The Story Behind One of the Arab World’s First Coding Bootcamps
AlMakinah aspires to create a vibrant talent pool of Arab coders, first in Egypt and then across the region. They do this through a mixture of online and offline learning techniques that together provide “state of the art tech education for different customer segments”.
Al Makinah was founded by two pioneering Egyptian women, Bahia El Sharkawy and Eman El Koshairy. They believe that their competitive advantage is an almost singular focus on job-readiness preparation, coupled with expertise in creating educational experiences and unique learning methodologies tailored for Arab learners.
QRF had the opportunity to sit down with Bahia El Sharkawy, co-founder and CEO of Al Makinah to learn more about their experiences. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
QRF: Thank you for being here with us. We are excited to learn about your entrepreneurial journey. Can you tell us about yourself - what is your story?
BE: My journey really started at the German University in Cairo, where I majored in Digital Media Engineering and Technology. After my studies, I started working as a software engineer. It was during that time, when we were trying very hard to expand our engineering team, that we realized that there is a problem in the market - a critical shortage of technical talent. As part of our endeavors to combat this problem, we started conducting internal training programs for aspiring software engineers - which I consider the spark for the idea behind Al Makinah.
After three enjoyable years, I left my job because I wanted to focus specifically on solving the problem around the shortage of tech talent in Egypt. In my research, I discovered two things: first that the tech talent shortage was regional and, secondly, I stumbled across the engineering bootcamp model. The bootcamp model might be ubiquitous now, but when I first started looking into it in late 2014 it was a relatively new concept - especially in our region. In 2015, I decided to experience the bootcamp model first hand and attended a HackReactor bootcamp in San Francisco - needless to stay it was an incredible experience! It had a diverse group of learners, and showed me that you could learn to become a good engineer in three months. That is when the idea for Al Makinah was finally fully formulated.
I initially started Al Makinah with 3 different founders that have now left the company. My co-founder Eman ElKoshairy joined me in July 2016. We started out with very small programs focused on front-end development. We didn’t have the courage to scale up until we joined the AUC Venture Lab, which helped us grow our idea and launch our own three month program - which we call “Fire Up”- in 2016. They were instrumental in helping us validate our idea and in our developing a clear business model. To date, we’ve graduated 30 people from our FireUp bootcamps and over 90% where hired within the first 6 months of graduation. In addition, we’ve had over 120 people participate in shorter training programs. Moving forward, we are trying to listen carefully to the demands of the job market to ensure that our graduates continue to get hired easily.
Finally, I’d like to add that three months ago, we launched a new coding program focused on children (9 to 11 years of age). We believe this is a very important segment that doesn’t get enough high quality attention - like any other language, it’s important to start learning programming early if we want to be able to compete with other economies.
QRF: What are the biggest challenges you are facing today?
BE: Our biggest challenge at the moment is scaling. We are are currently a brick-and-mortar business and are looking into how we can scale online, or via a blended learning approach. It has proven more difficult than we anticipated to run back-to-back bootcamp programs. Specifically, our biggest challenge lies in the need to ensure that our programs are led by instructors that are close to employers and their needs.Unfortunately, this also usually means they are employed full-time, without much flexibility to take three months off. We are trying to think creatively about how we can solve this problem, for example we are exploring the possible synergies between setting up our own engineering team that plays a heavy role in the bootcamp programs.
QRF: What are your top two or three lessons from your journey so far?
BE: I can say we’ve learned two key lessons from this experience. First, it’s very important to start with a minimum viable product (or MVP) before running anything at scale. It’s as obvious as it is easy to ignore: you always learn a lot from contact with reality. You have to stress test all your assumptions and the only way to do that is to put them in front of a real paying customer.
Second, I learnt the hard way that the legal and accounting paperwork comes back to haunt you if you don’t arrange it and structure it well early on. It makes all the difference in the world to have these structures early on. It’s not the most exciting work, but it is foundational.
QRF: Most education entrepreneurs enter the space with the goal of creating a positive social impact, in addition to healthy financial returns. How do you balance mission and profit at Al Makinah?
BE: When we first started, our goal was specifically to fill the technology skills gap in the market. We are very centered on creating a transformational journey for each of our learners. If we do that successfully, we will eventually improve the larger ecosystem. We are keen to make the product accessible to everybody, but it needs to be profitable to be sustainable. It’s not easy to strike this balance - but some routes are sponsorships, payment plans, and blended learning programs that can bring down the cost. We haven’t figured the right balance yet, but we know we need to be profitable so that we can scale and have the largest impact.
QRF: What recommendations, or thoughts, do you have for improving the state of educational innovation and entrepreneurship in the MENA region?
BE: From the entrepreneurship side, the ecosystem has certainly improved over the past five years but I believe there is always room for improvement. One specific area is the lack of is a clear centralized roadmap of challenges and resources (dedicated accountants, lawyers, etc.) One solution might be a stronger mentor network, or a centralized resource for curated resources on a national level.
Finally, I think all education entrepreneurs would benefit from sophisticated and conscious consumers. Consumers need to start realizing the importance of quality education, even if it comes at an affordable price. The strong dependence across our region on aid and donor funding has created a lot of free educational offerings that are of mixed quality. I’m not entirely sure of the best solution here - but better informed customers will benefit the entire ecosystem. The challenge is getting to that point.
QRF: Thank you Bahia for your time and insightful answers. We wish you an the team the best of luck going forward.