ComIT: A classroom, a helping hand, and newfound programming skills
ComIT co-founder Pablo Listingart, at left, listens as students show off their new programming skills, including Kamal Vattikuti, second from right, who was recently hired by OpenText. (Communitech photo: Craig Daniels)
Craig Daniels - July 13, 2017 - Communitech, Ecosystem, Featured, News
A six-year-old, nonprofit, talent development program from South America is not only helping solve Waterloo Region’s shortfall in programming talent, it’s also improving the lives of those in need.
ComIT is the brainchild of Argentinian co-founders Pablo Listingart and Maria Soledad Acuña, who set out to offer IT training to would-be developers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford formal training at a university or college. After helping hundreds of students learn programming skills and find jobs in Argentina and Chile, ComIT recently concluded a pilot program in Kitchener at the Tannery: An initial cohort of 16 students produced 10 graduates, two of whom found programming jobs before the program had even concluded.
None of it would have unfolded if not for a lucky encounter Listingart had last autumn with Google Canada Senior Engineering Director Steve Woods.
“It was total chance,” recalled Listingart, during a recent interview at Communitech.
In March of 2015, Listingart, a computer science and business school graduate troubled by the political instability in Argentina, made the decision to immigrate with his wife and young son to Canada, settling in Winnipeg. His plan was to run ComIT, which by then was already well-established in South America and had secured $300,000 in funding from Google, remotely from Canada. His co-founder, a social worker, remained in South America.
“In the meantime, my wife said to me: ‘You know, you have to do [a ComIT project] in Canada,’” said Listingart. “‘Everyone thinks that because [Canada] is a first-world country, that nobody is in need, that you have welfare and everyone is good.’ “But you have newcomers, immigrants, unemployed, underemployed – a lot of people who actually need a lot of help to be part of this society.”
So with some assistance from Google Argentina, Listingart secured an invitation to Google’s Go North conference in Toronto late last October. He showed up, but he didn’t know a soul, and didn’t know who, among the hundreds in attendance, to approach.
“I was thinking to myself, should I just leave and go back to Winnipeg?”
And then Listingart spied Woods, who had got up for a stretch after a long bout of sitting, walking alone down a corridor.
“I saw him walking by himself down the aisle so I went over and said, ‘Can I walk with you?’ He said, ‘Sure, walk with me.’
So they walked. And talked. Listingart explained his tech talent projects in South America and his plans to do the same in Canada. Woods, who chairs Communitech’s board of directors and knows well the region’s acute need for qualified personnel, promptly put him in touch with Communitech. One thing let to another, and a pilot project began last April, meeting three evenings per week at the Tannery.
“I can’t say enough wonderful things about the program,” said Waterloo’s Kamal Vattikuti earlier this week, shortly after receiving his ComIT certificate of completion. Vattikuti took the course along with his wife, Lakshmi Ramineni. He was hired just days ago by OpenText in Waterloo as a software developer on the strength of his new skills. His wife has a promising lead on a job, as well.
“Everyone here [who took the course] can code now. Everyone can test [code now]. If I had a company, I’d hire all of them. They’re all up to that level.”
Applicants don’t need any previous programming experience. The program isn’t intended to replace formal education but rather to supplement it, to offer those who might not have the wherewithal to afford formal training a chance to learn new skills. Listengart believes that well-meaning people, given an opportunity, are willing to work hard and build better lives for themselves. Providing that opportunity, watching as it pays dividends, is what motivates him.
“It feels really, really good [to see people succeed],” he said. “It’s kind of a drug after a while.
“I have hundreds of emails [and messages] all telling us: ‘I got a job, thank you so much. I learned something that I didn’t know before.’”
The instructor for the just-completed Kitchener course was Baljeet Bilkhu, a developer and software tester with educational software startup D2L.
“We like to work with instructors who are active professionals,” said Listingart. “It’s important for us to have people who can treat the students as peers and not just as a student.
“I told Baljeet, ‘I want you to have empathy, to develop a relationship with your group. It’s important that they open up to you and tell you about issues that they might have. I’m really happy, really lucky, we got Baljeet.”
Worldwide, since its inception, ComIT has trained 1,800 people. There is a drop-out rate of about 30 per cent, Listingart said, people who discover during the program that a career in IT isn’t a good fit or who have personal issues that prevent them from completing the course. Of those that remain, two out of three, he said, find jobs.
A ComIT course in Listingart’s home town of Winnipeg got underway last month, in partnership with ICTAM, the Information and Communication Technologies Association of Manitoba. ICTAM is one of 26 hubs of the Canadian Digital Media Network, as is Communitech. It was CDMN that helped connect Listingart with ICTAM.
The plan is to roll out another course in Kitchener beginning in September, and there are designs to expand the program to other Canadian cities. The program achieved Canadian charitable status just a couple weeks ago.
“The plan is always the same,” Listingart said. “Do more". *There are plenty of people who want jobs, who need to be part of the society and not to live out of subsidies and welfare.”
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