Developer upskilling platform Wilco is launching today armed with $7 million in seed funding and a unique “flight simulator” platform.
The platform enables developers with a penchant for playing videogames to experience real-world engineering challenges designed to accelerate their professional growth. Today’s seed funding round was led by Hetz Ventures, Flybridge Capital Partners and Shopify Inc. Vice President of Engineering Farhan Thawar.
Wilco has created a unique, videogamelike developer training platform that gives users the chance to work at a “fantasy tech company” and complete various quests and challenges in order to acquire more professional skills. The quests are designed to help developers learn how to navigate complex, lifelike scenarios using the tools they’re familiar with.
One of the first quests users will be tasked with is designed to hone their skills at debugging and communication. They’ll be notified through a workplace messaging app of a mysterious issue affecting the fantasy company’s primary app. The developer needs to analyze the data to identify affected users, recreate the issue on their own device, find the troublesome code that’s causing it, and then push a fix through the app’s code repository on GitHub, similar to how they would go about fixing such a problem in real life.
Wilco co-founder and Chief Executive On Freund said that until now, the only way for developers to acquire the kinds of soft skills the game teaches, such as team communication, debugging complex systems and responding to crises while under pressure, was by learning on the job. That’s a big problem, he said, especially for new developers, because it comes very slowly.
“The day-to-day of a developer’s job doesn’t expose them often enough to new experiences,” he pointed out. “Gaining initial experience takes years and after that it’s even slower because the more experienced you are, the less likely it is that you’re going to be exposed to something you haven’t seen before.”
There are other problems with on-the-job learning too, including the potential for disaster if developers get things wrong when they’re faced with a new problem, Freund said.
Freund explained that the videogame approach to learning is not only a faster and more practical way for developers to gain more experience, but it’s also more enjoyable. “As the head of engineering at companies like WeWork and Handy, one of the problems I saw with many of the professional growth products is that they’re top down and boring,” he said. “Developers don’t like using them. We wanted to create something really engaging, and the fantasy world that provides the simulations naturally lends itself to gaming.”
Freund promised that Wilco’s simulations are extremely realistic, with developers able to seek guidance and assistance from virtual coworkers via the messaging app, similar to today’s remote working environments. He said each quest is designed to be as close as possible to real life, with developers able to use their own tools to solve them.
As an example, developers might be thrown into a scenario where they’re told the company has a performance problem in production. They’ll be asked to look into it, figure out what happened, what the root cause is and the extent of the damage. Then they’ll have to fix the issue, all the while communicating what’s going on to stakeholders.
“Our focus is not on simply fixing things, which might even be trivial, but more on aspects such as how do you even know something is wrong?” Freund said. “What do you do to investigate it? When do you go for a quick and dirty fix, versus something more meaningful? And how do you ensure that lessons are learned and implemented? These are the things that developers can only pick up by experiencing them firsthand.”
Wilco also spices up the narrative to engage developers even more. Each character in the game has its own distinct personality, he promised. “As you progress, even the fantasy company has more to it than meets the eye,” Freund said. “It is not necessarily what it appears to be.”
The individual quests in Wilco are designed to cover an array of key software engineering skills, concepts and scenarios that developers can expect to face in their careers. Some have also been developed with partners such as New Relic Inc. and Applitools Inc. to give developers hands-on, real-world experience with some of the most commonly used tools in the industry. “Wilco has created an original way for developers to gain experience with tools,” said New Relic Director of Developer Advocacy Jemiah Sius.
For the developers who complete Wilco’s quests, they’ll gain exactly the kind of hands-on experience that so many companies are looking for in new applicants. Freund admitted that in the beginning, some employers might raise a few eyebrows the first time they hear that an applicant acquired a specific skillset from Wilco, but he said most developer recruitment processes rely on technical interviews and tests. So if an applicant aces an evaluation, few employers will care exactly how those skills were obtained.
“What the Wilco platform gives users is the opportunity to accelerate their growth, by putting them in real production situations and helping them hone the skills required to handle them,” Freund said. “Your public profile at Wilco can showcase your achievements and accomplishments on our platform. This is akin to how developers treat their StackOverflow profile, or their open-source contributions on GitHub, as an extension of their resume.”
Later in the year, Wilco will add the ability for users to edit the existing quests the platform offers, allowing them to create their own customized quests. In future, there will also be a more competitive aspect with quest leaderboards that allow developers to compare their performance to others. “Right now we’re focused on the single-person experience, but in the future, we’ll have leaderboards, multiplayer quests and so much more,” Freund promised.
Holger Mueller of Constellation Research Inc. told SiliconANGLE that increasing developer velocity is a key strategy for software-dependent enterprises today. For that reason, professional upskilling and learning tools are crucial, he said, creating an opportunity for Wilco.
“Learning combined with gamification looks like a powerful formula for upskilling success,” Mueller continued. “What stands out with Wilco is that it goes beyond the classic code focus, adding key capabilities around communication and collaboration that are essential skills for successful coding careers.”
The Wilco platform will launch soon. Currently the company is inviting developers to join a waitlist, with access to its platform set to be granted in the coming days and weeks.