What’s tech got to do with it?

Finding the right code to unlock Lebanon’s potential

Maryam Amstrad | CHAYN

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and creator of Facebook, has described ‘connectivity’, the status of being online, as a basic human right. The social media mogul outlined his plan in 2014 to get every human on the planet connected, extending the number of internet users from 1.15 billion, as of 2014, to encompassing the entire planet. Whether or not connectivity is a basic human right is one thing, but understanding the implications it has for a productive and viable technology sector is indisputable and can be extended beyond ‘just being online’. Whilst Lebanon’s internet can muster higher bandwidths than required for Facebook Zero, the text only version of the social media site responsible for unlocking the connectivity of much of Africa, entrepreneurs and the ground level technology ecosystem still suffer from poor infrastructure and low speed internet. Several familiar entrepreneurship faces also argue that the lack of high-end talent and gaps in the education system are problems en par with struggling download speeds, and certain initiatives are trying to train workforce-ready coders with intensive coding bootcamps. Connections, of every kind, are needed to ensure the entrepreneurial economy thrives, and only individuals who are technologically literate can facilitate this.

Latest initiatives

Last year Executive focussed on Science and Technology to compile our top 20 entrepreneurs in the ecosystem. One year later, a lot of the macro infrastructure which the companies operate with is unchanged. But the awareness of the wider concept of connectivity, especially through technology, is improving. In parallel with an entrepreneurial ecosystem benefitting from central bank support, other initiatives have come forward to improve the technological knowhow within Lebanon. Hackathons which focus on using technology to solve issues facing the country, have started emerging. At the end of September, International Alert and Chayn Labs, both London-based NGOs, collaborated to host a 48 hour hackathon in the offices of the UK Lebanon Tech Hub, with particular emphasis on using and manipulating technology to become an active citizen. The hackathon was organised as part of International Alert’s global #peacehack movement, incorporating their philosophy of ‘code for good’ in city hackathons across the same weekend. Alan Thomson, co-organiser and senior web developer from International Alert, commented on Beirut’s contribution to the global weekend event, noting that “normally, hackathons attendance shrinks through the weekend. In Beirut, more people turned up on the second day than the first. There seems to be a strong appetite to build tools to make a better Lebanon.” Companies within the Hackathon even addressed the issue of Lebanon’s data dearth, with one team creating an app which allowed citizens to report on law violations or gross infrastructure problems, and map them to an online database, thus enabling a user to produce infographics using this crowdsourced information.

Matchmaking between idea generators and those who have the technological knowhow is a initiative that can see the entrepreneurial sector improve. The notion of technological collaboration is something the UK Lebanon Tech Hub identified during its assessment and feedback analysis at the end of phase one. In a statement released to Executive, it said one of the key lessons learned from the first round of the accelerator was that “Lebanese entrepreneurs should embrace the culture of working collaboratively. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages, by far.”

Problems with recruitment at the top

This ability to ensure a successful ‘matchmaking’ process at all tiers across Lebanon’s technology sector is crucial to its positive development, but several leading entrepreneurial figures across the sector have identified a ‘gap’ in talent, which renders them unable to matchmake. Coders, programmers and web developers often have overlapping skillsets, and the titles can be used interchangeably in some companies, but they are not necessarily always equipped to do the other’s job. A coder may organise the backend development of a website, but a developer can also perform this job and the frontend design; the job description varies frequently and exact definitions can be fluid. At the high-end level, whilst a chief technology officer doesn’t need to be adept at backend computer code development, being technologically literate in the relevant field enables them to make efficient decisions when dealing with technological issues within an organisation. This gap in senior-level human capital is a source of ire when it comes to discussing hurdles in the technology sector; though junior coders can be found, it would appear that sourcing high-level talent is much harder. Hala Fadel, chair of Leap Ventures, has noted that gaps in the sector lie within recruiting high-end talent; “I have a software company and finding a Chief Technology Officer for that software company is just mission impossible” she explains, and expresses concerns that this stagnation in top-end recruitment is slowing down the growth in the country.  The employment gaps high up across the industry could be attributed to the brain drain that Lebanon has suffered from for many years. Fadel’s opinions on the availability of highly skilled and senior level employees, are echoed by Habib Haddad, CEO and founder of entrepreneurship platform Wamda. He believes that junior coders are not benefiting from the experience of senior figures; “a lot of companies would pay a lot of money to find really good developers and they just can’t find them. Its an issue of not enough challenge[s] and seniority around you. Developers like to work with people who are ‘rockstar’ developers – they have to have that feeling around them”. Joseph Khater, technical director of Slash Viral (an upcoming software development startup company) and winner of ArabNet’s 2014 Ideathon prize for his proposed app ‘Lifeline’, noted that there are “a lot of non-experienced developers and a shortage of experienced ones, [and] more talents [are] needed as technology is advancing quickly.” The importance of strong human capital at all levels is not lost on others within the ecosystem also, as Catherina Ballout, Operations Manager of MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab, stresses that “forming the right team, and having the right people is very essential because it affects tremendously the decision of funds and angel investors in investing in these startups. [Having] the right human capital, recruiting top people and having the right people on the advisory board is essential.”

The education debate

There are several coding-based initiatives which are helping to educate individuals either wishing to move into, or advance within, specific areas of the technology sector. Fadel outlines how Leap Ventures is currently working on a corporate social responsibility program to train coders, and place them in their companies, although this is an easy solution for non-management talent; “a developer I can spend six months training, but how do I train a chief technology officer?” she explains.  Education at a junior level though is critical, with local and international initiatives addressing potential gaps in the coding system ensuring that there is little confusion when sifting through another developer’s work; or in tech speak, mitigating the occurrence of ‘spaghetti code’. These efforts are warranted, claims Jane Youssef, a User Experience designer with Minefield Digital, an “information technology firm that specializes in the design and implementation of customized business automation” as quoted on their website. She argues that there is an artificial hurdle to technological learning in Lebanon despite the best efforts of individuals “there’s a gap in the education; it is limited in a field that has no real boundaries.” With statistics on remuneration packages, graduate employment and talent retention all but untraceable, it becomes hard to understand exactly why this gap should exist, but Youssef argues that there is a lack of variety in highly specialist degrees at master’s and PhD level in Lebanon, and experience should be prioritised along with theory at undergraduate level “I learned four programming languages at university and I don’t use any of them. I learned c# [another programming language] on my own for Unity, [a cross-platform game engine for developing video games]. Even though I took Unity in class it wasn’t close to being enough to start a career from; I needed [more] time to discover advanced material.”

JavaScript code syntax on a computer screen

JavaScript code syntax on a computer screen

Though Youssef’s experience may not be found in every undergraduate classroom across the country, for some this is clearly an issue. Like Leap Ventures, other entities have moved into the programming sector to facilitate the educational access to coding. Le Wagon, the French coding school for entrepreneurs which trains individuals in an intensive 9-week bootcamp program for 25 developers per cycle, at $4,500 per place, started running in Beirut on September 14. Malik El Khoury, Chief Wagon Officer, and Reem Younes, project manager at the initiative, discussed the lack of developers within the country and the problems with a heavily-theoretical education. “When people graduate they are not ready for the market at all, they have barely enough knowledge but it’s not enough” claims El Khoury, who purchased the licence to Le Wagon in response to finding few developers on the ground when trying to launch his own startup in 2013. He also argues that companies cannot afford to allocate their senior developers to train inexperienced graduates, which subsequently results in two scenarios; “a lot of companies in Lebanon outsource their developers from abroad, or [resort to] what is available – people who teach themselves. [The latter] are able to produce a website that looks nice for a customer, but when you see the backend of the code, it’s spaghetti. It’s impossible to understand and it’s impossible to scale.” This produces a woefully inefficient workflow, and Le Wagon seek to rectify poor coding habits by teaching best practices to those who wish to excel in the web development field. “It’s not difficult, it’s not easy, but [the bootcamp] needs a lot of commitment. What we give in one day of the course in bootcamp is the equivalent of what they see in three or four months in a course in university” adds El Khoury, who further notes that motivation is absolutely key for successful developers. “Anyone can learn to code, but not everyone can become a coder” he stresses, “to become a coder requires patience, commitment and research. We give them the basics, and we give them the mindset.” The developers end with a demonstration day for their products, and the registration for the second cycle is open on their website. Both El Khoury and Younes acknowledge the importance that advanced coding skills have on the wider sector; “Entrepreneurship is booming in Lebanon. For a team to be accepted on some accelerator programs, they need a tech founder. For an entrepreneur that tries to launch a startup and tries to [outsource] a person to do their development, it’s impossible.”

However, Wassim El Hajj, Associate Professor and Chair of the computer science department in AUB disagrees with the sentiment that graduate students are ill-equipped for the workplace in Lebanon, especially when presented with the argument that courses are too theoretical without incorporating enough on-the-ground experience. “Many people forget that Computer Science is a science and ultimately has a core knowledge that must be delivered to students,” argues El Hajj, in a statement to Executive, and states that this knowledge is “more theoretical than practical and this makes sense since students will be able to build on this core knowledge throughout their careers” and that the major offered at AUB includes options within an elective to gain experience in an industrial placement. Though an employer may prioritize practical skills over critical-thinking skills, El Hajj believes that this is the wrong way to approach educational development; “what [the] local industry needs to understand it that they should recruit smart students who are problem solvers, not students who are knowledgeable in a certain [programming] language or technology and ready to produce from day one. The first type of recruits is the one that lasts longer and is more rewarding in the long run. This type is hired by top companies such as Google and Facebook.” El Hajj does however acknowledge gaps within certain areas of the educational system and argues that the responsibility to rectify such a problem lies with both the academic and industrial sectors, especially when discussing the problems recruiting high-end talent, which he explains with poor remuneration opportunities. “Senior developers are not appreciated enough in Lebanon,” reasons El Hajj, “the good ones hop from one company to the other gaining some extra money in every hop. Give them good salaries and I guarantee their loyalty.”

Teaching at a seed stage

Arguably, it is easier to stamp out poor coding habits (if and where found) at a younger age. Teens Who Code, is the brainchild of co-founder and president Nour Atrissi, who has launched classes and courses which specifically target young individuals. The initiative, which has been operating for almost a year, offers courses and private sessions in a variety of languages for both mobile and web development. “I saw that in the UK it has become mandatory for children to learn how to code at school until the age of 16; there are lots of international movements for teaching kids [to code]. We decided that this was the best thing to do in order to have the biggest impact [in Lebanon], if we teach [coding] to kids it might change their lives.” Her next step, along with co-founder and chief coder Ziad Alameh, is to approach and target schools to advertise their courses and eyes expansion across the entire Arab world as an ultimate goal. “Right now we’re focussing on bootcamps [as a structure] as it is what is most suitable for the market and they work,” says Atrissi, who has case samples of teenage students being given opportunities of internships and jobs straight out of her program. For their bootcamp in October, they charged $75 per child for two full days, and an iOS course, which is two hours a week (with a flexible time schedule) for two months, which Atrissi states costs $250. The UK Lebanon Tech Hub has also spied a new opportunity for more education in the school system. As part of their Outreach program, which runs parallel to their scaleup accelerator, they have launched a Raspberry Pi Competition in October to run in all private and public schools in Lebanon. The Raspberry Pi is a low-cost credit card sized computer which was developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation in the UK, the first model of which was released in 2012. The foundation wished to advance global connectivity and facilitate the access to technology at an affordable price for the wider world. The computer enables users to program in the Scratch and Python languages, and perform other basic computer functions. The winners of the UK Lebanon Tech Hub competition will be taken to London to meet the winners of the UK competition, and benefit from a study tour in the country. 

A studio close-up shot of a Raspberry Pi circuit board.

A studio close-up shot of a Raspberry Pi circuit board.

Infrastructure woes

Whilst the technological sector has witnessed positive initiatives in 2015, there are still mountains to climb, and tackling coding-related issues is but one part of that mountain range. Many of the initiatives interviewed argue there is a gap in the education, but the debate exists over why this is the case, and where the responsibility lies. This is not necessarily reflective of the entire debate across all institutions either, as the selling of bootcamp products relies on a lack of, and therefore demand, experienced coders, whereas present programmers will insist that job prospects within this country pale in comparison to abroad. However, for a flourishing ecosystem that operates under the tech umbrella, strong technological skills are essential, and data and statistics are also needed to back any policy recommendations made to improve the sector. At an infrastructure level, Executive has discussed the internet at length, but seven months after our extensive analysis of why the internet is so slow, nothing has been done to improve it. We are still missing our brand new fiber optic network, which still is not being fully utilized despite continual promises. As discussed in the overview (see page 26) whilst poor infrastructure can be circumnavigated by businesses equipped with enough capital, it has an impact on the psyche of the average citizen who has to exist within a societal structure which has crumbling foundations.

As El Khoury and others suggest, a strong technological sector is vital to support a booming entrepreneurial ecosystem. But without the infrastructure to support such technological development, the entrepreneurial ecosystem will stagnate and will never evolve beyond ‘playing house’ in comparison to other countries. Lebanon’s internet has poor connection speeds, and several things must be done for the tech sector to thrive without man-made constraints. Even registering a domain name, for example www.showmefastinternet.com.lb, is a headache. Trademarks, which detail who or what owns the rights to a particular name, must be proved with a trademark certificate issued by the Lebanese Ministry of Economy and Trade. The required paperwork therefore to register a domain name makes it a hassle that those who register simple .com domains don’t suffer. Tech savvy individuals are also wary of purchasing anything through third party websites which offer speedy access to a .com.lb sitename – if another individual owns the trademark, they own the rights to the website, and the rights can be nullified if the Lebanese Supreme Court of Commerce rules the domain name is allocated to another party. If initiatives are coming together to address the gaps in education in the technology sector, this should be complemented with intensive lobbying of the government to improve the infrastructure, lest the money poured into coding initiatives should fail. Connectivity, be it through fast internet, competent and accessible infrastructure, or levels of education which sees Lebanon compete on a global technological stage, may not be a ‘human right’ which sits parallel to that of clean water. But you can be sure that it is definitely an entrepreneurial right, and one which needs addressing on every front.

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