UNHCR/ J. Kohler

Spotlight on the Digital Career Institute, Berlin

Digital Career Institute is teaching refugees and unemployed people to do web development in Germany

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Nestled in an industrial area in the Friedrichshain region of Berlin, Germany, stands a branch of the Digital Career Institute. The DCI shares its unassuming white building with other organisations, although given its rate of growth, that may not be the case for much longer.

Technology and politics are now intertwined in almost every aspect of life, and the DCI is an example. It came into being as a consequence of the 2015 influx of refugees into Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial “open doors” policy saw in excess of 1.5 million refugees, many from war-ravaged Syria, enter Germany and claim asylum.

Germans were heavily divided about this significant change to their country’s demographic, and the right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany) gained significant traction and political capital out of it. The political fallout continues, with Merkel’s coalition government currently wobbling as it tries to please all sides at once.

One of the major bones of contention is the integration of refugees into German culture and employment, which is where the DCI enters the picture. In 2016, the four founders saw a business opportunity with social merit.

By training newly arrived refugees in web development and related skills, they could accelerate cultural integration and also provide Germany’s frenetic technology startup scene with some much-needed talent.

The founders approached the German employment ministry and negotiations ensued, largely based around the interpretation of German law. As a result, the DCI, which started life under the “devugees” name, became the first German institution to be awarded funding for teaching courses in a foreign language. All DCI courses are taught in English, since that’s the common tongue of technology businesses all over the world.

Access to tutorial videos

Johannes Kleine, director of the DCI in Berlin, smiles as he explains all this. “The law doesn’t say this is prohibited, so it’s OK,” he says. “But the regulations are all focused around German-speaking courses. This means the teachers are supposed to be approved by the Chamber of Commerce, but that approval is only available for German speakers, which many of our teachers are not. We make sure the teachers have access to the necessary preparatory tutorial videos, and that seems to suffice.”

As a condition of funding, the DCI can – in fact, must – accept any unemployed people on its courses, not just refugees. This has resulted in an eclectic mix of students in the DCI, especially in Berlin, which is a Mecca for diversity. “Currently, we have 37 nationalities represented, from Europe, the Middle East, South America.”

Certification of the institute is an ongoing process, outsourced by the employment ministry to a private company. “It’s similar to ISO9001 but more stringent in some ways,” says Kleine. This certification allows the DCI to offer its services to job centre branches, which can then persuade unemployed candidates to sign up for the courses. We have an audit every six months and must apply for renewal every two years.”

The study structure is straightforward, with a four-week orientation course designed to give students the basics, before they enrol on the full one-year web development course. New courses start on a regular basis, rather than following the standard academic or calendar year. It’s full-time study, five days per week, and attendance is closely monitored as a condition of funding.

The orientation course makes use of Windows laptops, but the full one-year course is all Linux-based. This makes licensing much simpler and keeps software costs low. Ubuntu is the chosen distro, running on refurbished laptops “costing not more than 600”, says Kleine.

Keeping everything cloud-based

There are no on-site servers and there is no infrastructure other than the internet connection provided with the building – which can be flaky at times. Keeping everything cloud-based makes life easier for support staff, who in this case are mostly the teachers themselves.

The DCI’s work is uncharted territory in many ways. Kleine himself has no IT background, instead having a PhD in literature. He landed the role of director through having known one of the founders since kindergarten. Despite this, he comes across as calm and confident in his role, which at times can involve managing chaotic and unpredictable situations.

For example, teachers at DCI are drawn from the IT industry, which makes for some unusual characters and tricky balancing acts when it comes to course scheduling. It’s hard to have a central repository of course materials when the subject being taught changes so fast, so a big part of the teaching process is course preparation.

Some of the tutors teach on a day-release basis from their main jobs, some are on full-time contracts, while others work freelance a couple of days a week. “Turnover can be high, but not for the usual reasons: we regularly lose teachers because their own startups go through the roof,” says Kleine.

Read more about technology training for refugees

On that note, the Berlin DCI has had its own successes. Only three one-year courses have ended so far, and of the 17 alumni (the initial courses had only a few entrants), 16 have jobs. Some candidates land jobs even before ending their one-year term.

“We had one teacher who encouraged them to apply early, and at the end of the course we had just five students left,” says Kleine. Asked if this is a problem, he says: “Not at all. The goal of the course is for the students to find employment. The final three months are project-based, so it’s fine if the students leave the course after six months or so.”

The Berlin DCI was the first to open, in autumn 2016, but others soon followed – Dusseldorf in April 2017 and Hamburg later in 2017 – with plans for more in Cologne, Munich and Frankfurt. That will probably be the total, because, as Kleine says, “it doesn’t make sense to run English-speaking web development courses in smaller towns where English is not commonly used”.

That doesn’t mean there are no plans for expansion. “In terms of growth in Berlin, we’re in the process of certifying a course on business intelligence management, one on e-commerce and marketing, and another on project management. Of course, if we run so many courses, we will need a much larger location.”

With the growth of Berlin as a technology hub showing no signs of abating, it seems likely the city will take on as many newly trained web developers as the DCI can turn out.

Alex Cruickshank has been a technology and business journalist since 1994. He grew up in the UK and now lives in Berlin, where he runs his own writing business, www.ministryofprose.com.

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