They all assumed that there had to be a catch. Most were young adults struggling with low-paying jobs, such as those at call centers paying less than $2 an hour. Others were unemployed. Marcela Torres was offering them a chance to take a five-month coding course that would give them computer skills that would help them break out of the cycle of poverty.
To top it off, they wouldn’t have to pay tuition until they landed a job. Instead, they would receive a monthly stipend while they attended classes. Potential students were noticeably nervous when they turned out for a pizza-and-beer party where they would learn more about the program.
Hola Code pays students a monthly stipend while they learn crucial coding skills.
“They thought we were a scam,” says Torres, who had distributed flyers wherever she thought she could find students, including an underground hip-hop club. “Some thought they were going to be kidnapped. But everyone came because they were really desperate.”
Torres is the co-founder of Mexico City’s Hola Code, a coding boot camp that focuses on Mexican citizens who have returned after living for years in the US. Many were the so-called “Dreamers” who were brought to the US by parents who were undocumented immigrants. They had been deported or had decided to leave before being deported, so they had to build a whole new life in Mexico.
She says her students — who were basketball players, sushi chefs, and construction workers in the US — lack the basics, like official identification or a college degree, they need to secure a good job.
“Mexico is a classist society, and the university you went to determines your access to certain sectors,” says Torres, a finalist at WeWork’s Creator Awards. “The tech sector was like that, but it can’t continue. The demand for software engineers is too high.”
Based at WeWork Insurgentes Sur 601, the school has attracted students like 22-year-old Miriam Alvarez, who returned to Mexico from the US six years ago. The former call center employee started out with no coding skills, but now she’s helping create a better online registration process for Hola Code.
Alvarez says the project has made her more interested in front-end design.
“I really like the front-end, the client side of the UX,” says Alvarez. “I hope to broaden those skills even more.”
Torres is adamant that her first class, numbering just 22 people, can light a fire under the Mexican tech sector. A social scientist who has worked on technology projects around the world, Torres says she knows exactly what skills her students need. She partnered with San Francisco-based Hack Reactor, which agreed to share its curriculum with Hola Code.
Finding the right investors
Investors were harder to convince. Some were understandably skeptical about a coding boot camp that would pay students about $300 a month while they learned, and only asked them to pay for their tuition of about $6,000 after they found employment as software engineers.
“Most investors were very polite, but didn’t see it as feasible,” says Torres. “They thought it was a beautiful idea, but a bit naïve.”
Others, she says, were blatantly sexist.
“One potential investor loved the idea, but wanted a different CEO,” she says. “They tried to hide it by saying I didn’t have experience, but it was about being a woman.”
She eventually found funding from an angel investor and a Mexican foundation called Promotora Social Mexico.
The gender bias that Torres encountered has only made her more committed to making sure that women are represented in the school. She says that the first class has only three women, but she is proud of the progress they are making.
“Some of these women are single mothers, and becoming developers gives them real opportunities,” says Torres.
Helping students find jobs
For all the drive and passion in the Hola Code office, Torres knows the project will fall apart if students cannot get jobs. She met with the human resources teams at several Mexicans firms, and at first they were a hard sell.
“They didn’t believe that coding boot camps would provide formal training,” says Torres. “Many only recruit developers with degrees, so what we are doing is quite radical.”
That perspective is changing, partly because US companies with offices in Mexico are keen to hire bilingual coders. Mexican companies began taking another look at students like the ones from Hola Code and saw they could match the performance of their in-house developers.
“I look at my team and I see the future creators of technology in this country.”
How can they tell? Torres asks them to provide a coding challenge that their employees would realistically encounter. She doesn’t reveal personal details about the student until a company agrees to hire them.
“Our partners don’t know if they are hiring a woman or a man,” she says. “It’s all very meritocratic.”
As the first class prepares to graduate, Torres says she’s pleased with the progress her students have made.
“I look at my team and I see the future creators of technology in this country,” she says. “They are resilient, they are hard working. They come with this hunger. I’ve never seen a group so determined to create something.”