Continent of Technology

Fletcher alumna Christina Sass co-founded a startup that develops tech talent in Africa
workers at Andela in Nairobi office
Coders at the Nairobi office of Andela, which offers extensive training, international connections, and a springboard to tech leadership from within Africa. Photo: Alonso Nichols
January 9, 2018

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Mbithe Nzomo loves computer programming. The twenty-four-year-old Nairobi native studied the subject in college while designing mobile apps for a start-up on the side. But when she graduated, she faced tough choices. Would she pay her own way through a master’s program with uncertain job prospects? Or leave Kenya to pursue her studies on scholarship abroad?

She found a better option with Andela, a competitive four-year paid fellowship program that trains top software talent in Africa and onboards the developers into long-distance roles with businesses like Microsoft, Google, and IBM. Co-founded nearly four years ago by Christina Sass, F09, Andela now has hubs in Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda, with a total of roughly 600 developers. About 300 more employees in New York City, San Francisco, and the African offices focus on sales, marketing, and operations.

With its promise of delivering top-notch English-speaking programmers to global businesses at reasonable prices, while also investing in emerging tech leaders in Africa, Andela has raised $80 million in funding from the likes of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Google Ventures, and the African firm CRE Venture Capital.

“There’s extraordinary untapped talent out there,” said Sass, who serves as president of the company and splits her time between New York and the Africa offices. “We just need to remove the barriers to help talented young people launch careers without debt and without leaving home.”

“We just need to remove the barriers to help talented young people launch careers without debt and without leaving home,” said Christina Sass. Photo: Courtesy of AndelaFor the lucky few who are accepted, Andela offers extensive training, international connections, and a springboard to tech leadership from within Africa, combatting the brain drain of high-performing young people who might otherwise leave the continent for better educational and career opportunities.

The program has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard. Applicants undergo a rigorous screening process, including online and in-person assessments of hard and soft skills, before a hand-picked group of about fifteen is invited to a monthly two-week boot camp, where they are judged on everything from how they code to how they communicate within a team. Less than one percent of the original applicant pool make it to the final cut and are offered a four-year paid gig.

For the first six months, Andela’s fellows undergo in-depth training to prepare them for developer roles in distributed businesses, which allow team members to work remotely from all over the world. It’s hard work, but the place exudes a spirit of nerdly fun. In the Nairobi offices I visited last year, rooms had names like Mordor, Narnia, and Hogwarts. A quiet room called Shire offered beanbag chairs, a library, and a Monopoly set, while another space had a pool table and video gaming.

Cooperative, Not Competitive

The developers in Nairobi, almost all of whom are in their 20s and have a college degree in computer science or engineering, have created a band called Panic at the Dojo, as well as clubs for everything from French and Japanese to rock climbing and go-kart racing. Upstairs, there were dorm rooms for forty fellows—reserved for those in their first months in the program or facing difficult commutes—and downstairs a large cafeteria with colorful murals and a dartboard served meals.

“You cannot put a price on the sense of community here,” said Mbithe Nzomo. Photo: Alonso Nichols“It’s such a fun place to work,” Nzomo said. “Everybody is really supportive of each other. It’s not like any other environment I know.”

Andela rewards dedication by increasing fellows’ salaries when they move up a level in the hierarchy of developers. After proving their skills, fellows are promoted from trainees to developers ready to work for an external client, for example, and then from client-ready developer to a team leader. Each of these moves is celebrated with a ceremony in the cafeteria. Developers also receive bonuses if the companies they work with decide to increase their teams with Andela.

The cost to get a developer client-ready is at least $15,000, Sass said, and that doesn’t include sales and marketing expenses. Andela recoups this investment later, when its developers are working for clients. One third of their pay goes to the fellows, while one third funds Andela’s current operations (the laptops, office space, and other supports for fellows), and one third is put toward expansion. If fellows choose to leave before their four-year commitment is complete, they are expected to pay Andela for a portion of the training and support costs. According to Sass, more than 90 percent of fellows have stayed with the program so far, with some of the very first participants approaching the four-year mark.

Nzomo told me she understood how developers might want to receive the full salary from the client, but she was happy to help less experienced developers as she had been helped. She also said working remotely for a company is much easier with Andela’s support than it would be as an independent freelancer—in terms of both getting the assignment and succeeding in the role.

“If you’re facing any frustration, you have someone who has your back,” she said. “I think that’s fantastic, rather than being by yourself. You cannot put a price on the sense of community here.”

Most of Andela’s developers are placed with companies based in New York and San Francisco, but some work for firms in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, England, Brazil, and Canada. In Nairobi, many work a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift so that their hours overlap significantly with business hours in the United States. Fellows make one two-week trip to visit their clients in person each year.

A Push for Women in Technology

Andela aims to have 35 percent of its developers be women, and is close to the 26 percent mark now. The group’s commitment to including women surprised and delighted 25-year-old Gertrude Nyenyeshi when she started her fellowship in the Nairobi office in 2015. She had studied information technology in college, but the professors told female students they wouldn’t succeed. Of her ten female classmates, only three are still working in technology. “If we wanted to survive, we had to consider taking up another skill to support ourselves,” she told me.

Even after Andela developers are working for clients, they are expected to continue studying and practicing new skills, working their way up the hierarchy of developer levels as defined by the program. In the last six months of their four-year stint, they are also encouraged to plan their next steps.

Options include getting hired directly by the global companies they have worked for while at Andela, working for other tech companies locally or internationally, starting their own businesses, and staying at Andela as staff members or as consultants to external clients. For those interested in entrepreneurship, Andela has committed to investing in companies that alumni and long-time staff create.

Andela’s first team was formed in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2014, and has grown there to more than 300 employees. That group moved to larger offices in a building complete with nap pods and a turfed rooftop patio in May of last year. The same month, Andela opened its first office in Kampala, Uganda. The Nairobi group plans to move to a larger space this year. The company hopes to expand to other English-speaking countries in Africa in the coming years.

“We’re looking at doubling in the next year and a half, at least, and preparing to do more than that,” Sass said.

Andela is also trying to create a stronger pipeline of potential developers by creating a free online learning community that will help applicants prepare to meet its selection criteria.

For Sass, a thirty-eight-year-old who was honored with a distinguished achievement award from the Tufts University Alumni Association in 2017, co-founding Andela was the logical next step after working on other education projects in China, Gaza and the West Bank, and Africa. She hopes to create a sustainable new model of education that prepares students for globally competitive careers.

“We have all the tools to solve this problem,” she said. But that doesn’t make it easy. “It’s the most challenging and most rewarding time of my life.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.