Programming careers for refugees

On the Dutch labour market, demand for good ICT professionals is growing. Meanwhile, a large number of people are starting new lives in the Netherlands after being forced to leave their countries of origin. HackYourFuture is a programming course that marries those two facts by enabling refugees to train as programmers in just six months. With the hundredth student having recently graduated, HackYourFuture's Director Wouter Kleijn has been reflecting on the scheme's achievements and the collaboration with SIDN Fund.

HackYourFuture 1

It's less than three years since the idea of a programming school was born. Founder Gijs Corstens saw it as a good way to give refugees the opportunity to start building new futures. The scheme's current Director Wouter Kleijn took over the helm at the start of this year. The newcomers helped by HackYourFuture are talented people, who simply lack access to training and professional networks. HackYourFuture therefore enables motivated refugees with an interest in ICT can enrol for training with a view to improving their job prospects in the Netherlands.

Sunday sessions plus self study

Students attend classes one day a week. For the rest of the time, they are expected to study at home. Every Sunday, forty to sixty students meet in Amsterdam for programming tuition. The sessions cover topics such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript, frontend and backend. For the final seven weeks of the programme, students put their new skills to practical use in a group project.

Between tuition days, they work independently on homework assignments, with on-line support from mentors via Slack. The chosen study format reflects the fact that the students are scattered around the country and many have families, making daily trips to Amsterdam impractical. It also means that, to succeed, students need to show determination and discipline, qualities that'll stand them in good stead as programmers. As Wouter points out, "To a large extent, programming entails problem-solving, so it's important that you can resolve issues on your own."

Motivation and interest

Motivation levels amongst the students are high. Every two months, HackYourFuture selects a group of refugees who have what it takes to join the course. Wouter explains the rigorous selection policy: "We receive between one and two hundred applications for each admission round. To get a place, you have to fulfil two criteria: a reasonable command of English and a willingness to work hard." The selection procedure starts with assessment of each applicant's CV and personal statement. Next, prospective students have to complete a technical assignment, such as independently building a basic website. The best forty applicants are then invited for an interview, leading to ten or fifteen of them being offered places. "People with a technical background are often already very interested in the subject and have more experience. But a technical background isn't a requirement," says Wouter. "That's the great thing about programming: if you try hard, enjoy the work and have an aptitude for structured thinking, you'll be able to learn to programme."

HackYourFuture 2

More than a school

It isn't only programming that HackYourFuture students learn. "Each weekly tuition day starts with a collective news update. We tell students about what's happening with HackYourFuture, and about former students who have managed to get jobs or been joined in the Netherlands by family members," Wouter explains. The idea of the updates is to promote a sense of togetherness. So HackYourFuture is more than a school; it's also a community.

The HackYourFuture team additionally provide job application advice, plus help looking for suitable vacancies and internships. "Coming from different cultures, our students don't necessarily know what you're likely to get asked at a job interview, or how they should present themselves," says Wouter. "So help with things like that can make a big difference to their prospects." 

Volunteers

HackYourFuture's success owes much to the commitment of a large team of professional programmers who provide tuition on a voluntary basis. The same group of enthusiastic volunteers are responsible for designing the curriculum as well. These mentors come from all over the world, are intimately familiar with the ICT landscape and have valuable professional contact networks. Graduates of the scheme have now started giving tuition as well.

SIDN Fund

SIDN's mission is connecting people and organisations to promote safe and convenient digital living. Set up in 2014, SIDN Fund exists to support that goal. The foundation works to build a better internet for everyone by providing grants to projects that help to make the internet stronger, promote user empowerment or utilise the internet in innovative ways. By doing so, it contributes to the prosperity and wellbeing of the nation.

"The initiative caught our eye immediately"

HackYourFuture applied to SIDN Fund for support in 2016. "The initiative caught our eye immediately," recalls Marieke van der Kruijs, Project Coordinator at the Fund. "I think that it's very much in line with our mission: a strong internet for all. Using the internet to achieve social impact is part of that. Teaching refugees to programme enables them to enter the labour market. A labour market where there's a real demand for suitably qualified people. HackYourFuture presents itself very well, has realistic goals and is prepared to be selective in order to ensure that everyone starting the course is highly motivated." Wouter is very appreciative of the Fund's support. "SIDN Fund believed in us and gave us a huge amount of help in the start-up phase," he says. "The number of students who have gone on to find work is set to pass the hundred mark this year. The Fund deserves a large slice of the credit for that."

International success

The benefits of HackYourFuture's approach are now being felt outside the Netherlands as well. Similar initiatives have been started in Brussels (Belgium), Copenhagen (Denmark), Malmö (Sweden) and Toronto (Canada). HackYourFuture's curriculum is open source, and the Amsterdam team are always willing to share their experience with counterparts in other countries. "We've already learnt a lot about what works and what doesn't. What's the best way to approach a prospective employer? Or to modify your curriculum? What teaching forms succeed? And what's the best way to handle cultural differences? We've been dealing with issues like that for a while, and we're happy to pass on what we've learnt. But knowledge exchange is a two-way process: we've also picked up a lot from our international contacts. In Copenhagen, for example, it's not only refugees they're working with; they're also looking to help other groups that find it hard to enter the labour market. Maybe that's an idea we can take on board."

What next?

Although things are going very well, HackYourFuture hasn't yet secured its goals. "We want at least fifty people qualifying and forty people getting jobs. It's important that we keep our promises and that the dream we describe is one that our students can realise. Students should have a real chance of a job and a decent income if they apply themselves for six months," says Wouter. He's also a firm believer in continuous improvement of the training, the tuition methods and the quality of the homework assignments. Another aim is to explore the scope for applying the HackYourFuture model more widely. Training could be offered to other vulnerable groups, for instance, or the scheme could be replicated in other sectors.

Want to know more about HackYourFuture? Interested to see whether there's a way for you to support the project's aims? Visit https://www.hackyourfuture.net/

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