Skip to main content
Developing coders

Developing coders

Jelani Nelson is an Ethiopian - American (assistant) professor at Harvard University in Computer Science. In 2011, he created AddisCoder, a summer program in Ethiopia and help teach young people on programming and algorithms. He reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on the importance of the program, on students he helped mentor and on why such an initiative is important for the next generation of Ethiopian scholars. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Jelani, it has been almost seven years since you started the first edition of AddisCoder. Tell me about AddisCoder and why you saw a need for it within Ethiopia?

Jelani Nelson: I first thought to run the program in Spring 2011. I was finishing my computer science PhD at MIT and had lined up my current faculty job at Harvard and a sequence of postdoctoral research positions beforehand.

I then decided that Spring that I would take a summer vacation in Addis Ababa to spend time with some relatives, and shortly after that decision I started brainstorming about what activities I could engage in during my trip. I remembered having learned about the MIT Africa Information Technology Initiative (AITI) when I was an undergraduate at MIT, founded by MIT students Paul Njoroge (Kenya), Martin Mbaya (Kenya), and Solomon Assefa (Ethiopia). AITI ran summer programs in several African countries, including Ethiopia, teaching both computer science skills and entrepreneurship. Influenced by their vision, I then thought I would do something similar: teach topics within computer science I was passionate about to Ethiopian university students over the summer.

I'm certain I would not have had the idea if it weren't for AITI, even though at the time I had never even personally met any of the three, demonstrating the positive impact that role models can have. In any case, AddisCoder really started with that: me wanting to teach material that I was very excited about, but there's the obvious bonus that computer science knowledge is a very useful thing to share with students in today's economy.

It has been almost seven years since you started the first edition.

At the time I had trouble getting the logistics of the university program to work out, so at some point I shifted it to be a free program that exposes smart high school students in Addis Ababa to programming and algorithms. I advertised the program directly to many high schools by calling schools on the phone from my dorm room in the US, as well as via both the Internet and radio (Afro FM and Sheger FM both agreed to advertise the course for free).

Yodit Beyene of the Institute for International Education also helped distribute word about the program to several high schools in Addis. At the same time, Naol Duga of Addis Ababa Institute of Technology partnered with me as a co-organizer and handled on-the-ground logistics, such as securing a computer lab and lecture hall at the AAiT campus. I taught the class in the electrical engineering portion of campus, with the permission of then-dean Dr.-Ing. Getahun Mekuria (now Ethiopia's Minister of Science and Technology).

Then, you started with an almost exclusive local teaching staff but this year, you are bringing a slew of instructors from some of the premier institutions in the world, including Microsoft’s Timnit Gebru (PhD). Share with me the highlights?

In 2011 there was only one instructor (me) and one teaching assistant (Imnet Worku, who I knew through the algorithmic programming contest website TopCoder). It was extremely low budget. Imnet already lived in Addis, and AAiT let us use their facilities for free. Thus the only financial costs were my plane ticket and 1.3 birr each way every day for taxi rides between Arat Kilo and my uncle's house in Aware. It wasn't much, so I just paid both those costs myself.

In 2016 however, the Meles Foundation agreed to co-organize the program with me and sponsor the costs. I then had a budget to work with to bring in more instructors and teaching assistants. One computer science professor at Harvard, Boaz Barak, is a big fan of Ethiopian food and wanted me to show him a nice Ethiopian restaurant in Boston. I asked him: "why not have some in Addis Ababa instead?” He was convinced, and he came and taught for a week. My friend Jacob Steinhardt is someone I've known since his first year as a student doing his first degree at MIT. 

He's now a computer science PhD student at Stanford and coach for the USA International Olympiad for Informatics team (also a high school outreach activity). I asked him if he would be interested in being a co-instructor for AddisCoder as well, but he couldn't make it and instead referred me to his fellow PhD student colleague Timnit Gebru, and she joined in and taught for two weeks. I also found several TAs, many through ad e-mails that Jacob posted for me to a couple different mailing lists with math and computer science enthusiasts, who happened to be strong students at top institutions.

Over the years, you have made an effort to make the course accessible to those who can never afford to have such an experience, not just those from the elite secondary schools of the capital. Tell me about that?

When I looked back at the 2011 AddisCoder alumni, I was very pleased with the high quality of the students. Several went on to study at top institutions, such as Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, NYU Abu Dhabi, Trinity College, and several others. Some are now pursuing their PhD's in mathematics and computer science. 

On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed that despite the course being completely free, private school students were over represented. For the 2016 version of the course, I then decided to engage with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education to identify top public school students from Addis Ababa to take my class, since I knew the MoE regularly tracks top students through the 8th grade ministry exam, 10th grade matric exam, and individual school ranking data. 

I had a tough time navigating the MoE though to figure out the right person to talk to. A big part of the problem was that I was in the US, trying to communicate with folks I didn't know halfway across the world. I decided to make attempts to contact experienced figures within the government who could maybe talk to the MoE for me, although I didn't know that many such people. 

Someone I knew here in Boston introduced me to the Meles Zenawi Foundation (MZF) via a Skype call, so I told them about the AddisCoder vision and they got excited and agreed that they could co-organize the activity with me and sponsor it, and that they would also work with the MoE to identify top public school students. In fact, it was their idea in our very first meeting to extend the student population to include not only top students from Addis Ababa, but from every region of Ethiopia, and the MZF handled the transportation logistics to bring the students to Addis to take the course, and they also arranged for room and board for the students and also secured a venue for the course itself. 

I'd like to especially acknowledge Fekad Kiros, who was the main person handling the logistics of the program to ensure that it ran smoothly. I am very pleased with the student selection process, and the MZF and MoE definitely delivered top students. Of the top three scorers across Ethiopia in the 12th grade EUEE in 2017, two of them were in my 2016 AddisCoder class (Yosef Enawgaw from Debre Markos, and Yonatan Wesenyeleh from Dessie). Yosef is now finishing his first year of studies at MIT

You started the first edition with 82 students and now, that have jumped to 200. That is a high number. You and your team are said to be proud of some of the alumni of the program who have gone on to achieve great things, in their professional and academic goals. Share with me the highlights?

In fact in 2018 we're shooting for over 240 students, not just 200! There are a number of bright students who have gone through the program and done well in their students and professional careers. For example, Yilkal Abe and Basileal Yoseph are both doing their computer science PhDs now at Columbia University and University of Southern California, respectively, after having done their first degrees at NYU Abu Dhabi and Trinity College. 

Shalom Abebe finished his undergraduate degree at MIT in computer science, having TA'd undergraduate algorithms there five times and even once winning a teaching award (only given to one TA across MIT per year) from the Dean of the School of Engineering for excellence in teaching. He's now a full-time software engineer at Google. We've also had alumni work at Facebook (Shalom, as an intern), Microsoft (Hilawi Belachew), and Oracle (Michael Yitayew).

Mahlet Alie is doing a master's degree in Europe focused on medical imaging. From the 2016 offering, Dawit Fikru from Harar is now in South Korea after receiving a full scholarship to study at Seoul National University, and Yosef Enawgaw from Debre Markos as I mentioned is about to finish his first year at MIT. 

Within the continent, even among African-American women, there is a concern that there are fewer African women entering the science field. How is AddisCoder ensuring that the benefits of the program are able to reach its intended target?

In 2016 the MoE ensured that a high percentage of women were included as part of the AddisCoder student selection process, and 37 of 82 (over 45 percent) of the students were in fact women. We are shooting for a similar figure or higher in 2018, and we're also trying our best to make sure to have a good number of women instructors and teaching assistants to serve as positive role models for the girls in the class. 

As I mentioned when discussing the influence of AITI's mere existence on me, I think the existence of good role models is extremely important. I am grateful to Timnit for working tirelessly to advertise the TA opportunity to many organizations focused on women in computing, which has had a noticeable positive impact on the number of TA applications we've received from women. I'd also like to point out that the girls in the class have been amazingly smart; in 2016 I gave three exams in AddisCoder, and of the top ten ranked students (of 82) from these exams, four were girls.

You are now approaching the 10th anniversary of AddisCoder in Ethiopia. What do you think are its greatest legacy?

We're not quite there yet; the course started in 2011, and 2018 will only be the third offering due to several gap years when AddisCoder wasn't offered. I think it's still too early to discuss the legacy of the course, but I hope to keep building it up and improving the upcoming and future iterations of the course to make it more and more impactful.  For example, one thing we're trying out this upcoming summer is to have a sizable number of Ethiopian university students participate in AddisCoder, chosen from universities across Ethiopia. These are students who are potentially interested in running their own high school computer science outreach programs throughout the school year in the towns of their universities, so that the syllabus we've developed for AddisCoder can benefit a large number of high school students throughout Ethiopia even after the summer is over.