Thursday, April 19, 2007

Journey of an Afropreneur: Changing the mindset

As technology director at our company one of my key responsibilities is to identify talented and eager web enthusiasts the objective of which is to train and mentor them in two key areas Technology and Business. As a company we are aiming to set a standard not only in the technologies that are used but also in developing applications that make business sense within this part of the world, what this means is that the people we identify need to be innovative not necessarily entrepreneurs but they must possess a degree of creativity and I'm sure you'll agree with me that in order for you set a standard innovation is key. I once told a techie that we don't want to reinvent the wheel all we need to do is find one aspect of the wheel that we can improve and make it work for this part of the world.

The biggest challenge I'm facing when it comes to the identification of these extraordinary people is the mindset that the IT community in Kenya has in general, I cannot speak as though I don't belong to that community but it does sadden me when I have a discussion with somebody and I realise that they have no true skill in what they do. What do I mean when I say "true skill"? well, a large percentage of web developers in Kenya (including designers and producers) have perfected the art of download,customise and call it my own, which though works when one is trying to learn cannot really be equated to a true skill.

I had a chat with one lady who said she was very good in production which basically means that she can translate a design into a fully functional HTML prototype, what this requires is skill in use of graphics packages, HTML and Javascript. I then proceeded to ask her if she could do a full CSS concept compatible across several browsers and she responded by saying that she downloaded templates and customised them (download,customise and call it my own). This kind of "skill" cannot be truly put to the test and is absolutely devoid of any creative process.

Taking the example of learning a programming language, Al had the opportunity to interview a developer I've known for a few years, upon explaining to him that the technology we aim to use is new and would require one to commit themselves to learn and apply the developer was quick to point out that he couldn't do this until he'd had a chance to look at the language. That kind of fear is borne out of a culture of non-innovation and reuse.

Africa and Kenya specifically cannot be empowered using technology when the mindset we have adopted is one of reuse rather then revolution. If we are truly to be the next frontier of untapped technology then we must strive to build skill and nurture innovation from the onset. I don't mean to belittle my fellow web techies but the era of plug and play must come to an end, there is nothing wrong with downloading an application to learn the code base but only true knowledge is acquired when I use what I have learned to build something on my own. If we are to mentor and build the coming generation of techies then our skills need to be strong. If we are to be truly the next source of technology talent then we must move past this mindset.

The aspiring developer, designer must see pride in innovation even when recognition from ones peers isn't forthcoming. I am always impressed by the story of Google and its founders, when they built their search engine the venture capitalists and other companies that were around at that time including Yahoo saw no need in purchasing the search engine yet this two guys stood beside their application because it was theirs and they believed in the innovation, that is what we need in Kenya. So what if everybody else is taking the easy way out, we must make the conscience decision that we will stand and be counted as the innovators and not as the imitators.

I hope this inspires my fellow techies and brings about change, if not then at least the voice was heard.


startupkenya said...

Great post!

I'm really enjoying reading this blog. Wonderful stuff.

One Eyed Bandit said...

I like where you are going with this. Skill is acquired over time and as long you can nature and compensate those willing you can actually change the current mindset.

creativemind said...

To one eyed bandit, i concur on the compensation bit. If people will not pay for the time and effort to have custom work done, then this display of "lack of skill" will continue for a good long while.

David@Tzaadi said...

As an African-American who outsources web design to India and elsewhere, I often encounter this. "Reusing it because it works" is a great way to build skill, but does little for innovation. To move past this mindset, developers must combine left-brain coding skills with a right-brained imagination. And, it always helps to draw from a familiar culture for design ideas. After all, it's no accident that the best designs habitually come from countries where design is integrated and extremely visible.