BORN TO CODE, trained to succeed

A new method of teaching aims to turn disadvantaged students into world-class coders.

Read time 6min 30sec
Camille Agon and Arlene Mulder, WeThinkCode_.
Camille Agon and Arlene Mulder, WeThinkCode_.

An innovative scheme to train a skilled force of computer coders could see South Africa become a world-renowned software development hub.

That sounds like hyperbole, but the WeThinkCode_ initiative has already generated some impressive momentum - and it's only just begun.

The organisation is offering two years of free training, then a job with sponsors as diverse as First National Bank, BBD, Derivco, Dimension Data, Allan Gray, Nando's and L'Oreal.

Almost 30 000 interested people logged onto its website, but two thirds withdrew after reading the onerous conditions. Of the 10 000 who took its online test, only 600 actually passed, and the top 50 percent were invited to a month-long boot camp.

Now clusters of people aged 17 to 35 are working or strategising in an old building in Simmons Street in central Joburg. Rows of big-screened Macs are glued to desks that are bolted to the fl oors to make sure they don't get stolen.

Motivation and resilience

The students are black, white, brown, male and female, some shy, others bold, a few degree-holders and some disadvantaged. There are fewer now than there were two weeks ago, as the ten-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week demands hit home. And this is still just part of the application process, designed to whittle out anyone without stamina, perseverance and grit as well as intelligence and aptitude.

The top 40 from three boot camps will earn a place on the first full-time course, giving WeThinkCode_ the 120 students it has sponsorships for.

Arlene Mulder makes no apologies for setting the bar so high. "The boot camp tests your motivation and resilience.
You may be a really good coder, but if you can't interact with people and you need a teacher to tell you how to do things, we don't want you."

She expects the attrition rate on the course itself to be almost zero. "Passionate coders want to code 24 hours a day, so for them, this isn't intense - they love it," she says. Mulder is one of the four founders of WeThinkCode_, inspired by the innovative 'Ecole 42 in France, and Mulder and her French colleague Camille Agon negotiated the rights to use its material.

Applicants don't need any formal education, not even a matric, and it's also open to people who have never worked with a computer. In one room, a young man has come in to take the initial test on one of their laptops. "You could be born to code, with the aptitude to be an amazing coder, but maybe you didn't grow up with a computer or a good education, so we are taking away those barriers," Mulder says.

The course will be less intense than the trials, and the students will learn by doing projects with their peers, following instructions that allow them to teach themselves. To anyone used to more formal teaching, it all sounds a bit freewheeling. But flexibility and intuition are other success factors. Part of the aim is to teach the students how to learn and where to find the information they need.

After eight months, they will take a four month internship with one of the sponsoring companies, then another eight months of coursework before a second internship. There's a stipend during the first eight months and a basic salary for the internships, but they are responsible for themselves for the rest of the course. They won't pay a cent for the training, but must work for a sponsor for at least a year afterwards.

"The internships give them work while they are studying and a clear path for employment, so we make sure what they learn is relevant for the industry," Mulder says. "If something new comes out, we can immediately incorporate it into our curriculum."

Buddy system

To increase the number of disadvantaged applicants, the organisation distributed flyers and held testing days in Alexandra, Diepsloot and Braamfontein, yet there's a high percentage of white, reasonably privileged men in the boot camp. Agon is comfortable with that, because those who are willing to come downtown every day usually have the right attitude. "We've implemented a buddy system for people with different backgrounds to share their challenges and open their minds," she says. The group dynamics are seeing them help each other too. The more affluent students voluntarily started a kitty for those struggling to pay for transport every day.

The founders believe this is a sustainable way to produce innovative coders and world-class workers. "We are adding life skills and mentorship to build holistic individuals who can become digital problem-solvers, not just people in the basement who can design code," says Agon. "They could solve problems like water distribution in Soweto or rhino- tracking issues. These will be the people coming up with these solutions - not someone sitting in Silicon Valley."

Mulder used her clout as a former investment banker with Rand Merchant Bank to enlist sponsoring companies, since this will only succeed if the training is free and work experience is part of the package. Companies are keen to get on board, knowing that the digital revolution is unstoppable and that coders are in short supply.

They don't sponsor a particular person, but as the students show an aptitude for a certain field, such as website or database design, they will be matched to a sponsor's workplace requirements.

If this first year proves successful, the aim is to scale up its intake enormously and expand into neighbouring countries.

The face of a future coder

Seventeen-year-old Naomi Moleme stared at the initial test for 20 minutes before she started fiddling around and figured it out. Then she couldn't sleep for nerves and excitement after earning a place on the boot camp.

"I was struggling to decide what to do after school. I'd studied technical subjects to go into engineering at university, but I wasn't sure that's where my heart was. I was going to take a gap year, but I read about this free school and this amazing opportunity."

The long days and intense work are something few people experience at her young age, she says, and for the first few days, she felt she wouldn't survive. "It's like being thrown into the Hunger Games. I don't have a formal background in this and there are people with degrees here or from an IT background and that's quite intimidating."

Then she had a shift in attitude and realised she was underestimating herself. "It's not only your marks that matter, it's your personality. So I've changed my game, come up with an agenda and I'm working with people."

Several other girls in the boot camp also knew nothing about coding, but they're determined to challenge the fact that this is a male dominated game.

This article was first published in the May 2016 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.

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