Notes from a Road Nerd
Owen Matthews is back from the West Bank where he taught an iOS class with Mercy Corps. And I have his notes from class! He really captured his feelings about an eye opening week. You may remember his earlier post.
After three days of class, the students have warmed up to each other and the classroom environment. We’ve had a lot more interaction with asking questions and offering opinions. At first I found that the Palestinian developers were fairly deferential and reluctant to speak up, so at times it was difficult for me to assess the comfort level in the classroom or to gauge if I was going at the proper speed. Now that they’re sharing more freely, it’s a lot easier to keep the class interesting and relevant for everybody.
There is quite an array of experience levels in the room. A few are quite seasoned developers, and the topics I’m covering are largely review, though they have found new nuggets in the course materials, and there has been the occasional chapter that they haven’t seen at all. I’ve created some extra challenges for these guys so that they can remain engaged. There are also a few developers who are have either not seen much of iOS at all, or who have developed apps by teaching themselves from online resources. What they’ve created is impressive, but they definitely have a lot to gain by studying the fundamentals with the depth that we cover them.
Most of the students are in the middleâ€”reasonably knowledgeable about iOS, at least one app under their belts, but with holes in their knowledge and perhaps lacking some of the deeper understanding of how the APIs work. All of the students are intelligent, motivated and fun to work with.
I’ve had the chance to get out of the hotel the past couple nights, in both occasions to meet local tech industry people, a number of them trying to build businesses, and all of them eager to bring more recognition and investment (and hence technology jobs) to Palestine. It’s become apparent that there are some pretty big obstacles here, many unique to Palestine. The population itself is cut off to a large degree: most cannot travel to Israel, which is a dominant force in technology in the Middle East. Israelis are forbidden from traveling to Palestine as well. Palestinians are even cut off from each other: residents of Gaza and those of the West Bank cannot travel between the two territories. Bringing business in, fostering communication and building businesses internally when it’s difficult to bring people togetherâ€”these are serious impediments to progress.
Government (both Palestinian and Israeli) poses another problem. Taxes and regulations make investment difficult; bringing venture capital in has been an uphill battle because of this situation. (The first significant VC investment in a Palestinian startup was only just announced. Hopefully more will followâ€”there is no shortage of interest from Palestinian startups.) Educational resources are also too scarce, and people have stressed to me that it’s hard to find and keep good professors and produce students with superior problem-solving skills.
The international development organization Mercy Corps is trying to bridge some of these gaps and build a stronger tech community. They’re doing great work and are having an impact with their Arab Developer Network Initiative. My training is a small part of this larger effort to provide technology training to young professionals. (Most of my students are in their early-to-mid 20s.)
There will need to be other changes too. Even a small change in the perception of the rest of the world would help immensely. There is quite a lot of activity in technology here, and plenty of software developers. Much of the current work here seems to be outsourcing for companies abroad, and there seems to be capacity for more. Entrepreneurs begin there and then set out to build their own businesses. With the right changes Palestine could become a much bigger force in software development.
It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will wrap up my week of teaching. The students and I have come far in few days. Each student has made personal progress and learned techniques, tools, new APIs, best practices and strategies for iOS development. A number of them presented iOS projects that predate my class, and that they took justified pride in. I entertained a lot of great questions and tried to stump my students every day. (Sometimes I succeeded, other times they came right back at me with a great answer and their own question to try to stump me. At times they succeeded. Good teachers will admit to being stumped by their studentsâ€”otherwise they themselves don’t grow, which is antithetical to education.) I was working all week to keep the more advanced students engaged, so I have a few more interesting demos now than I had before this class. I also taught a handful of the advanced iOS topics as well, which whetted my appetite for the whole advanced iOS course.
Yesterday I played soccer with one of my students and a whole bunch of his colleagues at the company where he works. It was nice to get out and have some exercise, and of course to interact with the locals in another context. Soccer is soccer pretty much anywhere. The players invited me onto their field without hesitation and I integrated right into the play. I should’ve scored a goal near the end after a beautiful pass forward to me. It went just above the bar. Which is why I pretty much always play defense.
I’m finishing up with 2 1/2 hours of class tomorrow morning, following which my students go to Mosque for Friday prayers, and I pack up. One of my students lives in Bethlehem, and she has graciously offered to drive me there and show me around for the afternoon. In the evening I’m joining a group that’s hiking down into the Jordan valley. After that I plan to spend two nights in Jerusalem, followed by a couple more West Bank cities. All of them, of course, are literally orders of magnitude older than any American city. Yowza.