“Is anyone comfortable enough to articulate what they know Andela to be?”
This is the first question Mohini Ufeli, Communications Coordinator for Andela asks me as she starts our tour of the complex. It’s a question I’d wrestled with after the company first popped up in the news for raising millions of dollars in funding at a time when investors couldn’t leave Nigeria fast enough. Of course, there was also that one time Mark Zuckerberg (arguably the most influential private individual in the world) showed up in Nigeria unannounced and singled out Andela for a highly celebrated visit. But it always seemed shrouded in mystery to everyone outside of the tech space and I made my conjectures, most of which turns out to be in the ballpark but not quite accurate. When Damilola Moyela, Senior Associate Opportunities, RED, and Sola Obagbemi, communications manager at Andela Nigeria facilitated an invitation for YNaija to take a tour of the new space at the EPIC Tower and chat with the company’s leadership in Lagos, I had no reservations.
The Nigerian tech space has experienced a completely unprecedented and unpredictable organic bloom in the last decade. It has gone from a niche industry that was once twinned in the Computer Village in Ikeja and a couple of streets in Surulere and largely provided only hardware, to a multimillion-dollar complex routinely drawing the attention of global industrial giants and venture capitalists seeking out new frontiers for their rapidly expanding businesses. This growth, spurred in part by the spread of the internet and how it democratises information and learning has stumped our traditional industry ecosystems which are often built on shaky government-backed monopolies and an accepted but rarely acknowledged epidemic of corruption. Unable to subsume the tech industry into the existing system and lacking the requisite grasp of constantly advancing technology, our government and traditional industries have surveyed this new player with a mix of awe and apprehension. With the government’s track record of interfering in growing private industries and crippling them with pointless regulation, it served companies within the industry to maintain the shroud of mystery around the minutiae of their companies. That tide seems to be changing, however, and Andela is at the forefront of this new wave of transparency.
Mohini is quick to correct me, that Andela has always been transparent about its processes. She uses herself as an example. She first heard about the company off social media platform Twitter, and was recruited when she responded to a tweet by Iyin Aboyeji, one of the Nigerian founders of Andela calling for photographers. That was four years ago, and while her duties within the company (and the leadership of Andela itself) has changed, her excitement about the possibilities here remain at an all-time high. It’s not hard to see why; the company moved house from Yaba, the technology epicentre of Lagos state to the EPIC Tower in Ilupeju, and is slowly colonising the building and reshaping it to suit their needs. Currently, the company occupies four floors, each largely dominated by an open space plan populated with developers, learning facilitators and workers, all casually dressed in a uniform of sweatshirts and headsets. They barely notice us as we slip through their spaces and Mohini explains the reasons behind the space’s architecture and the names of its offices which reference history, geography, geek and pop culture.
“Andela is investing in the most brilliant software developers on the continent.”
In hindsight, this is painfully obvious. Especially considering how the company was started. In 2013, Iyin Aboyeji, Ian Carnevale, Brice Nkengsa and Nadayar Enegesi most of whom had met while they were studying in Canada felt the need to provide the quality of learning they’d been privileged to receive to disadvantaged students on the continent. They started Fora, a distance learning programme primarily targeted towards African Universities. It was a great idea, but a bit premature, considering most African universities struggle with providing the basic amenities to make distance learning possible. While streamlining the model, Aboyeji came in contact with Jeremy Johnson, a behemoth in the distance learning space thanks to his company 2U and a mentee/mentor relationship grew out of that interaction. A successful round of funding gave Aboyeji and his team enough cushion to rethink the Fora idea and pivot it into something more sustainable. Jeremy Johnson came back into the picture at this point, as did Christian Sass (who was running a PhD program at Harvard at the time), and after a few glitches, Fora was officially shelved and in its place, the team of six started Andela as a model to equip talented young people with a globally competitive technology skillset, entirely free of tuition.
The global technology talent shortage is a problem everyone within the industry is trying to solve. For every software developer working in the industry, there are five vacancies that the companies simply cannot meet. As such, employers have had to get creative. Google and many of the mainstream tech companies have campuses and internships and schools like MIT and Harvard with a track record for finding and nurturing tech prodigies often find that their students are aggressively courted from their first year in college and encouraged to drop out and integrate into the private study opportunities already available within these companies.
The shortage has also extended outside of Europe and the America, leading to thriving self-taught satellite developer communities in India and Nigeria. Even with all of these advancements, the shortage is far from serviced and Andela is the next natural progression in scaling the education of developers to meeting demand. Taking out the dual barriers to entry in Africa (the gargantuan costs of a world-class software education and lifting the financial burdens that often prevent developers from applying themselves fully to their education), and ensuring that potential developers who do get into the programme are assured employment at the end of the Fellowship. The full workspaces we see as we’re walked through the Andela’s hierarchical structure suggests that it has been largely successful at transmuting this idea into a functional, scalable business model and not just in Nigeria.
Each floor of the complex is named after one of the five geographical regions in which the company has either a physical or a human presence. It advanced into Uganda in 2017, a natural progression after its Kenyan hub was opened two years before and of course, a thriving virtual community in Ghana. While Andela’s Nigerian hub has been most in the news (Mark Zuckerberg anyone), and most people assume that the company’s headquarters is domiciled in New York, Jeremy Johnson’s home city, Andela actually incorporates in every country where it operates, with Nigeria being its largest office yet. It’s an inside joke for Andelans to say ‘The internet is our headquarters’, because that is where everyone shows up to work every day.
The Andela experience as a result, is identical across geographical boundaries. The company is driven by the principle that brilliance is evenly distributed and takes on the challenge of ensuring that equal opportunities are provided for as many as can be reached to build on that brilliance. This challenge is tackled through its technical leadership programme, also known as the Fellowship, which is the meat of the whole exercise. Young people interested in becoming technology leaders apply for a Fellowship spot and are sorted through a series of tests and challenges leading up to a ‘boot camp’ to ensure they are suited for the Fellowship. The developers then spend the next four years in full-time employment with Andela. Their first six months are spent in an intensive onboarding period, mastering the ropes of software development, after which they’re placed as full-time engineering team members with global technology companies, while Andela continues to support them through mentorship, professional development and career planning. Exchange programmes between the campuses and an emphasis on shared information keeps the wider Andelan community integrated and connected to each other.
“T.I.A; This is Andela.” Rotimi Okungbaye, our other tour guide for the day quips in, pointing to the graffiti mural of Nelson Mandela, the inspiration behind the company name.
The actual office spaces immediately conjure images from Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 than an idyll zen community; understated furniture, excellent lighting, and a configuration that makes the expansive space even bigger, par the course for any fortune 500 tech company. This houses its army of staff, developers and facilitators, being put through their paces at any given point. The Andela program is a 5-stage process that starts from many hopefuls as a bootcamp and ends with a graduation of sorts (FYI, you’re not allowed to call it that, company policy). After the first six months their landmarks, they are placed as full-time engineering team members with partners and enter the first of four levels labelled D1 – D4 where they are offered increasingly levels of responsibility in their work with partners. By the end of the fellowship, Andela cohorts are expected to have become world-class developers ready to solve local and global problems. It might be an education but Andela’s cohorts are definitely not students, the Fellowship is a real job, with expectations, salaries and benefits, and the company reabsorbs former fellows who wish to stay within its ecosystem. They run a tight ship, but it is never at the detriment of the developers.
In contrast, the open floor plan and the tendency for fellows to move around creates an atmosphere of ease. There is a rooftop destress space where all Andelans get to eat as a campus, meals provided for by the company to ensure that there are as little distractions to the work day as possible. Other global practices that I find replicated here, include the idea of a community town hall, championed by leaders like Sundar Pichai and Marissa Meyer, where all the developers, facilitators and staff across the career totem pole gather to listen to the company’s progress and air their opinion and observations about company practice and how it can be improved. This is one of the ways the people-oriented approach to education informs company culture at Andela.
At the end of my tour, Mohini and I find Anthonio Pinheiro (Director of Ops), Babajide Duroshola (Community Manager, Technical Talent) and Adebayo Adesanya (Technical Team Lead), all part of the hierarchy at Andela to help answer the questions the tour didn’t quite cover. They tell me about Andela’s very deliberate efforts to encourage women to take an interest in software development and adjacent disciplines, specifically its routine all female boot camps geared at bringing women into the industry. Anthonio tells me of an in-house group called ‘Ladies in Tech’ founded by the first all-women batch of cohorts to the programme to provide women-only safe spaces within the often casually sexist tech spaces in Nigeria.
Events like ‘Django Girls’ and the ‘Women in Tech’ summit and the Andelan-led tech blog ‘Tech In Pink’ have helped raise awareness about the possibilities in tech for women by providing mentorship and putting developers within the company in physical spaces with potential women cohorts.
But the company’s resolve to make its spaces women-friendly go beyond recruitment; a fully staffed, complementary crèche has allowed the mothers who joined the Fellowship with young children or had them during their time in the programme find work-life balance without either side suffering. And this approach is already yielding results. The company has also provided hostel housing for younger developers of both sexes who qualify for the Fellowship but live outside Lagos. This has already brought results. The first Andelan to be promoted to the final stage of the Fellowship was a woman and there are women thriving in every level of the fellowship, including a batch completing the Fellowship as Andela marks its fourth year and first full Fellowship cycle, later in the year.
It would help if the government was more heavily invested in ensuring that tech companies like Andela are considered in government policies, Anthonio explains to me, but for now, they are pleased to find that the government is finally beginning to take an interest from Andela’s work in the country and the much larger tech ecosystem. But no one is naïve to the fact that involvement has to be delicately managed from both sides so that the government is never left behind and the tech industry isn’t held back by its need to carry every party along. It’s a delicate balance but really, what isn’t in Africa. They are pre-empting this by forging important relationships with officials who are curious to the idea of tech but need someone to guide them through its intricacies. He references the vice-president giving a TED Talk and state government officials visiting the Andela campus to meet with fellows.
The company’s clients, known on campus as ‘partners’, come to the table fully invested. Andela has managed to attract some of the savviest businesses in the world and the continent looking for exciting talent to invest in, and the Andela model and its potential for scale and sustainability suggests a value for money that very few other talent churns can promise. It is a challenge to convince them to invest in and stay with it given the reputation the country and its youth have internationally. Having their major sales and marketing and partner experience teams in New York helps a lot, as does having respected leaders in the industry with a history of consistency on the company’s board. So much so, when co-founder Iyin Aboyeji left in 2016 to start fintech solutions company Flutterwave, it barely made a dent on the company’s image. Investments from shrewd Venture Capital funds and that ubiquitous investment from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has helped bolster the company’s international profile. Between the rounds of funding and the profitable partnerships, Andela has been able to successfully expand across Africa and democratise learning to support the growth of the Nigerian tech ecosystem through other initiatives like the Andela Learning Community with Google. It navigates the hurdle of funding the education of its fellows and expanding into off-campus learning opportunities for the much wider developer community growing around its ecosystem.
As Andela readies to send its first cohort, now world-class developers, into the world, observers will look back at its progress so far, and see just how much it has achieved in breaking stereotypes about people-oriented businesses with an emphasis on social engineering. It is some way from its goal of 100,000 software developers by the mid-2020s but its course is clear and its champions are up for the challenge.
Special thanks to Sola Obagbemi, communications manager at Andela Nigeria, who was a great help in facilitating our tour and providing necessary information to make this profile as factual as possible.
Edwin Okolo is an author and journalist who has worked with YNaija, TheNativemag and the Naked Convos.