What I learned from the #SkillsSkillsSkills hackathon

Salma Afzal, July 24, 2018 4 min read

Tech Nation procured a dataset from Adzuna, of every online job advert from the North of England in the last three years – a whopping 7 million of them. They hosted their first hackathon in partnership with the Open Data Institute Leeds to see what could be uncovered from the haul. Tech Nation opened their doors to the public and ran a hackathon for the very first time. Here are my thoughts from the day. 

Hackathons… they can be quite a daunting prospect. In my experience they can be quite competitive and male-dominated affairs. Attending a skills hackathon was a bit an experiment for me, but certainly one with great outcomes. As it turned out, having limited tech knowledge wasn’t a hindrance, and fittingly, there were roles for people with all kinds of skills and backgrounds there on the day.

Before the event itself, Henri Egle Sorotos of Tech Nation published his research findings on the North-North divide. One of the key findings was that a greater proportion of tech jobs were posted online in Greater Manchester compared to Leeds. This was a surprise given that Leeds has a strong economy that has enabled the city to recover well from the recession. This was something I wanted to investigate further.


One thing that was clear early on, is that there is a hugely diverse talent demand across the North of England, and innovative businesses and universities are driving skills demand in the digital, financial and creative sectors. To be clear, digital skills does not mean only computer wizards. In a fast, technology-driven world, most jobs require at least basic IT skills. In fact, Microsoft Excel and data skills are in the list of top 20 most in-demand labour market skills and attributes. Lucy Cousins delved into the skills demand on the day; you can find out more in her excellent blog.

Skills for each job

The online job adverts each included approximately 20 specified skills. These are the skills employers are looking for in applicants, when they advertise a job to the labour market. For some employers, the requirements were a combination of qualifications, experience, technical and specialist skills. For others the emphasis was more on specific skills and less on experience. Stuart from the ODI Leeds team, presented this visually in a creative way as a heat map. These skills are calculated using Natural Language Processing techniques of the raw text in each advert. And the possibilities were endless.

Having fun!

As a hackathon participant I was given the opportunity to work individually or as part a team; I felt there would be more value in exploring and pulling the dataset apart together. To kick off, we all stood around a large touch TV screen and Henri explained what each of the data columns represented. This was helpful, as it meant we could all start with a shared understanding of the dataset. We had an opportunity to ask questions, and ensure everyone understood the problem we were trying to solve, in a holistic way. This meant we could then pool our knowledge and identify any gaps in the data.

Drawing upon my experiences

My previous experience and transferable skills from an advisory role in a JobCentre really helped to shape our discussions. Helping people into work requires an understanding of local labour market conditions and employers needs, to match the right person to the right vacancy. I’d also spent 6 months in the Digital Group prior to my current role, which involved assisting with specialist digital recruitment campaigns. I developed knowledge about Communities of Practice and digital job families. I was able to share insights and experience from these roles and add value to the discussions, which the team appreciated.

One thing that struck me having previously worked in a JobCentre was that HR professionals will invariably have a different view to me on what constitutes a quality job advert. It was a shame there weren’t any HR professionals there on the day, and I would certainly encourage any to go along to a similar event in the future.

Job definitions

We found that the use of descriptive language often varied widely. For example Analysts included Business Analysts and Test Analysts. This actually made sense as we defined a skill in a broad way; sometimes experience in a certain sector was a requirement, in other cases specialist knowledge was in demand.

I happily enjoyed debating the following issues :

  • What is a skill? Does it include experience, specialist skills, qualifications or a combination?
  • What do we mean by core skills, generic skills and transferable skills?
  • Do we know how people search for jobs in the 21st century?
  • Are employers using multiple advertising methods, as well as placing the advert online for the same vacancy? Is advertising through Twitter more effective than just online via Adzuna?
  • What do we class as hard and soft skills? Can we learn both types?
  • Which skills do employers rate more highly?
  • Why are we always being taught to cater our CV to a particular job advert? Should we not just be writing our skills down on a page and sending it to potential employers?

Skills Mapping

Out of interest, I asked the hackers to map out their skills as if they were looking for a new role and had 60 seconds to show their skills to an employer. I showed mine as an example. Everyone in the group found this exercise hard, and some were unable to do it. I think this is testament to how hard quantifying a ‘skill’ actually is.

The 20 most in-demand skills and attributes for all Northern jobs including both tech skills and non-tech skills. Communication was rated at number 1, which perhaps isn’t a surprise, as it’s a core leadership skill. Management was at number 2. I was pleased that Policy made it on the list at number 18!

The outcome of this hackathon was a deep dive of the datasets to scope out the themes and trends of skills shortages. By doing this we can see which regions are ripe for skills investment. I am very much looking forward to the followup hackathons where outcomes will be prioritised and solutions identified.

I’m passionate about the education policy agenda, and my parents had always taught us to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. At the hackathon I felt I could not only add value and share my skillset with others, but help identify solutions to improve the economy of Leeds, and shape the education policy agenda for the next generation.

Data & research, Guest Posts, Yorkshire