“Is my camera failing?” He asks Salah al-dhaferi (Yemen, 27 years old) upon arrival to the video call with ELPAÍS. Indeed, his face is crossed by flashing colored bars. The Yemeni programmer had already warned that there could be connection problems. In fact, he explains that he was about to postpone the interview, worried about the capricious behavior of the network that connects him to the world. “Just before I was going up and down. Last week, for example, it was much worse. People stayed disconnected for whole days. This can be very frustrating, ”he explains. “While the rest of the world is thinking about 5G, in Yemen we are thinking about speeds of 8 megabits per second. And not everyone can access them ”.
A minute later, the camera problem is solved with a platform change, and the fickle Yemeni internet seems ready to allow the conversation to continue. Al-Dafheri is used to dealing with obstacles far more annoying than a flawed image. Now he has two weeks left to complete his computer science studies, he has co-founded his own startup, Tektonic Labs, and collaborates as a trainer in the project Re: Coded, which teaches programming to young people from conflict zones, such as Turkey, Iran or Yemen. 16 years ago, I was a child obsessed with unraveling the mysteries of the “esoteric” family computer. His adventure began in a country without internet, with electricity that came and went, and ended up sunk in the calamities of a war.
Compare his beginnings with Hansel and Gretel following a path of very few breadcrumbs. The first was a dead end: “In my house I saw a book on a programming language called Pascal. I have no idea how it got there. I guess it came with the computer, ”he recalls. Al-Dhaferi is the middle of five siblings, his father is a financial manager and his mother a homemaker. No one in his family had any knowledge of technology beyond the level of an ordinary user. And the internet was not there or expected, not even in the capital, Sanaa, where he lived then and now. So when he opened Pascal’s book, all he could do was close it again. “That was gibberish. It seemed like magic ”.
Then his father intervened. “He introduced me to someone from technical service. He said, ‘This is my son. He is interested in computers and technology. Can you tell him something? That early mentor told him about the Visual Basic programming language and explained that it was what people used to tell the computer what to do. But when Al-Dhaferi asked him how he could learn it, it brought him to another stalemate: the only option available then only admitted university graduates and although he did ask permission to attend, it was not compatible with his school education.
Three Egyptian Disks
“Then they told me I could buy discs with videos about programming,” he continues. And after long and unsuccessful inquiries, he arrived in the capital, Sana’a, a book fair that regularly brought together publishers from all over the Middle East in Yemen. Al-Dhafesi searched everywhere and met mainly the puzzled looks of those who did not even know what he was asking of them. Until he got on the job at an Egyptian company that had just what he needed: three CDs of Visual Basic for Beginners.
“You could say they were my holy book,” he says. He watched all the videos and did all the exercises. And then he went back to see them and redo each task, but giving the code a personal touch. When the second round was over, he found himself back at the starting square. The Internet was still not an option: there were Internet cafes, but even there the connection was extremely slow and the machines, relics. “I had no where to go, but I had more knowledge,” he clarifies. So he resumed his record hunting, discovered the e-books and continued to learn on his own.
At age 15, he convinced his father to entrust him with a project to reorganize a customer database instead of hiring a programmer. After a month, he delivered the result and achieved adolescent glory. “He gave me $ 100 and I became the most popular kid in my family,” he recalls. But the demands of the institute forced him to temporarily put aside his particular training path, and when he went to university, he was unable to access any scholarship that would allow him to pay for his studies. So he kept learning on his own. “Luckily I already had the internet. He wasn’t the best or the fastest, but I could look up and see what people were talking about. “
Then came the war. For six years now, the country has been mired in conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Huthi rebels, whose uprising dislodged the government from power in 2015. Al-Dhafesi describes that as a lost year. There was no internet or electricity. “It was impossible to continue,” he laments. The following year, he moved to the hot coastal city of Aden, fleeing the unsustainable situation in the capital. There he also did not find a community of programmers to guide him and access to the network was severely limited by an attack that had destroyed the provider’s headquarters. There was only one option left: the cybercafé.
“At first I went every day, but it was very expensive to be there for seven, eight or ten hours,” he recalls. In order to continue, he made a pact with his host, the business owner. “I helped him download movies and he let me access the internet for free,” he sums up. Titles like The Walk, Warcraft and some movies of the saga Star wars They attracted new customers to the cybercafé and enabled Al-Dhafesi to further increase its knowledge. “I know it’s illegal, but I did what I had to do. And here there is no law, ”he argues. After two months he was able to access the internet from home and started working on a website where Yemeni citizens could share their stories of the war. “The media in my country have created a gap between the population. I wanted to remind people that in the end it is normal citizens who are suffering, ”he says.
In 2017 he was able to return to Sana’a and found a place to study: the Malaysian distance training center Twintech. “It is a good university. It’s probably not the best, but I’ll have my title, ”he reasons. After a year, he heard about Re: Coded and sent a request without being very clear about what the project was about. “I had no idea how my life was going to change,” he admits. They accepted him and he met a whole class of people who were in his situation, trying to learn to program through thick and thin, and a teacher willing to help them. “It was the first time that I was with a community of people interested in the same thing as me. Not people who nod silently waiting for me to shut up ”.
Shortly before completing the three months of his training, he was hired by an Android app development company. And in 2019 he joined Re: Coded as a trainer. “It was great to be able to learn with these people and have the opportunity to return the favor,” he says. Some of the students who have gone through its courses have already founded their own startups or they work for companies located in Turkey or the United States. “Now they have better futures. And not only that. They are creating opportunities for the people in their circles. “
At the end of last year, Al-Dhafesi founded Tektonic Labs with which they develop projects for third parties or do consulting work. “The name is a bit cheesy, but we want to be the company that generates a tectonic movement in Yemen’s tech sector,” he explains. This change is due to relaxing the positions of an old-fashioned industry that is too dependent on expensive closed-source tools. “They are using things that are from 2003 and for the current situation it works. But you cannot expect the community to improve if you are stuck in the same principles as 15 years ago, ”says the programmer, whose strategy is to serve as an example for other companies to modernize their practices.
The keys to your success? Beyond an evident perseverance, the young Yemeni is convinced that he has been conquering his goals thanks to the fact that he is very talkative and the effort that his father made to learn the perfect English that he speaks now. “I was lucky to be born into a family very focused on education. That helped me because there are not so many resources in Arabic. If I had only had that, I would have been stuck, ”he reasons. Crashes are part of the daily life of anyone who is learning to program or who, even after completing their training, encounters a new problem. And finding a way to solve them is the spice of Al-Dhafesi’s life, who can’t help but burst into smiles as he remembers his eurekas most memorable.
It is not so common for obstacles to be an eventual internet crash or a power outage that takes away all the code written since the last save. “At first, the reaction is to want to look for the tallest building in the city and jump. Then you get used to it ”, he says. When I was in Aden, forty minutes of electricity could lead to six hours of blackout. And with sweltering heat melting the streets, turning on the computer was the least of his problems. “Having the air conditioning working was already a constant struggle,” he says.
Yemeni infrastructure shortcomings are still present and become an obstacle in times that were previously unthinkable, such as a visit to a school to teach a programming seminar. “It happened to us that the internet went down at that time, and after 15 minutes it was evident that the children were not going to stay in their chairs,” says Al-Dhafesi. To minimize surprises, the key is to schedule important trainings or meetings in the first half of the day, when the internet is least requested. “From 6 o’clock it becomes impossible because everyone is connected at home or at the cybercafé.”
Some things are getting better. “Now there is bootcamps [cursos intensivos y eminentemente prácticos]from different companies and people participating in all of them. And companies in Yemen are starting to realize that they don’t need a degree to allow people to work with them, ”he lists. And, in contrast to the advances, old challenges persist: in the capital there is electricity practically 24 hours a day, but it is very expensive, and the same happens with internet access, which is also much more unstable. “But things are getting less and less complicated. I am sure that when the war stops we will have a flourishing technology community in Yemen because the internet will be more accessible and we will be able to try new things without worrying about anything. “