Technology

Into the future we charge

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Predicting the future is probably the most intensely inaccurate thing that anyone can do. I am making this statement after over-hearing a conversation between 2 project managers. They were complaining about the research out of Oxford University that essentially found that project managers are inadequate at estimating cost, benefit and time for the organisations they are employed by. These gents were seriously unhappy with the article.

(http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/newsandevents/releases/Pages/Foolsandliars.aspx)

Do I think Professor Bent Flyvbjerg is right?

I don’t know; my gut feeling is that he is probably right and here is why.

Arthur C Clarke writes that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  This statement by itself is thought provoking.  It is not that magic is false or driven by technology (maybe it is – who knows?) but rather that the lack of understanding on the part of people who have no comprehension of what is before them makes the technology seem like magic. Think about it like this, look at your choices in life and what you think you are an expert at and possibly really good at.  Then think about what you really know nothing about.  When you think about stuff you really know it is easy to comprehend and understand and things which are similar to it may make sense.  You may recognise patterns or have a way of seeing things.  The opposite applies to things you have little or no understanding of.  A simple example – I am fascinated by the idea that a large aeroplane, like an Airbus or Boeing can fly and stay up in the sky.  I have a rudimentary understanding of aerodynamics but I cannot comprehend how these large machines are engineered or the complexity in the safety procedures.  All I know is that when I fly I have blind faith that the people who built it, tested it and said it can do what it does, are right.  Every time.  It is wizardry to me.  I have the same fascination with many things in the world every day.  The boundaries of my knowledge or not unlimited but are rather limited by my personal understanding.  Worse still is that I am happy to hazard a guess as to why it happens.  I am sure that often my guess is as valuable as saying something like, “the fairies keep the jet up” because it is probably that inaccurate.

The key is recognising this inadequacy and trying to plan for it.  The US military refers to the idea that there is information and knowledge that they cannot plan for in their scenarios. They call it the unknown unknowns.  It is a brilliant idea.  We know we don’t know everything and we know that things and ideas will emerge that are not yet thought of, but let’s be open to them and plan to include them when they happen.  Our scenarios can get better and maybe our adaptability to new technology will ensure we stay on the forefront of technology advances.

Essentially I am saying that project managers cannot predict the future as they just don’t know what the future holds. Of course I have set out an argument here without empirical evidence to support it.  I am rather relying on personal experience.  So let me make it more practical.  Predicting the future becomes more inaccurate the longer the time line for the prediction.  The further into the distance the less accurate you will be.  A quick mind game will highlight this.

Think about what you have planned for the next 3 meals.  You will probably think, dinner at home, going out with friends, a sandwich for lunch, canteen, whatever.  Now go into your calendar and go forward 7 days and do the same plan and then go forward a year and do the same plan.  So you now have 9 meals set-out.  Put a confidence mark next to each one in terms of how certain you are that this will be the meal you will have.  High equals very certain, medium equals maybe and low, no certainty at all.  I am willing to bet that the meal plan you have set-out to happen in exactly 12 months will have a low next to it.  This is not true for everyone but for me it most certainly is.  I cannot think that I will be in the same place in 12 months, that the food I am in the mood for will be the same, that my health will be the same, that my circumstances will be the same (I may change jobs, be travelling, have meetings that prevent me from having that meal), and the reasons go on and on.  Eating is essential to our survival and the complexity in making this simple prediction is enormous.  You can do it with many different things, your transport, your clothes you will wear, your job and so forth.  Each one on its own has complexity that is not particularly complex (these are not passenger jets after all) but you can understand them as they are personal attributes you have a strong affinity with.  You can make the scenario even more complex; now try to predict all the things in 12 months’ time at once.  If you had to assign a confidence level to this super-prediction, you will probably be looking for something less than low as an option.  You may argue that some are fungible and change a lot. Take clothes; forget about if you buy new clothes or not, just assume you replace your whole wardrobe but to simplify it assume you will wear pants in a years’ time.  What colour will they be?  What colour will your shirt be? Will it be raining? Snowing? Heat wave maybe?

So now take someone who is not intimate with the subject matter of a project and inject technology into it.  Technology that for all intents may as well be run by fairies as this the understanding that the project manager has.  Ask them to do a costing, a benefits plan and how long it will take, and I am willing to bet that in 12 months, they may as well have made a paper aeroplane out of the proposal and flown it out the window.

Of course this may turn out to be false and the better the project manager and their understanding of the complexity of the technology and realising that there are unknown unknowns and having a plan to deal with them may make the forecasting better.  Getting the right people can turn the technology from being a piece of magic into something understandable. But is this then not an acknowledgment that maybe you don’t need a project manager?

So what I think is this.  I would be a terrible project manager to engineer a new passenger plane – I mean where do you get fairies from anyway?  I also think that technology is growing every day in ways we cannot comprehend and if you are prepared to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and that you are willing to deal with the unknowns, you have a shot at making it success.  Ultimately it is about getting the right people who can maybe just see things a bit differently and just maybe Professor Flyvberg will be seen to be wrong.

Today though, it is often about politics and who you know, not what you know.  But this is also just my opinion. I did after all say this is only my gut feeling.

Where are all the grasshoppers?

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At the beginning of the twentieth century a young woman was born in the USA.  Her name is Grace Hopper and she was a genius. Grace Hopper grew-up in an era where she lived through a world-war (she was a naval officer in the US Navy) and worked in a heavily male dominated environment as a computer scientist.  Her brilliance ensured that she was recognized for her ability and not limited due to her gender.  She lived in a world where woman struggled to compete with men on equal terms, yet she advanced and made contributions to society that influences much of the way we live today.  She faced similar struggles to many women on the African continent.  

Those of you reading this, with a deep interest in technology history, specifically of computer systems will know who Grace Hopper is. Grace Hopper’s contribution to computers is arguably as influential as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  She advocated the idea that computer programming languages should have syntax closer to English than machine code. She changed the way computer programmes work and essentially made it easy for computer programmers to be trained without necessarily needing a university education. She literally created a new industry that has created employment for millions of people and influenced technology evolution forever. 

It is this kind of brilliance that Africa needs. Africa needs to find a Grace Hopper.

Grace Hopper had one huge advantage growing up in the USA as opposed to a modern African woman at the start of the twenty-first century. She still had access to better infrastructure, education and opportunities than most African woman have a hundred years on. 

The African continent lingers behind the rest of the world in almost every key indicator; GDP, internet access, human rights, gender inequality, infant mortality rates, and the list goes on.  Africa needs someone to emerge and to become a technology changer on the African continent.  It seems as if Africa, and possibly South America, are the only densely populated societies to not have contributed to the field of computer science in a substantial way.  There are exceptions but there does seem to be more to this than just an under-developed field in African societies.

The African continent has structural issues across every aspect of life.  Africans generally lack infrastructure to support educational brilliance and to identify talent to ensure that these individuals have the opportunity to excel.  In some countries, the lack of training is so severe that the computer science courses are not available at any universities anywhere in the country – such as Mozambique – or the computer training department at the university is combined into another faculty; the computer training skills are so insignificant that providing adequate resources to students is limited through lack of knowledge or budgetary constraints – such as in the Congo or in Angola.

The ability to identify possible talent is limited.  Never mind the issue of over-coming the lack gender equality in many African societies, the reality is that even if a person of brilliance wanted an opportunity to enter the technology sector there are only a handful of countries on the continent that could create a path for the person to rise up out of the poverty, overcome the frequent political instability and the many cultural issues they may face.

The title of this post in some ways has many meanings related to all of these points.  The obvious relates directly to Grace Hopper.  My thoughts are directed towards her and how we can develop more Hoppers?  I see a grass-hopper as a wonderful thing.  It is a creature that can fly and as a predator can be veracious, wiping out crops and dominating landscapes.  It would be fantastic if Africa could develop an industry that dominates the international landscape, much the same way the Indians have done.

But grasshoppers in African folk-lore have other meanings too.  The fable about the argument between the toad and the grasshopper which caused a rift in their friendship when they could not dine together (read it at http://worldoftales.com/African_folktales/African_Folktale_6.html), is a simple and effective analogy to highlight the differences amongst diverse African societies.  Differences we need to celebrate together to create the opportunities to allow the continent to develop a Grace Hopper, a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs.  The differences should not be a reason why we point fingers at each other or fight wars.  Our differences are what make us unique and create the opportunity for brilliance to emerge.

There are more stories, but the point is this.  As Africans we need to come together and create opportunities for the information technology industry to grow.  No one should be excluded from partaking, regardless of their gender or culture.  As individuals we should hold governments accountable to put the mechanisms in place to grow this industry. We celebrate the ‘greats’, a Bill Gates and a Grace Hopper.  We need to find our own greats and then celebrate them. This is what I think.

Facebook: The same revolution

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The title of this post may seem strange, normally you would want to see something like “Facebook: A new revolution”.  A revolution is change; a massive upheaval in the way we live or the way society functions and is often associated with political change.  Right now you are thinking what is he going on about?

The idea that technology can improve the lives of those of the poor is not new.  The fundamentals of the advancement of society can be found in what is known as the “Idea of Progress”.  This theory emerged during the Enlightenment and defined many of the ways Western Liberal societies work today!  Equal education, gender equality and principles of the Libertarian doctrine owe something to the “Idea of Progress”.  People talk about seers and predictions but arguably the greatest predictor of change was Condorcet – some of his predictions include the disappearance of slavery, the rise in literacy, equal rights between sexes and more.  He made these predictions by projecting how society and culture will change, evolving to a higher level by improving education and eliminating poverty.  Powerful thoughts and a vision of what can happen when society progresses. As society becomes more ‘civilised’ the opportunities for everyone improves and we progress as a collective.

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, best known as an advisor to Louis XVI, economist and statesman argued that society can advance and progress and to do this, society needs tools to do so.  The use of technology can help build a better society for all. He proposed improving the life of the poor in France by using civil engineering technology to build infrastructure (sewers and clean water delivery) to support the peasants of the time.  This idea was shot down (why would the peasants need this?  Money should be used for the Kingdom and to fight wars!) and was one of the reasons Turgot became a threat to the royalty in France.  It would be naive to argue that the fall of Louis XVI and his subsequent beheading was due to his unwillingness to use technology to advance the life of the poor.  The French Revolution was more complex than this, but had the peasantry been living an improving life would the revolution have happened in the same way?

The idea that technology combined with human ingenuity and the ability for us to stretch the boundaries of our knowledge is prevalent everywhere.  The way we teach students and learn ourselves, is down to the development of the printing press.  The printing press revolutionized the way we pass information from one generation to the next and accelerated our ability to learn and innovate.  It has influenced the way we live, the way society is organized the ability for ideologies to explode and flourish.  Without the written word, our ability to have electricity and subsequently computers would almost certainly be impossible.  Think about what you touch in a day – your cell phone, your office phone, your computer, the mode of transport, your entertainment, banking, utilities, even the clothes you wear probably involve some sophisticated chemicals or process of manufacturing.  Technology surrounds you in more ways that you can possibly think. If you are reading this, you will probably think that your standard of living is better than those who lived 50 years ago and almost certainly better than those 200 hundred years ago.

So when the Arab spring happened, the role social media played in this and the use of instant messaging and Facebook for people to share ideas is just the natural progression of what technology has brought to society collectively over the last two centuries of innovation.  The explosiveness and force of change has been accelerated but it is in reality the growth of the seeds planted in the past.

It is just the same revolution.

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.

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