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Babbel Neos: the story of eight new junior engineers at Babbel

Gabor Torok –

Babbel Neos was born in May 2018: a Berlin-based, salaried engineering training program for applicants from unconventional, non-computer-science backgrounds. Our target? The aspiring developer who might find it difficult to get a job, otherwise. Through the program we cultivated a mentoring culture and sought to increase diversity within our engineering teams. Six months later, at the program’s conclusion, we hired all eight trainees as junior software engineers at Babbel. They all come from different cultural and professional backgrounds. Six of the eight are women.

Our values, the harvest

Finding our way

There’s still a monoculture in the tech space of privileged, young men with computer science backgrounds. It’s very difficult for historically marginalized groups and career-changers to secure a job in this field. Companies often focus on hiring experienced engineers, while early career developers are overlooked. More and more companies have been getting a grasp on the value of diversity, yet they hesitate to take bold steps forward. There are solutions and examples to follow though.

At Babbel, a core part of our identity is that we are a learning company. We strongly believe that diversity makes us stronger. These values are essential to our culture. They served both as inspiration and guide rails when we designed the Babbel Neos program.

We set three goals for ourselves to accomplish:

  • Attract and cultivate junior talent
  • Increase diversity within the engineering team
  • Support engineers in strengthening their mentoring skills

Hiring engineers is quite difficult in Berlin. There is a market trend of mainly hiring senior engineers. At the same time, juniors foster a learning environment. They create opportunities for senior engineers to improve their mentoring skills. In a balanced organization, creating development opportunities for engineers is as important as attracting new talent.

Diversity isn’t merely about gender diversity. Instead of promoting the same voices, we were keen to look for people with a diverse set of cultural and professional backgrounds.

“And just because this is someone’s first development job, doesn’t mean that they’re ‘junior’. Career switchers bring so many transferable skills to our industry, and often it’s the communication or soft skills that can be most difficult to learn on the job.” Mercedes Bernard: Empowering Early Career Devs

Our values, the harvest

The spark for Babbel Neos didn’t come straight from the engineering team. It was ignited within the People & Culture circle, a committee formed by employees working in HR, Product, Engineering, and other areas throughout Babbel. It was this collaboration that not only kickstarted the project, but also served as an example of what we wanted it to be: a union of different perspectives brought together to trigger fresh ideas. We were also inspired by two other companies that had similar initiatives — Prezi Jump and SoundCloud’s DeveloperBridge. We’re grateful for their openness in sharing their lessons learned with us.

We also reached out to coding bootcamps and tech communities in Berlin to establish a hiring funnel that represented the audience we wanted to attract. The interest we received in less than a month was amazing: almost 200 applications, and there was a steady stream of positive feedback about offering such a training program. This was our confirmation — there’s a strong need for this. The program even got nominated for the HR Excellence Awards, Germany.

It’s a learning journey for all

Meanwhile, we recruited mentors internally, too. Hiring more juniors without providing sufficient mentorship is a recipe for failure.

There’s a misconception that software engineering is solely about writing code, and therefore growing as an engineer only happens through getting more technically skilled. Engineers working together and sharing their learning processes are able to progress more quickly. When onboarding new members, mentoring juniors is crucial for a team’s resilience. And in the midst of this, becoming a mentor is a chance to revisit concepts that you might have taken for granted and to cultivate the next generation of senior engineers. Mentoring is about building a relationship. It cannot be merely taught; it requires practice and mutual support.

Throughout the six months of the training program, each trainee had the training lead and an additional, dedicated mentor available to them. The mentors themselves met as a group as well, coming together on a regular basis to exchange knowledge and best practices. Senior engineers also offered workshops to share their technical expertise with the trainees. The first three months of the program was a learning period. The trainees studied online courses, did pair programming, and worked on project assignments. During the second phase, they picked teams and joined them to learn more about their team’s tech stack and team practices. This second phase also created an opportunity for the teams to improve their onboarding processes. Throughout the whole engineering team, our training program created a learning momentum that became evident, day by day, in each team.

Building a product for the world

“Not everything is a tech problem.” —Thomas Holl, Babbel CTO

Babbel’s mission is to help people make connections by learning languages. To build a product for the world, we need the world to create it. The lack of technical skills is not the main bottleneck anymore; technical skills can be acquired comparably easily. But a product designed from a narrow set of social and professional experiences will fall short of the needs of a diverse customer base. We need people who understand and empathize with those needs and therefore design and develop a language learning tool that helps people speak a new language with confidence.

And in order to get there, we are looking forward to organizing the next generation of Babbel Neos in 2019! Are you interested in leading the training program? Join us for this journey!

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