Mentoring in Gaza's first hackathon
Last month, I spent eight days in the Gaza strip in Palestine. There, I mentored Gazan entrepreneurs, taught workshops, and got to judge in Gaza’s first ever hackathon. I was invited by Gaza Sky Geeks, a startup incubator that is part of a humanitarian organization called Mercy Corps. The trip was self-funded.
What follows is a collection of notes and observations from my trip.
I’ve always wanted to go to Gaza. Like many places in the world, I knew what it looked like on cable television news. I wanted to see what it was like with my own eyes. I wanted to see what the Gazan thinking, spirit, and culture was like. So when a friend told me about an opportunity to mentor entrepreneurs in Gaza, I jumped. Not only could I go to Gaza but I could also bring along two passions of mine—technology and education—to be part of it.
I applied and was interviewed over Skype. I was asked about general problem solving skills and my comfort level with following ground rules (more on that later). Once I passed the interview, I bought a plane ticket and applied to the Israeli military for a permit to cross into Gaza via the Erez crossing.
I flew from San Francisco to Tel-Aviv. From there, I went to the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon where I was picked up by a staff member and driven down to Erez to make the crossing into Gaza.
There is a one-mile no-mans-land walkway between Israel and Gaza. This is the Erez crossing. There are drivable roads but they are reserved for the UN and Red Cross.
There were seven mentors in total—three from the US and four from Europe. Some came from big companies, some worked at small startups. Some were engineers, some were data scientists. Everyone had different motivations for coming. Some were of Palestinian descent and wanted to see the other half of home. Others were curious about Gaza like me.
There are ground rules every mentor had to agree to before going. We could not go anywhere unaccompanied. We had to stay inside the incubator or our hotel. On the one tour we did go on, we stayed along a UN sanctioned path. These precautions were taken out of safety.
Due to geopolitical differences, shortage of funds, and lasting effects from previous wars, there are only six hours of electricity in Gaza per day. There’s no fixed schedule either; some days it’s available from midnight to 6 in the morning, other days it’s available noon to 6 in the evening. Many organizations, including Gaza Sky Geeks and the UN, have backup generators that run off petrol.
You get used to it. At the incubator, the lights would go out every so often for a minute before the generators turned on. No one flinched; you just carry on in the dark. For those without access to generators, UPSes and battery packs are a must.
Hamas is the ruling political party in Gaza and they enforce parts of Sharia law. One example of this came out in the hackathon. On the first day of the 48 hour hackathon, all female participants had to leave by 6:30 PM. This is because, under Sharia law, women cannot hang out with men they are not related or married to late into the evening.
The gulf (UAE, Saudi, Qatar, etc) is the closest regional tech hub accessible to Gaza. I met many Gazan programmers who either freelanced or worked for companies based out of the gulf. I believe the reasons for this are three fold: same language, lower costs, and an economic way for them to support the Palestinian cause.
I’ve been asked a lot about the programming competency of Gazan developers. I saw a lot of competency with PHP (CodeIgniter and Laravel on the framework side), C# .NET, and certain gaming frameworks such as Unity. I did not see a lot of expertise with some of the more “bleeding edge” technologies such as React, Angular, Node, Go, or Rust. I do live in Silicon Valley startup land so my view might be skewed.
As far as work ethic, I came away really impressed. I saw a lot of drive and grit. I hosted two workshops at the incubator - an introduction to prototyping and an introduction to python. In both cases, turnout was spectacular, questions were well-informed and meaningful, and attendees always wanted to stay longer and keep working. This was one of my most happiest moments from the trip.
- I made it a point to learn some Arabic everyday. Here are my favorite words and phrases:
- haz muafa = good luck
- nana = mint
- ya hamkoum allah = bless you (after a sneeze)
- enduk ai sou-elle = any questions?
Fun fact - there are several crossover words between Hindi and Arabic. I tried to drop them in conversation as much as I could. Here’s a list.
For the longest time, I was jealous of medical students and doctors. They had a very clear way to apply their skills, do social good, and travel abroad. Engineers have similar outlets but they mostly revolve around civil engineering projects such as building wells or setting up computer labs. As a software engineer, it just hasn’t been obvious what I could personally do to hit that triple bottom line.
I think that’s now changing for two reasons:
Software programming has become a tool for economic development. [Why this happened just recently is something I’ll explore in a future post]. In a place such as Gaza that is bounded by hard borders, software breaks through. The challenge then becomes to (1) educate/train talent to become software programmers that are aware of the latest technologies and software development methodologies and (2) connect those programmers with employment opportunities. Internationally trained engineers can make a difference with (1).
Technology entrepreneurship has gone mainstream (whether this is a good thing I’ll save for another day). There’s a common methodology everyone has adopted or is atleast aware of: Lean. Even people outside the startup scene know what an MVP is. The word “hackathon” has entered the lexicon. These events create a venue for socially engaged entrepreneurial engineers (SEEE what I did there?) to bring their experience building businesses in their countries to places such as Gaza. Though businesses can’t be cloned wholesale to underdeveloped markets, there is value to bringing in people who might have attempted to build or have even used a developed competitor.
I met a Gaza Sky Geeks staff member who told me about his story. His parents had to flee their ancestral home from Jaffa in 1948. He lost his childhood home in the war of 2014. He also lost friends and neighbors in the war.
Despite all of this, you would never be able to guess of any of his past after talking to him. In fact, the only reason I knew to talk to him is because I overhead someone else mention his past. He’s the most upbeat, jovial guy at the space who was on his way to the U.K. in a couple days with an eye on a seed round for a startup he’s working on. One might expect atleast some chip on the shoulder, some bitterness, maybe even a little anger. I haven’t seen that from him or any of other Gazans I’ve met and that—more than anything else—has been the biggest surprise for me on this trip.
I had a wonderful time in Gaza in no small part to the hospitality Gazans gave me when I was there. I want to give a huge shout out to the staff at Gaza Sky Geeks. Thank you for hosting this program and inviting us from abroad. I do want to return again some day.
If you’re interested in participating in such a program or have questions about it, reach out to me and I’ll pass you on to the right person.
edit 06/24 - I talked more about my experience in the comments section in this HackerNews thread.