Building a new developer workforce: How coding is helping an entire region retrain for the future

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Image: SE Factory (via Facebook)

As countries in the Middle East seek to transition from petrochemicals to knowledge-based economies, the skilling of the region’s IT and technology workforce is becoming increasingly important.

While heavy spending on infrastructure and startups tends to grab the headlines, a number of efforts to build IT skills and capabilities are also underway, with coding being one of the areas making the object of considerable investment.

According to Salim Abid, regional manager of Google’s developer ecosystem in the MENA region, Google trained more than 700,000 developers in the MENA region in 2021, 35% of whom were women.

Participants were trained by Googlers and Google Developer Experts; local experts who have participated in events hosted by Google Developer Groups, Women Techmakers communities, Google Developers Student Clubs, and other local organizations.

“With the acceleration of digital transformation over the past few years, it is clear that technology skills have become critical across all sectors of business and across the national economy,” Abid said, highlighting the the importance of skills related to advanced technologies, such as machine learning, UX/UI and programming,

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“It has always been a priority for us to provide individuals with greater access to workshops and programs that help them gain the skills needed to grow their business or advance in their career.”

An example of this was seen during the launch of the Tuwaiq Academy in Saudi Arabia, when over 1,000 candidates were trained on the Google Machine Learning API and Google Workspace, alongside leadership training covering agile development and conceptual thinking.

They have also grown their Google Developer Experts (GDE) network in the MENA region, a group that Abid describes as “talented and active industry leaders in all things advanced technology, especially machine learning and programming”. The network has grown in recent years from 19 to 33 experts. In 2021, this cohort has trained more than 150,000 developers in cutting-edge technologies through online training and conferences.

Other tech titans have also entered this space. In February, Apple opened its first all-female developer academy in Riyadh, and Microsoft was an active participant in the United Arab Emirates’ One Million Arab Coders initiative that ended last year.

Meanwhile, IBM, Cisco, Meta and other Silicon Valley stalwarts are backing Coders HQ, a new UAE-led project designed to create a community of coders in the country. The move follows an announcement in 2021 that the emirate would grant golden visas to 100,000 of the world’s top coders.

Alongside these eye-catching initiatives, smaller grassroots programs are also underway.

In Lebanon, SE Factory launched 14-week boot camps in 2015 to bridge the gap between graduate skills and industry needs. The social enterprise determined that it needed to focus on practical software development skills, with an emphasis on critical thinking, soft skills training, and helping coders get into the software market. work.

Coding is a high-paying job, which means once you’re in the system, you reach middle-income status. From the point of view of social impact, it is important in a country like Lebanon.

Seven years later, 250 students have graduated from SE Factory’s Beirut program, with an employment rate of 90%. “In some ways it’s not a huge number, but what we do is we train for the jobs – that’s our KPI,” says Zeina Saab, co-founder and COO of SE Factory.

Support school initiatives

Hannan Moti left a promising career in financial services late last year to launch iCodejr, an online coding and robotics academy that offers live lessons for students aged 5 and up, in Arabic. and in English.

Moti, who was born in Dubai, became a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer at the age of 16. He had previously done volunteer work introducing students to coding. “As the news spread, a few acquaintances asked me to do these programs for their children,” he told ZDNet. “And then, of course, I got an itch, and I was like, ‘Let’s scratch it, let’s see what happens.'”

Since then, Moti has: worked with schools to develop programs tailored to their individual needs; recruited teachers for online courses across the region; staged an intra-school coding battle for 250 students in collaboration with Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Campus (Dtec); and signed an agreement with The Collective Hub – a coworking space for investors and start-ups in Bahrain – to provide training for their members.

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Salim Abid, regional manager of Google’s developer ecosystem in the MENA region.

Image: Google

Schools is an area that Google also wants to support. The company plans to train more than 2,000 students each year across the UAE over the next five years as part of the CodersHQ initiative.

Students will be trained in cloud, Android/Kotlin, machine learning and other areas, with instruction delivered through Google’s cloud-based training platform, Qwiklabs, giving individuals a chance to learn and test their coding skills in industry use cases, and receive certificates.

“We are also very pleased with the growth of our ‘Google Developer Student Club’ in various schools across all MENA countries,” says Abid. There are currently 187 active clubs in 17 MENA countries, involving members of different student communities.

Remote switch

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were concerns that the shift to remote learning would impact attendance.

While Abid admits it was difficult to revamp the experience of learning advanced technical skills online and make it more interactive, in reality, the move to online courses has allowed Google to integrate a broader range of experts in its training sessions. Since then, the commitment has only grown.

For the SE Factory team, Covid has come with other major disruptions.

“We must not mince our words: the last two years [in Lebanon] have been an absolute nightmare,” says co-founder and CEO Fadi Bizri.

“The banking system collapsed, the currency collapsed, the healthcare system collapsed. I mean, it’s just a daily nightmare.”

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Yet, at the same time, their programs are in greater demand than ever. This is partly because graduates can work remotely from Lebanon or move abroad as remote work becomes commonplace.

Like Google, SE Factory has seen similar benefits by allowing students to participate in classes remotely. The company has since expanded to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, while maintaining its 90% job success rate. He also plans to expand his bootcamp program from two to three camps per year currently, to between five and six.

“During COVID, we moved everything online, and that really helped pave the way for us to scale on a much bigger level,” Saab told ZDNet.

Programming and language

While promising progress is being made, building a developer workforce in the MENA region comes with a unique set of challenges, with language being one of the most important.

“When coding, the syntax can be in English, [however] if you can actually explain the concept or purpose of that specific block – or line – of code in their native language, that really helps to get the logic in sync,” says Moti, who notes that not all students are at it. comfortable with English.

Google’s Salim Abid agrees: “Language is still a barrier for many students in the region. That’s why we want to offer more workshops and lectures in Arabic in the future.

Moti also stresses the need to continue educating parents about the importance of coding, and the knowledge and skills it will give children in the long run. Abid, meanwhile, indicates plans to train more than 15,000 developers in Palestine, Lebanon and Algeria as part of a goal to engage and nurture smaller developer communities. “We are very happy to see the impact of this program,” he told ZDNet.

For Zeina Saab, economic considerations remain paramount. “We have heard from young people whose parents are unemployed and who depend on them as a source of income. And now, because they are earning fresh money, they can support their families, especially during a crisis. such as Lebanon is going through,” she said.

“It’s really, really heartwarming to see that a program that has such a short duration, you know, just three intensive months, can make a change for a lifetime.”

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