Rethinking Integration at HackYourFuture Copenhagen – By Owen Savage

HackYourFuture

In my experience, charities are often seen as far removed from innovation, as fusty organisations preoccupied with the ills of society, putting a damper on the exciting progress being made in other sectors. Hack Your Future Copenhagen and its bright-eyed, dapperly dressed Managing Director Christopher don’t fit this stereotype at all. Instead, as I follow him down the all-white, minimalist corridors lit by the morning sun, Chris embodies the energy of the project he leads, one that teaches refugees, asylum seekers and marginalised groups programming skills in Javascript and front and back end development.

At the weekly gathering of HYF’s students (a group from migrant backgrounds including a significant number of refugees and asylum-seekers), Chris leads a stand-up, replicating what many small businesses now do to ensure everyone in a team is on message. HYF’s version, however, struck a different tone. News that one student was granted asylum in Denmark marked the end of the stand-up after another was presented with a Raspberry Pi — a credit-card sized computer which enables people to explore computing and learn coding languages — as a prize for good effort. This is certainly indicative of the blend of business and charity seen at HYF, where migrants aren’t merely given a skill, but introduced to the fresh face of modern, European business culture.

Describing his rapid introduction to HYF as a friend of the manager of the Amsterdam branch, Chris says

“So I was like ok cool. I’ve got everything, the laptops, students and was like, do you wanna take over now? And they said, Chris, you’re the manager of Copenhagen now!” This sort of speed of development is indicative of a wider trend, where over 15 refugee coding schools have sprung up over the last few years across Europe and North America.

Dr Rasmus Jones, a recent optical communication PHD graduate whose named is fantastically representative of the international world he inhabits, has been teaching at HYF in his spare time for the last three years. With obvious passion he speaks about the future potential of programming to influence society, and — at least to my luddite ears — he has a knack for making the technologically complex sound simple.

“Let’s try to explain, say, with a hammer and a nail. You have to put two beams together. I got shown a hammer by my dad at some point. Let’s say I’m 22 and have never seen a hammer or a nail. They put a hammer and a nail in front of me, but to me these are abstract things. If they teach programming in school, if my dad showed me how to write a little program when I was five, then when I’m 22 I have different tools. We are humans in an evolutionary process, we learn from experience and exposure.” In light of this, Rasmus explains that if he taught me coding for only a few hours, the random code I see on his computer screen would begin to make vague sense.

It isn’t only that we fundamentally adapt to technology in such a manner but that educated migrant groups are suited to fulfilling such roles.

“It’s a growing job market. Everyone needs an app and people need those people. On the other side they have a fairly good background because they had a similar education back home, but they don’t have this stamp from society”.

Getting their qualifications recognised in host societies is difficult for migrants and, contrary to much of public opinion, many of them are highly educated. Present among those I spoke to at HYF were a former financial analyst, a computer science student from Pakistan and a father of two who’d come over to study in Sweden after completing a Computer Network Engineering BA in Ghana. However, coding represents an opportunity for them to use their previous experience to learn a concrete skill, bypassing the need to gain recognition for past qualifications in a labour market that does not necessarily require a degree.

According to both Rasmus and Chris, another important element of coding jobs is that they are less reliant on learning Danish. Chris points out that English — at least in Europe and the US — is very much the lingua franca of coding. Even in a Danish workplace where Danish is spoken most of the time, instructions related to code and the code itself will essentially be in English, and it is highly unlikely that many tech jobs today will purely be Danish-speaking. This stands in contrast to wider debates about English in Denmark, where places are cut on English language university courses and learning Danish is seen as of primary importance on the road to integration.

Neither is Danish the easiest of languages to learn. An article in Babel Magazine cited pronunciation as the reason for Danish being the sixth hardest language in the world for an English speaker and both Chris and Rasmus couldn’t avoid dropping comments about the language. HYF is taught in English, so, as well as it allowing for a far larger group of teachers to draw from, it removes the difficulty of learning a new skill in a language one isn’t quite comfortable with. 

Despite this, Chris by no means dismisses the overall importance of Danish when living in Denmark. A student of Danish himself, he talks of the need to show a desire to meet the local population, order in a restaurant and generally be able to communicate on a basic level. According to him, it is requiring Danish as a foundation for employment that should in fact be questioned. It is undoubtedly important to learn the language of the nation you adopt (or adopts you), but it is up for debate whether this needs to happen before finding gainful employment and thus avoiding the sense of anomie that often derives from lacking a place in the job market.

The work HYF does seems especially prescient when you consider the context it operates within. Our increasingly apparent sharing economy normalises precarious working conditions, often through the jargon of technological advancement. Migrants, like an increasing amount of the host populations of European nations, get short-term ‘gigs’ rather than steady employment and are easily fired. Web development jobs are arguably more specialised than other forms of employment in such an economy, as Rasmus points out

“We always put people into low paid jobs like cleaners where you’re easily fired. If we don’t want that to happen, we don’t want them (migrants) to be shop-assistants in Netto etc, then it helps to be specialised. The most successful these days know about coding and bridge it to something else”.

It may be that the future of programming work is also marked by precarity, and one can certainly debate the extent to which — as both Rasmus and Chris argue — coding constitutes modern blue collar work. Blue collar work is varied, carrying with it a class association less internationally complex than that in action here. It’s important to acknowledge that the migrants at HYF may be a part of the new working class of Europe, but certainly aren’t from the working class of their countries of origin. Therefore, coding schools for migrants are not a one-stop solution to migrant employment, seeing as those involved already have advanced educations.

Society doesn’t transform overnight. In the context of widening inequality and the creation of what Guy Standing calls the Precariat (a mass of workers characterised by the temporary and precarious nature of their employment), HYF helps migrants grasp the opportunity to push themselves into more skilled and specialised occupations. This is something society needs if we are to aid vulnerable groups out of precarious employment and help to upset the balance of economic power.

Like it or not, this is something society is facing and will continue to face, so why not approach it positively? At Hack Your Future, the energy of the IT sector is being harnessed effectively and realistically. A forward thinking society would surely utilise the potential of a latent migrant workforce in a rapidly developing sector, and HYF may be throwing the stone with which two birds are killed.

Mason, B. 2018. Tech Jobs for Refugees assessing the potential of coding schools for refugee integration in Germany. Brussels Integration Futures Working Group. Migration Policy Institute Europe.

https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/6-hardest-languages-for-english-speakers-to-learn/    

 Standing, G. & Jandrić, P. 2015. Precariat, education and technologies: Towards a global class identity. Policy Futures in Education, 13(8), pp.990-994.

 Zwick, A. . (2018) “Welcome to the Gig: Economy: neoliberal industrial relations and the case of Uber”. GeoJournal. 83. 679-691.

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