Small teams are stretched out over the entire space to maintain a safe distance from each other. Face masks are obligatory. But this doesn’t deter the students from having lively discussions to learn and try to solve an algorithm problem.
“I am so glad that we don’t have to take this course online because of the coronavirus,” says Tala Qawasmi. “It’s challenging to work in a team; everybody has their own ideas. But it is so important to work together and to put all our thoughts into one problem to eventually come up with a solution.” The 25-year-old female trainee is part of the first “cohort” of the new Axsos Academy, an intensive coding boot camp for aspiring software developers in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
The original four-month traineeship had to be postponed several times due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the 2,500 people who applied from all over the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, only 43 made it into the first cohort.
“It’s a huge challenge. We have to make sure that the place is not crowded, to push for wearing masks and to keep a safe distance. This is the new normal we are living in,” says Shirin Toffaha, Axsos’ human resources manager.
For now, the program, which is funded by the Palestinian Authority, utilizes a floor at the Ministry of Telecommunications. Plans to move into the academy’s building in Ramallah, which will offer room and board facilities to the participants, were postponed until 2021.
Academy open to non-IT backgrounds
What makes the academy special is that it is open to professionals and graduates from different fields. Only about half of the participants have studied information technology. The age of participants ranges between 18 and 51. This shows how for many among them, the program serves as professional reorientation.
“We aimed at finding people either from different backgrounds, but with commitment and passion to change their career path, or for fresh graduates,” says Toffaha. “They also have to commit to four months, six days a week and hard work 10 to 12 hours a day.”
Another essential recruitment criterion is English language skills. The boot camp is held in English and students are encouraged to practice it among themselves. Applicants who lack adequate language skills are encouraged to study and to apply again at a later stage.
Long hours are not a problem for Ghada Qaraeen, who commutes back and forth between east Jerusalem and Ramallah to attend the course. The 22-year-old business administration graduate recently lost her job in customer relations because of the coronavirus pandemic. The academy, she says, gives her the opportunity to widen her professional horizons but she needs to catch up with those who have studied information technology.
“The first two days, I was like, what did I do to myself? This is way too hard. But then, step by step, with all the time you put into it, you learn the languages and the algorithms. It’s good,” she says.
Fellow student Tala Qawasmi, an urban planner, already has some basic knowledge of coding but not enough as she admits. She has been working in geographic information management in the public sector and helped develop a navigation system for the Palestinian territories. “I was working in an IT department and got some expertise, but I didn’t have the complete picture. This will enable me to build my own platform and my own applications.”
Using German know-how
Within the next five years, the Axsos Academy aims to train about 5,000 Palestinians in software development. “The idea had originally come up in a conversation with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Stayyeh, who said he wanted more highly qualified software developers and asked whether we would be able to train them,” recalls Frank Müller, CEO of Axsos, on the phone from Germany.
“The focus was on high-quality training, and he emphasized that a German company should take the lead, in order to convey our cultural approach.”
For the past year 10 years, the Stuttgart-based IT company has invested in the area and brought parts of its customer service department to Ramallah. The company offers medium-sized companies solutions in IT security, infrastructure and digitalization.
Palestinians have several unique selling points, Müller adds, in what he describes as a strong sense of anticipation and the ability to read situations. These are vital tools in the daily lives of Palestinians when, for example, they cross checkpoints. “They are 10 times better in reading between the lines than us Germans and that is an advantage in dealing with customers,” he says. The territories have the ability to strongly position themselves in the Arab world and to be a link between Europe and the Arab markets.
Political conflict overshadows sector
For many years, Ramallah’s tech sector has been described as the upcoming “Silicon Wadi” in the region, where Wadi in Arabic means valley. US global companies like Cisco, Microsoft and Google have been deeply anchored in neighboring Israel and are also supporting the development of the Palestinian technology ecosystem.
There is a startup scene with business accelerators and an outsourcing market that is served by local firms, even as the political conflict overshadows the sector. As Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement and travel continue, Palestinian tech workers got accustomed to working in the borderless virtual cloud, even though Israel first allowed the West Bank to be connected to the 3G mobile network only two years ago.
According to the World Bank, about 3,000 IT graduates from Palestinian universities enter the market annually. However, even before the impact of the pandemic, youth unemployment was around 37% in the West Bank and over 60% in Gaza. Prospects for new graduates are grim.
“A lot of Palestinians don’t find jobs in the sectors that they studied,” says Jamil Isayyed, who trains the students and is head of digitalization and software development at Axsos.
While it remains unclear whether there will be a market for more IT professionals, Isayyed says the academy is trying to bridge the gap between workforce skillsets and market needs, also in an international context. “This program really is to help in bringing both together. That they have the right technical skills, soft skills and practical experience that are needed.”
For now, top of mind for students Tala Qawasmi and Ghada Qaraeen is to finish the boot camp in person. They worry about the possible alternate of distance learning as a result of the recent rise in coronavirus infections in the West Bank. “We need this atmosphere,” says Qawasmi. “We want to work together and solve those problems together.”