Gulcan Yayla
Ashoka 2021'ten beri   |   Turkey

Gulcan Yayla

We Code
Youth unemployment is rising in Turkey despite the increasing rates of university attendance. Bridging the gap between academic institutions and the potential employers of youth, Gülcan and We Code…
Devamını oku
This description of Gulcan Yayla's work was prepared when Gulcan Yayla was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2021.


Youth unemployment is rising in Turkey despite the increasing rates of university attendance. Bridging the gap between academic institutions and the potential employers of youth, Gülcan and We Code aim to give the young unemployed a chance to learn new skills, to connect with their peers, and to take action for their livelihood. For the first time in Turkey, We Code strikes as an organization that aims to not only train youth, but also works with companies and universities to improve their approach to the newcomers of the sector.

The New Idea

Instead of dealing with only one side of the equation – i.e. empowering youth through trainings – We Code is working on all sides of the system by enabling companies and universities and pulling in government support where needed. In doing so, for the first time in Turkey, Gülcan and her team are orchestrating a successful, cross-sectoral effort to end youth unemployment, and ensuring this in a lasting and fulfilling way by aligning different interests of these parties in a harmonious way. The companies get the talent they need, the universities improve their curriculum and competitive edge, and the government gets a perfect new tool for local development and mitigating internal migration due to youth unemployment.

In addition to their holistic approach that involves all key actors in the system, Gülcan and We Code also introduce a new actor and role: the young IT professionals who are alumni and who can provide the youth facing the danger of unemployment with peer support no one else can. Emerged organically during the bootcamps, the Alumni Network became a crucial part of the We Code model. Knowing the sectoral trends and needs better than anyone else, alumni mentor the existing participants on how/where to search for jobs, how to manage their professional networks, how to improve leadership skills, and so on.

There are already signs that Gülcan and We Code are changing the digital upskilling system in Turkey. While other coding trainings have lower rates of success (below 50%), 85% of the We Code alumni get employed in less than 6 months. Institutional behavior change is already underway: two universities are already working with We Code to update their curriculum to meet the latest sectoral trends and needs. Companies are donating to We Code to show they are taking responsibility to play a role in ending youth unemployment in Turkey. Thanks to collaborations built with companies, the We Code team keeps themselves updated about the topical trends and the emerging talent needs of the sector.

Thanks to the pandemic, We Code have gone fully online, which means they are reaching more youth and empowering their local alumni networks to take care of the offline parts. This will be their main scaling strategy as they continue to introduce new online means, supported by offline communities, to help youth upskill themselves. We Code is also being invited to partner with the Ministry of Development on how upskilling can be used to foster local development and stop internal migration, which signals tendency to change regional and national policies in this field.

The Problem

The growing interest to higher education creates its challenges: Millions of students enter undergraduate programs every year hoping to build a better career than their peers. As the need for qualified and tech-savvy employees increase, more and more young people prefer to attend the computer science programs at universities. However, university education is often focused on the theoretical academic knowledge and is not aligned with the needs of potential employers of these students. This misalignment between the two sectors creates a mass of unemployed youth and dissatisfied employers. A small group of tech experts with the practical knowledge and the leadership skills remain under the spotlight of the industry, getting overcompensated. At the same time, youth unemployment is rising, reaching its peak in Turkey with 26% unemployment rate within the young citizens. According to the Global Wellbeing Index, with the increasing rate of unemployment, the wellbeing of the postgraduates is becoming a problem while they state hopelessness and an unhealthy state of mind. Turkish youth reports increasing depression as they realize their university education did not provide them with the skills to be employed.

College education in Turkey has gone wrong in many ways. Public universities remain under-resourced and instrumentalized by the government for ideological purposes, while private universities have become institutions that give out diplomas in exchange for tuition fees. As a result, youth in Turkey remain deprived of educational options that will enrich them as whole individuals and prepare them for fulfilling careers.

On the other hand, the Turkish private sector is ambitious to be able to play in the digital revolution taking place, yet unable to find the talented youth it would need as human resources. The government’s official strategy estimates a need for a minimum of 500,000 software developers by 2023, yet currently there are only 140,000. In Europe, there will be at least 0.5 million unfilled tech positions by the end of 2021 alone. On top of this lack of talent, there is also a diversity problem within the existing employees of the sector: Most of the tech experts in leadership positions are men coming from privileged backgrounds. The growing opportunity gap between sexes and ethnical/racial groups is severe in the sector, resulting in decision making frameworks in the sector to be biased or misinformed about less represented groups.

The Strategy

In order to intervene with this problem, Gülcan and her team have developed a three-pillar strategy. Firstly, and still the main program, is to offer unemployed youth a better education through free coding bootcamps. These bootcamps provide young people a high-quality training for today’s sectoral needs. Attendees of these bootcamps are carefully selected from a diverse set of applicants. Secondly, the team collaborate with the sector to involve them as funders and recruiters so that they can also hire from We Code’s alumni network. The sector is also Gülcan’s primary partner in defining the emerging trends and revisiting the bootcamp content. We Code team also aims to change the hiring attitudes of employers and put skills in front of university diplomas in corporate recruitment processes. Thirdly, Gülcan and Kodluyoruz are building a community of We Code alumni to support each other on their leadership journey.

On the first pillar, We Code runs hugely successful bootcamps where they equip youth with the necessary IT skills and ambition to find decent, meaningful jobs with the private sector. So far, 1500 youth have been through the Kodluyoruz bootcamps, with an 85% employment rate upon 6 months of completing the program. An average We Code bootcamp takes 6-8 weeks and includes a maximum of 30 students who graduated from the college but were left unemployed due to a variety of reasons. Each classroom is purposefully diverse in terms of gender, ethnical identity, and educational background of the participants. The head trainer of each module is a seasoned expert in the given topic, and increasingly these trainers are coming from We Code alumni. In addition to the head trainer who is responsible from hard skills development, there is also an assistant trainer in the classroom ensuring community development within students. These assistants are often English and Arabic speakers which comes in handy while engaging the participants with migrant background. Gülcan summarizes the content of the bootcamps as 60% tech and 40% leadership skills.

As their second step, We Code works with major local and international tech companies to understand their needs and connect them to youth with the necessary skills. They work with local tech giants like Trendyol, Vivense, and Insider, acting both as their source for talent and source for information to adjust their curriculum in line with sectoral needs. We Code team puts significant effort in persuading these companies’ HR teams to recruit their next talent according to their Github portfolio rather than the university name on their diploma. By educating the HR teams on value of diversifying workforce and creating equal opportunities for students of less advantaged backgrounds, We Code team has helped hundreds of students get employed even though they are not graduates of Boğaziçi University, METU, ITU, or Bilkent University, etc. (these are considered the Ivy League universities of Turkey).

Last but not least, many We Code alumni return to support youth who are attending the bootcamp as volunteer instructors. They also serve as local youth communities in their cities to mentor and coach incoming youth during and after their university studies. This network is growing bigger as the total number of We Code graduates reach 3,000 this year. Having grown exponentially over the last year, the alumni network has begun to have subcategories like Arabic-speaking alumni, women coders, alumni working in Istanbul, etc. Increasingly in 2021, alumni building their own enterprises actively sourced talent from the We Code network.

In the future, We Code plans to work with universities to develop the university curriculum together. In order to build credibility in this field, the team partnered with Harvard University this year to translate their famous CS50 course into Turkish. Two universities (Istanbul University & Arel University) volunteered to use this resource as a replacement of their introduction to Computer Science class. The existing alumni and student network started building local study groups which took the class online and met in person to study together. 33,000 people completed the online course in less than a year. The team also found out local communities in Azerbaijan was benefiting from this resource to develop their skills.

We Code has a successful pilot of pulling in the resources of the local development ministry agencies to scale to some of the most disadvantaged regions in the country, where large companies are absent. Partnering with development agencies (Kalkınma Ajansları) on the local level, the team organized bootcamps and encouraged local firms to hire the graduates. Some graduates started their own enterprises to work as consultants at the local level.

Finally, as a result of the pandemic, We Code has already gone 100% online in the past year. This has given them an additional edge for scaling, resulting in doubling the number of learners. Gülcan’s scaling plans for We Code include running the model across the Middle East and Balkans where there is a growing population of unemployed youth. In the long term, Gülcan envisions We Code as an upskilling platform for many sectors, technology being one of them.

The Person

Gülcan was born into a working-class family in central Anatolia with economic difficulties and grew up in a community where there were significant barriers to girls seeking an education or women working outside of the household. She became aware of these limitations at the very early age of 11, when her two elder sisters started to face barriers in continuing their high school education. Through solidarity between the sisters and hard work, they convinced their father to continue their education into high school, becoming the first generation of women to do so in their family. However, Gülcan’s journey did not stop there: she managed to be the top 29th student among the millions of youth that entered the university entrance exams in her year and entered Turkey’s top industrial engineering school.

The day she entered the door of her university, she knew that if she could do it, so could other youth with the right support. During her education, which trained her to be a top engineer, she also volunteered to make sure that she was helping children and youth from disadvantaged backgrounds in her free time. She emerged from this period with the brain and education of an engineer and the heart of a social worker and volunteer. She built her early career to further strengthen these two qualities by working at top corporations and NGOs like Eczacıbaşı and the Malala Fund to see how they thought and worked.

All these experiences only strengthened her belief that although talent was distributed evenly in the world, opportunities were not. She finally decided to create a working, alternative education model to help youth play the leading role in their own futures, just the way she had done so herself. The result was We Code, to which she has dedicated her life since its foundation.

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