When the Software Talent is in Africa, and the Jobs Are Everywhere Else

Two of Andela's engineers working on a laptop
Photo: Andela

Two of Andela's engineers work in the company's Kenya office, before the pandemic and Andela's move to remote work

By: Tekla S. Perry

Six years ago, Jeremy Johnson, visited Nairobi to speak at an education summit. Fresh off of taking his startup, 2U, public he saw a lot of smart young people—but not a lot of opportunity. With his background building 2U, he thought that was a problem he could do at least a little something about.

Along with five other entrepreneurs, Johnson started Andela. The company’s mission: to use digital education tools to train software engineers, and then place those engineers in jobs they could perform remotely for companies around the world.

The response from would-be software engineers—initially in Lagos, then expanding to six countries in Africa and recently announcing a continent-wide push—was overwhelming.

“We did a pilot in Lagos in 2014,” Johnson recalled, “by putting out a call for applicants… We were looking to select four people; we had 750 apply and hired six.”

Andela put the group through six months of training before placing them in jobs with tech companies from outside Africa.

For the second pilot program, with 20 slots to fill, Andela brought in an independent testing service to conduct aptitude tests to whittle down the pool of 2400 applicants. “The testing service called us, and asked us if we were aware that 42 applicants tested in the top two percent for cognitive ability of anybody in the world.”

Johnson and his partners realized that they had identified a population of really smart people who wanted to be software engineers. Initially, they aimed to provide free job training for the inexperienced. Then, once they were trained, hire them to work on projects that Andela took on for companies around the world. After five years and training more than 100,000 aspiring engineers in Africa, Andela realized that access to job training was no longer the prime hurdle for aspiring engineers, and dropped the training part of its operation to focus on bringing jobs to already experienced software engineers.

Right now, Andela has more than 1000 developers on its staff, spread throughout six countries in Africa and working for several hundred companies, with 2019 revenues of around $50 million. It’s not a nonprofit—the individuals and firms who have invested $181 million to date expect a financial return.

Navigating the pandemic in the short run has been challenging, says Johnson, though in the long run the sudden and massive switch of tech employers to remote work is likely to be a boon to engineers in Africa.

Here’s what else Johnson has to say about Andela’s operation, the impact of the coronavirus, and prospects for the future.

How Andela manages its remote workforce:

“We generally bring someone on for a specific job for a specific company; they are paid through Andela.  Basically, we make global hiring local [by handling all the logistics].

“To set salaries, we look at local markets. We try to be on the generous side of fair in regards to local market, so we can attract the best talent. However, we don’t want to break local markets; we don’t want people leaving medical and legal professions to become software developers. That said, the average engineer coming in gets a 30 percent pay bump from their previous role.

[Companies generally contract with Andela for a fixed number of engineers for a fixed amount of time. But Andela tries to keep its staff on board.]

“Once we know someone is going to be rolling off, we start looking for their next job.”  

On the impact of the pandemic:

“This has not been a simple year. We saw the storm start to build in February, across the board.  We got really worried in March, because we had so many small business clients. And indeed, in March and April, we saw a significant slowdown in new relationships, in companies being able to make hiring decisions.

[In May, Andela cut 135 employees, mostly operations and back office; no engineers were affected. Senior management also took a pay cut.]

“But we maintained more than 90 percent of our relationships with companies; things there went much better than expected. And in June, saw a turnaround on both sides, with things becoming much smoother.”

On the future of remote work:

“The pandemic and move to remote work increases the obviousness of what we are doing. We are going to see over time a significant shift to building out remote teams as a default strategy, a portion or the entire strategy, accelerating a trend that has been developing for years.

“We are seeing a move to grow the remote workforce in new customers and existing companies. We have also seen a lot of our partner companies who haven’t announced permanent remote work, tell us that they don’t have a timeline for bringing people back into the office, and remote work may be permanent.

“Long term, this is going to be a significant tailwind; it puts everyone on a level playing field. Businesses start working with us because [of the cost savings compared with hiring local talent]. And that’s fine. But from our point of view, we also want to leave the world better than we found it. That happens when a CTO wakes up six months after they start working with us, and realizes that the best engineer on the team is a young woman from Nairobi. It’s fun getting that ‘I love your mission’ call and knowing that this just happened.”

On Africa’s brain drain:

 “If you want to keep people you need to create opportunities for them. It’s not complex. I think of us as being a driver of enabling people to stay in country and build a local ecosystem—to have a local ecosystem you need opportunities that allow people to stay. Giving engineers an opportunity to work with the best engineering teams in the world, while staying in their country, allows them to bring knowledge home; that also contributes to building their own ecosystem, and ultimately creating even more opportunity there.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 12 August 2020.