“There’s a perception in my country that to be able to code, you have to be from Mars,” Louis Rodrigue Tiani told the audience at this year’s EdTechXEurope event.
Tiani is a graduate of Code Your Future, a non-profit, volunteer-led organisation which aims to help refugees, asylum seekers, single parents, those from low income backgrounds and the otherwise disadvantaged learn to code and open up their future job prospects. Since its inception three years ago, the programme has already supported people from over 30 different nationalities.
Like many of the course graduates, Tiani came to Britain from Cameroon and was struggling to gain access to education in the UK when he discovered Code Your Future. His application was successful and having completed the course, he now works as a web developer for Comic Relief.
The organisation is just one of a number of university-degree alternatives that aims to provide applicants with a fully-realised set of skills. However, where Code Your Future really differs from similar courses is through the support it offers those who embark on the programme.
Founder Germán Bencci is a Venezuelan engineer who moved to the UK a decade ago. He explained the motivation behind setting up the non-profit was to help provide those who often get left behind by society with the skills and opportunities Bencci has seen the tech industry offer the more privileged. For him, one of the most important aspects of the course is that helps to break down barriers between the disadvantaged and their future success.
“One of the core aspects of Code Your Future is that, right from the very beginning, it was free for people," he said. "Making it part time has also been extremely important because not everybody can afford time. Even if you offer something that is free, that doesn't mean that people can do it. In a city like London, not working is not something that people can do for a number of months.”
Unlike similar courses, graduates aren’t expected to contribute financially to the programme after gaining full time employment and all financial burdens are covered for the entire length of the course.
“The classes are on the weekends and they’re face to face. We have meals together, people actually bring their food, and we cover any expenses that are related to their day to day life, if it's needed," said Bencci. "For example, if they cannot afford to come to the classes because transportation is very expensive, we will cover for that. Or if they don't have internet at home, or if they need childcare, we will cover that. Around 30% of our applicants don't have laptops or computers at home.”
Financially, this has proved challenging for the non-profit, which relies solely on donations, sponsorship from tech companies, public grants and the kindness of those willing to volunteer their time and expertise. Ultimately though, the company is working towards building a sustainable business model in the future so it can continue to offer its services on an even larger scale.
Successful applicants undertake the course over six months on a part-time basis and every member of the class is provided with a second-hand laptop from which they can complete their work from home and communicate with their peers via Slack. For Bencci, it’s important that Code Your Future not only supports the disadvantaged but that everyone who embarks on the course wants to be there. No previous knowledge of coding is required, only a strong work ethic and a willingness to learn.
“We have an application process because we have a couple hundred of applicants for every course and we can only take on around 10% of those that apply," he said. "We want to work with as many people as possible but, as I discussed earlier on in the panel, it is hard work, it does require a lot of effort, and you really need to want to do it.”
“Then they'll start going through frameworks and back end technology”, Bencci explained. “For example, at the moment, we're teaching react framework in the front end, and some work on databases and Node.js. Eventually they are going to do a final project which is where they put everything together that they have learnt.
“Once they do their final projects, we have a demo day presentation where we invite companies and other organisations along. There's also a little bit of a celebration for the end of the journey. Following that, we'll start working with them on how to prepare for the job market, in terms of interview practice, getting their CV ready and connecting them to companies.”
At EdTechXEurope, two graduates and one current student spoke about their experiences of Code Your Future and how it has helped them to expand their employment prospects dramatically against a landscape of difficult personal circumstances. However, Bencci stresses that those who volunteer on the programme aren’t teachers by trade and the programme they offer provides students with a fully-evolved skill set, rather than a recognised qualification:
“We’re not educators. We just know about tech, and we know how to connect with other companies and how to build products.”
Since launching in 2016, Code Your Future has grown significantly. Earlier this year, the organisation finally got itself a London office and is currently running its fifth class in the capital. The company has also expanded its services to Glasgow, where it is running its third course, and Manchester, where it is hosting its second class. Code Your Future was also able to set up a class in Rome this year, a place Bencci claims has “a lot of opportunities and loads of potential.”
“We are working on creating a playbook on how to open new cities, how to empower communities and how to build a grassroots approach to offer this course in any place that you want. We hope we are able to support all these communities as much as possible.”