UPDATE (August 10, 2016): Iyin Aboyeji has exited Andela to co-found Flutterwave, a platform that allows merchants make and receive payments across multiple platforms.
An ever ongoing debate around the local tech scene is on the existence or limited availability of highly skilled developers. While most may argue that Nigerian Developers are largely under-skilled, some would opine their quality of service correlates with the fact that Nigerian developers are highly underpaid.
But two guys - Iyin Aboyeji and Jeremy Johnson are taking a whole different approach to the debate. They are the founders of Andela, a truly innovative startup with an interesting model for education.
They reckon they can train anyone who has the right amount of passion, regardless of their background, to become World Class developers in the space of 4 years. What's even more interesting is that they are actually paying people to learn, not the other way around.
Techpoint spent an afternoon with Iyin at the Andela Amity campus (Jeremy was unavoidably physically absent but he joined us via video chat) where we had the opportunity to gain better insight into how Andela hopes to achieve her dream of training a 100,000 developers in Africa in the space of 10 years.
Could you give us a little background (educational, professional) on yourself and how Andela came to be
Iyin: My name is Iyinoluwa Aboyeji. All my friends call me E. I am Nigerian - I grew up here in Bariga. For my secondary education, I went to Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja. After that I went to Canada, where I had a life changing experience at the University of Waterloo. What was particularly special about it was that it wasn't just an academic program in the sense that you went to school and got a degree. You were basically compelled to have 2 years of work experience to be able to graduate. It was a system called co-operative education. The University of Waterloo has the world's largest co-operative education programme. Basically we would go to school for 3 to 4 months and then work for another 3 to 4 months. Over that period of time, we were able to get an excellent retinue of practical skills and experiences that we could then bring to the workplace with us.
After that experience, I founded a company called Bookneto, which I managed to sell before I graduated. After that, I started Fora, which brought me back to Nigeria, where I was trying to work with Nigerian universities to build a new model of education that will engage young professionals. Whilst running that company, I realised there were much bigger problems for me to solve - thanks to Jeremy - so I decided to start working on these problems. That was how Andela started.
Jeremy: For me, the first real introduction I had to education on the continent came through Iyin. He tracked me down in New York when I was building a previous company - 2U. 2U was one of the fastest growing EdTech companies in the US. We were about 3 years in when Iyin reached out on my personal website. He told me about this company he was building that had a lot of similar characteristics with 2U, with a focus on Africa. I was pretty busy at that point and I didn't know who it was so I just told him I didn't have time. But Iyin didn't take no for an answer.
Eventually I gave in and within 10 minutes of meeting him I realised this was someone who was going to change the world. He cared deeply about education and the impact it can have on a person and their community. I wanted to support that anyway that I could. So we became friends; I would give him advice from time to time.
When E was thinking about different approaches to education, I had just come back from a trip to Nairobi with another one of our co-founders who was a senior person at the MasterCard foundation. This opened my eyes to the incredible potential for young people across the continent and how underutilized human capital was. There were these brilliant, driven people with limited opportunity, not because they weren't every bit as talented and thoughtful as anyone else in the world, but because of the infrastructure and system that they were born into. As I dug into that and talked with E more a bit about it, we came to feel that we could actually take a very different approach here. E inspired me to believe that we could bring the world's best education technology to this part of the world. Brilliance is evenly distributed around the world - it's just a scientific fact - but opportunity is not. We believed that we could make a profound positive impact on the world and create a system of education that funded itself and scaled while offering high quality education without having to charge the students tuition, and in the process teach them some of the most valuable skills in the digital economy.
That was sort of the birth of Andela's notion of paying people to learn. Anyone anywhere, regardless of family or educational background, if they are gifted from absute standpoint and willing to work and grow themselves, then they can not only dramatically improve their lives, but also completely transform the community around them and improve their countries in the process. It's been an amazing initial year - our first anniversary is coming up in a couple of weeks. Over the past year, we've gone from "this seems like it could work" to one of the fastest-growing tech companies anywhere in the world, not just on the continent.
Let’s back up a little to the ventures you guys were running before Andela. First of all, would we be right in saying Andela a pivot for Fora?
Iyin: Not really actually. That’s a very common misconception which is very important to clear up. Andela is a brand new company. When I was leaving Fora for Andela, I love my team and I absolutely feed off my investors, I basically asked my team to join me because I believed that this was the most transformational thing we could all be working on. I also gave our investors an option to invest in Andela. So it's not a pivot, it's a completely new company.
Alright so how would you say your experiences with previous ventures have influenced the way you run Andela
Jeremy: The reality here, and one of those things that always inspire me about Iyin, was that he was willing to throw himself at trying new things, regardless of how difficult they are. Startups are really hard - the reality is that a vast majority don't work. I've had a number that I've worked on that haven't worked and he has as well. I think that is a big part of the reason why this is actually working so well. We've learnt from the mistakes that come from previous ones. Fora was a great idea but unfortunately it wasn't a company that was able to gain enough traction to scale. But there's still a great team around it. So E and I decided to offer the chance for folks who worked for Fora to come and work for Andela.
One thing that E has taught me in this process has been the importance of appreciating different cultures and the ways that a really diverse team can come together to build something that individually, none of them would be able to do. I think that the great strengths of Andela are borne out of a very diverse group of driven people who care more about the outcomes and the impact we have on our fellows than anything else in the world. We understand that to do that we also need to be able to have an extraordinary value proposition for our partners - the companies that hire Andela developers during their training.
Iyin: On my end too it's something similar. It's basically that you should always be looking for ways to bring on the most talented people in the world into your team. There's literarily no barrier if you're working on the right things and you're passionate about what you're working on. One of our people who came along with us from Fora like to describe us as "limitless".
Could you give us an overview of the process behind selecting applicants to join the Andela fellowship programme?
Iyin: When we're looking for an Andela fellow, what we're trying to figure out is how can we find the most inspirational, driven and intelligent young people. We are also looking for curious people who are fast learners, brilliant, have great attitudes and who absolutely want to be World Class software developers over a period of time. The process of finding them is pretty rigorous.
We are investing a lot upfront into each individual so it really matters to us that each individual that we are investing in are also throwing themselves at it because, otherwise the investments would not work. We spend a lot of our time through a very intensive selection process. It starts with our proprietary algorithm for figuring out from the mass of applicants we get who should be given an interview. But it doesn't end at the interview. We actually have a boot camp, which in some respect is like a 2-week interview. There we teach them the basis of software development, even if they don't have that kind of background. We are also evaluating them to see who has the metal to succeed in the programme. After that they're then admitted into the programme where they go through another 5 or 6 months of training towards “finding them out”before they are placed in major projects.
At Andela you actually pay your students to learn. How is this self-sustaining as a model of education?
Jeremy: It's very simple. It's self sustaining because we're focused on the most valuable skills in the digital economy. And because there’s so much demand for those skills, as part of the training process, we place fellows within companies around the world looking for tech talent. Those companies pay Andela to work with our fellows. We support the fellows in the background to create a platform that rapidly allows them to become high quality engineers at the companies they’re working with. It's self-sustaining because it follows that cooperative education model that E was talking about where students are not only learning, but also doing. It turns out the best way to become a great engineer is to learn through doing.
Almost a year on and, so far, close to 70 fellows in-house. Would you say Nigerian Developers are generally trainable to become World Class?
Jeremy: I've spent most of my adult life around developers. I would say the calibre of people in Nigeria is second to none. They're the most driven, determined and persistent people I've ever met before. I am literally inspired every time I set foot in Amity to spend time with the fellows. It is very difficult to maintain software developer standards at the level that you'd expect in Silicon Valley for instance. Unless you have people that have those standards and they're going to impart them. I think that we’ve met amazing engineers because there are amazing people in Nigeria. But there aren't enough (engineers). Our goal is to help the incredible people that are also really interested in software development become incredible engineers.
Iyin: That's exactly what I'd say. We (Nigerians) have the drive, we have the intellect, the sheer hustle to make it happen. All that is required is just being shown the way.
Could you share a few success stories so far about your fellows at Andela
Jeremy: The difficult part about that question is we have dozens of them now. We have to fellows working with the Microsoft team in New York on a project to map out the Civic Graph of how different organisations - from ono-profit to government entities - engage with each other to make the world a better place. We have another two fellows with a company which is helping to improve logistics insfrastructure in emerging market economies. We also have two fellows who are lead developers for a brand new startup in Silicon Valley that is potentially a LinkedIn competitor.
How would you define a “World Class” developer?
Jeremy: Really simply, a World Class developer is someone who has the ability to both understand the details of a complex project and see the big picture. They are more of a problem solver than someone who is just pushing out code. They think about what they're doing and look for the best way to solve that problem, as opposed to just following directions blindly. They're able to both work in and lead teams effectively. They're able to communicate deliverables and timelines effectively. They're able to basically walk into an environment and have those around them trust them enough to get the job done.
Why does it take 4 years to achieve that status?
Iyin: It's basically a function of habits. A lot of it isn't necessarily skills which can be taught, or modules. But unless it's a habit for you, you're not going to get to the level of proficiency that other World Class developers are at. So the people at Google, Microsoft and all the other World Class technology companies that we talk about everyday, whose products we use everyday, are great World Class developers because the past 8 to 12 years of their lives have been spent doing exactly the same thing everyday. They have gotten into these things as habits. That's what we trying to build here at Andela. But building habits takes a long time. It's not something you can do in a few months, or a course you can take at the university. No, It's something that you have to do repeatedly so that you can build those habits.
You guys are obviously young but with an awesome wealth of experience. What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs on the continent?
Iyin: I think one important thing is to find someone who is a couple of steps ahead of you, who you can look up to for mentorship, guidance and even possibly work closely with. In many ways, I like to think of Jeremy as that person. Jeremy doesn't know this but, one of the reasons I reached out to Jeremy specifically was because it felt like Jeremy had been living the life I wanted to live at almost every stage. So I told myself I needed to meet this person because this is the person I want to be when I grow up.
It is a very challenging environment and it's very tempting to think that you can do it by yourself. However it's always a problem to find the right kind of mentorship and the right kind of older partners. Jeremy is not that old himself [laughs]. But he's an older man.
Jeremy: I appreciate what E said. I had great mentors in my life so I think that's really good advice. But I'd say, for young people, often one of the hardest things to understand is that you will get what you give. The more value you can create for others, the better you will do. The more you can create things that make other people's lives better, the better your life will become. That's not always obvious to people when they're young. It is something we really focus on doing at Andela.
The other thing is something that me and E talk about a lot. How you do anything is how you do everything. So when you engage, do it in a way that people will look at you and say "that is excellent". Ensure that people understand that you will deliver on your promises. If at all possible, over deliver on these promises. What happens is that, if you over deliver and focus on giving, even as a young person, you will gain more and more responsibility and have the chance to continue proving yourself. If you do that, you will rise more rapidly than you ever thought possible.
What’s the experience running a venture like Andela in Nigeria, as compared to running it in the US?
Jeremy: Without question, it has its complications. With 2U, my last company, we had people at a dozen different universities in New York, DC and Hong Kong. So I have had experience working with remote teams. But part of what Andela is also doing is helping tech companies around the world learn how to work with distributed work forces. It doesn't make things simpler but it's absolutely something that can be done and done well.
Iyin: To add to that, what we try to do here is create an alternate reality. We have this saying: "this is Andela, this is not Africa". What that means is that, with respect to how we run things here, we are absolutely World Class. We are going to maintain a standard of excellence. Even though it looks impossible many times, we're going to make sure who do it in a cost-effective and efficient manner.
Asides your long term goal of a training 100,000 World Class developers in Africa over the next 10 years, what are some things we can expect to see form Andela in the short term?
Iyin: I think now one of the most exciting things for us is that we're doubling our bootcamp class. That basically means we're doubling the size of the average intake. But it also means we're going to get more selective because we're also investing more in widening the net in terms of who comes into our pipeline. That's very exciting for us right now. We're also looking to increase the uptake of women pretty soon. We're going to be working with a lot of women in engineering partners. Mostly importantly is or expansion. Maybe Jeremy can throw some light on that.
Jeremy: We just began applications in Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. We will also be expanding into additional space soon. We started in Amity in January and already it's full. So we're moving quickly; getting to a 100,000 requires us to keep moving. But it also requires us to focus and so when you think about how Andela will expand, we're not looking for new and flashy things, we're looking to get better and better at what we do. We believe what we do is to create a platform for these extraordinary young people to fundamentally alter their lives and the lives of people around them.