CodeYourFuture: Combining programming and social impact

CodeYourFuture is a non-profit organisation supporting anyone who can’t get the vocational training they need to find meaningful work. Refugees, asylum seekers and other disadvantaged people – those below the poverty line, single parents on a low income, those with mental, learning or physical disabilities. They strengthen their students’ professional skills, teach them the fundamentals of the web, powerful modern languages such as javascript, and web application back-end development. After that, they help their students find jobs in the tech industry.

We reached out to Alec McCrindle and had an insightful chat about the mission of CodeYourFuture, and also had the opportunity to speak with some of the students there. 

How do you run courses and programming lessons?

We run weekly classes that follow a curriculum that takes our students from limited programming knowledge through to becoming a junior developer. Between classes, our students complete coursework which is reviewed by professional developers. All of our classes are developed and delivered by volunteers. For anyone interested in attending our courses, here are some more details, the agenda of an average class and also the guide we have created for online teaching.

What are the criteria for someone to participate in your courses?

We accept anyone who can’t get the vocational training they need to find meaningful work.
Refugees, asylum seekers and other disadvantaged people, those below the poverty line, single parents on a low income, those with mental, learning or physical disabilities. Anyone who can’t go to a bootcamp, for financial or other reasons.
We also asked Ellie, Constantin and Yohannes about their background:
Ellie: I have a bachelor of electrical engineering from my home country, I didn’t have any software engineering experience before CodeYourFuture.
Constantin: I worked in a magazine designer role and later switched to photography.
Yohannes: I graduated with a Computer Science degree in 2010 in Sudan. I loved working with a team and solving problems and coming up with solutions. After I arrived in the UK, I started working part-time and doing a web development course at CodeYourFuture. After completing my course, I will be ready to take my career to the next level.

Why did you choose to learn how to code? What’s the most fun thing about coding?

Ellie: Since I was a student, I was interested in software engineering because I was studying telecommunications engineering. I can understand electrical signals or electromagnetic waves, but I wanted to do something that I can see instant results like coding and creating something. The most fun thing about coding for me is solving the problems, I love math and coding is like math for me. With coding whatever you are interested in (like making web pages or applications or animations..) you can read about them and immediately start to practice.
Constantin: Technology becomes more and more important. It is part of every industry. I wanted to start programming because of 3D. Still, at CodeYourFuture, I found that creating code feels like a creative task and it can be very satisfying, especially when you think that it can be applied everywhere. The feeling you get from developing websites, apps, marketing tools for anything you like. I find it very funny, when you think that so many people are scared of code and they prefer to study sometimes much more complex interfaces, and you feel like you’re a keeper of secret knowledge.
Yohannes: I have been passionate about technology and information technology since I was 12 years old and that is why I have done a degree in computer science. I would love to pursue a career in software debugging and programming. I would say the most fun about coding is learning new concepts, and it is not boring at all.

What does your team look like?

We have a small global team and organizers in each region we serve. These are the West Midlands, the North West, Scotland and Greater London, Rome and soon, Cape Town and Tunis. We have volunteer teams that look after education, personal development, outreach and a tech team that works on systems and projects.

How can someone contribute to CodeYourFuture?

There are two ways to contribute. Firstly, through corporate partnerships to help us bring a new range of courses to more disadvantaged people than ever before. As part of any sponsorship, there are opportunities for personalized volunteer experiences for employees, for branding, PR, and a recruitment pipeline to diversify workforces.
Then, we also have individual volunteers. We have an opportunity to help a lot of people learn a valuable skill, at a time when they need it the most. We’re looking for coding teachers, mentors, marketing experts and many more. You don’t need any experience – and non-tech folks are welcome too! Our website has more details about the roles and how to sign up. If people are unable to volunteer – maybe they know someone who may be interested?

What’s your vision for your students after they graduate from CodeYourFuture?

For them to lead thriving lives! That starts with a job as a developer in a company that will support their growth. Some graduates may continue their studies – we can help them find full-time learning opportunities too. We aim to support them through the community for as long as they need. Many graduates come back to CodeYourFuture as volunteers, which is an amazing cycle.

Going back to the students, to see this from their view, what kind of a career would you like to have in 5 years? What would you like to have accomplished by then?

Ellie: If I work continuously and I don’t have any distractions in my life I would say I want to be in the first 10 companies in the world or lead one of the banks of London.
Constantin: I also study Augmented Reality, and some companies see the development of web technologies being towards a Virtual World. I try to prepare myself for that. Also, I am interested in Digital Twins, BIM models, visual effects and game development, and 3D printing. Of course, until I reach that I will probably be doing layouts for sites like I did for magazines. I think I have enough courage to start building apps or games for myself or for a small company. I want to add some more languages to my skill set, I think Python and C++.
Yohannes: In five years, I would like to be a more professional and senior developer in one of the top banks, and play a key role in optimising and improving their software systems. During these five years, I would like to accomplish advanced courses in network and system security.

How many students have graduated from the program so far and where are they from?

During the last 3 years that we operate, over 100 students from around 30 countries have graduated from our program. This year alone, another 100 should graduate. We’re planning classes in Cape Town at the moment!

So, what have actually been the biggest obstacles for the students during their training program?

Ellie: I think the biggest obstacle during my training program is self-confidence… because sometimes I feel I lose myself.
Constantin: Working. When I first moved to the UK I had to work as a freelance photographer, as that is what I am best at. But sometimes you need to work a lot or in night shifts.
And of course, COVID and lockdown. On the other side, that has been a great opportunity to have enough time to study and be with my new-born daughter.
Yohannes: The biggest obstacle I have faced during the training program has to do with finding the self-esteem to ask questions on the main slack channel. After having a face to face chat with my personal development mentor, I have improved my confidence skills a lot.

How many people are involved in running the school and doing the teaching?

Dozens of core volunteers and well over 100 occasional volunteers. Doing the following:
Education – they create and deliver teaching content. They also mentor and guide our students through the course
Outreach – Find new volunteers and students, contact employers and other NGOs – do marketing related work
Personal Development – Develop our students soft-skills and personal support through the course
Tech Team – supporting grads who need to practice on live projects for CodeYourFuture.

Has the Covid-19 outbreak affected your program? Are you planning to pivot any of your activities?

We operated in a hybrid fashion before the pandemic, so it wasn’t too difficult to move the classes online. One of the main challenges has been maintaining the strength of the community. We are like a big family, and we miss each other! We’ve been organizing different social activities; there are tea breaks, remote game nights, and some enthusiastic students and volunteers have a weekly exercise session!

The critical pivot has been at a volunteering level. As we’re entirely remote, we’re able to include volunteers from anywhere. We have people joining from the US, Costa Rica and Lebanon – helping with all aspects of our program. It’s been incredible to see all these new people get involved. You can join too!

What kind of skills have you managed to develop while in coding school? Except for coding skills, what would you say you gained from this program?

Ellie: Practicing continuously, time managing, self-confidence – I changed my lifestyle.
I manage my time more than before, even if I feel I can’t. I try again and don’t lose my confidence, and don’t let conditions keep me down. CodeYourFuture helped me to be more serious about coding and changing my lifestyle. To remove anything else which is not important.
Constantin: When I first came to CodeYourFuture, I was like an alien just landed from another planet. You first see a lot of people in the same situation from countries of which existence you do not even know, and a volunteer starts breathing exercises. And you realize ”ok we all breathe in the same way!”
Now in the middle of the course, we are all friends, having fun on morning CYF energizers, evening Javascript calls and coffee-breaks. I feel like I know people from every tiny place on earth. And all that in one place.
Yohannes: One of the important skills I have gained during the programme are soft skills – such as team-working, task prioritising and effective time management. The soft skills we have learned have been very effective in improving our learning ability.

And a final question for Ellie, Constantin and Yohannes, what kind of advice would you give to your younger self or to another refugee thinking of getting an education in programming?

Ellie: You need to want it badly and to change your lifestyle until you get what you want. You also need at first to have someone like CodeYourFuture to show you the best way to reach your goals. Constantin: Do not procrastinate. Time is money; start now. Click that apply button!
Yohannes: I would recommend him/her to join CodeYourFuture in becoming a developer.

Special thanks to Alec from CodeYourFuture, who helped us through this interview. You can reach out to the team and get to meet them too, on twitter or Facebook.


Coding Schools: Training for a New Life

The increase of refugee arrivals in Europe and the US created a significant challenge in the social and economical environment. At the same time, the need for employees in the tech world is constantly growing. One of the most promising ideas emerging from this situation were Coding Schools for refugees. Coding schools were created in order to connect the dots between talented people with a refugee background without tech experience and employment opportunities in the tech world. They are designed to offer not only training on hard skills but soft skill orientation, psychological support and interview preparation. Adding to this, more and more tech companies are looking to recruit refugees in order to increase diversity in the workspace and drive innovation. 

As Nataša Koprtla, Co-Founder of Borders:none and Vincent van Grondelle, Program Manager of Migracode Barcelona, shared with us, the goal is to build a community that not only educates refugees but also supports them through labour integration and helps learners resolve any additional issues they might be dealing with. Let’s find out more about these coding schools.

Would you like to tell us a little bit about your organization and vision?

Nataša: We, in Borders:none believe in integration through connecting with like-minded individuals and learning new skills. Friendship and knowledge are the biggest gifts you can give to someone who was forced to flee their own home. And we strongly believe there are no boundaries in human potential. That is why we help refugees, asylum seekers and other people who were forced to migrate. Our organisation gives them a possibility to make their life better through our programs. We mostly work with young refugees aged 18-30 years old and tailor our projects according to their inputs and needs.

We accept everybody with an interest in this kind of stuff. Our courses begin with workshops about websites, what they are, what they consist of. We analyse them together, we draw wireframes together and interactively we learn about the elements of websites. During the first two weeks of the program we don’t use computers at all. After that, we start with CSS and HTML. We use non-formal methods of learning. They are proven to have the best impact when it comes to adult learners, so mostly we do “learning by doing”. 

Vincent: Migracode Barcelona is a coding school for people with a migration background. People who are in a vulnerable or difficult position. They might not have the educational background or the economic resources to find a job and sustain their life in Spain or Europe. Migracode’s main goal is to support refugees and migrants to get free tech education and to connect them to the tech market. With this labour integration process, we hope to actually improve their living situations. At the same time, we really aim to build a community, a migrants tech community. We bring local people together with our students to promote social inclusion. In Migracode, we create a diverse and inclusive community of people with an interest in coding. Last but not least, we provide first-line Social Work support, if needed. For instance, we may forward our beneficiaries to specialised organisations for trauma counselling.

Who are your teachers? How many developers are volunteering in your courses? 

Nataša: Our teachers are mostly freelancers or they work in small companies or cooperatives. They are developers with many years of experience in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Java and Ruby on rails. For now, we mostly stick to HTML and CSS because we believe they are the basis for everything. Most of our teachers are with us from the beginning. They have invested a lot of time and energy in this project. There are currently nine developers participating in our courses. We also have class assistants who help people follow the class and facilitate classes. We use modern technologies, similar to most IT companies (like Slack). They help us stay in touch with our students, to support their tasks and homework writing and to actively discuss topics related to what they learn. 

Vincent: We have more than eighty people in our pool of volunteers who are supporting in teaching. All the teachers are volunteers. Any additional support like LinkedIn support, cv support, legal-related support, career coaching support and so on comes from our volunteers. We also have some volunteers from companies offering soft skills training. There are a lot of people who apply to support our program. Of course, not all of them are constantly involved.

On a weekly basis, we have at least four people actively involved. Fortunately, the network constantly evolves. They join our slack channel and then they can choose how they will offer their service. They can, for example, support in 1-2-1 sessions, support with checking the homework or they can even choose to join a class and support in teaching. There are the main instructors, they teach a full module which lasts around three weeks. We also have some other instructors who are more independent and choose how to support. It surely is a lot to manage since we have limited human resources but using Slack has proven to be the best way to keep them engaged.

You both mentioned several courses and different kinds of training. What courses do you offer and what kind of skills a developer will have gained in the end?

Nataša: We offer basic HTML and CSS classes and advanced HTML and CSS (with a little bit of JavaScript). We had one basic Java course and we had a few workshops on different IT topics. We held courses twice a week for an hour and a half and in the meantime, we use Slack channel for discussion with our students and for supporting them in their homework and tasks. Our approach to learning is non-formal and we mostly do “learning by doing” especially in our advanced classes. We use where we work together on various projects and thus learning how to create the different chunks of a website.

We also take our students to events held in local society – all kinds of meetups which could be interesting to them. Due to the specific situation, our groups usually don’t progress to higher levels of education. Croatia is a transit country and we don’t have many refugees and asylum seekers here. People leave the country or find employment in some other profession. They need to work in order to pay for living costs) and prolong their learning process for a few years. 

Vincent: We teach the basics of full-stack until they reach a junior level. We offer courses of five very profound coding front and backend languages such as HTML, CSS, Javascript, React Node JS and database. Basically, we provide them with the main skills and knowledge. When the time comes to join a company they can get a very specific training of the language the company prefers. You can’t prepare someone to know all coding languages perfectly and start right away with every company. So they get basic knowledge and during their first job experience, they can dive deeper into specific languages.

What about funding? Do you receive any support?

Nataša: We don’t get funding. Everything we do is completely on a voluntary basis. One company and some people donated laptops. while venues provide free rooms to organize our classes. That is also one of the reasons we only do one course at a time with a maximum of 10 students. 

Vincent: Being an NGO with limited resources can be challenging. We’ve received great support from the private sector but still, it is a challenge to manage such a project. On the one hand, we’ve been very lucky, we’ve engaged some great partners who have been supporting us very generously. But there still is this constant process we are in. We are searching for sustainable funding in order to include more people and make the management of the program more stable.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far as coding schools?

Nataša: The biggest challenge is to keep our students motivated all the time, not to drop-out. We are dealing with a specific population with a very high risk of dropping out. Marginalised groups are in general prone to drop out. Refugees and asylum seekers with whom we work have their own specifics and obstacles that prevent them from completing courses. That is why we invest a lot of energy not only in teaching but to develop methods to decrease these rates. Other challenges are more related to financing issues – not having our own space and other logistics. But thankfully, due to some donations, we managed to ensure a venue for this year’s courses.

Vincent: There is a big challenge in keeping the students engaged and to not allow external factors of their lives prevent them from finishing or even joining our course. Making sure that students are getting adequate support from us to continue the course has been challenging. Until now we’ve managed to prevent that by providing them with social support.
On a more organisational level, we have limited staff resources and we are managing a code school with thirty-three students and eighty volunteers involved. Of course, having the volunteers around makes this whole project possible but it is a huge challenge to manage. Also, the COVID-19 situation actually caused one of the difficulties we are dealing with. We switched completely to online courses and it is actually going quite well but we miss this important part where we actually meet the students and talk to them face to face.

And what are the next steps for your organization? Do you have any new course coming up?

Nataša: At the moment we’re in the process of writing an application for funding to our municipality. Hopefully, this will be completed within the year. In the future, we hope to be able to provide more courses and to include more weekly hours in our curriculum. This is very much dependable on financial support. We usually have two courses during the year – autumn and spring – and they last three months each. If we manage to get the funding we’ll certainly organize more courses. Courses including basic digital skills for students who need that first step before entering programming classes. 

Vincent: For now, we are aiming to have two groups of students simultaneously each time we start a new course. Right now we have three groups. One started in October as a pilot program with nine students. Two groups of twelve students each, started in March. Currently, we are also planning two new courses to start in June or July, depending on the development of the COVID-19 crisis. Also, we are currently working on a job fair. Given the situation, we switched to an online event and most of the companies we are connected to are interested in hiring. 

Could you share with us an inspiring story from your students?

Nataša: We had a lot of students by now and each story is specific. But I’ll mention just a few of them. We had a student from Egypt who made a total career switch. He started to learn coding with us, then we managed to find a traineeship for him. Α year and a half from when he started learning he found a job in one of the biggest Croatian companies all by himself. He is still learning and thriving to get to a higher level.

Another inspiring story comes from a  very young man from Syria who started learning with us but due to job obligations he couldn’t attend. Ηe continued all by himself and managed to master the materials. We are still supporting him until he can get an internship in an IT company. 

I’ll just mention two more older men who are great examples of highly motivated students. Both of them didn’t have any background in this field and their digital skills were on the lower level. One of them was from Ukraine and didn’t understand English. He studied a lot at home, in Russian. Both managed to finish the basic course and are highly motivated to continue. 

Vincent: Most of our students are facing various difficulties in their everyday life. Some of them are sharing a very small apartment with five people or single parenting their children. It’s amazing how at the end of the day they still manage to keep up and successfully continue with our program, with graduation in prospect. Also, after the coronavirus outbreak, it has turned out to be quite a challenge for us and for our students to move all of our classes online. We also moved our job fair to an online event. During this event, six companies participated and had sessions with our students. After this event at least three from nine graduate students got job interviews. They are currently in the process of interviewing. I think it shows a lot about our student’s possibilities, effort and ambition. 

Last but not least, how can someone contribute to these coding schools?

Nataša: There are several ways of how people or companies can get involved. We are always looking for new developers who would like to volunteer. At the moment we are running online classes so volunteers don’t need to be based in Zagreb. Developers can help in other ways as well – homework help, supporting individuals who need more support regardless of school classes. We are in a need for the equipment –mostly laptops but also additional gear. And of course, we need financial donations to keep us running the school. We want to provide more different courses and a larger number of classes for our students. In the end, companies can support our students by giving them opportunities for traineeship or internship.

Vincent: We are currently finding out that online teaching actually works. So for people who aren’t currently in Barcelona can contribute by having one-two-ones sessions with our students. They can also help with checking homework admissions and leaving feedback. On another level, companies can help with financing, material donations, space and soft skills training.

Short bio:

Nataša Koprtla is working with the Borders:None organization. She is a project manager with more than 10 years of experience in digital agencies, creative advertising agencies, IT companies. A psychologist and youth worker in the field of refugee youth and young asylum seekers. She has 4 years of experience working directly with young refugees and carrying out the projects related to this group.

Connect with Borders:none on Facebook

Vincent van Grondelle is the Program Manager of Migracode Barcelona. With a background in Social Work, Data Analysis and Non-Profit Management, he is now responsible for reporting, financing, managing volunteers, supporting students and for creating non-profit and corporate business relationships.

Connect Migracode on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Looking to find out more about how other NGO’s are contributing to the tech environment? Visit our interview with Naomi Molefe, SA Chairperson in Women in Big Data, or our discussion with James Sugrue, co-Founder of donate:code and Aggelina Mila, coordinating Business Development at Social Hackers Academy.