Opening Doors for Refugees in the IT Industry

In November 2017 on TEDxZurich’s stage Christian Hirsig, the founder of Powercoders, introduced us to this exciting and meaningful project: “impact lives by teaching how to code”. 
The lives Hirsig and his team are willing to impact are those of refugees: by learning how to code, these people are not only able to get their independence back and reduce social welfare costs, but also to address the shortage of IT-talents in the field. 

Two years later, we interviewed Christian to find out how Powercoders has grown after his engaging talk.

IM- During the 2017 TEDx talk you announced the participation of the Swiss Government in supporting Powercoders as Federal project: how much has Powercoders grown since then?

CH- We set up schools in Bern, Zürich, Lausanne and Basel, but in order not to scatter resources too much, we then agreed with the Swiss government to conduct the 13-weeks of IT bootcamp only in two central locations: Zurich and Lausanne.

IM-  Is some previous knowledge in the field required to join the academy? How does the selection process work?  

CH- No, there is no previous knowledge required. The candidates have to convince the team that they will have a very steep learning curve in IT, together with curiosity, logical thinking, problem solving prowess and good social skills. The online application is open to everyone: the most promising candidates will then be invited for an interview and an IT test. 

IM- Powercoders is a non-profit organization fully supported by the government, cantons, donations and volunteers job: has something changed in the past years due to the increasing number of students?

CH- The major change was in the revenue model. Before we were fully depending on federal funding and donations, whilst now we are getting 2/3 of the revenues from the IT industry as donations and 1/3 as subsidies from cantons. Students then promise 100 hours of work in favor of Powercoders or someone else in need and also sign an income share agreement: if they will be hired and get a consistent paycheck they’ll be able to donate to ensure a new Powercoders generation.

IM- After the talk we briefly discussed a vision for a “coders city” in Jordan: how about this project? 

CH- It is very difficult to support refugees in the Middle East. Especially in Lebanon and Jordan. We had to pivot towards Turkey since the government there is more open to support refugees. Right now we’re also looking at Tunisia for an alternative in the Arabic world.

IM- A new hypothetical TEDx talk with a few of your students involved: is there a particularly special story you would like to share?

CH- It is the story of Jamila. Jamila, an IT teacher, fled from the Taliban in Afghanistan with her baby daughter and her husband. Arriving in Switzerland she had to wait to get her asylum granted and studied during that time at Powercoders whilst her husband was babysitting: in their culture this is a remarkable exception. Through Powercoders she found an internship at Swisscom and worked extremely hard to be hired after one year. Now she works as a DevOps engineer at the largest Telecommunications provider in Switzerland.  

IM- How did TEDx help spreading the project?

CH- The TEDx video in particular helped us to build credibility with the industry regardless of where we go. Moreover, participants of TEDxZurich 2017 joined Powercoders as volunteers or offered internships to our participants.

IM- Projects such as Powercoders are getting more popular or is it still somehow a niche?

CH- There are a lot of refurbishing projects out there who make laptops and smartphones available for vulnerable communities. Additionally there are a lot of schools who teach IT to refugees, especially in the northern part of Europe. What is lacking is the focus on job integration: in our view this is the most difficult part for a refugee and the most beneficial one for the hosting community. 

IM- In which other fields refugees could have an active and innovative role such as in the code-tech industry?

CH- Hard to say. I think the most promising one is health. Consider the ongoing demographic changes: more and more people will need care during the next 10-20 years. As robots will not be accepted to cover for this additional demand, the possibility of robot-assisted care programs would definitely be a success. 

IM- The cheesy question: what would you say to your self from 10-years ago? What are your goals for the next 10 years?

CH- Don’t let others tell you where your limits are. Make the world a better place for the next generation. Right now we are messing up our planet, polluting the oceans and destroying rainforest to grow soy to feed cows so we can enjoy a steak. Living on the expense of nature during the last 50 years has had surprisingly low consequences so far, but in the next 50 years our children and grandchildren will pay the price.    

IM- Any idea you would like to share or see shared by TEDxZurich?

CH- Actually it is the idea of making the world more sustainable. I love small ideas that, when executed by everyone, make a huge difference. We need you, you and you. 

Many thanks Christian!

P.S. For more initiatives that could impact refugees´ lives in a positive and meaningful way, read also our interview with Annina Maria Largo, founder of Sportegration, an association offering free sports classes to displaces people.

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026;