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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Need IT expertise? Look to Africa

Capitalising on the fact that computer programming and related tasks need not necessarily be done on site, the software engineering firm Andela is able to offer its services remotely.
Africa is producing world-class code writers capable of working for any IT company. Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg
Africa is producing world-class code writers capable of working for any IT company. Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg

The answer to a worldwide shortage of skilled IT developers could be found in Africa, where a large pool of untapped talent is waiting to be found.

This is the view of Andela, an Africa-focused software engineering company that has opened its doors in New York, Lagos and Nairobi. It is now training hundreds of young people in Nigeria and Kenya and putting them to work as programmers with a var­iety of international tech com­panies.

“It doesn’t really matter where they work from, after all it’s common practice for colleagues in the same building or even same room to communicate via computer,” says the director of Andela Lagos, Seni Sulyman. “Working remotely is no disadvantage to having someone on site.”

When it launched the idea a couple of years ago in Lagos, the company offered 100 positions for trainee developers. The response was overwhelming with more than 15,000 applications sent in. Since opening in Kenya last year, more than 40,000 appli­cations have been received.

Andela says that the ratio of applications to slots in its technical leadership programme allows it to filter only the very best candidates. These will go on to be world-class code writers capable of working for any IT company.

Once accepted into the programme, recruits are given a four-year contract that cover a six-month training period. The rest of the contract is spent working for companies around the globe assisting in IT development.

“We are not just training people – we offer them a job and put them to work,” says Mr Sulyman. Clients include some of the biggest names in the tech business – Microsoft, IBM and SeatGeek, among others. The latter is a US-based software developer that made waves last week when it was announced as the official ticketing partner of Major League Soccer. It is developing an integrated software platform to be available to all teams starting in 2017.

Andela’s origins are much the same as many Silicon Valley start-ups. It began as a concept that was shopped around to investors, asking them to put ­money into the venture in the hope of a downstream return. As the company grows, succeeding rounds of finance known as “ser­ies” will follow.

In June, the company opened its second round, or Series B, to raise US$24 million for future expansion and operations. The lead investor on this round was the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a philanthropy company created by the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. With more than $1 billion at its disposal, CZI chose Andela as its first major initiative.

“It’s a typical Silicon Valley structure,” Mr Sulyman says.

Andela’s model is to provide skilled developers who are subcontracted out to other firms that are working in IT. Glob­ally, developers are gold; with the proliferation of mobile apps and steadily advancing computer power and usage, capable ones are in very short supply.

An Oxford Economics study for CA Technologies last year showed nearly 40 per cent of IT executives saw a shortage of developers as a risk to their businesses. In response, IT “boot camps” have emerged in the United States and elsewhere. These programmes evaluate potential recruits and strive to turn them into job-ready ­coders.

At Andela, developers work full-time for partner companies while simultaneously pursuing a professional development curriculum designed to prepare them for success.

The need for softwear coders is especially acute in Africa. The continent is home to its own emerging IT sector but is also luring international companies to open offices. Uber, Facebook and Microsoft are among the high-profile tech firms now with offices in African centres. Without skilled staff they are forced to rely on expatriates or offshoring.

According to the EY Sub-Saharan Africa Talents Trends and Practices study, up to a third of firms operating on the continent depend on expatriates for technical know-how. Given how many young African men and women are unemployed – more than 50 per cent in Nigeria’s case – this seems a colossal waste of potential local talent.

Initiatives such as Andela therefore bring much-needed skills training combined with practical applications. “It’s not just a nice story about helping people in Africa; this is real investment,” Mr Sulyman says.

It also has to deliver a return, as the process is capital-intensive. To achieve this Andela has to provide the best possible customer experience. The recruits will be assigned to an Andela client and be expected to attend the company’s daily briefings via an online service such as Skype.

Nigeria as a base can be a little tricky – it has intermittent electricity, so the Andela facil­ity needs a backup generator, a standard for most businesses operating in the country. Internet facilities, however, are excellent and Andela has fibre-optic cable running from its building. Connections to the rest of the world are also good, thanks to half a dozen or so undersea cables that run along the west coast of Africa. For backup there is a fourth-generation wireless system.

This means the internet experience for customers and developers meets international benchmarks.

The work is intense and usually has a high burnout rate. Many coders leave the industry at around the four-year mark. Many then go on to be successful entrepreneurs or leaders in other companies, using their accumulated knowledge from the days “in the trenches” as a developer. This has been one of the driving factors behind Silicon Valley’s success – generations of coders who go on to launch start-ups of their own.

Andela is now working this into its planning, and will provide leadership and entrepreneurial training for recruits.

“We initially started with the idea of hiring and training developers,” Mr Sulyman says.

“We’ve now moved to also ensuring that when they leave, they become leaders. In this way talented Africans can use their skills to build their communities.”

Boot camp trains up production line of coding talent

Problem-solving is the basis of good code writing, a quality that allows youths from some of the poorest and toughest neighbourhoods in South Africa’s Cape Town to compete for jobs in IT.

The Cape Town-based coding “boot camp’ codeX has derived a system that identifies potential recruits in areas such as the Cape Flats, a sprawling neighbourhood where gang violence and poverty are endemic.

“We do a lot of outreach into disadvantaged communities and run Code Quest day-long events with robotics and fun interactive games to expose promising young people to coding and software development,” says Elizabeth Gould, the codeX co-founder and chief executive.

Potential recruits must also complete introductory courses in HTML, CSS and Javascript online via Codecademy, a website that offers free program language training.

If they do not have internet access, they can attend regular open days at a variety of venues around Cape Town where they can use computers and be helped by mentors if necessary. Applicants must also complete puzzles and other activities to determine problem-solving ability.

The aim for codeX is to teach recruits the skills they need to work in high-end IT, such as writing apps. Candidates are also taken from Cape Town’s wealthier areas, where people have access to the internet and good schooling, but these advantages do not automatically point to superior coding potential.

“Contrary to the popular image of isolated supergeeks coding some killer app in a back room somewhere, modern software is a very collaborative industry,” says Ms Gould.

“Our business model is foc­used on placing coders in jobs, so in order for us to have confidence they’ll thrive where we place them, personality plays a huge role.”

Coders are trained to be problem-solvers, which means not only understanding the client but also the end user – all while working as part of a team. Some of the recruits arrive having little experience in even such ­basics as searching the internet. This does not matter, as long as they exhibit an ability to learn.

Coders of all backgrounds, even those who have substantial work experience, benefit from codeX’s programme Ms Gould says, because it is not only training people to code, but to use code to solve problems and work as professional software developers.

About 45 per cent of the recruits are female, and codeX has placed high emphasis on recruiting young women, who currently make up a tiny min­ority of technical talent in the global marketplace, Ms Gould says.

Eventually the coders will begin designing apps for local communities that now depend almost entirely on programs written for western needs.

Apps could help parents in poor areas seek out services such as early childhood development centres or food deliveries from local groceries.

Ultimately, codeX’s goal is not to be a charity – it charges around 25,000 rand (Dh6,887) for a term’s tuition. A bursary scheme ensures students can have the fee financed, and even living and travel costs can be covered if needed.

Students pay back the loan once they begin working, which in some cases they start to do even before the course is concluded.

business@thenational.ae