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James is a senior program manager for Salesforce, and an open source community geek. In his spare time, James writes about a variety of topics and produces the interview series "The Successful and the Passionate", exploring the lesser-known passions of successful people. James has posted 4 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Changing the Ratio with the Nairobi Developer School

12.18.2013
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Nairobi, Kenya, made the news recently with tragedy, as is so often the case when it comes to Africa. But more and more encouraging stories are coming out of the tech scene in Africa.

Take, for example, Nairobi’s Hacker school.

You hear a lot about “change the ratio” and encouraging young people, especially young women, into technology. Njeri “Martha” Chuomo is 19 years old, a Ruby programmer living in Nairobi, and changing more than just the ratio.

This year she applied to, and was accepted by, New York’s prestigious hacker school – a three-month, immersive school for “becoming a better programmer” that is free to attend. An Indiegogo campaign to get Martha to New York exceeded her fundraising target – but she was refused a visa by the US authorities.

That was just the start of her journey.

Talking about the Westgate mall attacks, Martha is very passionate about the skewed view of Africa presented to the Western world.

“There is a lot of amazing people and initiatives creating impact in Africa. These stories more than often go untold. I call it the other story of Africa. The Westgate mall attack was a terrorist attack like any other that has happened in other parts of the world. I wish the world's view of Africa would change.”

Martha’s description of Africa bears similarities to her own personal approach to life:

“So, Africa may have fallen at one point? We have since stood up, dusted ourselves off, and we're now on a focused journey to develop ourselves.”

It was not so long ago that Martha was a straight-A student and her family expected her to go to medical school. Martha says that’s just the way things are in Kenya: if you’re a straight-A student then you go to medical school.

But while she was on her internship Martha had a computer to herself for the first time in her life. A natural curiosity as to how the technology worked led her to ask questions, and turning to the internet for answers when the people around her didn’t know the answers. Martha discovered she had an insatiable appetite for programming.

What a straight-A student doesn’t do is quit her internship, spend what little savings she has on a Netbook, and set out to teach herself programming. Before long, Martha was hired as a junior Ruby developer.

Martha decided to go to Hacker School in New York in January 2013. She was thrilled when she was admitted for the Summer batch:

“As soon as I got in, I started thinking of my how I would finance getting there. I tried asking family and friends, but that did not go well. I had just decided not to go to Medical School, so there was no support coming my way to attend a "Hacker School". With nowhere else to turn, I decided to use the internet to get me to Hacker School.”

Martha was surprised by the response, with people from all over the world donating to her campaign. Martha says: “I was overwhelmed when I passed my target. So many people understood the power that programming gives me, and were happy to walk with me on my journey to becoming a better programmer”.

But funding her journey was only part of the problem. Because New York’s Hacker School isn’t a school in the traditional sense, Martha couldn’t apply for a student visa – but US immigration denied Martha a tourist visa on the grounds that she didn't have strong enough links to return to Kenya.

Being denied a visa and her opportunity to take up her place at Hacker School just made Martha more determined.

“After all the effort I had put in, I got denied a visa; it did not make any sense at all to me. I owed it to myself and everyone else who supported me on my campaign to attend Hacker School. I decided to apply for a visa for the second time, and I got another denial.” 

This is when, in Martha’s own words, she decided to bring Hacker School to her. Days after her second visa denial, Martha started another campaign to set up the Nairobi Dev School.

Nairobi Dev School opened its doors to the first group of attendees on September 16 this year, but it hasn’t been without its challenges.

NDS is an intensive three months of training in software development, and the first students are learning Ruby on Rails. Martha’s original plan was for the school to have resident mentors, but without funding they can’t afford it – instead Martha invites developers from the community to help.

Martha has so far been the only one guiding the training, as well as trying to run the school itself. Many late nights have made this possible, but she says it has compromised the efficiency of the training.

Funding is perhaps the school’s biggest challenge. As well as not having the funds for resident mentors, students are required to come with their own laptops for the course, but several have had to drop out because the school could not provide machines for them.

Setting up NDS has made Martha acutely aware of the education gap in software development in Kenya. She says there are a number of computer science training programs, but these are very costly, and are limited to a small group of people. There is also lack of awareness of the existence of software development as an option for a career path.

Martha says “My mission is to create awareness of the option and power of software development and offer training in it, and I plan to do this through Nairobi Dev School.

Nairobi Dev School opens opportunities for many people where previously there were none. The aim is that the students will be able to improve their lives through the programs of the school. More importantly, Nairobi Dev School will accelerate development in the region, by creating awesome tech talent.”

“The Kenyan tech scene also inspires me a lot. There are many young people who are working on amazing projects that are changing lives. The energy in the community keeps me going.” 

Martha is determined to be the change she wants to see in the world. Recently invited to attend the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, Martha presented at the Youth Mobile Workshop what she refers to modestly as “a simple bootcamp on getting started on mobile development” and a "15 minutes of fame" session on the work she is doing at NDS.

Martha is quick to point out that she isn’t alone with Nairobi Dev School, and has the help of a friends from the UK. Until recently, Amberley Laverick was working in London, teaching literacy young people aged 16-23 at Kids Company (an organization providing practical, emotional and educational support to vulnerable inner-city children). Amberley describes the young people as having fallen through the cracks of mainstream education, due to personal issues and at times a hostile experience at school.

While working for Kids Company, Amberley became involved with English PEN, who campaign to defend writers and readers around the world whose human right to freedom of expression is at risk. English PEN provided a writer-in-residence for weekly workshops, and Amberley became hooked on writing – and wanting to run workshops of her own.

Amberley says: “The workshops were essentially about creating a safe space in which we could find our voice though writing. The positive effect this had on the students, who were dealing with issues beyond anything you and I will ever know, was incredible to see.”

Amberley moved to Nairobi to work as a private tutor and was introduced to Martha by a mutual friend still in the UK. Amberley is now one of the volunteer trainers at the developer school.

Part of the Developer school curriculum is for each student to keep a blog. However, Martha felt they needed help to start writing and invited Amberley to run a weekly workshop. Martha has her students doing all kinds of non-programmer activity: from a book club, to creative writing, and presentations.

In Amberley’s own words the aim is to create a group of programmers who not only code but put themselves out into the world, show off their skills, and take programming out of dark rooms.

Amberley says: “In the first week not a single student identified as a writer, but straight away there were many distinct voices in the room. As the weeks have gone on some of the students are really getting into it. I won’t make a writer out of all of them but it is empowering for them to write and share their words.

“Our next step is a spoken word event at the end of the year. Standing in front of people you don’t know and performing your words. Scary as hell, but an incredible sense of achievement when you do it.”

Martha has been influential in the Nairobi tech community prior to founding her Developer school. A co-organiser for the Nairobi Ruby User Group, and founder of the Nairobi MongoDB User Group, Martha also recently launched the Nairobi Google Developer Group for Women: a group whose aim is to increase diversity in the Nairobi tech scene.

For Martha, community is a core component of technology. Describing herself as a direct beneficiary of the community, she hopes to give back to it.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, James Chesters.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)