AltCity is a co-working space tucked away from the hustle and bustle of one of Beirut’s busiest neighborhoods, Hamra. On a Friday summer night, a mostly male crowd is settling in for the second in a series of Programmer Talks hosted by LebGeeks, an online forum and community for Lebanese technophiles.
The room is filling up fast and buzzing with Arabic chatter, before the English-language presentations begin. The small space boasts typical techie décor: bean bag chairs, neon painted pipes, concrete floors, white boards galore.
Samer Nakfour, a computer engineer who founded LebGeeks in 2004 as a 14-year-old who wanted to connect with others who shared his “fascination for programming” and his passion for “being master of [his] own world, building something from nothing,” says just two sessions into the series “is too early to talk about major achievements.” But, he claims, “we are gaining traction; whenever I stumble upon someone in the community I haven’t seen in a long time, they say, ‘I really love the videos’.”
“The format of our talks constrains the speaker to a few minutes (usually under 10) much like in the workplace, where complex ideas need to be explained in a concise manner to stakeholders,” says Nakfour. “If a programmer is able to communicate his thoughts clearly, his ideas are more likely to make it into the final product.”
Nakfour says he launched the series in February 2013 to educate less experienced coders, help establish the celebrity of more experienced ones, and build a mentor-mentee community. “We want to contribute to building the image of certain people to inspire the generation that is coming up,” says Nakfour. It’s just one example of how the burgeoning community in Beirut is bootstrapping its way to the top. The LebGeeks’ top-notch website design and the community’s vibrancy reflect how Nakfour’s mission has evolved in nine years from creating a local tech community to growing one that can compete with any in the world.
The audience at the recent event skewed towards the millennial age group, but Nakfour insists all ages are welcome. “There isn’t a target demographic, it is whoever comes. We can’t afford to be picky and we want everyone who is community-minded to be a part of it.”
Among the forum’s most successful content is the reoccurring “Programming Exercises” posted by moderator, Joe Rahme. The motivational exercises encourage coding for creativity and fun. The best example: a recent prompt challenged coders to use the least characters in a programming language to output the Happy Birthday song and go “through crazy little hacks to save one character,” Nakfour says. “It kind of pushes you when you have that constraint of limiting you. It is not necessarily very productive but it keeps our skills sharp.”
Nakfour’s dream Programmer Talks’ guest? Paul Graham from Y Combinator, the accelerator where companies like DropBox, Reddit, and Airbnb got their start. “He is an amazing writer, a hacker, a really good programmer, and he successfully got into the startup world,” says Nakfour. “He has the wide pallet of skills that I think are important to have as a programmer.”
Alexandra Talty is an American journalist living in Beirut covering technology and culture.