We meet the founders of Al Makinah to unveil how they are democratising the educational landscape and how they plan to turn Egypt into a leading tech-talent exporting hub - while stopping the brain drain and retaining talent in the country.
From Twitter, to Amazon, to Facebook, tech companies around the world display the appalling reality of the tech gender gap. In companies like Facebook, only 16 percent of technical employees are women, and at Twitter, only 10 percent, according to their own reports.
In the Middle East, where the gender gap at the workplace is palpable, women are however outperforming men at STEM subjects. According to a survey by UNESCO across 10 Arab countries, women graduating in STEM subjects made up 34% to 57% of graduates - a figure much higher than the Western world. The landscape, however, radically alter when adding the social class gap to gender disparities. If coding is the new reading, how can we turn an increasingly young, avid population into coding literates and close the gender gap?
Democratising the educational landscape both across class and gender is not an utopian mission for Bahia El Sharkawy and Eman El Koshairy, the two young Egyptian entrepreneurs who are taking the reins of the educational gap that will likely define the next century through their startup Al Makinah.
A Computer science and a digital media graduate, El Sharkawy and Koshairy met while studying at the German University in Cairo, and later joined forces to launch the first coding bootcamps in Egypt. Launched in 2015 and incubated by AUC V-labs, the startup had its first pitch at the RiseUp Summit 2016 - the largest startup event in Egypt and the Middle East - and won a Trip to Silicon Valley. This year, they continued to break new grounds as they partnered with Udacity to bring their Web Development Udacity Connect Nanodegree to Egypt.
“I attended one of those coding bootcamps in the US and decided to come back and creating something like that,” says Bahia el Sharkawy, who ran into her former classmate el Koshairy at a UX training course. “I remember it was Ramadan and I saw the post on Facebook. ‘This is something I want to add to Al Makinah. I just contacted her at 2:00 in the morning, and she immediately said, ‘I am interested,’” she recalls.
While a coding bootcamp in countries like USA can cost an average of $50,000, one of Al Makinah’s Gear Up programmes for women to become a front-end developer costs EGP 5,000 (a little more than $2800), and the three-month full-stack web development programme, EGP 25,000.
“We are trying to bring people the opportunity to know more about this field,” Koshairy says. “Usually when people graduate from school in this region, their grade determines whether they get to in college, and if someone wants to study something else or work in another field, they have to do that on their own.”
“The coding bootcamp fits really nice in our culture because if someone wants to shift his career, they can kind of bootstrap into it so they don't have to do that on their own,” adds Sharkawy. “The bootcamp does exactly that; it is really intense, so if they want to make this change in their life, they can just go in, they give it their all and actually do this huge shift in their knowledge and their skills to actually be able to work in that field not just know something about that and that's it.”
Why is coding important?
I remember someone recently said that coding is like reading now. Not being able to code is like being not able to read because of the way technology is impacting our lives. Everything is going in that direction; right now every field has technology in it. So if learn to code, you can work anywhere; it helps you develop your problem-solving skills, it helps you look at problems in a different way, and even if you don't end up doing coding, you will learn a different way of thinking about things and it kind of help you structure what you think.
And in terms of your own startup, how do you see this growing or scaling?
We want to be a tech-talent exporting hub; we don't just want to fill the gap in the local market for jobs, we want to be able to get remote jobs for example for our graduates so they could stay here, and they don't have to travel. The biggest problem in software is that most talents just travel looking for other opportunities abroad, so what we are trying to do is keeping them here and just get the job opportunities for them to work remotely; so if we managed to do that, we’d kind of export a talent while keeping them here.
While a coding bootcamp in countries like USA can cost an average of $50,000, one of Al Makinah’s Gear Up programmes to become a full-stack developer costs EGP 5,000 (a little more than $2800).
We know the opportunities abroad could be much more rewarding than opportunities here in terms of salaries, in terms of growth, in terms of cutting-edge technologies; we are a bit late here in Egypt so we want to be able to provide them with the best opportunity not just to companies but the students themselves. We are human-centeric, while also levelling up in technology, because if we start by this we can have this ripple effect where people can start creating their startups.
Tell me about the crash course you are doing for girls. Why do you think it requires different courses for different genders?
In my experience, and when you study how they work and how they study, the way men and women do it is completely different. For example, if girls do something wrong, they blame themselves and say “I am a stupid, I can't do it, I am a failure, i quit.” On the other side, when guys don't do a task, their reaction is “the code is stupid; I am great but it's not working.” The difference is in the level of confidence and that’s what you want to do; providing just a programme for women and how we can boost their confidence. So why not try and have this focus programme like women role models from the tech field tell them about their stories and boost their confidence to get them going. It's something we, as a women ourselves, we feel it's something we should do. Companies who are looking for talents just need someone who is competent, so we want to give this opportunity to girls as well and even give a great opportunity for someone who wants to take care of her children or wants to maintain a job, with flexible hours.
Is there something about the bootcamps that you are localising or adapting to Egypt and the Middle East?
We changed a lot of things; first, the content is in English, but we speak a lot of Arabic in the middle because for some people it's difficult to follow like an online tutorial completely in English so we are trying to make it a bit easier and delivering it in a way that people are more capable to understand, they’re more comfortable with their mother tongue makes things easier to understand and remove this one barrier to adapt the language, it's a bit more comfortable to understand. We also studied the technologies that are used here, we are not targeting corporates because they use a completely different stack, we are trying to target startups. We had to compromise between trend abroad and here, so if we want to eventually go for more jobs that was something else you need to study. Bootcamps broad are 6 days a week and 11 hours a day, and we thought in our culture we are not very used to that, it's a bit different, so we had to give like 2 days off.
Speaking of gender in the tech scene, did you encounter any difficulties and challenges as female founders?
I do really suffer from the lack of self-confidence sometimes, but I've worked in a company where I was only the woman for a couple of years, and at some point you just don't feel like there is any difference; so I just forgot the fact that I am anything different, that's it for me. I was lucky maybe and it was easy; I think once you talk to people but they don't see your actions it reflects more doubt but once they see your action, all the doubts are gone.
What did it take for you both personally, to launch a startup in education?
It takes a lot of work, you have to be passionate about the idea because you don’t go out with your friends that much anymore, you don’t see your family that much anymore, so there are a lot of issues that pop up but since you are really passionate about the idea, it’s fine, the people around you will not be so fine but you will be ok. I think by looking back to our journey this year, we have grown up so much, both of us. And because it’s education actually something also rewarding, I mean teaching someone and seeing the reward of looking at the graduates after 3 months, and now you see them working and getting jobs. You just feel it’s very transformative for us as well, when these transformations happen, you believe you can do anything, and I feel that a lot of people just need the opportunity, and that puts also a responsibility on us.
Do you think in the future schools will start teaching coding?
Yes, abroad they have already started, over here I think there are a couple of schools starting it, but definitely in the future they have to start from schools, and this is something we wanted to align, from high schools maybe, in order to help them figure out their passion to code early.
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