Even though digital talent is still scarce globally, and in the Middle East particularly, the fast-growing digital economy is leading an increasing demand for highly skilled technical workers, and developers, more specifically. This trend is, and will be impacting the employment market as we mentioned in a previous article.
According to a recent Oxford Economic survey, to address the digital talent gap, curricula from primary schools to higher education institutions need to be tuned toward fostering more digital and technical skills. This is probably what triggered Repl.it to kick-off its operation and cater to this market.
The startup, a ‘serverless computing platform’ and a cloud development environment, facilitates programming through its platform. It slashes the long hours programmers spend to set up the development environment before even writing a single line of code. Repl.it makes it possible for developers to get from an idea to an app deployed and ready for users in just seconds. “You can start a new project by clicking this link and that’s it. You don’t even have to sign-up,” Amjad Masad, founder, explained to Wamda.
Additionally, this makes learning how to code an easy process, because it facilitates ‘the getting started step’, which most learners consider as a hurdle. This allowed Repl.it to build a product used in classrooms that makes it easy for teachers to setup their entire coding classroom quickly, he said. The product was popular among schools, colleges, and coding bootcamps, which triggered the founders to build more tools, he said. “We build an app for the classroom. Teachers create a new classroom, select the language they want to teach, give out a link to their students or invite them via email. Then it will function as a Learning Management System where the teacher can create an assignment and students can work and submit their assignments,” Masad explained. He added: “It's also possible for the teacher to automate grading. Teachers write a simple piece of code that allows them to automate a big part of their job.”
The idea behind Repl.it saw the light when Masad was still a student at Princess Sumaya University in Jordan before becoming a San Francisco-based company. Tired of setting up the coding environment every time he wanted to code for a homework or just for fun, he built an open-face project that was the first site to allow users to code in multiple languages all on the browsers.
The project took off and online education companies such as Codecademy and Udacity started using it, as the startup open-sourced a part of the technology and they built on it. “However, we only started working on the company in 2016. My cofounder and designer Haya Odeh, and our founding engineer Faris Masad (brother) and I, launched the development environment in spring 2016,” he added.
A Y-Combinator startup
Repl.it is a Y-Combinator startup, and according to Masad, Paul Graham’s [cofounder of Y-Combinator] writing on the Lisp programming language [a computer programming language developed about 1960 by John McCarthy at the MIT] inspired some of Repl.it work.
“Through his [Paul Graham] mentorship we were able to make a few leaps in our product during YC,” he said. Repl.it was able to release web hosting, and was able to host around 30,000 websites. “We built a Cloud Computing Platform, something like Amazon Web Services, or Microsoft Azure, which allows other businesses to host their websites on our cloud platform. We're better in that users don’t need a lot of knowledge in servers to be able to host their websites. And they can do it in seconds instead of hours,” Masad explained. He added: “We also released a community section of our website where users can share and talk about their products and the apps they’re building which is growing at a similar rate,” he added. He explained that he tried to raise money in Amman but he couldn’t. Then he moved to work in a startup in the US, settled down, and decided to start a company in San Francisco where his network is. Amman, though, is still on his mind, and might be the destination for his network.
How they monetize
Repl.it is not profitable yet, but Masad claims it is due to its exponential growth. The founder announced that they have 200,000 weekly active developers, who are people who come to the site and write code every week. However, this number is continuously changing as the startup is growing. Users are a mix of professional coders, college, and high school students. About half of them is based in the US, and the rest is split around the world.
The startup currently provides a paid classroom service for bootcamps, universities, and colleges, and pricing is package-based. It starts with a free package for unlimited Repls and Repl Embeds [Tools to embed a programming environment, similar to the way you embed a Youtube video but for code]and 2MB of maximum file size. Other packages are available, such as the Hacker package, which is an individual user plan that makes it possible to host private open source projects in Repl.it. This package costs $7/month and 100MB of file storage among other features.
Repl.it has also closed a new customer in the MENA region, which is the Higher Colleges of Technology in the UAE where they’re teaching thousands of students how to code using Repl.it.
Challenges and obstacles
According to Masad, the technology itself is the biggest challenge they have to deal with, as they have to maintain the same efficiency and reliable backend. Coding will keep on spreading, and will get more powerful and sophisticated. “This presents a challenge because as coding tools become more sophisticated it becomes harder to set them up, so it’s both a challenge and an opportunity for us,” he added. The deployment of full-fledge cloud industry, will also alter various applications. “We’ll see that the cloud will become so easy to deploy that it becomes second nature for developers. We’re still at the beginning of something like ‘Serverless Computing’ where developers do not need to care about resources to develop and deploy their applications. We want to play a part in that as well.”
When it comes to hiring developers, and unlike what most startups face, talent was very abundant in San Francisco, and Repl.it did not go through that shortage. The startup still had to deal with another problem: Competing with the numerous startups that are available in the US that are attracting talents, and that also offer a lot of incentives, Masad said. “It doesn’t feel like people [talents] are hungry anymore,” he added.
When it comes to competition, Masad said it is hard to categorize Repl.it, which is makes it even harder to define who the competition is. He explained that defining them as an edtech company is very different from defining them as a developer tools company. “We’re somewhere in between, and for better or worse, there doesn't exist a lot of things in that intersection,” he said.
Coding for the future
On January 28, the One Million Arab Coders initiative welcomed its first cohort of 100,000 students, who began their online coding courses under four educational tracks. The initiative, developed by Dubai Future Foundation, under the leadership of UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, aims to provide free software development courses to one million Arabs. The initiative has attracted over 466,000 registrations so far, with 217,515 completing their applications to begin their course. Applications have been received from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, the UAE, and Yemen.
Masad believes that even if coding is “definitely becoming trendier” in the region, there is a need to be “moving faster and more aggressively.” According to him, it is the first time in history where you could create wealth with minimal resources: All you need is a computer and an internet connection to invent the next Google. “If you look at human history and the different innovation cycles, it has never been this easy to participate… You [don’t] need lots of capital and workers to do anything interesting. So it’s our chance to shine.” According to him, as we accelerate into the age of AI, AR, and hyper connectedness, everyone must have the capacity to understand and even build technology, and opportunities are multiple to make this happen.