Lebanon's coding schools help youth make it big on web
BEIRUT – Seventeen students are staring at their computer screens trying to figure out how to build a simple game called "Snake". The classic game requires manoeuvring a snake that constantly grows longer, without allowing it to eat its tail.
This is the second month of class at the coding school Codi, which teaches basic digital language to underprivileged Lebanese youth and refugees for free.
“At the beginning it was difficult, but then it goes fast,” says Marie-Therese Kazanjian, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee student, while typing.
Back in Syria, Kazanjian was a business student at the University of Aleppo. In 2016, Kazanjian and her family fled the war in Syria and took refuge in Lebanon.
She could not afford to complete her studies in Beirut. Despite being free, public universities designate a specific quota for foreign students. In addition to that, the quality of free education in public institutions is generally not up to par, in comparison to private ones. On the other hand, fees for the private universities can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $10,000.
Instead, Kazanjian took a job as a cashier in a grocery store for $450 a month until she heard about coding boot camps.
After one month of classes, she says she aims to set up her own online business.
“I was always interested in computers and I needed a way to acquire useful skills quickly. Once I finish training, my goal now is to start my own online shop where I can sell a selection of products I like,” she says.
I really wasn’t expecting it. I was offered eight job interviews in 30 minutes. At Codi, she will learn how to build her own website and add features to it.
The courses are offered at no cost to the students and microloans of up to $350 a month are given to students with pressing financial needs.
During the pilot phase, some students dropped out because they could not afford to be out of a paying job for six months to take the course, so Codi quickly offered microloans. The loan system is supported by the local non-profit Al-Majmoua.
“Without the loan I couldn’t come,” says Anas Jamous, a Syrian student who gets $200 a month. Prior to joining the course, Jamous worked as an IT manager at a Lebanese furniture store. He left Damascus in 2017, where he was studying geology before switching to information technology.
“The idea is that in six months, the students are able to join a team of web developers,” says Hortense Decaux, a 27-year-old French social-entrepreneur who set up the programme.
Decaux started her career in London as a private equity strategy consultant, but her real passion has always been education. After working with UNICEF on vocational training for young migrants, she started Codi in 2016 through private donations. At the time, a total of $200,000 was raised and the goal for 2018 is to collect another $200,000.
"I looked at different countries in the MENA region and picked Lebanon because there is a growing tech market providing high demand for digital skills, and on the supply side, the biggest refugee crisis in the world and very high unemployment rates,” she says.
Lebanon has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. In addition to Palestinians and other Arab nationalities, over one million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon since the civil war broke out in 2011 and now account for about a quarter of its population.
The idea is that in six months, the students are able to join a team of web developers
- Hortense Decaux, entrepreneur
International aid reaches young refugees and hosting communities through vocational training but often these programmes prepare the trainees for low paying jobs such as hairdressing, tailoring, or cooking.
“I want to help the people who are stuck in this system, who are forced to take low added-value jobs out of necessity but actually have the capacity to do much better. In other words, the underprivileged Lebanese who can’t afford a good university degree and the talented refugees,” says Decaux.
Palestinian-Syrian Bayan Mawaed is one of those “talented refugees”. Three years ago, she escaped the atrocities of Yarmouk and settled in Lebanon with her husband and their two daughters. Before the war, Mawaed was a mechanical and electrical engineering professor at the University of Damascus.
“I applied for many jobs here, but I didn’t get any,” she says. “My number one concern is to keep up to date with technology. I want to learn how to develop websites and mobile applications.” Once she finishes the programme in June, Bayan would like to use her skills to sell freelance projects or even apply for a PhD.
Sitting right behind her, there is a young Lebanese student who is known for being the first one to show up to class everyday.
“I failed my high school exams and then tried working as a carpenter, but I didn’t like it. I then came to Codi and started everything again from scratch,” says 18-year-old Anthony Nakhle.
Codi has partnered up with local digital companies such as Eastline, Keeward and Myki to provide specific training sessions and professional opportunities. The aim is to have all Codi graduates employed after completing the course.
In the last few years, Lebanon has been trying to position itself as a regional digital hub. This ambition is backed up by Banque du Liban, the central bank, which guaranteed up to $400m of investments in the “knowledge economy” in 2015.
As a result, start-ups, investment funds and accelerator programmes are blossoming in Beirut and creating a need for skilled labour, or more specifically, web developers.
Universities do offer computer science degrees, but these are long, costly, and not necessarily adapted to the new requirements of the work place. In comparison, coding schools are cheap, fast and efficient. All around town they are a real hit. Some foreign boot camps such as French Le Wagon or American V School have even opened branches in Beirut.
Coding boot camps offer a variety of courses. Some are for beginners, while others, like SE Factory, require a solid background in computer science. Set up in 2016, SE Factory offers a three-month intensive course that teaches students advanced skills such as Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP – also known as the acronym “LAMP stack”.
“I realised everybody wants to hire web developers, but at the same time, there is a huge gap between where the students are and where the companies want them to be,” says Lebanese Fadi Bizri, co-founder of SE Factory and a partner at BY Ventures investment fund.
At 21 years old, Guy Kanbar, who is Lebanese, is in his second year of computer engineering at Beirut’s Notre Dame University (NDU). He decided to join SE Factory’s Cycle 5 to maximise his chances of finding the right job.
'I realised everybody wants to hire web developers'
- Fadi Bizri, co-founder of SE Factory
“What we learn at university is very theoretical, whereas here we are exposed to the latest technologies, different frameworks, how apps interact with each other, or how they link to websites,” he says.
Next to him sits Ismail Kuraydli, who was the only student accepted into the programme without a computer science background. According to SE Factory instructors, Kuraydli demonstrated self-taught skills and a rare determination to succeed.
Kuraydli is finishing up his final project: a time capsule application based on Ethereum blockchain technology. Basically, it is an online platform where you can leave a message in a sealed box. For example, this message could be a will and testament or any other private document, which then is coded and guarded by anonymous “key keepers” until delivery time.
“This is a very new field, but I like to get my hands dirty,” says the Lebanese 29-year-old who used to work in construction.
SE Factory runs on private donations, doesn’t charge tuition fees, and is open to all nationalities.
Five minutes to get hired
At the end of each cycle comes Demo Day. Each student has five minutes to present a final project to a group of recruiters. For Cycle 5, projects included video games, financial technology solutions, a wedding planning website, and an online restaurant reservation platform.
“I know how good they are. I have one position to fill and will look at two candidates,” says Shogher Kechichian from the HR department of the UK Lebanon Tech Hub, an entity that encourages entrepreneurship between Britain and Lebanon.
“I really wasn’t expecting it. I was offered eight job interviews in 30 minutes,” says Kanbar, unable to choose which one he likes best.
'This is a very new field, but I like to get my hands dirty'
- Ismail Kuraydli, student
Robert Saliba from FOO Solutions, a local startup, was one of the recruiters who was impressed by Kanbar’s project.
“I liked his personality immediately. He is calm, he speaks well, and his project was flawless. Now, I need to challenge his skills in a proper interview set up,” says Saliba.
Recruiters are mostly local start-ups but some international companies are starting to join the cohort.
“I usually seek talents in Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco, but actually, why not in Lebanon?” says Suzy Carpentier, general manager of Alpha Sourcing, a French recruitment firm who took the trip to Beirut especially to meet the last SE Factory graduates.
“Out of the 60 students we have graduated since 2016, 90 percent are now hired. They can expect an entry-level salary between 1500 and 2000 dollars, which is at least twice what they were making before. They essentially jump up a social class,” says SE Factory co-founder Zeina Saab.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.