The coding class with no courses: meet the students on SA’s most ambitious digital training program
Inside one of Joburg’s oldest, maintained architectural gems, is an interesting clash of 20th century flair and nostalgia and the modern world of digital tech and its growing influence on South Africa’s future.
WeThinkCode_, a new youth coding programme set up in Johannesburg, recently opened its doors on the 5th floor at number 84 Albertina Sisulu Road (formerly Market Street) to a large group of youngsters from different walks of life and parts of South Africa.
The initiative was created in 2015 by IT entrepreneurs, Justinus Adriaanse and Yossi Hasson, founder of the Breteau Foundation, Camille Agon and former investment banker, Arlene Mulder after noticing a desperate need for digital skilled people in the working world and the lack of opportunities for young South Africans to pursue.
“Aptitude is equally distributed all over the world, but opportunity isn’t especially in a country like South Africa where few have access to high quality education and that’s what we’re trying to change,” Mulder tells htxt.africa during an interview at WeThinkCode_.
Bridging the gap private sector’s skills shortage and youth unemployment
“There are millions of unemployed young people in the country, while at the same time, there are around 500 000 vacancies in the private sector, so there’s a massive skills mismatch,” Mulder says.
WeThinkCode_ opened online applications in October in search of its first batch of young people to take through the first bootcamp, which kicked off this week.
The applications are open to any young person, with or without a matric or tertiary qualification or a background in coding and it’s not limited to those residing in Johannesburg either, as long as one can make their way to Joburg and sort out their own accommodation, they are welcome.
The two application tests are designed to test one’s aptitude for coding as well as thinking and problem solving skills, innovation and ability to thrive in peer-to-peer environment.
To reach out to those who may not have access to web internet for a prolonged time, WeThinkCode_ hosted testing stations in various townships.
Successful applicants who pass the two tests on the website are invited to join a month-long bootcamp at the premises.
Over 22 000 people applied from October, 7 000 went through the application process and 2% of that number made it through to the bootcamp.
Two more bootcamps will be held in February and March and by May, WeThinkCode_ will have selected 120 from all three editions to join the final two-year learning and internship programme.
WeThinkCode_ is free to all participants, Mulder says this was a deliberate move so as to not shut out anyone who wouldn’t be able to afford the typical fees a coding course costs.
Their business model leverages off sponsorships from FNB, BBD, Allan Gray, Times Media, Nandos and L’Oreal others.
WeThinkCode_ partnered with a similar program in Franc called 42 to model its curriculum on the European initiative’s version.
During the final programme, the group will spend the first eight months learning at WeThinkCode_, then go to complete a four-month internship with any one of the corporate sponsors, come back again to WeThinkCode_ for another eight months and spend four months interning again.
Once they’ve completed the entire two years, they are employed to work for the sponsors for a certain period.
Not your average coding class
While most coding programmes are mainly set up to produce skilled persons to venture into software development, Mulder says WeThinkCode_ aims to produce young people with digital skills they can use to work in almost any sector or company using digital resources to run operations, such as food, hospitality and retail.
There are no scheduled classes, timetables or even teachers. Everything is based on peer-to-peer learning where participants come together to leverage off each others’ strengths and knowledge to complete a number of tasks and solve problems using coding.
“There are scenarios in online videos and PDFs that they watch and read and then they have to solve problems presented in each scenario,” Mulder explains. “They also have to assess each others’ work.”
“I believe this is the future of education, it’s not a teacher standing in front of a class and telling learners they have to think in the same way, within the same box. it’s revolutionising the way education works,” she adds.
Mulder says they want to encourage people to bring their unique skills and strengths and work with others to achieve goals and go on to use this method of team work in the working world.
Two guys who help run the 42 programme in France are on site to provide guidance to the WeThinkCode_ leadership as well as participants.
Participants can work at a pace that suits them, take breaks to grab a bite to eat or play some video games in the “chill room” and come back to work on their tasks.
Esaya Jokonya runs an internet cafe in Soweto. Initially he had offered to lend a helping hand to youths in the township by letting use the internet for free to complete WeThinkCode’s three-hour tests.
Jokonya then became interested in it, applied and made it through to the bootcamp.
“I had an interest in IT but didn’t have money to further my studies, so I thought of trying WeThinkCode out,” he says.
Originally from Mbombela (Nelspruit), Valerie Dube is one of only eight girls at the bootcamp.
She spent a few years after matriculating between not being employed, working as a waitress in Pretoria, doing a course in IT in Mpumalanga and being a waitress again.
“I’d love to work as a software programmer,” Dube says. “It feels good to be among the only girls here, we want to show other girls that we can do it, just like the guys can and if you have a passion for it, go for it.”
More females and bigger groups are in the pipeline for the future
Next year, WeThinkCode_ would like to increase its pool of participants to 1 000 every two years and look at addressing accommodation issues for those coming from outside of Joburg.
They’re particularly looking to get more females to join the programme so as to show that the industry is not only a place open to males.
“We’re not just about learning how to code, but about learning how to be a digital problem solver,” Mulder says.