CodeNomad: A heart-warming, learn & travel coding bootcamp for young tech talents

Heart-warming” was not quite the adjective I was expecting when I asked a participant from CodeNomad 2018 why she decided to continue working with us, but it was a living validation that we managed to achieve with CodeNomad what we set out to do, i.e. we want to build a common experience with solid foundations in connecting, co-creating and collaborating for multiplied impacts with young people who are interested in solving meaningful problems through technology or building communities that do so.

We are quite specific about this or that because I think that there are already more than enough people scoring quick wins or landing lavish fortunes from competencies in technology; but the world, this earth is not just the 1%. And I believe that the only possible ways to make viable progress on seemingly intractable challenges such as climate change, catastrophic risks, problems of collective action and etc. will only emerge when we learn to trust each other and proliferate access to new technologies and skills.

If you are curious about what a heart-warming coding bootcamp looks like in practice, check out this short video about CodeNomad made by Jiayi below:

Starting Assumptions

To understand the rationale, iterations and design behind our programme, my starting point is that considering knowledge to be a mashup of ideas, information and data the acquisition and discovery of which are deeply social and personal (Polanyi 1958), the knowledge that is created at hackathons suffer from the tragedy of the commons in which subsequent efforts to develop and make progress are hindered when the original team that came up with the idea either gets too busy with their work or studies or loses interest, but someone else somewhere could have a genuine interest in further pursuing the project. This is not to mention that there is probably a lot of duplication and overlap of ideas anyway.

Our general interest is to delineate and put into practice a system of behaviours, rules and norms for a participatory design (Ostrom 1990) on a global scale that will best enable us to unleash the force of technology and knowledge for good.

Below, I will share what we have learned on this journey and our ideas for improvement moving forward.

Create safe spaces for lifelong learning

We started #codeathon 2017 when a chance conversation with a middle school girl made us realise that industry hackathons can be intimidating for people who fall outside of a certain box. Even when you attend these events, a fear of being seen as stupid could create a climate of people mudding along and nodding their heads in agreement (or in dozing off) which just ends up being a waste of everyone’s time. For people to learn effectively, they need to feel safe; research has consistently shown that the best-performing teams are not necessarily made up of the brightest. What’s essential for high performance is interestingly psychological safety and by extension, the ability to be vulnerable with each other. Hence we spend a fair amount of time just connecting and learning about each other as persons in our coding bootcamp to unravel the multitudes in everyone as much as possible.

Design for intrinsic motivation

Back in 2017, it was not too clear to us at the time whether this was going to be an annual affair so we made our own lives simpler by giving out cash prizes as an incentive for participation. Needless to say, that easy upfront decision made it harder to sustain engagement over time once there are no carrots on the table.

The other thing about competition is that it’s zero sum by nature, my win is your loss, it creates an ordinal ranking that may or may not lead to a higher mean for the ability in question. Arguably, by creating distinctions between winners and losers and ignoring the underlying inequalities that lead to such differences in outcome, competitive pressures create a toll on learners. Straightforward competition may have served us well in the old Industrial Age when what the world needed are people who could follow instructions and operate factory machinery, its utility is rapidly diminishing in a world that is often described as marked by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. To deal with catastrophic risks such as climate change which is already here vs. an imagined, existential a.i. crisis, we need to learn to collaborate and coordinate across self-interests and borders.

It is also famously documented in the economics literature that extrinsic rewards (such as money) often have the unintended side-effect of crowding out intrinsic motivation. In summary, the half-life of financial rewards for learning and working is short and puts you on a hedonic treadmill. But if we enjoy each other’s company, we have what we need to get by and we succeed together, whole new models of learning and working are possible.

Multiple conversations with students and staffs of international organisations such as AIESEC, Enactus and Startup Weekend have consistently led us to this same conclusion.

Experiences and relationships matter

When we think about people that we would work best with, it’s quite clear to me now that at least 2 of these 4 things must be present, in order of decreasing priority:

  1. Character
  2. Quality of relationship with us, or in corporate speak, culture fit
  3. Attitude
  4. Skills

Assuming that most people are decent by default, the reason for the heavy emphasis we place on #2 has been explained by David Brooks most excellently in this New York Times article. Ultimately, it’s somewhat inter-related with the headings above; one can easily imagine that to learn and work effectively, you will need to step out of your comfort zone which means that there will be tears and “bloodshed”, and the best way to endure through all these will be with people that you can trust and enjoy hanging out with.

I think what this comes back to is that we humans are social creatures by evolutionary design. This is not about being a people pleaser per se, it’s about coming as you are and adding value to the group with all the peculiarities that make you who you are while subscribing to a common set of values and norms. Because a person is a person through other persons.

Post-CodeNomad happenings

In the time since our pilot bootcamp, together with this batch of CodeNomad participants, we have been engaged in weekly meetings and sprints with a distributed software team on the one hand, and is in the process of setting up local (also distributed) chapter teams with others.

Check out some preliminary screens for project EDvengers below:

With 5G on the horizon and as human knowledge accumulates, new institutions, norms and equilibrium can be possible. I’d love to play a role in all these because I truly believe that the best way to predict the future is to create it!