Audio: Meredith Karazin, Moringa School: How to Train Globally Competitive Devs

Meredith Karazin, Moringa School: How to Train Globally Competitive Devs

By Jomiro Eming

As a young continent, Africa has an abundance of passionate and knowledgeable youth interested in tech. However, Meredith Karazin, COO of Moringa School, and her team see a widespread lack of efficient training that enables youth to align to market standards. The result is that many businesses outsource tech skills, rather than hire local graduates.

Meredith works with her team to solve this by using a holistic and practical approach to tech education that prepares students for a real working environment. Moringa School trains developers to work anywhere in the world by using real-world problem statements, in a classroom setting that mimics a typical working environment, and using a project-based and qualitative grading system.

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Meredith is the Chief Operating Officer at Moringa School, a technology skills and learning accelerator based in Nairobi, Kenya. When Moringa’s co-founder, Audrey Cheng, noticed that more tech companies globally were beginning to outsource their tech teams, she started looking at how to get young African developers into the global tech market, and Meredith works to drive that mission.

Meredith says that many tech skills development courses she’s encountered don’t offer much practical experience, and a lack of skills application makes students less employable. Moringa School takes students – with any level of coding experience – and trains them in the technical and ‘soft’ skills they need to be better able to compete globally in the tech work environment.

Meredith sees global competitiveness as being market-aligned – in other words, being able to adapt to the changing world of tech, and having a skillset that can translate to any environment that one finds oneself in. Technical coding ability forms part of that, but she has found that being globally competitive is more about having the ‘soft’ skills needed to be able to communicate and work successfully within any team, anywhere:

“Often, when people are trying to upskill themselves, they’re thinking about, ‘Can I learn this language now?’ But employers around the world today are thinking more along the lines of, ‘Is this person coachable? Is this somebody that will fit seamlessly into my company or my organisation? Is this a team player, somebody that I can count on, somebody that would look at themselves first if there’s a problem rather than blaming others?’

This is why Meredith and her team focus on teaching both coding, as well as ‘softer’ skills, such as communication and collaboration, in what they call a blended learning model.

Holistic, ‘blended’ learning: Merging theory with practice

‘Blended learning’ is essentially the intersection between theoretical knowledge and practical application: Instead of being lectured at, students are encouraged to take their learning experience into their own hands. “We’re not totally about being self-directed, though,” Meredith explains. “We’re not throwing you into a pool, and expecting you to sink or swim.” Instead, by bringing together theory and practice, Moringa School hopes to teach its students about all of the aspects that really go into learning:

“We believe that that’s super important in the tech space. It’s always evolving. You might learn a certain programming language today, but later it may be obsolete. Or, you might want a job at a company that doesn’t use that tech stack. So, you need to know how to teach yourself new skills, new languages, new frameworks… We’re really focused on that: Teaching people how to learn, so that they can continue to do so by themselves in the future.”

In Meredith’s experience, soft skills are generally quite hard to teach using conventional textbook methods. Moringa School has adapted to this by baking soft skills training into applying one’s coding skills and problem solving. This is done in three ways:

  • ‘Real world’ project scenarios
  • ‘Real world’ working environment
  • Qualitative grading system

Here’s what each one looks like in more detail:

‘Real world’ project scenarios

Learning to code is a necessary skill for developers, but what Moringa School does differently to traditional programming courses is focus on applying those skills to real world problems.

They’ve recently introduced employer-centered business cases, where real companies provide a business case they need solved for students to work on. “It’s a much more holistic way of assessing skills,” Meredith explains. “You’re usually provided with some sort of business case or some sort of project that you have to build. And then at the end, we’re assessing it on a bunch of different dimensions.”

Students can request access to the data they need, within reason, and are encouraged to communicate with that company’s team to ask questions about the problem and ideate solutions that fit their needs.

Meredith uses an example of a business case Moringa School gave to illustrate the above:

“One of the business cases we gave was automating what we call our ‘help desk’, where our technical mentors go around and help the students.” Through projects like this, the students are assessed on how they approach problem solving as a whole: “When we set these tasks, I am interested in both the functionality of what they build, as well as things like: Did they understand the problem to begin with? Were they actually building something that was going to be useful? Were they enthusiastic about presenting the solution?”

By setting tasks that allow for such a broad range of application to the problem, Moringa School actively engages its students in the various dimensions that it considers make someone a globally competitive developer.

The learning outcomes here include things like: knowing how to communicate with clients, learning about the value of, and how to conduct customer development effectively, and practising logical and problem-solving thinking.

‘Real world’ working environment

In addition to letting students work on real problems, and having the opportunity to learn about client relationships, Moringa School also creates a simulated environment for teaching communication within a workplace, and a team:

“The majority of your learning either happens on the job,” Meredith explains, “or it happens in your relationship with your manager, your teammates, or other people that are mentoring you. Only about 10% of that learning can happen in a formal education environment.” To combat this, her team actively puts the other 90% of that learning into creating classrooms that mimic a workplace environment.

“You don’t walk in, and see a professor writing something on the board, or lecturing to students. We want what students learn to translate right into a workplace environment.”

This means there is both collaborative group work, as well as opportunities for students to learn about carrying out individual responsibility. For example, some aspects of a project will need team effort, such as ideating a solution, and other aspects will require students to fulfill certain duties on their own, such as time management. Deadlines, working hours, and team workflows – standups, pair programming, and product demos – are also baked into this environment so that students get a sense of what it’s like to work with a team in an office.

In addition, Meredith explains that students are assigned technical mentors. Students aren’t simply given answers; they are encouraged to use online resources to figure things out that they don’t know before asking for help.

“But, if you need to,” she says, “you can go to your technical mentor.” This is someone who helps students understand why they couldn’t find the answer they were looking for, and guides them towards finding the answer, as opposed to simply giving it to them. This helps foster a culture of independence: “And I think that’s very similar to the job environment: If you’re managing somebody, you don’t want them coming to you for every single issue they encounter; you want them to be able to try work it out themselves first, and eventually come to you if they can’t figure it out.”

In other words, the learning outcomes include things like: getting used to working well in a team, knowing how to manage one’s own time and priorities, and knowing how to approach things one doesn’t know.

Qualitative grading system

Although the initial stages of Moringa School’s curriculum are focused on laying the foundation needed to build up technical ability, the rest of the teaching tends to be baked into the independent projects and business cases mentioned above. As a result, there aren’t clear cut ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, which means simply grading someone on technical performance alone is not very useful.

“There are ways to properly assess certain skills in isolation, like a rubric for grading code. You can look at things like: Did it produce the results? Can somebody else pick up your code? Can they understand it?” But with business cases, Meredith says that qualitative feedback from practical learning is a much more effective way to help someone understand how well they’re doing:

“It does make it much more challenging for an individual that’s trying to develop themselves. Rather than spending time teaching yourself very discreet things, you can build real world projects and ask for real feedback from others who are already in the game – and I think by doing that, students get a much better sense of where they really stand.”

Meredith says they create these kinds of environments for feedback in some of the following ways:

  • Students present their solutions for their business cases at the end of their project period, which tests how well they can communicate their thinking in a formal setting.
  • Moringa School’s career days bring hiring partners to visit the school and listen to students about their projects, which tests how well students can talk about their ideas in a more casual, question-answer environment. Both give students the opportunity to be exposed to different kinds of feedback, which they can learn how to use and manage to their advantage.

In essence, the learning outcomes here include things like: communicating one’s ideas clearly, working under stress or pressure, various presentation techniques, and receiving feedback and constructive criticism effectively.

Meredith and her team believe that the above approaches to teaching and learning really have the potential to make their developers more market-aligned with what companies are looking for in their tech teams, and, as a result, more globally competitive.

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