The Slalom software engineer is giving back to his East African community by hosting free coding workshops.
By Randi Eicher, photographs by Steven Stelter
On a Saturday in August in Seattle, everyone wants to be outside. We wait all year for this: to swim in Lake Washington, go to a Mariners game, BBQ with friends without getting rained on. But on this Saturday in August, Mukhtar Shariff is at a library in South Seattle, teaching 23 teenagers how to code.
Mukhtar is the co-founder of Companion Coding, an organization that provides free coding bootcamps for East African kids in South Seattle. At the library, 12- to 18-year-olds walk in, sticking close to their friends, as Mukhtar and co-founder Mustafa Ahmed bring out more and more chairs. When the room seems completely full, three girls—14 or 15—stand just outside the room. One girl peeks her head in and asks, “Is there room for us?”
Mukhtar, who’s Somali and moved to the US when he was three, says that many East African kids in South Seattle come from refugee families. Their parents left countries like Somalia and Ethiopia to escape war, political unrest, and famine. Back in the 60s, the government resettled East African refugees in South Seattle, and since then, the community has continued to grow.
Seattle is one of the most well-educated cities in the country, with 39 percent of its residents holding bachelor’s degrees. But only about eight percent of East Africans in Seattle have bachelor’s degrees. And, with Seattle becoming a bigger and bigger tech hub every day, home prices and rent continue to go up—which is a struggle for these (and many other) families.
They live in “the toughest neighborhoods with the least resources,” Mukhtar says. Parents have to work constantly to make ends meet and provide for their families. That means that much of the time, kids are raising themselves and their siblings. East African families are typically big: Mukhtar has seven siblings.
“It makes it tough for these kids to graduate high school, let alone college,” Mukhtar says. “And forget about trying to discover a hobby or learn how to code. That’s just not an option.”
Meanwhile, their counterparts are coming from better neighborhoods, better-funded school districts, and parents who can afford to put them in extracurriculars. Some of them are building apps by the time they're 10. "There's a huge gap," Mukhtar says.
It makes it tough for these kids to graduate high school, let alone college. And forget about trying to discover a hobby or learn how to code. That’s just not an option.
Companion Coding used to be Companion Athletics, a basketball program. On Saturdays, Mukhtar and Mustafa would take East African kids in South Seattle to play basketball from 2 to 10pm. It was a fun way to occupy the kids and keep them safe and out of trouble while their parents were working. Gradually, basketball coaching turned into general mentorship. Mukhtar and Mustafa, both software engineers at Microsoft at the time, would talk about their engineering jobs and take the kids to Microsoft and other tech companies’ campuses. “Many of these kids had never been out of South Seattle,” Mukhtar says. “We wanted to give them that exposure.”
In 2017, Mukhtar and Mustafa hosted their first coding bootcamp. There were 20 open spots, and over 100 kids wanted to sign up.
Companion Coding now hosts quarterly bootcamps, which are completely free. In fact, every kid gets a $50 gift card if they complete the program, paid for by sponsors like Seattle Foundation and Slalom.
Mukhtar stands in front of the room at the library and asks questions like, What is coding? Why should you learn how to code? Do you know where the Amazon headquarters are? The kids are quiet at first—then Mukhtar starts calling on them and making them laugh. He talks about things they care about. “Apps like Instagram and Snapchat…every app that you use on your phone, someone had to get on their computer and write lines of code to create it.”
He tells the kids why he loves being a software engineer: “Solving problems all day gets your brain to work differently." He says that by the time they're in the job market in five or seven years, there will be ten million open software engineering jobs. He talks about the salary they can make as a software engineer. And the office snacks.
The kids start working on laptops, following the directions in Dash, a free coding program. As they raise their hands with questions, Mukhtar and Mustafa walk around the room helping them. A couple kids ask Mukhtar the same question, something he knows is explained in the instructions. He encourages them to re-read the instructions and wrestle with it for a minute. “It’s more satisfying when you figure it out yourself instead of me giving you the answers,” he says. “Try to figure it out. That’s your challenge.”
Mukhtar’s goal is to help get them on a path to college and into STEM careers. A few early grads of the program are now at the University of Washington and plan to become software engineers.
Mukhtar went to Washington State University and studied management information systems. He worked full-time to pay for school—seven days a week, all summer, sometimes multiple jobs. He tells me that all of his siblings got bachelor’s degrees, “against all odds of being children of immigrants who themselves had never been to school.”
After he graduated, Mukhtar took coding classes and quickly knew it was what he wanted to do. He then became a front-end engineer at Microsoft. Today, as a software engineer and consultant at Slalom, he’s helping one of the world's most recognizable telecommunications companies better understand its customers through data visualizations.
“Everyone likes working with Mukhtar,” says Justin Dimmer, Mukhtar’s colleague at Slalom. “He has this infectious, reassuring presence.”
Many of these kids had never been out of South Seattle. We wanted to give them that exposure.
When I asked Mukhtar to grab coffee so I could interview him for the first time, it was during Ramadan—the one month a year when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. He said he couldn’t get coffee because he was fasting but would be happy to talk. I didn’t know much about Ramadan, but when we met, he shared a lot with me: how many years he’s been fasting (since he was nine), how it feels (he gets used to it after a few days), if he still plays basketball at the YMCA during it (he does). He led the conversation—I didn’t want to be insensitive or ask a question that was too personal—and he was open, warm, and eager to share details with me.
“He’s an amazing storyteller who helps bridge cultural gaps even within our team,” says Justin. “We can have a healthy conversation without anyone getting offended. He’s always got a story to tell—about where he’s from, his upbringing, his family.”
During my last conversation with him, Mukhtar tells me that in the East African culture, family and community are everything. If a distant relative needs surgery, everyone chips in to help. When one of his brothers went to medical school, he and his siblings worked hard, pooled their money together, and helped him pay for it. He learned from a young age the importance of taking care of each other. Of doing whatever you can to lift up the people around you.