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This Google-backed startup from SA is training thousands of coders

If South Africa is to really become a knowledge economy, it seriously needs to develop the youth’s Computer Science skills. That’s a no-brainer. But while government and academia have their hands full, creative minds are putting inspiring initiatives in motion to foster the country’s next generation of software developers.

Hyperion Development is one of these gems. Since it launched in 2012, the Durban-headquartered company has allegedly helped over 8 500 people from six Southern African countries in software development training.

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“We are fortunate to have the ability to scale this online platform to the point where I don’t know everyone’s names involved anymore,” says Hyperion co-founder Riaz Moola, who’s currently setting up another office in Cambridge.

The startup also recently partnered with international tech companies like Google to help further computing-related fields in South Africa that are matched by international standards.

The Hyperion website is akin to popular online learning platforms — also known as MOOCS — such as Khan Academy and Coursera which rely on public donations and volunteers, as well as the likes of Udacity, which are for-profit. Varying in content material and execution, all of these websites offer university-level courses available to anyone with access to the internet.

Read more: Brothers for All: the inspiring school teaching underprivileged people how to code

Hyperion has a free offering for local students as well as a paid-for option. Donations such as the R1.3-million from Google and the Python Software Foundation enable over 4 000 local students to study for free today. In addition, Hyperion offers MicroDegrees (part-time courses) which go for around R2 500 each (excluding deposits). These are currently being used by over a hundred people, learning valuable programming languages Python, Java and C++.

Those who participate in Hyperion’s classes get access to their own online personal trainers, who are available 24/7. Hyperion’s course material also relies on online file-sharing platform Dropbox, which means students with limited internet access can work online and offline.

Operating out of Durban, and more recently Cambridge, the startup is made up of a core team of 10 tutors and a total of 45 instructors, of which some are volunteers — all of them South Africans.

“We are overwhelmed by the amount of people applying for the instructor positions. Whether volunteers or paid, we cannot offer positions to them all,” says Moola.

Hyperion team, from left to right: Richard Niescior, Lionel Chetty, Matt De Neef, Sibonelo Dlamini, Alex Bielovich, Riaz Moola, Philani Biyela

Apart from Google, Hyperion has partnered with some of the top tech companies like the Python Association, Oracle and the British Computing Society, to match the platform’s courses to international standards. “In South Africa we don’t have an authority that accredits software development,” Moola explains, adding that the biggest challenge for the company so far has been getting local support:

When it comes to getting volunteers and even getting the South African government on board it’s not that tough. But the fact that the key supporters of this project are international, people like Oracle, Google, Python and the University of Cambridge even, it reflects an industry where the recognition of software developers is lacking.

He argues that South Africa’s software developers face an image problem. “In South Africa, it’s not really a sexy thing. Whereas when you come over to the UK or the US, the hottest trend right now is high-tech. They’re very much in demand.”

This is especially worrisome in the jobs market, he found, where people tend to confuse IT with software development. “If you’re a programmer looking for a job in South Africa, it’s a really bad experience. It’s a problem where programmers don’t know their value,” he says, adding that companies don’t always know how to present themselves to be appealing to software developers.

Read more: Meet iXperience: the startup that’s teaching US college kids how to code in Africa

The startup has therefore launched Hyperion Careers, which is a portal that acts as a middleman between developers and tech companies. Similar to something like the recently launched OfferZen, Hyperion Careers is built by developers, for developers. It distances itself from the traditional jobs sites such as Careers24 or Indeed. The service is meant to bring relevant opportunities to the students while helping them present themselves in a way that an employer can see their real value.

Hyperion Careers currently features over a hundred vacancies available from 80 companies in South Africa, including remote positions. Given the weak exchange rate of the South African Rand, remote positions are becoming increasingly attractive for South Africans who can earn their salaries in dollars or pounds.

At the same time, Moola notes, the dollar-to-rand exchange creates an opportunity for exporting services. “It’s an amazing opportunity to have tutors from Cape Town, for instance, teaching students from the UK or even other countries. That is something we want to explore very formally with Google,” he says.

Hyperion joins a range of other academies in the country that have popped up over the last few years. CodeX in Cape Town, for instance, offers full-time apprenticeships. WeThinkCode has recently opened up a new campus in Johannesburg and welcomed 100 learners to participate in its Coding Bootcamp. Other initiatives include RLabs, Brothers For All and CapaCiTi, all of which are equipping hundreds of South Africans with relevant, 21st-century skills.

The Hyperion-Google partnership seeks to establish an independent, volunteer-driven body of computer scientists in South Africa, namely the Computer Science Association of South Africa. It also plans to spearhead a range of projects to support the realignment of computing-related fields in the country, match international standards and accelerate the training and development of a new generation of programmers in Africa.

Going forward, Hyperion hopes to reach all those who have a stake in Computer Science education in South Africa. “We are working with Google to introduce more Computer Science classes in the primary school and high school syllabus,” adds Moola. “For the end of this year, our goal is to reach all IT teachers, who are about 600 or 700.”

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