By Hawkins Pham
In early December, tens of millions of people around the globe, including here in Vietnam, will be coming together to learn basic programming skills in the Hour of Code, a global movement spanning over 180 countries.
Nearly 40 million people have participated in the Hour of Code since the program began last year, some of them taught by industry luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.
Events surrounding the Hour of Code will take place this week, December 8-14, coinciding with Computer Science Education week. Vietnam will have 26 different hosts, ranging from universities and high schools to private corporations. However, only two of the participating high schools are local schools under the Department of Education. The remaining are international schools or private schools.
But don't be too concerned about the lack of participation from public secondary schools. In fact, the rest of the world is really only catching up to Vietnam, whose public schools are known for introducing computer science into the curriculum at a very early age.
But the supply of computer science grads in Vietnam is not keeping up with demand. Attracting new students who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to science and technology is a major emphasis for those trying to grow the talent pool.
"The spirit of the Hour of Code is to attract non-Computer Science or non-technical minded students into computer programming," according to Octavio Heredia, associate director at Arizona State University, Fulton School of Engineering. He added that, "we see the same issues in Vietnam that we see in the U.S. and all across the world--there are not enough computer science graduates to fill the demand from industry."
Demand for computer science grads is on the rise
Addressing a private audience in downtown Ho Chi Minh City last month, Scott Farquhar, co-founder of Atlassian, explained to the tech-heavy crowd why he and his partners chose to open a development office in Vietnam.
Farquhar acknowledged that one of the main draws was computer literacy among Vietnamese students. He commented that, "Vietnam is ahead of most of its peers and other international countries because of the emphasis on teaching computer science in primary and secondary school."
After reviewing potential partners around the globe, Atlassian settled on a partnership with Pyramid Consulting in Vietnam. With a current in-country headcount of 150, Atlassian aims to double that number in 2015.
Vietnam's software development industry is already highly competitive for talent, and outsourcing companies aren't the only groups seeking top engineering grads.
Companies like Intel, Samsung, and LG have invested billions in the country's electronics manufacturing industry, shifting plant production to Vietnam, where wages are more competitive. This has given rise to an electronics export industry that, while still relatively nascent, generated $38 billion in export turnover in 2013.
Vietnam's master plan is for the information technology sector to contribute 8-10 percent of GDP by 2020. Coinciding with this goal, the country will need a total of 411,000 trained information technology workers by 2018. A report cited by Bloomberg indicated that the nation has only 250,000 today.
STEM education in Vietnam
Heredia and Arizona State University are strong proponents of developing the talent pipeline in Vietnam and have established the Higher Engineering Education Alliance Program (HEEAP) in partnership with United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Intel. The alliance has been joined by other companies including Siemens, National Instruments, and Danaher.
For Intel, HEEAP is only one component of a multifaceted investment in Vietnam's education system. The chipmaker has granted scholarships to Vietnamese university students to study engineering in the U.S. and also sponsors K-12 initiatives involving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), such as the Young Makers Challenge.
That program was established with Everest Education, a private education center in Ho Chi Minh City founded by Vietnamese Americans. The Center of Science and Technology Development at the Youth Union, a STEM oriented governmental agency, is also an organizer.
"This is an exciting opportunity for Vietnamese students, as they will be introduced to cutting-edge technology and joining a community of development enthusiasts around the world," according to Don Le, CEO of Everest Education. "We hope to identify and inspire Vietnam's next generation of inventors," he added.
Other cutting-edge educational initiatives include the Innovation Partnership Programme (IPP), financed by the governments of Vietnam and Finland. The €7 million program is aimed at building a more robust ecosystem for innovation in Vietnam, with a strong focus on educational partnerships.
Counting down to the Hour of Code
Local students need help. Industry critics have claimed that Vietnamese students pick up fairly quickly on hard skills but blame the country's "chalk and talk" education system for a lack of critical thinking and teamwork experiences. Says Michael Le, founder of Somotsoft and one of the pioneering investors in Vietnam's computer software industry: "Our engineers need more intensive training in project management, teamwork, communication, and quality control to be ready for the next round of disruptive technology innovations."
The Hour of Code may help spawn a new generation of computer science advocates in Vietnam. However, to properly nurture the country's next generation of engineers, there will need to be a considerable amount of investment into education at both the secondary and tertiary levels. Vietnam's many STEM initiatives are still new. Now is the time to build and scale these programs so Vietnam's tech industry can be globally competitive.
Hawkins Pham is head of advisory at Indochina Capital and an advisor to Everest Education focusing on STEM initiatives. @hawkinspham