What I heard.

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On my way to a client today I was listening to the radio – usual stuff, a DJ and his team making jokes to lighten the traffic.  Suddenly the radio started broadcasting flight instructions from a national airline in South Africa, authorizing them to land.  It was only about 10 seconds, but I could hear the pilot talking to the tower.  I thought it was an advert, but the break was in the middle of a song and when the ‘chat’ was over, the same song was still playing.  It was one of the strangest things that happened to me this year.  Purely a fluke and nothing more.  I don’t know how it happened and why it happened, I cannot even contemplate how it works technically but it happened.

I thought “Wow!” It was interesting and scary at the same time.  In light of the recent theft of the LinkedIn passwords, I was wondering if it could just happen that I suddenly get someone’s profile when I login into an internet site?  Is this not the concern with cloud technology?  I realize that the internet is totally different to a radio broadcast in technology terms but imagine if you were sitting doing internet banking and the next minute you had access to someone’s account.  What would you do?  What should you do?  If there is a failure in the technology and someone transferred funds from my bank account to another person’s can I blame the bank?  Probably, but surely there has to responsibility on each of us to be good internet citizens and behave in a way where we don’t take advantage because of a failure in technology?

I previously did business with a guy who has a motto that goes like this.  He said to me “I will always try to screw you over, it is up to you to stop me.  It is your responsibility to set the boundaries, not mine and I will take as much as I can and if that means everything, that is your fault not mine.”  This is not a philosophy I live by and I think his moral compass is wrong – if you believe in karma, well need I say more.  But here is my concern; what if he had access to my account by accident.  He will not hesitate to transfer funds out of my account without even blinking an eye.

The point is that we live in a world where we either trust or distrust people we meet all the time.  When you meet someone face-to-face have a sixth sense about whether you like the person, whether they are genuine, if they have agendas they don’t disclose to you, if they are friendly.  You get the picture.  You will decide whether you want an association with that person after meeting them.  When it comes to technology, we don’t know the designer or the people behind building the technology.  We work on an element of faith that the people who build the internet sites we access really know what they are doing.  We have an affinity to them by default. But do they really know what they are doing?  It is difficult to think that every single internet site has the same level of access and security.  Everyone tells you how secure it is, but it cannot possibly be.  So this brings me back to LinkedIn and Sony; both have had security breaches that have been highly publicised.  These are massive organisations that make their money through the internet and they did not get their security right.  How about a business where the internet is not their main revenue driver – would they be as invested in security as one which only makes their revenue through the internet?  Yet we still have blind faith that it is so, maybe we just want to feel the comfort that our choice is in fact secure.  Is this a reflection of our own need to feel that we make right choices when we do something? Is it a blow to our ego if we choose a company that gets hacked – ‘how could we possibly have made a mistake of choosing that company?’ we ask ourselves.

In the harsh light of day, we make choices about what we use and when we use – meat food products (our meat would never come from a cruel factory farm we say. We believe we all only eat meat from organic happy farms – yet more than 90% of our meat comes from a factory farm. Someone is supporting an industry that lacks humanity and it is probably you), our cars are built to safety standards and tested to the nth degree (yet many people bought a Lexus and it crashed! And if Lexus got it wrong how about the car you are driving?) and we use the internet (passwords are stolen and sites are hacked).  We do all of this without knowing the actual person who is behind all of it.

We assume the good and never the bad. It has a sense of religion about it doesn’t it? We all have faith in the technology, but maybe we should start asking tougher questions? Just maybe we should hold those accountable before it goes wrong? If we don’t ask questions before it goes wrong, who is to blame?  Myself for using the technology and not setting the boundaries early on? The person who builds the technology to make money?  The person who runs it, like your bank? If you don’t ask the tough questions then maybe we are to blame. Maybe we should ask the questions of our neighbours, our friends, our avatars?  Just then, maybe we could really trust everyone.  Maybe I am wishful?

What the hyena saw.

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Today I was told a story about flying out of Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.  The plane, a Boeing 737, bound for South Africa, was on the runway, accelerating to take-off.  Halfway down the runway, the plane started to shudder and skid. The engines were screaming and the plane was shedding speed rapidly.  The passengers on-board were starting to panic.  Eventually the plane stopped.  Everyone was looking around bewildered wondering what was going on.  The pilot came on to the radio, “Sorry about that ladies and gentleman, but a hyena just ran across the runway.  We had to avoid hitting it!”

Can you imagine being the hyena – this massive white tube bearing down on you.  What would you do? Stand and live on a hope and prayer?  Run?  The hyena has no idea of the complexity of issues that would emerge if the plane hit it.  The hyena is probably only focused on survival.  Yet the hyena could possibly alter the course of history forever: for the air industry in Botswana, for the passengers on the plane and for the aviation industry world-wide!  It does not know this.

There are some striking comparisons here.  Just maybe small under-developed nations can alter the course of history forever.  Maybe they should not just live on a hope and prayer that the bigger developed economies will choose to avoid them.  Maybe they have a bigger role to play than they could possible know.  Maybe they should find out.

Probably the biggest difference in this comparison is that the hyena has no agenda, no need for greed and no intent in being politically dominant.  So maybe the under-developed countries can learn something here.  If you act in a way that furthers your survival and that of your people, just maybe the bigger economies will take time to avoid causing you harm.

The next thought that crossed my mind; what is it that is valuable about a hyena?  It is life, a gift of nature that is considered sufficiently valuable that it should be saved by the pilot.  The pilot made that decision and had little time to change the course of the plane on the runway, yet he did.  The hyena is a highly specialized predator that brings value to Botswana in many ways; it cleans the bush of dead animals, it balances the eco-system and generates tourism revenue.  So keeping it alive was worth the effort.

Maybe there is another lesson here.  Maybe building valuable industries such as a really good, strong IT sector may make the bigger economies look at Africans in a different way.  Maybe we can bring that balance to the world-economy the same way the hyena does to the eco-system.  Maybe we should stop trying to compete with low-end under paid mass jobs but rather focus on niche specialisations which make us sufficiently valuable that the big economies value us – so much so that they will make sure that the plane does not hit us.

Maybe I am just rambling – but it got me thinking.

Mike – May 2012

Building for the future – can Kenya get it right?

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I recently presented some of my thoughts on the skills shortage in the IT industry to 7 universities as a part of an IBM initiative to enhance and improve IT skills in terms of the training programmes offered by academic institutions. The idea is to bring business closer to academia and ensure that young IT professionals emerge from university with skills linked to current trends in IT. In the presentation I asked a few questions; amongst these were if anyone knew what the definition of big data is or what the hot trends in IT are now? I did not mean reading a Gartner report or an IDC survey but really understanding what these were and how they affect Africa.

Let me start by writing about the 4 hot trends in IT.

These have been identified by a few research organisations; IDC, Gartner, Forrester and others, so I am rehashing what they have said, but for completeness let me quickly run through them.

Top of the pile is mobility. This is going to the case for the next 2 to 3 years and there is a world-wide shortage of mobile skills; analysts, developers and solutions providers. Mobile is hot right now.

Next is cloud computing. Let me put it bluntly, if you are not in cloud now, you will be by 2020 and this will probably become the main focus in the second half of this decade. So prepare yourself if you have not already. (On a personal note, I like cloud technology and think there is loads of interesting things happening here). This is not a cloud post but my conversations tend to make me think that most people don’t understand cloud, so maybe I will write about this some other time.

The next 2 hot topics are social business and big data.

Social business is I think the easiest for people to understand. It is beyond turning Facebook or LinkedIn into a marketing platforms but rather using social business as a delivery platform to add business value and engaging with the next generation of youth who use social media to communicate. It will probably replace email and ultimately business applications will be built within social business where people can actually integrate their work into a social media platform. (You may be thinking how? Or this sounds like rubbish. Another topic for another day and if anyone wants me to write about this, I can, leave me a comment).

Big data is possibly the most perplexing. Data has been around for millennium but the rate at which we gather it today is accelerating all the time. This is ‘big’ data – not just the volume of data that is added to the world every day but also the type of data. As an example, big data includes pictures, video clips, blogs, large documents, scanned images, and so on. Think of it this way, how do you know what is in a YouTube video? You can read the byline and tag it; but what if a computer could scan it to determine what was actually in the video without any text? The process of determining this and being able to report on it is what big data is all about – there are issues of storage, the network congestion and reporting tools to getting meaningful information out of it. As more and more big data is created applications are developed to find out what can be gained from it. Here is an excellent example. As recently reported on the 1st of May, Al Qaeda plans for a terrorist attack were hidden within a pornographic video. Having the ability to mechanically scan a video would obviously be beneficial to finding this out quickly, and then taking action to prevent any attack would benefit society.

On the 30th of April, Kenya announced, that they are going to roll-out one of the largest fibre networks on the African continent. Liberia has made a similar announcement. This may seem like an innocuous announcement but this is actually a massive step to bringing these countries into the international IT arena.

One of the major issues facing all 4 of the hot trends is the capability of the network infrastructure to manage the transmission of data for each of these big trends. Without the right networking infrastructure to support the emergence of these trends, the in-country IT industry cannot develop and grow. Any country with ambitions to become an emerging regional IT hub has to ensure that they can attract and support businesses that specialize in these technologies, which in turn leads to job creation. Without the infrastructure the under-developed country will have to rely on the developed economies to provide the support for these trends (even for their own needs). It will effectively be the same economic terms between the developed economies and the under-developed economies. The under-developed will be living off the scraps of the economic powerhouses unless they make the changes themselves.

So when Kenya and Liberia want to build high-speed capable networks, it makes you think that maybe they are going in the right direction.

Does technology dictate our lives?

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Here is an interesting question – do we have a choice to use technology or not?  This may seem like a silly question that has no meaning.  But …

There are two basic ways of thinking about this – technology is inevitable, it is a progression over which we have no choice.  We must accept it.  It is human nature to want to innovate and improve the way we live. We want more efficiency in our lives.  We want a better standard of living.  Let me present an example.  If you are reading this blog, you have access to a computer or smart-phone, internet connectivity and probably a telephone.  Think about looking for employment.  You would probably Google “job seeker” (or something like that), search on LinkedIn or Facebook, search different job listing sites and even register with some of them.  You find an opportunity.  How do you communicate with the employer?  Email, telephone, Skype maybe.  You are connected.  You can gain access to hundred of thousands of jobs.

Shift your perspective a bit.  You don’t have access to the internet or a smart-phone.  Now look for a job.  Would you go back to the telephone book? Buy a newspaper hoping to find a position and hope for a phone number, instead of an email address or web link? It would probably be harder to get a job but at least you can still phone.

Shift your perspective even more – now you don’t even have a telephone.  You need to walk door to door in the hope you get lucky and find a job.

This thought experiment highlights the issue.  Your probability of getting employment diminishes with each step that reduces your access to technology.  The less you have the less opportunity you have to find a job.

The supporters of the idea that technology dictates the way we live, think about technology as inevitable.  This inevitability means that ultimately we think we are making a choice, but the choice we actually make is inevitable.  If you don’t have a smart-phone or an internet connection, then you limit your opportunities.  Sure you can elect not to use them but the reality is that you will struggle to actually get that job.  Improving your odds of getting a job require you to be as connected as possible.  So what does this mean for you as a person?

In Africa, poor and disconnected communities have very little choice.  Opportunities are scarce and the government carries responsibility for creating these opportunities.  We pay taxes right? So why do we have any reason to contribute to change this?

My point of view is a little different.

Governments in Africa are often corrupt and if not corrupt then they lack funds.  They lack skills and sometimes even the will to change society for the better.  Some governments look at the recent events in places like Libya and get scared.  It cannot be left to governments alone.  We all need to make a change for the good. So each of us need to contribute.  If we stand together we can create the technology for Africa to transform and to change.  We can give all people opportunities and guess what, if governments don’t like it, fear it or try  to stop it, we should all still just do it.

I mentioned that there are two basic ways of thinking about the question whether we have a choice to use technology or not; I believe that the inevitability  of technology is not something I am willing to accept.  I want to have a say about what technology means in my life, how and when I want to use it.  I am not sure how yet, but I know it needs to change.

What do you think?

Blackberry saved by Africa!

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This may seem like a strange hypothetical headline of the future.  Maybe it will be.

It is conceivable that the manufacture (RIM) of Blackberry smartphones is saved by the African market.  Why?

Here is my take on it.

I think it is safe to say that Apple, Nokia and Samsung (and possibly others) may have a better device with more services than Blackberry.  (I can hear the howls from the Blackberry execs already – hey this is my opinion.)  But there is a big difference between Blackberry and the other smartphones.  Let me lay it out.  The Blackberry proposition to the customer is that you pay a fixed fee every month.  For this you get the usual cellular services, calls and SMSing.  But you also get internet browsing and instant messaging with BBM.  This cost is defined and you can do everything you need to; Facebook, Tweet watch YouTube and so on.  The cost is fixed.  The other devices offer the same service but for these services you need to purchase a data bundle which is not necessarily fixed.  So the value in the offering from the other providers has potentially a larger cost to the consumer.

This is definitive – the consumer.  The African consumer has less purchasing power than any other consumer in the world.  Cellular services compete with the little pleasures of life like cold drinks (Coke and Pepsi) and luxuries like beer and cigarettes.  I don’t mean compete in the Western sense of competing. We choose how we manage our budget with thoughts like “I will buy less beer and get more data”.  Often the choice to the African consumer is I have 2USD – “I buy beer or airtime – I dont have a choice to cut back”.  For the African consumer this is an either or choice and they have to give up lots just to be connected to the world, an experience many of us don’t comprehend.

So enter the Blackberry proposition – a fixed cost with unlimited chat, no SMSing required, less phone calls and still connected to social hubs.  The value in the Blackberry proposition to the consumer is there.

I started out by stating that maybe this is a hypothetical headline of the future.  For RIM, I hope it is reality, but the problem facing RIM and the Blackberry offer is that the device will still have to improve as will the accessibility to the apps. They have time to still do this.  But Africa is moving; living standards are improving and more importantly, there is a massive telecommunications roll-out.  Costs are starting to come down.  If the costs get as low as they are in say India, then the cost of bandwidth may not be an issue for the African consumer.

Getting back to my point.  Africa may save them but they had better  move fast.  Improve the apps and build a proper development community, improve the device and innovate. Do it or we may never see the future of Blackberry anywhere!

Mike Backeberg – April 2012

South Africa lacks technology infrastructure.

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The latest World Economic Forum “The Global Information Technology Report” (2012) places South Africa in 71st position along with Colombia.

As a country ranked in the top 25 in terms of GDP South Africa clearly lacks the will to improve the technology infrastructure.  This is a brave statement, so why make it?

Technology infrastructure accessibility has been shown to bring competitive benefits to the economy and open up new economies for workers traditionally excluded from mainstream economic activity.  As an example, to build a competitive call centre industry in an economy requires access to affordable labour and reduced IT costs.  Telecommunications and the infrastructure associated for this at a cheap price is key to this success. South Africa lacks both.

Addressing poverty by opening the economy to more people requires the will on the part of the government to make it happen.  This is not only related to the technology industries but all industries.  With technology, business and consumers are acutely aware of this though.  With poor infrastructure and a national carrier protected by the government the ability for businesses to compete on a global stage is hampered.  Is this reality though?  In Mozambique, a country further down the ranking than South Africa with a massive expansion programme, a 4mb ADSL line costs the equivalent of (USD 118) R920 per month.  The equivalent offering in South Africa is 3 times that price. In addition, IT labour costs are at least 30% cheaper in Mozambique than they are in South Africa.  Sure Mozambique is a smaller economy but building a services business that relies on new technologies specifically linked to technologies such as cloud or mobile where the technology can be housed anywhere, makes you wonder how long it will be before businesses in South Africa move more services off-shore.  South Africa has already shifted technical skills to the Asian sub-continent primarily due to the lack of adequate training in South Africa, highlighting even further the lack of government desire to truly sort this problem out.

This is of course an opinion, but as a business we experience poor service and inadequae support all the time.  We have regular telecommunications outages, so much so that we are now required to use two suppliers to ensure we have a back-up service available.

It is difficult to see how small tech businesses in South Africa can build a global footprint and compete internationally when the key to the industry is so poor.

To see the full report – http://www.weforum.org/reports/global-information-technology-report-2012.

Mike Backeberg – April 2012

Is technology the key for Africa to catch-up and pass the rest of the world?

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When Getrude, gathers water and firewood to prepare her meagre family meal, she lives in a world of technology isolation.  She has no idea of how her life can change and she has no way of improving her life.  Gertrude is an imaginary person who lives rural Africa.  She has multiple children and she struggles to feed them, every day is just survival for her.  Her children attend a poor school with limited resources and she lives in a country with few opportunities for her family.  The government is struggling to deliver services to her and the community in which she lives.  Constrained by funding and infrastructure, the government has very limited means to change this in a traditional model of development.  She has no access to business opportunities or access to commercial services like banking.  Can this change?

There are 2 technologies which may be game changers for Africa – businesses and governments.  Cloud computing can shift infrastructure, data and business critical applications to stable environments allowing African companies to compete on a global scale.  Social media and the platforms that support these – i.e. tablets and smart-phones can deliver business-to-business solutions, business-to-employee enablement and business-to-consumer solutions.

Implementing these solutions, delivering content via a mobile phone and using the limited skills available in country, a limited budget and by sweating the cloud can provide opportunities to make in-roads in these rural communities.  A focused approach to building niche skills in some centres as areas of technology focus can transform the way technology is used.  A technology industry can be started without necessarily requiring thousands of skills.

The benefit is if one country gets it right, the service can be sold to their neighbours and progressively a regional IT hub can be developed. To focus and build cloud and mobility channels is the way for under-developed states to catch up and even get ahead.  Technical resources earn less, real-estate is affordable and the technology can be quickly deployed.  Watch out Asia, Africa may be on the rise.

Mike Backeberg – April 2012