Posted on April 18, 2019 by staff

Can a window-cleaning Lord fix the digital skills gap?


Andy Lord is an unlikely looking superhero but if he can fix the UK’s growing digital skills crisis then the only thing he’ll be missing will be a cape and a mask.

Cites like London, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester are building a large chunk of their future around the digital tech sector but face the real and present danger of not being able to find the people they need.

Which is where Andy Lord comes in. He recognised the widening problem a few years ago and set up Code Nation.

He said they don’t just teach people how to code and programme but how to get a job by teaching them life skills.

By working directly with businesses, companies can walk round their North West offices and if they see the person they want they can sign them up – and they are.

Although relatively early days in Code Nation’s history the statistics are impossible to ignore. Around 93 per cent of the paid students who have passed through the system have been offered a job within three days.

So who is the unlikely superhero and what’s his secret?

Lord is the youngest of three brothers from Bury. His dad worked as a plumber and his mum worked in a traditional Lancashire mill.

His dad wanted him to join the family business but his son quickly decided he didn’t want to be a plumber and recognised the fact he was rubbish at DIY.

He didn’t fare much better at school leaving without a single qualification.

“I found school to be the single most uninspiring place that I could ever turn up,” he says. “There were some brilliant teachers, I loved biology because I had a great biology teacher, I liked a couple of other subjects. It was a secondary modern comprehensive school. It was a place for battery hens, it didn’t fit with the way I learn.”

Despite his lack of academic success Lord says his experiences at school taught him that people learn in different ways.

“I’m convinced if I went to a doctor they’d say I’ve got ADHD,” he tells BusinessCloud. “If you can tap into a different style of teaching you get a different level of learning.”

Lord got a job on Bury market and forged a reputation for working hard. “I found I had a talent for motivating people,” he says. “I got promoted and promoted and ended up running their flagship stall which was in Bolton market. At the age of about 20 I had about 30 staff and loads of responsibilities.

“I think I have an inner belief that anyone can be anything they want but you don’t get it for free. The world’s a big place and you can do whatever you want, you have to apply yourself. If you wait for it to land in your lap there’s almost a certainty that it won’t.”

Lord says he sees a lot of his attitude in comments made by former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville.

“Gary Neville said he wasn’t a great footballer but he would just play more hours than everybody else and I think I have that mentality,” he explains.

Lord’s own career included spells of selling insurance, working in the kitchen of a French restaurant and setting up a window cleaning round at the age of 23.

Of his window cleaning round he recalls: “I learned that ‘cash is king’ because everyone paid cash so you had to be hardcore and knock on people’s doors on a Thursday night otherwise you couldn’t afford to go and clean the windows the week after.

“You’ve got to work really hard to make any money. My patch was in Bury, thousands of terraced houses at £1.50 per house. Clean them slowly you don’t make any money, clean them fast and you make a fortune. But it’s mind-numbingly boring, just great for a little time out.”

Lord ‘stumbled’ into technical recruitment and admits his attitude at the start was all wrong. “I’ve still got my written warning that says ‘you’ll never amount to anything, you think you know everything, you’re arrogant, you’re rude’,” he recalls. “Those were the days when HR didn’t mind if that was in a letter, I don’t think you could do that now.

“I look back now and think the guy that wrote it was 100 per cent correct. I spent a year being rubbish at it because I wouldn’t listen and thought I knew everything and then I found out I knew nothing and I listened and learned. What I became really good at was teaching others to become really good at it.”

A template emerged of Lord’s approach to life. “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever,” he says. “I live by that. It turns out I have a gift for that, of breaking things down into bite-sized chunks, getting people excited.”

His big break was setting up his own recruitment business called Rethink Group with some friends in 2005. Lord is still a shareholder in Rethink Group, which has a turnover of £130m.

“I earned a lot of money (at Rethink Group), I had a lot of fun,” he says. “I became the CEO of the group, I was the founder, worked with some really good guys.”

However at the age of 48 he realised something was missing in his life so he set up Code Nation in 2017 with a long-term customer called David Muir.

“He’s a genius,” says Lord. “His memory and retention for data and stats, his ability to forward calculate things in an instant is mindblowing. It makes a great foil for me because I don’t like the detail, I like the big stuff.

“We were talking about the digital skills crisis and I was thinking ‘What can I do in the Rethink Group that isn’t just doing what every other recruitment company in the world is doing?’

“I did some research about how they do this in America. They do boot camps in America. There’s a league table of boot camps, it’s more popular now than university. We decided we’d set up a coding school inside the recruitment business and Rethink Group gave me some latitude to go and do that.

“They could see it was a project of passion. I described it to the board as ‘the ultimate business card’. We could go and knock on any tech company door and say ‘if you give us this bit of work, the mid senior bit of work, we’ll do the junior recruitment for free and not only will we do it for free, we’ll make them for you, we’ll give you a bespoke pathway’. That was my thinking.”

Our interview takes place at Code Nation’s Manchester office. Lord’s desk is sparsely decorated, with nothing on his walls, which is at odds with the idea machine in his head.

Lord said he realised the potential of Code Nation when he chaired a roundtable of 14 internal recruiters in Manchester and they all spoke about the problems they were having tackling the skills gap.

“Between them the 14 organisations had 300 live technical roles to fill that day,” he explains. “If you take them as a microcosm of what’s going on in any city, times it by 100, it’s really obvious that demand outstrips supply.”

Lord realised he couldn’t combine the two roles at Rethink and Code Nation so resigned the first role and became CEO of the second.

Lord says the vision for Code Nation has always been simple – think big. “To make a difference you can’t train 100 people, you need to train thousands,” he says. “There will be at least one million people extra needed with digital skills to cope with the demand as it’s described today. In Manchester every business I speak to wants 10 or 20 and it’s getting worse, or better depending on which side of the table you’re on.

“I’m on the side that’s shamelessly philanthropic but entrepreneurial. I’m going to do the right thing for as many people that I can and access funding so people don’t have to pay, and make money out of doing it.

“So it’s still the vision – a nationwide business that has multiple classrooms and multiple curriculum. We do cyber and software now, we’ll probably do data science, probably blockchain, it’s the number one skill in America now, 56 per cent growth in one year of demand for people with blockchain skills.”

Code Nation work out of a series of classrooms in Spring Gardens, Manchester, which takes students on a ‘journey’. One room is devoted to a three-week cybersecurity course followed by a three-week coding course. The next two classrooms are devoted to 12-week courses and there’s as much a focus in teaching people skills as well as academic ones.

Around 95 per cent of the students on the three-week develop course are unemployed when they join Code Nation. Students can pay privately with courses costing £6,000. Lord is also a big fan of upskilling existing staff.

Code Nation has already built relationships with an impressive line-up of companies including, N Brown and EMIS Heath.

“We’re in the tech industry, if you want to cherry pick one of our students you have to come and do a ‘day in the life’ talk, you have to come in and share some knowledge with students not only about what it’s like to work in your organisation but also what the next big tech thing is,” explains Lord.

“Part of that is teaching the students great skills in how do I communicate? How do I ask questions? How do I treat a visitor when they come in? All the things that you perhaps take for granted but they’ve got to learn in business.

“The businesses that we call pledgers who support us send their junior and aspiring managers in to lead projects with our students so it’s a bit Yin and Yang.

“In return of being part of the community of which we have a huge queue, a student would be exposed to at least 20 businesses in 12 weeks. It sounds crazy. Come in on another day and we might have three businesses in.”

Visiting businesses can interview a student and offer them a job.Code Nation also takes advantage of the Apprenticeship Levy, which a lot of companies aren’t exploiting fully.

Lord says tech companies moving into cities like Manchester are going to struggle to find the talent they need.

“Brexit wasn’t in anyone’s equation when they made big plans to come to Manchester, he says. “Part of the solution was also the influx of international labour that likes to come to Manchester because it’s nice, it’s a great place to live and work. 20 per cent more foreign students are leaving even before the Brexit agreement than ever before so the problem is getting worse.

“If you’re in a tech business beware because the demand for the staff you’ve got already is enormous and tech staff in particular like to feel that they’re being continually developed and trained which is why the apprenticeship route is amazing.”

Code Nation employ 18-20 full time staff with 80 students and have opened a similar classroom in Chester, with plans to open other facilities in cities all over the UK. Leeds is very much on the agenda and they’re taking space at Nuneaton and Cambridge.

Lord believes Code Nation can teach 5,000 students a year and become a primary training provider for the digital skills sector. If that happens Lord will have deserved his superhero cape and mask.

  • Chris Maguire is the editor of BusinessCloud