Empowering—Gomolemo Mohapi’s journey from student to Microsoft Power Platform advocate

Published 11-30-2020 08:00 AM 3,593 Views
Microsoft

This is the first of a three-part series on the ways that Microsoft Power Platform empowers people with no coding experience to upskill and quickly learn how to create apps to solve business problems or problems they’ve identified in their local communities. Today’s post, based on an interview with Gomolemo Mohapi, focuses on this young South African student’s path to becoming an IT teacher, app maker, and Microsoft Student Ambassador and cloud advocate experienced in Microsoft Power Platform. The companion posts, based on interviews with Dona Sarkar, Advocate Lead - Microsoft Power Platform, and Joe Camp, Microsoft Power Platform Advocacy team member, tell the story of Mohapi’s journey and the potential of Microsoft Power Platform from their points of view at Microsoft. To hear Mohapi, Sarkar, and Camp talk about their experience with Microsoft Power Platform, listen to this Digital Lifestyle podcast.

 

 

Empowerment. We hear the word everywhere today. But it’s more than jargon. For many in technology, it’s a reality. Like for Gomolemo Mohapi and his community. Mohapi’s journey from high school student in Durban, South Africa, with no coding experience and limited resources, to IT teacher and Microsoft Power Platform cloud advocate for students reveals just how empowering this technology can be.

 

In ninth grade, Mohapi was required—like all students in the South African education system—to choose a path to follow in his final three grades of high school. The choices open to him were limited to accounting and IT. Numbers bored him, and though he had no experience with computers other than very basic Microsoft Office skills and “playing with shapes” in Microsoft Paint, he was really interested in what computers could do, so he chose IT. At that time, 2012, very few high schools in South Africa offered coding classes, but he was “lucky,” he says, to be in one that did. So he took a class with 15 other students—about half the size of most classes—not knowing it would ”spark a whole journey into coding and community work.” His journey is one from no-code to app maker—and from curious student to a much-appreciated teacher and community developer.

 

“Let me use my privilege for the betterment of others”

Most students in South Africa attend schools in their immediate area, whether that’s a city neighborhood or a township. The 900 students at the Durban high school Mohapi attended, however, came from all over the city and from townships half an hour or an hour away. Students traveled from townships by public transportation to city schools, he suggests, because of a common perception that you got a better education there than at township schools. “That’s not true,” he says. “At the end-of-year exams, students in township schools perform just as well. But the stigma persists.” The student population at Mohapi’s city school was predominantly Black, and most of the students—80 or 90 percent—were “not the most advantaged.” They did not own a personal computer or have access to the internet or Wi-Fi. The only time they were exposed to computers was at school or the library. “In that environment,” Mohapi says, “I was more privileged, because I had the luxury of access to those things.” Early on, he decided to draw on his own “higher standing” in society “for the betterment of others.” “Let me use my advantage,” he promised himself, “not for my own selfish gain but to help others.”

 

When he graduated, he chose to continue his studies at Durban University of Technology. In South Africa, students can choose from four types of higher education: traditional four-year colleges, universities of technology, technical or vocational colleges, and police academies or other training programs. Most students in Mohapi’s high school didn’t attend a traditional college, with many falling in the “missing middle” of those unable to pay the tuition yet with incomes that disqualified them from receiving aid from the national fund. In South Africa’s social construct, Mohapi explains, many believe that “if you go to a traditional four-year college, you’ll be better off. But that’s not true. You can go to a university of technology or a technical college, like I and many others did, and do very well.” Less than 50 percent of the students in his high school went to universities of technology or technical colleges, he estimates, but they, too, found ways to do well by attending training academies.  

 

Creating step-by-step, relatable guides for his fellow students

By the time he got to his first year at Durban University of Technology, Mohapi had studied computer technology long enough to know the content and how it might be presented. As he sat in classes, absorbing what the teacher was presenting, he noticed that his fellow students were “just not getting it.” The way the material was being presented, in traditional lecture format, focusing more on general principles, was not conducive to beginners. Especially with something as complex as coding, he notes, “You need to explain everything thoroughly,” in detail and small steps. He had no experience lecturing and was scared to stand up in front of crowds, but that didn’t stop him. He knew the students needed the material explained to them in ways they could more easily grasp, so he said to himself, “Let me try and teach them—not by lecture but another way.”

 

He developed that other way by asking, How would I like to be taught? His response? He created a set of “walk-through tutorials” or “homework guides” that took a specific concept and walked students through it step by step, breaking it down in manageable sections so students could follow and understand. He intentionally used a more informal approach, speaking in the idiom of young students who were just beginning. As he walked them through each step, he made no assumptions about what they knew, and he used simple language that anyone could understand. Along the way, he incorporated jokes and memes. Instead of just telling them, "Do this, do that,” he adopted a conversational tone—one student talking to another. “I’ve never lost that,” he says.  

 

He also held lunch gatherings. His guides and gatherings became popular. Other students would tell him, “Dude, I’m not going to read the textbook or go to class, your material is so good.” The guides covered content specific to his college classes—not to broader technology topics. But soon students started asking him for guides for other topics, too, which meant he had to teach himself those topics. He found it “cool” that, in creating guides to help his fellow students, he was learning himself. That pairing of learning and teaching is something he has also never lost.

 

At the time he was developing his guides, there was no Microsoft Learn, which now makes self-paced modules and learning paths available for free, online. He’s quick to add that he was lucky to have the resources he needed to create these guides, access to Wi-Fi, and a laptop, which weren’t common in his area.

 

Developing a more engaging and flexible approach

At the end of Mohapi’s first year in college, he had the opportunity to participate in an exchange program called the Community College Initiative (CCI) Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State for gifted students from all over the world. His experience at Northern Virginia Community College exposed him for the first time to an international community of learning. What he noticed in that diverse setting, with students coming from many different cultures and walks of life, was that they absorbed the information being taught in different ways. Because of that, he spent more time watching instructional videos to improve his own teaching, especially to get a sense of how to incorporate different ways of presenting material—not just text-based or fact-based, which didn’t hold students’ attention and which many found boring. He began developing a more engaging and approachable way of teaching, one that could reach students from all backgrounds—regardless of whether they were “privileged.” This attention to different ways of learning helped him when he returned to South Africa, a country which he describes as “so diverse, with people from so many different backgrounds.”

 

He also noticed that, in the United States, technology instruction and testing were more flexible than in South Africa. Instead of requiring students to select a specific path and follow a schedule laid out for them, US schools enabled students to study generally the first few months and then pick a major and  generate their own schedule—even to choose when to take a test. He began to incorporate that more modular and flexible approach in his own teaching and began including available Microsoft resources, like documentation and other tools.   

 

Discovering the Microsoft Student Partner program and upgrading his guides

When Mohapi returned home, Sameer Sabjeehe, a part-time lecturer at his school, advised him to check out the Microsoft Student Partner (MSP) program, which is now the Microsoft Learn Student Ambassadors program. MSP was a group of on-campus leaders from around the world who got to speak with Microsoft engineers and learn about the latest Microsoft tech and who would then use that to teach their own students. At the time, he was the only Microsoft Student Partner in South Africa, and two former MSPs, Lionel Chetty and Pivenden Naik, helped mentor and guide him. “Now we’re up to 21 MSPs,” he says, ”which is really cool.” Mohapi used what he learned as an MSP to upgrade his guides. Now, instead of covering only content specific to his college, the guides covered much broader topics not being taught at his college, like cloud computing and machine learning with Microsoft Azure.

 

About the same time, he transitioned from written guides to in-person teaching, and he hosted a bunch of in-person workshops and hackathon sessions. As an MSP, he was lucky to have the support of Microsoft for these gatherings—not financial support but content, swag he could hand out to students, and, occasionally, meals he could offer students during sessions. When his college saw the work he was doing, they covered travel costs and food for the students. These workshops became so popular that other colleges in different provinces and eventually across South Africa asked him to come to teach. So he took his courses on the road.

 

The spirit of upskilling people meets Microsoft Learn

Always eager to improve his technology skills and his teaching skills, in 2019, he decided to attend a five- or six-day conference, Microsoft Ignite The Tour, being held in Johannesburg, one and a half hours away by plane. A car wasn’t available to him, so he took a bus—a 12-hour journey. Before the conference, he asked Pablo Veramendi, who was leading the Microsoft Student Ambassadors program, which had only a few students at the time, whether there was anyone there whom he should meet. Veramendi suggested Dona Sarkar, who was leading the Windows Insider Program.

 

When they met, Mohapi told Sarkar about what he was doing with Microsoft tools and students, and they talked about an initiative they called #InsiderUp, which was” aimed at teaching as many people as possible to code.” At that time, he says, “We thought, like everyone else, that everyone should learn to code. But not everyone has time. Not everyone can give 10 to 12 hours a week to learning to code, especially when they have work and family.” That idea didn’t take off, but the “spirit” of “upskilling people,” especially students who were about to enter the workplace, remained. And when Microsoft Learn arrived, at about that time, their idea of “upskilling people” took off. Microsoft Learn was created by converging the many different Microsoft learning resources that had existed separately—Xamarin University, Microsoft Virtual Academy, and others—and leveraging other resources. It became a “one-stop shop to learn about all these cool tools,” which he began using as a major driver of his workshops.  

 

That same year, Dona invited him to Microsoft Build in Seattle to launch #InsiderUp and to talk about the work he was doing with students. At that conference, he got to meet many Microsoft leaders in technology whom he had admired for a long time. “It was mind-blowing,” he says. Because he was working on .NET at the time and creating web apps, he was especially inspired by meeting Scott Hanselman, Partner Program Manager for the .NET team, and by being able to pick Hanselman’s brain about the way he teaches his workshops. Hanselman not only builds the tools Mohapi was working with at college and teaching in his guides, he’s also, Mohapi attests, a very good teacher. A former professor, Hanselman’s YouTube instruction and his videos sessions at conferences “really resonate with people.” The first question Mohapi asked Hanselman was, How do I make my content more relatable to people? He also asked him whether he should worry for himself and other students about learning older versions of .NET Framework and C# instead of cutting-edge ones. Will what we’re being taught be out of date when we get to the workplace? Hanselman’s answer to the second question is now an important guide for Mohapi as he upgrades his own teaching. Don’t worry so much about the syntax of C# and the details of the .NET Framework, Hanselman told him. Instead, think about the problems that they solve and the system around them. Systems thinking is just as important for non-coders. If you know how a system works, at its core, you should be able to do everything else you need to do. For more about their meeting and the systems-thinking approach, read Hanselman’s blog post, Systems Thinking as important as ever for new coders.

 

Microsoft Power Platform advocate

Mohapi was invited to speak at this year’s Microsoft Ignite The Tour conference in Johannesburg in January. Later, in May, after months of COVID-19 and lockdowns, Sarkar texted him and asked if he was interested in a job, because a “cool post had opened up that he was perfectly suited for.” His reply was immediate: “If you’re serious, I’m going to take it. No need to think about it, as long as I’m doing what I love doing.” So he joined her team of cloud advocates, which focuses on advocacy for students and emerging markets for Microsoft Power Platform. His counterparts on Sarkar’s team are Joe Camp, who is the lead advocate for career switches to Microsoft Power Platform, and Greg Hurlman, who advocates for pro developers on Microsoft Power Platform. Before the Ignite conference, Camp, who at the time was working on the Windows Insider team that Sarkar was leading, helped Mohapi sort his tickets and visa, and he was Mohapi’s go-to person at the conference in Seattle, offering friendly help with whatever Mohapi needed. One year later, they’re working together.

 

“As long as I’m doing what I love doing,” Mohapi says, “I’m happy. In this position, I can be a full-time app maker and help my community upskill.” In college, when he first became a cloud advocate, he was focused on .NET and web dev—Code First. But he also discovered Microsoft Power Platform during those years, and in the last few months, his new job has given him the opportunity to dive deeper into it. What really attracts him to Microsoft Power Platform is that it’s accessible. “Anyone can use this platform, which makes so much possible. Teaching everyone in the world to code is not realistic. But teaching everyone to empower themselves to be app makers for use cases that they’re familiar with—financial, marketing, business, law—is. With Microsoft Power Platform, you can acquire these this new set of skills, which is actually not that hard to use, and take them back to where you are and make a difference where you are—without ever having to leave your job.” This, he says, speaks better to that idea of upskilling people with coding skills. Now that anyone can use Microsoft Power Platform tools to build apps, he’s teaching people how to use the tools to make apps instead of teaching them how to code.

 

Anyone who’s interested in learning how to build apps with low-code techniques to simplify, automate, and transform business tasks and processes can start their upskill journey by checking out the Microsoft Power Platform app maker training and certification on Microsoft Learn.

 

A “community developer”—one of a kind

“Every experience I have,” Mohapi says, “I try to use to bring something home to my peers.” All along, he was building his career, he explains, but just as important to him was “building up my community.” Already, in ninth grade, he had identified community development as one his passions and goals—and he never abandoned it. Over the years, he found and developed the way he could do it, using his interest in and talent for technology. He coined the term community developer to reflect this dual focus of his work.

 

In telling his story, Mohapi often mentions how lucky he is. That may be true. It’s also true that he’s a passionate lifelong learner dedicated to advancing not only his own skills—both in technology and as a teacher—but also those of his community.  And check out the new Microsoft Power Platform course at aka.ms/UdacityPower.

 

 

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