How West Africa's developers could be the answer to the US tech skills shortage

Andela, backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's philanthropic organisation, is placing developers from across Africa as remote developers for US companies.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

"We want to help unlock human potential and connect top developers across Africa with companies that are really struggling to find that talent," says Andela's Jeremy Johnson.

Image: Mohini Ufeli

You've probably got some developer colleagues you've never met. Maybe they work in that other office a few hundred miles away, maybe they work flexible hours so they can take care of the kids -- or maybe they're logging in from West Africa.

If it's the latter, that developer may well have been placed in their role by Andela, a startup by way of New York and Lagos that's been backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The company runs a four-year program that trains up developers from West Africa before finding them a placement in a US company, where they work as a full team member, albeit a remote one.

Andela is the brainchild of Jeremy Johnson, an entrepreneur who previously set up the educational tech startup 2U, after wondering why talented African developers, whose timezone is only five hours behind New York's, aren't able to offer their skills to East Coast businesses.

Several months later, with Nigerian serial entrepreneur Iyinoluwa Aboyeji as cofounder, the company was born; since then, it has found 100 developers from half a dozen countries in Africa positions in the US and beyond.

"We want to help unlock human potential and connect top developers across Africa with companies that are really struggling to find that talent, and leverage those two in a symbiotic relationship," Johnson said.

The first group of developers seeking to join the program after it was established in 2014 numbered more than 700, and most got in touch through Twitter. That figure was winnowed down to a final six by Andela staff. "All six of the finalists would have run circles around my classmates at Princeton," Johnson said.

Now after multiple rounds, 100 people have joined the program. The company uses a battery of psychometric and other tests to select their final recruits from the thousand or so individuals that apply to the program every month, often referred by those who are already working for the company. "We've had people take 12-hour bus journeys to come and apply in person to the first stage," said Johnson.

That first stage is a two-week bootcamp, designed to assess not only their coding capabilities but also other skills that they'll need to work for US companies: punctuality, soft skills, and how quickly they can learn, for example.

Of those that apply to the program, two percent will make it through to the boot camp. Of those selected for the boot camp, only two-thirds will ultimately be selected (28 percent of those joining the program so far have been women, thanks to awareness-raising efforts by Andela staff and developers, as well as all-female bootcamps).

Once those hurdles are cleared, a further six-month period of training awaits, where recruits will have to complete over 900 separate development and other learning objectives -- all Andela's internal systems are built by coders who have joined the program.

Only once that stage is complete do the recruits join a firm in the US or elsewhere. Among the companies working with Andela are a number of US startups, as well as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. "Distributed [workers] are more and more of a common thing, and the companies we work with think of it through the lens of just looking for great developers. They already have a distributed team or are thinking about having some part of their team be distributed. It's an increasingly large part of the technology landscape," Johnson said.

Facebook using Andela's developers is not the only link between the two companies: the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic organisation started by the Facebook CEO and his wife Priscilla Chan, also led the company's $24m Series B round.

Andela's relationships with the two organisations -- Facebook and the CZI -- are separate, however. Johnson met Vivian Wu, the CZI's education investment chief at an event held by one of Andela's early investors.

"They'd never led a round before, and I didn't think that would be a path we would take, but as we kept talking and got to know each other better, Vivian told me they were starting to think about potentially leading rounds, and she thought Mark would be personally pretty interested in what we were doing." Zuckerberg would later pay a visit to Andela's offices on his first trip to Africa earlier this year.

After meeting Zuckerberg some months later at Facebook's office in Menlo Park, "it was clear very quickly that he both cared a lot about the impact he was going to make on the world and also the companies they were investing in as part of CZI," Johnson said.


28 percent of those joining the program so far have been women, thanks to awareness-raising efforts by Andela staff and developers, as well as all-female bootcamps.

Image: Mohini Ufeli

Andela, along with Indian education mobile app Byju's, are so far the only two public investments the CZI has made in technology startups (it has also earmarked $600m for a San Francisco medical research project, BioHub). Both are in line with the CZI's aim of promoting equality and "advancing human potential".

With $24m in its pockets, Andela is looking to scale up and increase the number of developers that will pass through its doors. After initially setting up in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, and then establishing a second hub in Kenyan capital Nairobi, the company is now looking for a third campus to expand its operations and hopes to find more developers work in companies abroad.

Those that use Andela's developers are more interested in filling gaps in their workforce than in saving a few dollars, maintains Johnston. "One of the things that has surprised me the most is the reason companies have ended up wanting to work with us. Most people's expectation is it's a function of cost, but interestingly pretty consistently the primary driver has been the calibre of brain power and talent."

For those that have joined the program on the developer side, the ultimate benefits will only show once the first cohorts finish their four-year stint with Andela and go on to find their next roles. "We're going to help bring together a few thousand world-class developers across every major metropolitan area on the continent, but also help change the way the world views what an engineer looks like. I think these developers will continue on as full-time team members in some of the top-tier companies they're working with, but also you're going to see them launching companies in their countries," Johnson said.

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