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

Big tech and grassroots initiatives are aiding in efforts to build IT and software development skills in MENA as the region looks towards a more knowledge-based future.
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Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor on
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Image: SE Factory (via Facebook)

As Middle East nations look to pivot from petro-chemical to knowledge-based economies, skilling up the region's IT and tech workforce is growing in importance.

While high-profile spending on infrastructure and startups tends to dominate the headlines, a number of efforts designed to build IT skills and capacity are also underway, with coding being one area seeing considerable investment.

According to Salim Abid, Google's regional lead of developer ecosystem in MENA, Google trained more than 700,000 developers across MENA in 2021, 35% of whom were women.

Participants were trained by Googlers and Google Developer Experts; local experts that joined events organised by Google Developer Groups, Women Techmakers communities, Google Developers Students clubs and other local organisations.

"With the acceleration of digital transformation in the past few years, it's clear that tech skills have become essential at every part of the business and across the national economy," Abid says, stressing the importance of skills related to advanced technologies, such as machine learning, UX/UI, and programming,

SEE: Software development is changing again. These are the skills companies are looking for

"It has always been a priority for us to offer individuals more access to workshops and programs that help them gain the skills needed to grow their businesses or develop in their careers."

One example of this could be seen during Tuwaiq Academy's launch 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 design thinking.

They've also grown their Google Developer Experts (GDEs) network in MENA, a group Abid describes as "talented and active industry leaders in all things related to advanced technologies, in particular machine learning and programming." The network has expanded over the past few years from 19 to 33 experts. In 2021, this cohort trained over 150,000 developers on advanced technologies through online training and talks. 

Other tech titans have also engaged in this space. In February, Apple opened its first all-female Developer Academy in Riyadh, and Microsoft was active in the UAE's One Million Arab Coders initiative that closed last year.

Meanwhile, IBM, Cisco, Meta and other Silicon Valley stalwarts are supporting 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 best coders.

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

In Lebanon, SE Factory launched in 2015 providing 14-week boot camps to bridge the gap between graduate skill sets and industry needs. The social enterprise determined there was a need to focus on practical software development skills, with an emphasis on critical thinking, soft skills training, and helping coders to access the job market.

Coding is a well-paid job, meaning once you're in the system, you achieve middle-income status. From a social impact perspective, that's significant in a country like Lebanon.

Seven years on, 250 students have graduated SE Factory's Beirut program, with a 90% employment rate. "In some respects, it's not a huge number, but what we do is we train for jobs – that's our KPI", says Zeina Saab, SE Factory's Co-Founder & COO.

Supporting school-age 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 classes for students aged 5+, in Arabic & English.

Moti, who was born in Dubai, became a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer at the age of 16. He had previously done pro bono work introducing school students to coding. "As word spread, a couple of acquaintances asked me to do these programs for their kids," he tells ZDNet. "And then of course I had an itch, and I figured, 'let's just scratch it, see what happens.'"

Since then, Moti has: worked with schools to develop curricula to suit their individual needs; recruited teachers for online classes from across the region; hosted 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 co-working space for investors and start-ups in Bahrain – to provide training for their members.

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Salim Abid, Google's regional lead of developer ecosystem in MENA.

Image: Google

Schools are an area Google is also keen to support. The company plans to train over 2,000 students every year across the UAE for the next five years as part of the CodersHQ initiative.

Students will be trained on cloud, Android/Kotlin, machine learning and other areas, with teaching delivered via Google's Cloud Training platform, Qwiklabs, offering individuals a chance to learn and test their coding skills in industry use cases, and receive certificates.

"We're also very pleased about the growth of our 'Google Developer Student Club' in various schools around all countries in MENA," says Abid. There are currently 187 active clubs across 17 MENA countries, involving members from different student communities.

Moving to remote

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, there was concern that the shift to remote learning might impact participation.

While Abid admits it was a challenge to revamp the experience of learning advanced tech skills online and make it more interactive, in reality the move to online classes meant Google was able to bring a wider range of experts into their training sessions. Since then, engagement has only grown.

For the team at SE Factory, Covid has been accompanied by other major disruptions.

"We should not mince our words: the past two years [in Lebanon] have been an absolute nightmare," says co-founder & CEO Fadi Bizri

"The banking system's collapsed, the currency's collapsed, the healthcare system has collapsed. I mean, it's just a day-by-day living nightmare."

SEE: Worried your developers will quit? These are the 5 things that coders say keep them happy at work

Yet at the same time, their programmes are seeing more demand than ever. Part of the reason for this is that graduates can work remotely from Lebanon, or move overseas, as remote working becomes commonplace.

Like Google, SE Factory has seen similar benefits in enabling students to participate in classes remotely. The company has since expanded into Tripoli – Lebanon's second-largest city – while retaining its 90% employment success rate. It also plans to expand its bootcamp programme from two to three camps per year currently, to between five and six.

"During COVID, we moved everything online, and that has really helped us pave the path for scaling on a much more significant level," Saab tells ZDNet.

Programming and language

While promising progress is being made, building a developer workforce in MENA carries a unique set of challenges, language amongst the most paramount.

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

Google's Salim Abid agrees: "Language is still a barrier for many students in the region. This is why we want to offer more workshops and talks in Arabic moving forward."

Moti also highlights the need to continue to educate parents about the importance of coding, and the knowledge and skills it will give children in the long term. Abid, meanwhile, points to plans to train over 15,000 developers in Palestine, Lebanon and Algeria as part of a goal to engage and encourage less prominent developer communities. "We are very excited to see the impact of this programme," he tells ZDNet.

For Zeina Saab, economic considerations remain paramount. "We've heard from youth who have parents who are unemployed and rely on them for a source of income. And now, because they're earning fresh money, they're able to support their family, especially during such a crisis that Lebanon is going through," she says.

"It's just really, really heart-warming to see that a program that has such a short-term span, you know, just three intensive months, can make a change for a lifetime."

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