Nearshore Americas

Q&A: The Development Lifecycle of an IT University in Mexico

In the face of talent shortages, several IT providers have opted to build a university of their own. The strategy allows for direct access to a fresh crop of tech graduates, while ensuring that their skill set is market-relevant out of the gate.

The solution seems to be paying dividends, but the question remains: is it working as intended?

To answer that question, NSAM spoke with Raymundo Contreras, Principal at the Ksquare Tech Institute (known as ITK). Raymundo provides a comprehensive look at how Ksquare Group built its own university in Mexico’s southeast; from the paperwork required to the process of edifying a complete curriculum, he puts it all on the table.

Raymundo also shared data on ITK’s performance in relation to Ksquare as a company, his thoughts on the role that institutions like ITK play in the market and if these institutions have a future in the knowledge ecosystem as a whole.

NSAM: On paper, what is the Ksquare Technological Institute?

Raymundo Contreras: Official documentation speaks of a non-governmental association which provides higher education studies, training programs, etc. 

We began as a Ksquare project to train fresh graduates. This evolved to the point in which we find ourselves today: being an actual higher education institution, on paper. We have authorization from Yucatan’s Secretariat for Innovation, Research and Higher Education (SIIES). We became an educational institution formally on May 13, 2021.

NSAM: That’s quite recent.

Raymundo Contreras, Principal at Ksquare Tech Institute

Raymundo Contreras: Yes, two years ago. The project itself began in 2019, as a school for skills development. We began receiving students back then, but given the company’s proximity to Yucatan’s state government, we decided to begin the paperwork to become an actual post-grad educational institution. 

NSAM: So you’re not a university in the typical sense of the word?

Raymundo Contreras: We are a university, yes, but our curriculum focuses on the post-grad level.

NSAM: How does a provider of IT services open up a school? From a regulatory standpoint. 

Raymundo Contreras: I don’t know who the company approached first; I wasn’t working at Ksquare then. But when I came on board as an educational consultant, they told me: “Look, we have this program that’s mostly practical. We bring people in, we train them and it works. But we want to take this to a higher level; we want certification.” They wanted a formal curriculum. 

We approached SIIES. The Secretariat makes a yearly call to any person who wishes to create a school from scratch. It’s a lot of paperwork. It takes from six months to a year, and you have to prove that you have a building with the proper characteristics to function as a school; that you have a curriculum and several study plans. Every year, they’ll evaluate your curriculum, once it’s been greenlit. We took care of the whole process, balancing Ksquare’s needs and the regulatory requirements for a school. 

The idea was to bring fresh graduates and offer them a formative program. As a program that gives you access to a company, ours is quite good. 

When I arrived, I saw what they were doing and only had to articulate a couple points. They had the technical part down, but they needed soft skills and English training. We also had to add software analysis as part of the syllabus; our students couldn’t be mere coders.

That’s how we built the curriculum, which was narrowed down to a year of studies. That timeframe couldn’t correspond to a master’s or a bachelor’s degree, so we opted to turn it into a specialization [in software engineering].  

NSAM: What you’re describing is a general study plan for the industry. I thought you built your program thinking of serving Ksquare’s needs, specifically. 

Raymundo Contreras: We aimed to provide a double benefit to any of the program’s beneficiaries. Some of our prospects don’t even have a bachelor’s. 

The program was designed like this: the company trains you to be market-ready; once that’s done, you can continue studying a specialization, which encompasses a broader field. We’re speaking of the legal implications of software development; of what finishing a piece of software actually means; about scalability and maintenance. All of that is covered in the late stages of the program. 

A curriculum takes about a year to be approved, and your first graduate from that program will come six years later. In those six years, the market has changed drastically.

NSAM: Are the teachers Ksquare engineers?

Raymundo Contreras: Teachers are experts in their area, each and every one. Some form part of our organization. There are also external folks who support us with lectures, workshops or actual courses, but always in very specific topics. We have a JavaScript instructor, for example, who only gives coding classes. Then we have a core professor who covers theory and other topics that students might not be in tune with when they’re coding; topics such as data structure, control, cybersecurity.

NSAM: How long does it take for a student to specialize?

Raymundo Contreras: Three four-month periods. A year, basically.

NSAM: How many students enroll into each program?

Raymundo Contreras: It depends on demand from the market, from our company. We’ve had generations of more than 45 people, and small ones of 10. It fluctuates.

NSAM: How about graduates? How many per year?

Raymundo Contreras: 101 students graduated from our training program over the past year. For the specialization program, we had 17 graduates. But we’ve only seen a single generation for that one. 

NSAM: Do students come from other companies to enroll in your school?

Raymundo Contreras: We don’t know if a student comes from another company or not; we don’t look into that. What we do have is people who’re not interested in our scholarship or in the onboarding program, but who want to take the courses. If that’s the case, no problem. But we do have a very strict recruitment process. We screen candidates’ English levels, their technical expertise; we apply written and in-person exams, coding tests. After that, we have a discussion panel in which we evaluate candidates; we observe their problem-solving process. All of this allows us to decide who’ll be let into the program. We’re looking for the biggest talents available at the moment.

This gap in skills, that’s changing. I’ve noticed that last-semester students or recent grads are really concerned about learning outside school.

We offer a scholarship to all of our students: 10,000 MXN [about US$570] a month to study with us for a semester. After those six months, we interview them. If students are ready, we offer them a job. They can continue studying as Ksquare staff, as entry-level software engineers.

NSAM: What’s the percentage of Ksquare personnel that came from the company’s school?

Raymundo Contreras: 28% of our staff came from the Ksquare Tech Institute.

Our current Project Management Lead graduated from our school. We have several graduates who’ve done an outstanding job, particularly in project management. There are software devs too, obviously. We handle UX/UI, JavaScript, Java, Salesforce, Oracle and Flutter.

NSAM: Are your courses taught remotely? 

Raymundo Contreras: Ksquare itself has its offices, but most of our employees do remote work. The school’s different. We’re required by law to impart courses on campus.

NSAM: Do you plan to open schools in other states in Mexico?

Raymundo Contreras: I couldn’t tell. No, as far as I understand. Ksquare is headquartered in Dallas, and it has offices in India, Mexico, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Our center for excellence is located in Merida [Yucatan, Mexico], at least for now. 

NSAM: Companies open universities to cover gaps in the supply and demand for tech talent. How wide is this gap?

Raymundo Contreras: It is wide. The thing here is that, if graduates don’t stay up to date, if they conform with the knowledge imparted in school, it’s very likely that they will lag behind. Consider that a curriculum takes about a year to be approved, and your first graduate from that program will come six years later. In those six years, the market has changed drastically.

Many schools have opted for more flexible curriculums. There’s a certain freedom of choice in courses, at least in the late stages of the school program; a particular technology will be removed to make room for a newer one that’s more in tune with the market. But schools like that are few. 

When graduates walk into a company, thye’re evaluated. It turns out that, most times, they’re not ready to go. In Ksquare, we take graduates and update their skillset. We also acclimatize them to our company culture. This proves quite useful when they’re facing a project. They know how to work, which are the areas within the company; they know there will be a project manager accompanying them in their work; they become familiar with the processes, applications and good practices. 

The needs of businesses can be very specific, and any single educational institution will have a hard time fulfilling all of those needs

I believe that this gap in skills, that’s changing. I’ve noticed that last-semester students or recent grads are really concerned about learning outside school. They do research on platforms such as LinkedIn to learn what’s new. Then they take courses, attend lectures and move around. They don’t conform with what the school offered them. There’s still a long way to go, though.

NSAM: Will educational institutions like the Ksquare Tech Institute become unnecessary once traditional universities manage to successfully bridge the gap between talent supply and demand?

Raymundo Contreras: I think there will always be a gap between what the graduates know and the specific skills required for an entry-level job. Those differences will have to be complemented, and if students won’t bridge the gap themselves, then there’s us. 

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In my view, there should be a shift in the mindset of families themselves, in how people are educated from the beginning. Students should be taught, from the very start, that school is not enough. It is helpful, it will help you develop specific skills that you won’t be able to learn at home. Yet I, as a parent, should teach my children that more things lie beyond; more answers, multiple forms of intelligence. School, after all, will try to fit people into labeled boxes.

As long as schools treat every person as an indistinguishable unit, we [Ksquare’s university] will stay around. We’ll keep servicing companies that need us. The needs of businesses can be very specific, and any single educational institution will have a hard time fulfilling all of those needs. We still have time. 

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

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