Becoming a successful programmer in an underrepresented community

6 ways programmers from underrepresented countries can get ahead

It's harder for programmers from less-privileged nations trying to achieve success alongside people from countries with many material advantages.

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Becoming a programmer from an underrepresented community like Cameroon is tough. Many Africans don't even know what computer programming is—and a lot who do think it's only for people from Western or Asian countries.

I didn't own a computer until I was 18, and I didn't start programming until I was a 19-year-old high school senior, and had to write a lot of code on paper because I couldn't be carrying my big desktop to school. I have learned a lot over the past five years as I've moved up the ladder to become a successful programmer from an underrepresented community. While these lessons are from my experience in Africa, many apply to other underrepresented communities, including women.

1. Learn how to code

This is obvious: To be a successful programmer, you first have to be a programmer. In an African community, this may not be very easy. To learn how to code you need a computer and probably internet, too, which aren't very common for Africans to have. I didn't own a desktop computer until I was 18 years old—and I didn't own a laptop until I was about 20, and some may have still considered me privileged. Some students don't even know what a computer looks like until they get to the university.

You still have to find a way to learn how to code. Before I had a computer, I used to walk for miles to see a friend who had one. He wasn't very interested in it, so I spent a lot of time with it. I also visited cybercafes regularly, which consumed most of my pocket money.

Take advantage of local programming communities, as this could be one of your greatest sources of motivation. When you're working on your own, you may feel like a ninja, but that may be because you do not interact much with other programmers. Attend tech events. Make sure you have at least one friend who is better than you. See that person as a competitor and work hard to beat them, even though they may be working as hard as you are. Even if you never win, you'll be growing in skill as a programmer.

2. Don't read too much into statistics

Take advantage of local programming communities, as this could be one of your greatest sources of motivation.
A lot of smart people in underrepresented communities never even make it to the "learning how to code" part because they take statistics as hard facts. I remember when I was aspiring to be a hacker, I used to get discouraged about the statistic that there are far fewer black people than white people in technology. If you google the "top 50 computer programmers of all time," there probably won't be many (if any) black people on the list. Most of the inspiring names in tech, like Ada Lovelace, Linus Torvalds, and Bill Gates, are white.

Growing up, I always believed technology was a white person's thing. I used to think I couldn't do it. When I was young, I never saw a science fiction movie with a black man as a hacker or an expert in computing. It was always white people. I remember when I got to high school and our teacher wrote that programming was part of our curriculum, I thought that was a joke—I wondered, "since when and how will that even be possible?" I wasn't far from the truth. Our teachers couldn't program at all.

Statistics also say that a lot of the amazing, inspiring programmers you look up to, no matter what their color, started coding at the age of 13. But you didn't even know programming existed until you were 19. You ask yourself questions like: How am I going to catch up? Do I even have the intelligence for this? When I was 13, I was still playing stupid, childish games—how can I compete with this?

This may make you conclude that white people are naturally better at tech. That's wrong. Yes, the statistics are correct, but they're just statistics. And they can change. Make them change. Your environment contributes a lot to the things you do while growing up. How can you compare yourself to someone whose parents got him a computer before he was nine—when you didn't even see one until you were 19? That's a 10-year gap. And that nine-year-old kid also had a lot of people to coach him.

How can you compare yourself to someone whose parents got him a computer before he was nine—when you didn't even see one until you were 19?
You can be a great software engineer regardless of your background. It may be a little harder because you may not have the resources or opportunities people in the western world have, but it's not impossible.

3. Have a local hero or mentor

I think having someone in your life to look up to is one of the most important things. We all admire people like Linus Torvalds and Bill Gates but trying to make them your role models can be demotivating. Bill Gates began coding at age 13 and formed his first venture at age 17. I'm 24 and still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. Those stories always make me wonder why I'm not better yet, rather than looking for reasons to get better.

Having a local hero or mentor is more helpful. Because you're both living in the same community, there's a greater chance there won't be such a large gap to discourage you. A local mentor probably started coding around the age you did and was unlikely to start a big venture at a very young age.

I've always admired the big names in tech and still do. But I never saw them as mentors. First, because their stories seemed like fantasy to me, and second, I couldn't reach them. I chose my mentors and role models to be those near my reach. Choosing a role model doesn't mean you just want to get to where they are and stop. Success is step by step, and you need a role model for each stage you're trying to reach. When you attain a stage, get another role model for the next stage.

You probably can't get one-on-one advice from someone like Bill Gates. You can get the advice they're giving to the public at conferences, which is great, too. I always follow smart people. But advice that makes the most impact is advice that is directed to you. Advice that takes into consideration your goals and circumstances. You can get that only from someone you have direct access to.

Success is step by step, and you need a role model for each stage you're trying to reach.
I'm a product of many mentors at different stages of my life. One is Nyah Check, who was a year ahead of me at the university, but in terms of skill and experience, he was two to three years ahead. I heard stories about him when I was still in high school. He made people want to be great programmers, not just focus on getting a 4.0 GPA. He was one of the first people in French-speaking Africa to participate in Google Summer of Code. While still at the university, he traveled abroad more times than many lecturers would dream of—without spending a dime. He could write code that even our course instructors couldn't understand. He co-founded Google Developer Group Buea and created an elite programmers club that helped many students learn to code. He started a lot of other communities, like the Docker Buea meetup that I'm the lead organizer for.

These things inspired me. I wanted to be like him and knew what I would gain by becoming friends with him. Discussions with him were always very inspiring—he talked about programming and his adventures traveling the world for conferences. I learned a lot from him, and I think he taught me well. Now younger students want to be around me for the same reasons I wanted to learn from him.

4. Get involved with open source

If you're in Africa and want to gain top skills from top engineers, your best bet is to join an open source project. The tech ecosystem in Africa is small and mostly made of startups, so getting experience in a field you love might not be easy. It's rare for startups in Africa to be working with machine learning, distributed computing, or containers and technologies like Kubernetes. Unless your passion is web development, your best bet is joining an open source project. I've learned most of what I know by being part of the OpenMRS community. I've also contributed to other open source projects including LibreHealth, Coala, and Kubernetes. Along with gaining tech skills, you'll be building your network of influential people. Most of my peers know about Linus Torvalds from books, but I have a picture with him.

Participate in open source outreach programs like Google Summer of Code, Google Code-in, Outreachy, or Linux Foundation Networking Internships. These opportunities help you gain skills that may not be available in startups.

I participated in Google Summer of Code twice as a student, and I'm now a mentor. I've been a Google Code-in org admin, and I'm volunteering as an open source developer. All these activities help me learn new things.

5. Take advantage of diversity programs while you can

Diversity programs are great, but if you're like me, you may not like to benefit very much from them. If you're on a team of five and the basis of your offer is that you're a black person and the other four are white, you might wonder if you're really good enough. You won't want people to think a foundation sponsored your trip because you're black rather than because you add as much value as anyone else. It's never only that you're a minority—it's because the sponsoring organization thinks you're an exceptional minority. You're not the only person who applied for the diversity scholarship, and not everyone that applied won the award. Take advantage of diversity opportunities while you can and build your knowledge base and network.

When people ask me why the Linux Foundation sponsored my trip to the Open Source Summit, I say: "I was invited to give a talk at their conference, but they have diversity scholarships you can apply for." How cool does that sound?

Attend as many conferences as you can—diversity scholarships can help. Learn all you can learn. Practice what you learn. Get to know people. Apply to give talks. Start small. My right leg used to shake whenever I stood in front of a crowd to give a speech, but with practice, I've gotten better.

6. Give back

Always find a way to give back. Mentor someone. Take up an active role in a community. These are the ways I give back to my community. It isn't only a moral responsibility—it's a win-win because you can learn a lot while helping others get closer to their dreams.

I was part of a Programming Language meetup organized by Google Developer Group Buea where I mentored 15 students in Java programming (from beginner to intermediate). After the program was over, I created a Java User Group to keep the Java community together. I recruited two members from the meetup to join me as volunteer developers at LibreHealth, and under my guidance, they made useful commits to the project. They were later accepted as Google Summer of Code students, and I was assigned to mentor them during the program. I'm also the lead organizer for Docker Buea, the official Docker meetup in Cameroon, and I'm also Docker Campus Ambassador.

Taking up leadership roles in this community has forced me to learn. As Docker Campus Ambassador, I'm supposed to train students on how to use Docker. Because of this, I've learned a lot of cool stuff about Docker and containers in general. 

Ivange Larry Ndumbe will present Becoming a Successful Programmer in an Underrepresented Community at the Open Source Summit North America conference, August 27 - 31, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

About the author

Ivange Larry - I am a final year computer engineering student. I'm enthusiastic about open source. I got started in open source back in 2015 and later in 2016 I was accepted for my first Google Summer of Code internship with OpenMRS. In 2017 I was still accepted as a Google Summer of Code student with LibreHealth. I have contributed to a number of open source projects which includes OpenMRS, LibreHealth, Coala, Kubernetes. I'm currently a Google Summer of Code mentor with OpenMRS and LibreHealth. I'm Docker...