budget baseball team to success using maths and science: “This guy was able to discover talent that nobody else in the world knew about but because of the data they could see it and put together a team that wasn’t full of all stars, but because of the data they actually went out and won. So you can think of us as Moneyball for CIOs.”

At a time where the dominant business and political discourse often seems to assume that doing good is diametrically opposed to doing well, it’s refreshing to see companies demonstrating this is a actually a false dichotomy. CIOs everywhere have the unique opportunity to do both, addressing their company’s greatest pain points and blockers to growth while at the same time helping to solve the broader societal issues caused by inequality. All it takes is a concerted and proactive strategy that acknowledges the problem, and a strong commitment towards executing it in the long term.