Afghan coding training camp becomes Taliban-led rescue line

Four months after the Afghan government fell to the Taliban, 22-year-old Assad Assadula has moved into a new routine.

In his hometown of Afghanistan’s northern province of Samangan, the former computer science student began and ended each day glued to his laptop screen.

Since the end of October, Assadula has been participating in a virtual coding training camp organized by CodeWeekend, a volunteer community of Afghan technology enthusiasts, with content donated by Scrimba, a Norwegian company that offers online programming seminars.

On some days, Assadula paused on the pickup football screen, but generally no longer saw so many friends. Under the Taliban regime, “old friends get so depressed,” he explains, and there was only so much he could handle. Instead, he tells me, “My life is on my computer.”

Assadula is one of millions of young Afghans whose lives and plans for the future have turned upside down when the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August. When the capital fell, Assadula had two semesters left in college, and he was considering plans for his graduate education. He was not picky about his first job; anything that allowed him to save some money would work. But he had bigger plans: Assadula wanted to start his own software company and share his love of computer science by teaching students at universities and high schools. “When I start coding, I can forget everything,” he says.

Today, these plans are on hold – and no one knows for how long. The country’s economy is in free fall, the United Nations is warning of famine, and meanwhile Afghanistan’s new rulers are offering few solutions to their citizens.

In such difficult circumstances, a coding training camp – a remnant of a brief period of techno-optimism in Afghanistan – may seem out of place. But for participants, it offers hope for a better future, but whether such a future is still possible in Afghanistan remains to be seen.

Virtual training

When the Taliban came to power in August, it was unclear what their rule of the Internet would mean in Afghanistan. Will they cut off internet access? Use social media posts – or government databases – to identify and target their former enemies? Do they continue to run their own increasingly effective public affairs campaigns?

As it turns out, the Taliban have not cut off Internet access – at least not yet. Instead, for those Afghan students who can afford the Internet at home – especially women and girls who have been officially banned from secondary and higher education by the regime – online learning has become a major source of education.

Some of it is well-organized, with encrypted virtual classrooms created by international supporters, while some are entirely self-contained – learning through YouTube videos, perhaps, or playlists from TED talk. And it often falls somewhere in the middle, using free or reduced online learning platforms.

Afghan women attend an event in 2018. Photo courtesy of CodeWeekend.

CodeWeekend’s virtual bootcamp falls into this last category. Seventy-five participants were accepted into the cohort and made their way through Scrimba’s Frontend Developer Career Path, a series of 13 interactive video training modules that cover everything from HTML and CSS basics to job interview tips. JavaScript or GitHub.

Participants can complete the modules in their own time and in their own homes, with CodeWeekend volunteer mentors being checked weekly to answer questions, ensure they stay on track and help with logistics if needed – including providing an internet add-on to keep participants online. According to organizers, about 50 members of the original cohort are active.

Providing internet connectivity is just one of the logistical and financial challenges of conducting a training camp, even a virtual one, in Afghanistan. Another is struggling with power outages that become more frequent every winter. In an attempt to solve both problems, CodeWeekend is trying to finance the cost of 3G credit and backup electricity through generators and battery storage devices.

But there is another issue that worries organizers: “what the Taliban think,” said Jamshid Hashimi, a software engineer who started CodeWeekend with friends seven years ago. The group does not want to know. “So far, we’ve avoided interacting with them,” he said.

In a way, the bootcamp’s virtual, asynchronous format helps CodeWeekend stay on the radar. This facilitates the participation of women whose freedom of movement is drastically restricted under the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam without leaving their homes or even interacting with male actors, which could also anger the Taliban.

19-year-old Zarifa Sherzoy is one of the women participating in the training camp. A recent high school graduate, she had hoped to take college entrance exams and take university courses this semester, but instead she and her seven siblings spend most of their days at home. Between household chores, power outages and limited internet access, she spent only an hour or two in the coding training camp. Yet even that provided a new structure and meaning to her days. “After the Taliban arrived,” she recalls, “as she was very tired at home every day thinking about how to end this.” But since the coding training camp began in late October, she says, although her problems have not disappeared, “my days are good.”

The virtual format has another added advantage: it allows coders outside the Afghan capital, such as Assad Assadula, to participate.

CodeWeekend Bootcamp

Jamshid Hashimi at an event in 2015. Photo courtesy of CodeWeekend.

When Jamshid Hashimi, then a 23-year-old software architect at local Afghan technology company Netlinks, launched CodeWeekend in June 2014 to bring together Afghan programmers, he was inspired by the techno-optimism that then permeated Kabul.

Fast Company’s profile for the country’s thriving startup scene, published in 2012, describes the all-encompassing hope as follows: “Impossibly optimistic and completely obsessed, potential technology moguls in Afghanistan believe that computers will not only help them make money, but and they will bring peace to their land. ”

And it wasn’t just technology companies that were hoping. CodeWeekend was part of a number of initiatives aimed at fostering innovation, entrepreneurship and, ultimately, commitment and leadership in building a more progressive Afghanistan – some funded by international donors for this explicit purpose.

Other examples include the TEDxKabul program, which first came to Kabul with its “ideas worth spreading” (TEDx slogan) in 2012, as well as other global franchises focused on entrepreneurship, such as the Founder Institute-Kabul, which runs from 2014 to 2017 (Hashimi plays a role in both programs, as I do, at different times.) By 2016, even Google came to town, launching Google for Entrepreneurs’ Startup Grind, a community for ambitious startup founders companies.

But CodeWeekend outlived all those initiatives, even after part of its own leadership team, including Hashimi, left Afghanistan. In the seven years since its founding, the volunteer group has held about 100 face-to-face meetings at universities, incubators and offices of prominent Afghan technology companies. During a pandemic, like much of the rest of the world, it is virtual.

Participants met to learn everything from the basics of WordPress design and JavaScript languages ​​to data collection tools for the field. (Afghanistan’s aid-oriented economy had a large appetite for research and hired a number of ICT workers.) They heard from local start-ups and engineering teams who came to present their new applications. They discussed books popular in the global technology community, such as The passionate programmer (which Hashimi presented). And once, at one night’s event, open source enthusiasts gathered to broadcast Laracon Online, the global conference on Laravel’s open source web development framework.

Then, in 2019, after years of these mostly weekend events, CodeWeekend decided to get bigger: the group launched a personal coding training camp. The first cohort is working on a pilot program of 15 developers, 12 of whom have completed the four-month program. Several, according to Hashimi, have found work as a result of their participation.

Elias Afghan, 24, hopes to be one of them after graduating from training camp. Both of his older brothers are also in the field – one working for Rapid Iteration, Hashimi’s company – and in part because of their influence, he says, working with computers is all he ever wanted to do. In particular, he hopes to find work for a global technology company.

After the successful pilot, the organizers of CodeWeekend planned a second cohort, but the coronavirus slowed down their efforts. Then, in late August last year, the Afghan government collapsed, but instead of ending their plans, it accelerated them.

“Many dreams were shattered when the government fell,” recalls Hashimi, who had moved to Vancouver, Canada. Like many Afghans in the diaspora, he had a deep “desire to do something.” And what he’s focused on, he says, is to continue to help in the way he knows best: to support Afghan coders. “People need hope,” he said, “and since earlier events focused on technology or innovation provided it, he hoped the coding training camp would do the same.”

Hashimi’s goal for the training camp is to “provide a more sustainable way for Afghan youth to learn new and market-oriented skills,” he wrote in our initial e-mail, and with these skills “start earning income for themselves and their families.” ”

For many of the participants in the training camp, all of whom share these goals, the potential for online work may be their only option. Only her father currently works in the 19-year-old Sherzoy’s family – and what he does is hardly enough to support her and her six siblings. After the training camp, she says she hopes to “help my family and do something for my future.” She added: “I do not want to be illiterate [uneducated]”

A participant in CodeWeekend is working on the application of an event in 2018. The photo was provided by CodeWeekend.

So far, however, most of the revenue opportunities come from Hashimi’s other efforts: in addition to CodeWeekend, he runs a software development company that hires or has contracts with more than 20 Afghan programmers, most of whom are still in Afghanistan. an online freelance platform, Yagan Kar (meaning Dari’s “some work”), for Afghan freelancers.

This is a correction of his original plans before the Taliban. Even after Hashimi left Afghanistan in 2016 for a master’s degree in UK innovation management, he spent three or four months in his home country each year, supporting a thriving technology community. “My dream,” he says, “is to have the largest software house in Afghanistan.”

In a sense, this is still his goal. “I want to bring 1,000 jobs by 2023,” he said, “which will help many freelancers, young people and developers, as well as the economy.”

He says “all Afghans want to leave”, but the reality is that the vast majority of them do not meet the conditions for resettlement and evacuation. They will remain in Afghanistan and will need new sources of income. Hashimi sees the international technology community as a potential provider of these revenues, both remotely and freelance.

But all this will take time, and the country faces more urgent challenges.

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