code-for-a-living January 8, 2020

Tapping into the coding power of migrants and refugees in Mexico

Mexico and Latin America’s tech sector is growing rapidly, and the current market is demanding more experienced talent. HolaCode, founded two years ago, is focused on educating new coders in this region, and then supporting them through the early stages of their career.

Mexico and Latin America’s tech sector is growing rapidly, and the current market is demanding more experienced talent. But many startups in Mexico and in Latin America are failing to meet their tech goals as there’s not enough talent to build it. 

HolaCode, which I founded two years ago, is focused on educating new coders in this region, and then supporting them through the early stages of their career. As we take on this challenge, we are also keeping a strong focus on diversity and ensuring that no communities from this fast growing market are left behind.  

Holacode was not something that emerged spontaneously—or easily. I was curious about coding and started attending tech related events and meet-ups. That’s where I learned about the huge need for talented developers. At the same time, I was in a job in which I had access to information about youth unemployment in Mexico City, which was at a crisis level

I felt there was a huge disconnect happening and became curious to learn more about the challenges the youth face in the workforce. I started educating myself more about it, doing workshops, talking to young people and meeting more and more young migrants returning from the US to Mexico and refugees seeking asylum in Mexico. The more I learned about both issues, the angrier I became. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking about building a startup, I was just documenting information. At some point, I thought about writing a blog post or something like that, because I assumed “someone would care.” It took me a while to realize that “someone” was actually me. 

The pieces started coming together, and I was building something without realizing I was doing so. I met the right people to develop and cook my ideas into what became a startup. The whole process was long and unexpected, but quite exciting as it was the first time in my life that I allowed myself to create something. 

I had always played it safe. As I don’t come from a privileged background, I needed to secure a paycheck, and taking risks is not something that ever crossed my mind. However, the excitement about creating—and more importantly, the idea of building something of value—gave me the courage enough to make that leap of faith. I decided to launch a coding school, HolaCode, to serve this population: young men and women, all of them migrants or asylum seekers, who could help to provide the much needed talent for Latin America’s burgeoning tech scene.

When we launched Holacode, we had a vision of how it was going to work, however the reality was quite different. I still remember being incredibly excited about the first day and our first cohort of students, getting the computers ready, setting-up the office, and laying out supplies. That excitement turned to fear when the first students arrived. I was so nervous, I realized people’s dreams and hopes were now on our hands. That’s a huge responsibility. 

The first year, it felt like we were surfing a perfect wave like pros. The business model, the pedagogy and education, the loans, all of our assumptions worked. It was a success from the first try. It was such a rush, we were working weekends without hesitation and constantly coming up with new content, resources, and ideas. It was scrappy and fast, and we thought that meant innovation. We were putting so much time into the project that we had to require everyone to take PTO and holiday time-off——none of us were taking them. Personally, I was learning how to manage a team and be a CEO. It was a crazy ride. 

The second year, that’s when it hit us—we couldn’t be scrappy anymore. Scrappy doesn’t scale. We couldn’t afford not to be detail oriented. We started seeing the gaps, the little details that were not so obvious in the beginning, such as finding that not all of the content worked for everyone, everyone learnt in different ways. Therefore we created our “learn how to learn” curriculum and gave more power to our constructivist learning approach. 

We realized then that we didn’t have as many women attend our program even though 80% of our applicants were migrant mothers. They applied but did not attend because they didn’t have a social network to support their children while they learned. So we opened a bilingual daycare on our campus, but that meant creating an additional payment system and new security measures. We had an ambitious goal to build a strong community, since our first year, and we had an open unregulated communication platform to encourage that community, But we realized that such platforms allowed bullying and harassment, so we had to create new rules and moderation, which gave us more tasks to figure out how to scale. 

We grew so fast as people and as a team, all of us.  I don’t think I was a perfect manager in the beginning, yet having an open policy for candid and kind feedback from peers has given me and everyone at the team very unexpected skills. Looking back, if the first year was a cool surf, the second year has felt like a long and overheated climb while we prepared for a light hike with nice weather. 

That translates into the fact that we have to keep adapting to the needs and challenges people face when learning.  Over the last year we have switched our curriculum priorities. We used to focus almost exclusively on acquiring coding and technical skills, while having a small soft skills curriculum. Today, we are giving more weight to pedagogical tools and learning habits to ensure that all of our students can learn in various ways in order to achieve our goals: everyone that enters our program can become a software developer and get a job in the tech sector. Internally we have been working hard as a team to be candid with feedback, design career paths, get trained in anything we don’t know, and to take PTO so that we can continue to build a great company together. 

Then, when you figure out what actually works, you face the challenge of: how do you scale this? How do you reach ten times, or a hundreds times more people. That’s when it gets tricky, because maybe what works is quite crafty and that doesn’t work well at a scale. Those are questions that make you stop and stumble, but then go out there and try and test it. The greatness of it is that the tech sector is growing and it urgently needs more diverse voices creating the technology that we consume and use day to day. So there is always momentum and demand pushing you to continue trying, to continue innovating. 

Building Holacode and keeping it alive has not been easy. We’ve learnt in very unsavory ways that the best feedback that we can get is often when someone is incredibly angry at us. This is horrible, because when someone is unhappy they’re not the kindest version of themselves but they are their most honest.That type of information is incredibly valuable. 

Holacode’s secret sauce, our “recipe for success”, is that we follow a methodology that pushes people to learn by themselves. We strongly believe in this model because we can’t predict what the future—specifically in the tech sector—is going to be like. Therefore, we think that the best skillset that we can teach is how to learn about technology in an autonomous way. This means that our students are annoyed for quite a while, they feel uncomfortable, they are facing challenges and feel that they are alone, when in reality, we are doing many of these things deliberately. 

In the beginning, it might be uncomfortable, but then as they progress in the program, it is exciting to see them use more and more technical vocabulary, going to Stack Overflow (or “momma I need help” as some of our students call it) for references, consulting each other, debugging. It is very magical to watch while it happens. 

Our graduates are trained in fullstack JavaScript, are bilingual, come from bicultural backgrounds, and most importantly are autonomous, life long learners, which makes Holacode graduates incredibly attractive talent for the sector. 

The company turned two years old in November, therefore we are looking back with a great sense of pride in the many things we accomplished, such as successfully taking young migrants without a tech background from zero to fullstack, having graduates increase their previous incomes by 13 times, having Holacoders working for international banks, large startups, and building incredible technology with amazing companies. However, we are also looking forward, designing new ways to increase our productivity, reach more potential students, and maximize what we do best. This requires not only listening to our users (students), but to the market and that’s where a lot of the answers are. For our next phase, we are going to be integrating more tightly with the companies who have hired and trained our students in the past, better integrating the student to employee pipeline. 

So far, to support our alumni’s success in the job market, we’ve had a curriculum called “Job Readiness” plus an area that we call “Outcomes,” which works with both alumni and companies looking for talent to try and do some matchmaking. This increases our ability to help students incorporate in suitable companies, while helping with retention rates for the companies. To this day, this has been successful; however, as the demand for more experienced developers increases and entry-level positions grow more scarce, we have to rethink how we approach this challenge. 

This is why we are currently redesigning the entire Holacode learning experience. From expanding the time spent learning with us, increasing and improving our content, adding real projects and interesting partnerships, including real work experiences, all of this will translate into more experience for our graduates. This will continue to give them competitive advantages. It will give us the chance to keep innovating in our education approach, but most importantly, to keep creating space for new and diverse talent to create the technology that we use today. 

“I was never keen on trusting others but I believe I made the right choice. Seizing this opportunity made me realize that I can take my own future and change it with my own hands. It’s not just a bootcamp where you just study, is more like new found hope for a better tomorrow” Gerardo “Jesse” Nava, born in Mexico raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Dreamer. 

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