Yalla is a group of web developers, separated by continents, but united by a shared desire to use their digital skills for positive impact.
Online tools and the internet mean that nowadays we're all connected, regardless of where we actually are. What kind of new forms of work does that inter-connectedness enable? And how are remote collaborations being harnessed for positive impact?
Yalla is an interesting example of this new kind of collaboration - a collective of freelance web developers and designers, working together between the UK, Germany and Gaza. They work with charities, not-for-profits, start ups and businesses, creating digital solutions with an emphasis on driving positive social impact through everything they do. RESET talked to them to find out more.
You are a very international team. Where do you work? And what “borders” do you come across when working together?
Simon: We are currently a few people based in the UK and Germany and seven developers located in Gaza. The fact that people in Gaza are not allowed to travel, ongoing military strikes and an internet connection that’s not always reliable, due to power cuts etc., make web-based software engineering a challenging task. There are other social and political issues too. Travelling to Gaza to meet our team requires a lengthy and hyper-secure visa and travelling process.
We use online tools to communicate and write code together such as Slack and GitHub. We also have daily stand ups via video stream where we talk about our current work, ask questions and learn from each other. We also try to include some intercultural and team-building stuff like teaching other Arabic, German and English and talking about each other’s lives. We don't just want to work together – we want to get to know each other too.
How did you come up with the idea? And how did you find the other members of the team?
Simon: Joe and myself were the first ones to take part in the Founders Programme - a joint initiative between Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks where two graduates from the UK could partner with developers in Palestine to build web apps that deliver positive social impact. One of those projects secured further funding, and we got a couple of other paid projects as well. We realised that maybe we could make this a long-running thing and set up our own agency.
So far we’ve worked remotely on multiple projects across many topics such as mental health, construction work and volunteering. We found new people through the developer network and are luckily able to draw from Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks alumni. A few weeks ago we finally visited our colleagues in Gaza for the first time. At that point we were working across four different projects with four developers based in Europe and seven in Gaza.
All of the apps are still in beta mode and not public, but some of them include: Earwig, an review platform app for workers in the construction industry to help increase transparency within the sector; death.io, a chatbot that stores personal information about its users aiming to create a different, colourful perspective on death; RENTCHECK, an app that aims to empower independent businesses in times of skyrocketing rent increases; Connect 5, an app to help train staff working in mental health; and PressPad, an app that aims to increase diversity in journalism by matching young people with host-mentors who can offer professional experience and a place to stay.
What are the biggest challenges to working with developers outside Gaza? And what have you found most rewarding?
Abdalsamad: Being located in Gaza we’re obviously facing travel problems - even though the internet helps to introduce a connection to the outside world. Working closely with other people outside Gaza and from another culture and religion opens your eyes to a lot of new aspects about life. It also expands your own thinking and gives you more hope for a better and more peaceful world.
Ahmed: The difference in culture and thinking between us and European developers lets me see things from a different perspective. It makes me think a lot about how great it is to have tech tools that make it easy to get to know people from locations far away. Working with developers outside Gaza makes me believe in what I am doing as a part of a bigger and globalised tech sector.
Marwa: Getting to know people from other cultures and other countries made me feel like I was travelling around the world even if I didn't go beyond the borders of Gaza. It also helped me develop in technical, cultural and social terms.
Have you encountered any challenges due to cultural differences? If so, explain.
Abdalsamad: No not really. Except Joe and Simon not getting my jokes sometimes!
Joe: Abdalsamad expecting us to laugh at all his jokes! No, not really. What’s actually been amazing is how well you can connect and get to know each other despite the interactions being through a screen. I quickly considered them as friends way before we ever met in person.
Ramy: I don't really see the differences as a challenge. I like to chat with Joe and Simon about the cultural differences between us and between our communities.
Simon: I think in general common interests like the things we watch and the music we listen to, as well as the drive to constantly learn from each other, facilitates connections between cultures way faster than it used to.
What did you want your colleagues (Simon and Joe) to learn about Gaza from the trip?
Abdalsamad: My feelings towards the Gaza situation and what I want others to learn about it is very complicated and hard to describe. So I guess I’ll stick with the traditional answer which is culture and food :D
Ahmed: I wanted them to see with their own eyes that Gaza is different to the images that the media provides and that Gazan people are people like any other nationality.
Are there any key differences between working together in person and working remotely?
Ramy: In regards of the work itself, with the internet, slack, github and video calls it's almost as being together in the same room. But it was great to have all the team around and really work together in the place.
Simon: Meeting in person and being in the same room provides a different energy to the one created in remote meet ups. You can connect in a more personal way, smile at each other, eat and laugh together, learn from each other’s stories...
Joe: Not having the internet connection drop out midway through a conversation was great! The work itself though was very similar - it was more just on a personal level so great to be able to chat, joke and eat kanafeh together.
What’s your vision for the future?
Simon: We would like to create something that can be shaped and controlled by everyone in the team across borders. At Yalla we want it to be a flat hierarchy, a truly collaborative organisation. We are about to form a cooperative business structure including regular business meetings, membership and facilitated payment flows. We would also love to invite the whole team to meet in Europe!
Yalla would never have been possible without web-based technologies. The tech revolution is developing in a direction that’s all too often led by unsustainable interests. But it also provides us with tools we can use to achieve significant impact at a relatively low cost, and it enables us to work and collaborate in areas full of social unrest. I like to think that in the future there will be more Yalla-like companies that use technology to bring together like-minded people across the world to build and shape things that help society and the environment.