The baker who learned to code
As the startup sector has boomed in the Middle East and North Africa, so too has the need for software engineers and developers. But software engineers are scarce in many parts of the region. A recent report published by The Institution of Engineering and Technology highlighted the lack of engineers in the UAE, while the quality of new recruits is also lacking, with 58 per cent of large companies saying they are struggling to find applicants with the right technical skills.
Over the years, initiatives like One Million Arab Coders and Refugee Code Week have helped to introduce young people in the region to coding and the prospects of a career in software engineering. More recently, startups like Palestine-based TAP and UAE-based Talpods launched to provide a steady stream of talent for the region’s tech companies.
“We noticed startups struggling to fill their tech openings, and at the same time we could see the potential of bright young talent from the Arab world who were eager to fill this gap but lacked the experience that companies looked for,” says Ameer Jawad, co-founder of Talpods. “We experimented through iteration to try and solve this problem, starting out with a lightweight bootcamp and internship programme.”
Eventually, Jawad and his co-founder Lijeesh Majeed, realised that internships were not enough to meet the requirements of fast-growing startups in terms of engineering complexity, quality and speed.
“That's when we pivoted to the 12-month apprenticeship model we have today, where we pair the young talent up with top lead engineers for intense on-the-job mentorship, delivering immediate impact for the employer while accelerating the growth of the talent,” adds Jawad.
For the startups, Talpods’ apprenticeship model has helped to cut time and costs in training engineering talent. For the engineers themselves, such opportunities have been life-changing.
From baking to coding
The region has no shortage of devastating stories. Lives torn apart from the effects of war, strife and struggle. When Mahmood Alsalmo was at university studying economics in Syria, he had no idea where life would eventually take him. When the war broke out, he fled to Tripoli in Lebanon, leaving his studies and family behind.
"Two years after the outbreak of war in Syria, and living in danger and hunger every day, I realised that living was not possible anymore," he says. "I did not have a passport, so I decided to flee to Lebanon after they allowed Syrians to legally enter the country using the personal ID card. Leaving my family and emigrating alone was the most painful decision I made in my life."
Alsalmo faced various hardships in Lebanon, including economic uncertainty and limited job opportunities. Accommodation was just as difficult. He stayed in a hostel in exchange for doing their housework. After three months, he was hired by a local bakery, where he spent nine years working.
"I decided to get married after collecting a reasonable amount of money," he says. "I had a daughter and she was the spark that would change my entire life. As the breadwinner of my family, I was ready to move mountains to provide them a decent life. One day, I saw an advertisement on social media that led me to study Computer Science at the University of the People under a scholarship dedicated to refugees. I was fond of the field and wanted to gain deeper experience before finishing my study and venturing into the labour market,” he says.
Alsalmo then completed a computer sciences course at SE Factory, a coding bootcamp in Beirut.
“I completed the initial course and learned the basic skills in the field, then I was enrolled in a more advanced course that focused on the market-required skills, learning how to be a software developer and build projects from scratch,” he says. “I was occupied 22 hours every day, studying at the university, following my courses, and working at the bakery, yet it was a key period in my life without which I would not have entered this industry and changed my life."
Alsalmo then came across an internship opportunity at TalPods, which placed him as a software engineer with Bahrain-based foodtech Calo. He describes his experience at Talpods as “life-changing” and a chance to develop his communications and problem solving skills. In the meantime his income grew by almost 4000 per cent.
“Throughout his time with us, both during the bootcamp phase as well as his placement at Calo, what stood out about Mahmoud was his passion to perform and especially his perseverance to succeed in the face of any obstacle. It's this kind of grit that we look for, and that's the biggest predictor for success,” says Jawad.
The need and demand for software engineers is still high all over the world, but with the emergence of generative AI like Chat GPT, which now produces code at a professional level, there is a fear that AI will replace coders.
“It's difficult to predict how this plays out, but I believe a lot of the outcome is in our hands,” says Jawad. “If we're passive about the advancement of AI while failing to adapt the skills of our talent then they'll inevitably become obsolete. On the other hand the impacts can be highly positive if we respond the right way and ensure our talent will stay relevant. For example, a developer can use GPT and other AI language models to automate certain aspects of his/her tasks, translating into faster production.”
In theory, demand for talent should not decline, adds Jawad, but it will shift to hose who are better skilled at operating and leveraging AI in the most effective ways.
“I think it's down to businesses as well as governments to watch these requirements closely as they evolve and skill their talent accordingly. Economies that do this well should be able to gain an upper hand on a global stage,” says Jawad.