Flowing to Fly

By Jimmy Gitonga
  Published 29 Apr 2013
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Flowing to Fly

Chemus is in a boat, on fast flowing river, can't get to the shore. Jungle all around. The sound of a waterfall thunders ahead. He lifts up the hand glider, begins to unpack it. Like a butterfly, the wings unfurl, he glances up at the encroaching mist. Chemus stands aft, boat dancing, river churning. The boat tips over and slips into the mist. Chemus jumps and lifts above the thunder, legs rising to a horizontal position. He pushes the bar below him forwards and the begins the climb. As the roar recedes, he takes in the landscape.

Its time to soar.

Here at the iHub, we are in for an interesting time. If one steps out onto the balcony and looks around, at any time, 5 building are coming up. It is not long before something gives and the trickle becomes a torrent.

But what do we need to do to get in line with the “flow”? One question I get often is, “If one was coming into software development as a fresh graduate or transitioning from another career in Kenya today, what does the tech scene hold?”

Let’s look at the spaces one must contend with in an effort to answer the question.

Revaluing the computer scientists

The first is human resource. There is not enough, let alone good enough, guys who are ready for the rapidly changing and fragmenting market now loosely known as `’tech”.

At a party recently a startup founder told me “If you could find me five great engineers in the next 90 days I’d pay you $400,000.” Which is crazy talk. Unless you stop to consider that Instagram’s team (mostly engineers) was valued at almost $80 million per employee or that corporate development heads often value engineers at startups they are acquiring at a half-million to million dollars per person. TechCrunch April, 2012

The universities, colleges and polytechnics are the leaders in advancing intellectual discovery, information literacy, and lifelong learning. These build students and scholars through information acquisition, idea creation and intellectual discourse. Thus these institutions foster the teaching, research, service, and the development of the society at large. However these institutions are not producing enough computer scientists.

Once one adds to the fact that most of the engineers needed today are more backend enterprise systems that work with front end mobile applications. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is a perfect example of this. However these engineers who design or build end-to-end systems are in very short supply. And increasingly engineers have to specialise early and quickly to front-end design and UX, middleware and native apps, SQL or NoSQL models and schemas, VMs, platforms and the Cloud.

In a recent article by the daily telegraph, there will be a global data center engineer shortage by 2015.

Computer Science Education in Kenya

Consider this:

  • At the Kenyan coast, there will be 4 under-sea fiber optic cables currently with a designed capacity of more than 10 Tbps(Terabit per second) of data bandwidth capacity. A fifth is on the way.

  • Kenya is investing in cheaper, cleaner and more stable geothermal power which should solve weather dependent power supply by 2014. The is the promise (threat?) of coal power to come into the mix as well.

  • Kenya sits in a region of 250 million East Africans including Ethiopia and the Eastern DRC. These populations will require mobile and web services in the very near future.

  • Google, IBM and Intel are large multinational corporations that have set up in Kenya requiring a high level of computer expertise. Currently there is a serious shortage in computer engineers of advanced level in this region.

All these factors lead to a conclusion that there will be a demand and possibly a shortage of computer science related engineers and managers. An even more serious shortage will be of the engineers who run the computer clusters that host web and mobile systems and applications.

Women is Computer Science are decreasing, said Ann Mei Chang, at a talk she gave here at the iHub. “The need for computer scientists will continue to grow and unless women come into it, we will never meet demand”.

It is not a wonder that numerous colleges have sprung up across the country to fill this gap, from ZeTech to Maseno University.

For anyone seriously interested in “tech”, as a developer or designer, this is an exciting time.

“On a Small Screen Near You”

When one of Intel’s executive vice presidents passed by late last year, he asked what we thought was the direction devices were going in. We said that for us and Africa as a whole, it would be the tablet and the smart phone that would be the end-game devices. We could have everything from ultrabooks to Smart TVs in other markets as important, but considering the lack of desktop and cinema legacy, these mobile devices will pervade across sectors; education and medicine on one side to information and entertainment on the other.

Now that Apple rewrote the smartphone ecosystem rules and created the whole tablet device category, the other important player is Google with the Android OS and the design centric Nexus line of devices. Clearly by the next Nexus smartphone (possibly October 2013), mobile devices will have equaled laptop hardware specifications. This means that from a device point to view, the consumer need only carry one device for work or play. The only other need will be docking stations.

iOS and Android are ruling the world. For now.

Unify the System

Soon we will only develop for two hardware spaces, mobile devices and the datacenter.

From an African perspective, while there are many players in the mobile space from Jolla to Tizen, there are not one, but two operating systems that are promising a unified experience off the same code base, from mobile to Cloud. These are Windows and Ubuntu.

Microsoft’s Windows has the distinct advantage of being the main player in the global enterprise space and wants to leverage its Windows “NT Kernel”. This kernel has been used on all the operating systems from Windows Phone 8 to Windows Server 2012. Its out now and Microsoft has bet everything including the kitchen sink on it.

Ubuntu, the open source geek and developer system is the most popular Linux distribution system on servers and personal computers. Recently, Ubuntu was released with the Unity user interface and towards the end of 2013 will release the Ubuntu for mobile devices. Unity Next will be Ubuntu on one code base by April 2014. Then Ubuntu will be one experience from mobile to Cloud whether as a user or developer.

While it is possible we might never see Apple Mac OS XI, it is clear from current developments iOS and OS X will merge in the future. Being a hardware manufacturer, Apple will lead scores of consumers into one OS experience across devices. Considering it has the largest money-making developer network, guys with Cocoa Application Environment knowledge are ready to with the iCloud and Core Data. While iCloud is accessed through an API much like Amazon Web Services, Core Data is an “MVC” framework for developing apps using the Objective C language. Right now, Apple is not being considered seriously in this field, but they are not a dark horse by any standards.

There is an outside player. Intel is making other bets on this development. In an article about Intel coming into Africa, “Intel is benefiting from the mobile era in other ways … for every 600 smartphones sold, one Intel server is required. And for every 122 tablets sold, one new Intel server is required.”

Intel plans to leverage the developers who currently make software on the Intel’s x86 hardware platform. This means that if you are tied to a particular software stack, you can leverage your apps across hardware devices, from servers to tablets so long as they use the x86 chips, Xeon, Core and Atom.

Convergence and integration are the key words and if one is going to go into the developer space, keep in mind the development platform you choose. It must be easy to build and integrate between Cloud and mobile.

“Software is eating the world”

But an even more interesting, if not scaring, thought is that most workers are being eaten up by software.

“It’s safe to assume that almost all of these jobs are aided by machines that perform routine tasks. These machines make some workers more productive. They make others less essential.” - How the internet is making us poor, QUARTZ

As you can now imagine, in Africa, a lot of these “industrial jobs” will not even begin to exist. Companies that invest in IT perform better over time. If you know you perform a routine task, such as sales, office administration or machine operator, change careers now. Be the one telling machines what to do, not being told by them.

Join the flow into the future and prepare to fly.

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