This Kenyan Techie Couldn’t Go To Hacker School – So She Brought Hacker School To Her
Who else feels like they’re going to gag the next time they hear someone use the “every-disappointment-is-a-blessing-in-disguise” line? Well, for starters, you’re in good company if you recognise that the faulty portion of that saying lies in the first word.
At only 19 years of age, Martha Njeri Chumo; a Kenyan programmer was supposed to be jetting off to the United States to further hone her coding skills. But that didn’t quite materialize.
Some disappointments are entirely bummers, and nothing else. No hidden upside attached, no light at the end of the tunnel – just pitch blackness in an endless tunnel. There are those ones that are actually the last nail on the coffin. And in situations like that, blind optimism only serves to prolong misery and delay closure.
Now, while reality disproves the idea that every disappointment has an upside, I do subscribe to the school of thought which has it that in certain circumstances, not getting what you want might be the best thing that could have happened to you. If in doubt, there’s a certain Kenyan Techie whose story epitomises this assertion.
At only 19 years of age, Martha Njeri Chumo; a Kenyan programmer who had learned the ropes on her own, was supposed to be jetting off to the United States to hone her coding skills further and rub shoulders with some of the world’s finest minds in the tricky field that is software development. But that didn’t quite materialise.
Well, guess what? That disappointment which seemingly derailed her also put her on track towards breaking grounds that she never even knew was within reach – a rare case of ‘not-getting-what-you-want’ setting you up for ‘what-you-never-knew-you-could-have.’ And how often do we get that?
Yes, Martha’s proposed trip to the United States may have fallen apart, but she’s probably living her best life at the moment. Now aged 25, she is known to have founded an institution known as The Nairobi Dev School.
The organisation equips youths in East Africa with computer programming skills and helps them build technology-based solutions to solve everyday challenges. How it all started, though, was anything but straight-cut.
A few months before her travel plans were dealt a knockout punch, Martha was a budding software developer who had big dreams of taking on the world and “creating Africa’s very own Google.”
She had been accepted into the summer intake of Hacker School, now known as The Recurse Centre; a U.S.-based “retreat for hackers,” which brings together some of the world’s best programmers to write code, learn new languages, and share industry insights, on a three-month-long boot camp.
Although participation in the programming boot camp was free, she still had to find funds that will cover travel costs and that of a new laptop too. Even though quite a sum was involved, she was excited at the prospect of travelling to States to rub minds with coders from around the world, and this may have fueled her drive to raise funds.
Martha channelled her inner excitement and determination into a crowdfunding platform known as Indiegogo. She set for herself a benchmark of USD 4.2 K, but somehow she was able to eclipse that figure by raising up to USD 5.8 K – how she must have thought everything was falling into place at just the right moment.
All she needed then was a visa, and that was when she got caught in a straitjacket. Her visa application fell to tatters as she was refused one on the grounds that she was ineligible. As an unmarried adult who was not enrolled at a university, she checked all the wrong boxes. Essentially, her application was declined because sufficient “social ties” to Kenya couldn’t be established to guarantee a return after the three-month boot camp.
Having seen her dream fade out right before her eyes, Martha found herself second-guessing all the decisions she’d made leading up that point, mostly because she had had to make some crucial ones before that moment.
Martha didn’t just have a career in tech dangled right in front of her at birth – in fact – she was headed in an entirely different direction. As a brilliant teenager who excelled at her studies, she initially had her stars aligned for a career in medicine, and the schoolgirl had even secured a ready-made scholarship from the University of Nairobi to that effect.
Words like ‘coding’ and ‘programming’ must have been more alien to her then than it is for most of us today since she didn’t even know the first thing about computers (sounds like many of us have a head start). But all that was to change sometime in 2012 when she had something of an epiphany. As she remarked in an interview;
“I went to pick something from iHub. There I found people sitting, staring at their laptops. I didn’t own a computer then and didn’t have much interest. I met the person I was looking for, and in the process, my life was changed again, literally!
The person was a web developer and he started telling me ‘oh computers are so cool and all,’ but I didn’t believe him until he did some complex Math in IRB. That got me interested!”
And just like that, the unlikely journey from guru to geek had just been begun. At that point in time, Martha was undergoing an internship that sort of gave her access to a computer on a daily, but she wasn’t really doing much with it. This exciting new world that was revealed to her by chance greatly piqued her interest, and she made up her mind to explore.
That same day, she quit the internship and bought a laptop (her very first one) after gathering all her savings. Before long, the desire to practice medicine had cleared up from her mind like a high school crush, and she found a new calling in brainstorming and coding with fellow techies at iHub. Soon, she was rubbing shoulders with some of the best of the bunch at Kenya’s popular co-working space.
Having displayed remarkable skill and zeal, she found herself on various open source software projects, and she even nailed down a job as a developer. Martha was pretty good at her newfound passion and her desire to get better saw her apply for Hacker School.
Now at a crossroads with two declined Visa applications even after being accepted into the programme and raising the necessary funds, the moment of truth had finally come. Was she right to jettison medicine for coding or did she make a wrong turn? Well, her next move was to prove that she made the right call.
The date was 4th of June, 2012, and she will not remember it for having her second visa application getting thrown out. Instead, the Kenyan techie will have fond memories of that date as the day she decided to bring “Hacker School” to her.
“I thought if I can’t go to Hacker School, let me try to bring the school to me,” says Chumo. “Let me see what can I do to start a school here.”
Within minutes of leaving the American Embassy in Nairobi with disappointing news, she was making calls to announce that she was going to set up a coding school in her homeland.
Some days later, she resorted to Indiegogo yet again to raise funds for the developers’ school in Nairobi. And that ultimately gave birth to The Nairobi Dev School in May 2013.
Much like the ‘much-coveted’ Hacker School, Martha set up The Nairobi Dev School as a free three-month programme that will equip young programmers in East Africa with valuable skills and help them build exciting new technologies for the continent.
The Nairobi Dev School has since conducted skills development training in Kenya, South Sudan and Somalia. It claims to have introduced up to 110 Kenyans and 44 South Sudanese youths to coding and computer programming within a year of its launch.
As part of its social impact applications, it focuses on solving local problems using software and working with talented youth in East Africa for websites, web and mobile applications. It also seeks to involve children in the technology drive by organising tech camps for kids aged 8 to 16. Part of its more ambitious project is to teach coding to 1000 public school students through coding clubs.
Apart from being featured on both local and international media platforms about the time of her exploits, Martha’s ‘sheroics’ also earned her a place in the finals of the 2014 Anzisha Prize; Africa’s premier award for youth entrepreneurs.
The young entrepreneur has also spoken at numerous conferences in London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Brazil, and Ethiopia – including one where she interviewed Bill Gates in person.
More so, UNESCO’s “Searching for Martha” campaign, which seeks to encourage women to take up roles in entrepreneurship and technology, was inspired by her story.
Although Martha currently resides in London where she is rounding off a Business Studies course, the Kenyan techie still has her sights trained on utilising technology in her entrepreneurial pursuits, as well as in the establishment of a development firm which will tackle problems within her immediate community and beyond.
And it all started with a botched visa application. For once, it does look like denial isn’t so bad after all.
Featured Image Courtesy: LinkedIn/Martha Chumo Wurm