Level Up: what I’ve learned so far

I set up a tech mentoring scheme for young people in Iraq, Iran and Syria in August, after 200+ applications, here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Last year I went to Iraq to visit family, I stayed for 3 weeks. I hadn’t been back for quite some time, so when I saw my cousins again instead of being boisterous children who were desperate to find ice cream, they had turned to into tall and lean teenagers who wanted to talk about how much they loved Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and blockchain.

I was blown away by how great their english was, how much they had managed to teach themselves about coding, and how big their dreams and ambitions were for reimagining Iraq.

One cousin explained that he wanted to set up a cryptocurrency for Iraq so that it wouldn’t have to rely on foreign banks and so that the economy wouldn’t crash every time there was civil unrest.

I left Iraq buoyed by these moments and hopeful for the future. About a year later, as the same cousins were pondering whether they should enter university to study computer science, I had a look at what their courses were like. What I could find, wasn’t good. It was more suited to tech in the 90s, than 2020.

These kids were too smart to waste three years on pointless teaching. So I took to Twitter.

To my surprise, 54 people liked it and many others reached out to say they would loved to be involved. I didn’t need huge numbers to make this happen, but I did need good quality mentors, and the people who reached out were exceptional.

So a few weeks later, after many iterations of brainstorming terrible bilingual names, I set up Level Up.

I set myself the target of making 10 pairs of mentee-mentor relationships by December. At the time I was quite worried about meeting that target. Now, over 200 applications later, I’m less worried.

I have just finished introducing 14 mentors and mentees to one another, now is when the real fun begins.

Top-line

  • The website had 1379 views across August and September.
  • I had just over 200 applications across mentees and mentors between launch and the deadline to apply (3 weeks in total)
  • 47 mentees made it through the first round, and a further 18 were invited to interview.
  • I had conversations with 16 mentees, and with 20 mentors in the end.
  • 14 were paired up and introduced to one another.

Things I learned about mentees

  • The youngest applicant was 13, the eldest was 38 years old.
  • Getting people signed up was surprisingly easy. The re:coded bootcamp shared it around their network, and in fact 3 of the final mentees are re:coded alumni, Facebook groups of local areas were especially effective at getting the word out, and some key influencers pushing it out made a big difference too.
  • From what I can tell by people’s names, applicants are almost exclusively male, which means I will have to focus a lot on diversifying applicants next time. I should also probably add better demographic information to the form too so I can have true stats, and not just estimates based on names.
  • Luckily the few female applicants that applied were exceptional and made it through to interview.
  • Applicants are mostly from Iraq. Although after some investigation there were many Syrian refugees applying from Iraq, I should find a way of separating this out in future.
  • There was only 1 applicant from Iran, probably because the site couldn’t be accessed without a VPN. I hadn’t anticipated that.
  • For the most part most applicants were definitely not used to applying to things, or selling themselves in applications at all. I put this down to the fact that there are few opportunities given to young people in these areas, and the opportunities that they are given are rarely through an application form. There were lots of one sentence replies to questions that were asking for 300 words. I definitely need a better design solution here.
  • Sometimes people copied and pasted sections of blog posts on mentoring into the ‘what is your ambition/motivation’ questions, so it was quite hard to tell apart what was real and what wasn’t. This is definitely not something I anticipated at the start of this project. I didn’t think plagiarism would be a big part of the application process somehow (!) but I can see how it could be a crutch if your english isn’t good enough. And in fact I was duped by one applicant in the end!
  • Although I hadn’t anticipated the need to interview every mentee at the start, it was clear that due to the lack of good answers in the applications, and possible plagiarism, that it was necessary.
  • Doing the interviews with mentees has given me the most amount of joy during this whole process. Frankly the most joy all year. There are so many incredibly bright, motivated and enthusiastic young people in Iraq and Syria. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that a little support will go a very long way. They will be running huge companies in those regions in no time.
  • During two interviews the electricity cut out for the mentee! Which makes for quite a special freeze frame in Google Hangouts. 5/5 stars, would cut the electricity again.
  • In one case, someone tried to trick me into thinking their english was better than it was by having a friend whisper the correct english word from the sidelines. In the end we conducted the interview in kurdish, which only reminded me how utterly horrible my own kurdish is. Still, we got through it, and it shows me just how valuable a mentoring scheme would be for kurdish-speakers too.
  • A surprising number of young people wanted business experience as well as tech experience. They were all very pragmatic, and in a few cases even when they wanted to study ML or AI, they instead asked for full stack mentors so they could maximise their employment opportunities.
  • There were some mentees who applied who didn’t have any good mentor matches, so I had to go head-hunting. I broadened what I was offering to accommodate them in some cases. I now have a cybersecurity pair, a pair working on water and sanitation systems, and a soon to be paired Physics-focused mentee. I promised myself I wouldn’t widen the scope at the beginning of this, but they were all so talented, how can I not?

Things I learned about mentors

  • Every mentor who applied was a bonafide kickass.
  • I’m really lucky to have such a great network of techies, there were plenty of people from the civic tech world, a few from Newspeak House, and others who just saw it randomly through RTs or friends.
  • Shout out to Infinity Works who had 4 mentors apply in the end! Their company Slack really doing some excellent promotion for me there.
  • I have been blown away by people’s enthusiasm and excitement. It has been a huge motivator for me.
  • In future I will need to ask in more depth about mentor’s experiences, skills, and who they think a good mentee would be for them, probably at the point of the application, so that if this scales, the heavy lifting on matching won’t be down to just my notes after interview.
  • I accepted 2 US mentors to help me make specific matches with mentees. I had originally defined the scope to the UK for ease, but I don’t think there’s any reason why I couldn’t widen this out intentionally next time. The process is the same.
  • There may be value in interviewing the mentees before the mentors, it’s easier to match that way around if you can hold that many profiles in your head, or batches of mentees and mentors together, so that you are constantly thinking of who would make good matches.

Things I learned about process

  • After 36 interviews, between mentors and mentees, it got quite hard to remember everyone. I remember people through faces mostly. Pictures in future applications would make things a lot easier for me.
  • I need to get better at taking notes. Hard and fast rule for next time: write them immediately after the interview.
  • I collected a lot of good practice around mentoring, and tools and frameworks for having good conversations. These were shared with every mentor. But it remains to be seen if this was useful.
  • I set up a Stacker instance for mentors and mentees, this was built off Airtable – It’s pretty mad how quickly you can get an operational portal up and running these days. Mentors and mentees will be using this to log every time they meet over the next 6 months.
  • I need to set up evaluation surveys so I can capture how people feel now, in the middle and at the end. If anyone has any experience in setting these up, and what good questions look like, please reach out. I can use the help!

Overall, it’s been… a lot. But I can’t tell you how excited I am to see where everyone is in 6 months time. I had some of the best conversations I’ve had all year with these budding entrepreneurs.

My day job is a bit abstract, it’s hard to pin down the impact of fact checking sometimes. Working on Level Up has been a really great antidote, I know exactly who I am helping and how, a luxury I wish we were afforded more in the fact checking world.

If you want to apply to be a mentor for the next batch you can do so at https://helpmelevelup.org/apply/ The next batch will be starting in March 2021*

(*assuming that the next 6 months aren’t a total disaster :D)