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WeThinkCode seeks next-generation coding stars

Co-founder Arlene Mulder (centre) says the idea is give students the life skills needed to make it in the tech world.

Co-founder Arlene Mulder (centre) says the idea is give students the life skills needed to make it in the tech world.

Tech incubator WeThinkCode is in the midst of its first four-week boot camp to find talented young students to join the coding school.

Around 100 students are taking part in the first of three boot camps and working through multiple coding challenges to fight for limited spaces in the WeThinkCode two-year training programme, set to kick off in May.

Co-founder Arlene Mulder says 24 000 applications have been received since the online process kicked off in October. To qualify, applications must pass two tests − an online memory game and a logic game − but it's not as easy as it sounds.

"Out of the 24 000 applications, there has only been a 2% pass rate," according to Mulder.

The best and brightest are taking part in the first WeThinkCode boot camp at its newly opened headquarters in Johannesburg's CBD.

To make it through the boot camp, the students have to solve various coding challenges every day, teach themselves coding languages and write weekly exams. There are no teachers, no books and no lectures, and students have to rely on themselves and their peers to make it through each challenge.

"At the end of the four weeks, we are looking at a lot of different things, not just their grades for exercises and exams but also factors like the student's motivation, resilience and attitude," says Mulder.

Co-founder Camille Agon says the plan is to have two or three boot camps and then a total of only 120 students will be chosen to take part in the free two-year course.

WeThinkCode's aim is to transform technology education in SA, and source and train Africa's future tech talent.

WeThinkCode's aim is to transform technology education in SA, and source and train Africa's future tech talent.

The boot camp is a taste of what the actual course will be like and Mulder says students need to prove they can thrive in this "very different environment".

"It's not your traditional education model where there is a teacher standing in front of the class saying you have to think in this box or move at the same pace. There are strict rules on the outside but ultimately it's really up to the students.

"They have all of these resources at their disposal but they have to make the most of it and work together to come up with ways to solve problems and find new crazy ideas. That is how they will thrive at WeThinkCode," adds Mulder.

"Coding is at the heart of everything but coding is just the tool to solve problems. We want to give much more than that in terms of life skills, to make sure they make it through firstly the boot camp and then the two years."

Business model

The WeThinkCode school follows the same curriculum developed and used by 42 in Paris and is 42's third overall campus, and the first in Africa. Agon says the students will learn different coding languages as well as the skills needed "to become a holistic software engineer".

WeThinkCode co-founders Arlene Mulder, Yossi Hasson and Camille Agon.

WeThinkCode co-founders Arlene Mulder, Yossi Hasson and Camille Agon.

Agon says that for each year of the two-year course, the students spend eight months at the school and then four months working as an intern at one of the corporate sponsors funding the school.

"At the end of the two years, our students have to work for these corporates for at least a year. But it's really nice because now they have a clear path to employment and access to the workplace at companies they want to work for," says Mulder.

The school has big expansion plans. In 2016, it will have 120 students but aims to expand that to 250 and then 500, and eventually would like to have over 1 000 students per year.

All walks of life

The school is open to anyone between the age of 17 and 35 who shows an aptitude for coding, no matter their background or previous education.

"Some of the students have actually studied before − computer science or engineering − but some have not finished matric and some have never worked with computers before," says Mulder.

WeThinkCode has officially opened its doors for the first of three boot camps at its campus in downtown Johannesburg.

WeThinkCode has officially opened its doors for the first of three boot camps at its campus in downtown Johannesburg.

Shaldon Nienaber was studying IT at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University but found the course did not offer what he wanted to learn to be able to create games and apps. The 22-year-old aims to become the next young tech giant by designing a successful app like SnapChat or WhatsApp.

He has already started programming his own apps but says he lacks specific skills to make them more successful, something he hopes to learn if he makes it into the school.

"I feel at home here because everyone is in the mind-set of coding and everyone knows we need to help one another out in order to get somewhere. We have been learning a lot and it's been quite hard, but as they say: nothing great comes easy," he says.

Twenty-three-year-old Dineo Mojela was working in hospitality before she heard about WeThinkCode. She has never done coding before but felt she needed to experience coding and find out if it was for her.

"At first it was a little hard but with the peer-to-peer help now I can write an exercise alone and code alone."

Girl power

Mojela is one of only eight women out of the 100 boot camp participants. The lack of women in the course is something the co-founders are set on addressing.

"We are very passionate about getting more women into coding so we are working on some big campaigns going forward," says Mulder.

She acknowledges it is not only a South African issue because "worldwide there is a massive shortage of women in tech".

Bootcamp students hard at work.

Bootcamp students hard at work.

"I think that once we have the first women that make it into the school they can become role models for younger girls."

Mojela hopes to be one of those role models and is fighting to break the stereotype that tech is a man's world.

"We need to encourage young girls; they need to know this is not just for men, they can do it. As long as you can type on a computer or use Facebook you can do this," says Mojela.

"We all believe the world of tomorrow will be made by computer programmers and people working in tech and so we also need women. Diversity will be key," Agon concludes.

The course is free for students because of sponsorship from founding sponsors FNB, BBD and Derivco, as well as other corporate sponsors, including RMB, Allan Gray, IQ Business, L'Oréal and Student Village.

The sponsors provide cash and offer the students on-the-job experience through paid internships and the promise of at least a year's employment when they finish the course.


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