I remember sometime in September 2009 when news filtered out that the London Stock Exchange had concluded arrangements to acquire Millennium IT, a Sri Lankan software firm that had just developed and deployed what was at the time the world's fastest financial trading platform with the ability to process about 1 million orders per second for about 18 million pounds ....Sterling.
My excitement knew no bounds. For the next few days it was practically all I could talk about.
So much so that it prompted my then colleague Sogo to ask me:
" O boy why this thing de trip you like this? , in fact....wetin de power you ?"
Which in plain English roughly translates to:
"My friend, why is this news exciting you so much? In fact...what drives you? What are you passionate about?"
At the time I really could not give him a straight answer. I just knew that I was very excited. At the time I told him that the reason for my excitement was manyfold.
One reason was that the company in question was from Sri Lanka, not the US, not Europe.... Not even India but Sri Lanka.
Another reason was that the platform was replacing another one that had been implemented by Accenture, the world renowned ICT consulting company.
This confirmed to me that it was possible to create world class products and services regardless of where you are and where you come from, all you need is the determination to follow standards and best practices regardless of all the obstacles presented by your environment.
Fast forward to this week, about 3 years later and I was chatting with a colleague in Uganda and it dawned on me the real reason I was excited back then and therein the answer to Sogo's question as to what drives me. I told my colleague that my main motivation in my current role was to make it possible for a local tech driven company to make the front page news for the right reasons in Africa. Maybe this happens once in awhile in Asia, we know it happens every now and again in Europe and the United States but I have never seen it happen in Sub Saharan Africa.
Note that I did not say it has never happened.... I said I have never seen it happen.
And by front page I do not mean the front page of your neighborhood tech magazine or website. I mean front page of your everyday national daily. In Nigeria where I come from that would be the likes of Guardian, Punch and Thisday. In Kenya it would be a paper like the Daily Nation and in Uganda it would be Daily Monitor...or Red Pepper (I joke!!! , I joke!!!)
Oh and what do I mean by tech driven company? I do not only mean software companies like Millennium IT who spend most of their time creating software for the use of others. I am casting a net wide enough to include all companies that have about 70% of their staff strength made up software engineers, system administrators, system integrators, network engineers, product managers, system analysts and business analysts. But NOT wide enough to include the major mobile telcos . I would go on to include internet marketing companies and firms specializing in new media in this list.
How many times if ever have you seen any of these making the front page of your national daily in your country? I am not sure it has happened at all in mine.
Sure there are many locally grown and locally run tech driven companies that have created a lot of value and whose owners have done very well for themselves. But how many of them have ever made the front page of your national... Or even regional daily? Take a look at the front pages today, you will see politicians, bankers, civil servants, religious clergy, top executives of manufacturing companies, the occasional sports man but hardly ever if at all...a techie.
So you ask: so what if a tech driven company makes the front pages for the right reasons? How will that change the price of snuff in Okigwe? Well...it may not directly change the price of snuff in Okigwe but I think it will be an indication that techies and tech entrepreneurs are finally be taken seriously and have been given their rightful place when it comes to contributing to the macro and micro economies of their respective countries. It would mean that the press, politicians, bankers, civil servants, "investors", business peeps and so on would have finally come to see techies as something more than tools....or "whiz kids" to be used and quickly discarded once the promised land is in sight.
What I am saying is very simple: Techies and tech driven companies have not made the front page simply because they have not attained the status worthy of making the front pages, at least in the eyes of the so called “people that matter”. As a technology expert in today’s Africa, when you attend a meeting where your expert opinion is required, and you give your views, you are at best given a sympathetic ear or at worst tolerated. And almost always when its time to discuss the main issues (e.g. the financial aspects) you will be politely excused. To my knowledge there are only two times when you will be given serious attention as a techie in these parts:
- When there is a an emergency of a technical nature, and someone’s job/reputation is on the line
- When someone needs someone with some technical expertise to take advantage of an opportunity that could potentially hand them a truckload of cash
As people in technology I am sure you are all too familiar with the first scenario which usually provides the best opportunity to be in the limelight. That limelight usually lasts until shortly after the emergency has been solved and then you are relegated to the background once again.
The second scenario could also be familiar to many people (on both sides of the fence). It is the only time when people see techies as “partners” and treat them with a certain level of respect and appreciation. Its the same old story. The guy(s) with the business acumen and /or cash “partner” with the guy(s) who possess some technical skills to achieve certain goals, usually in a start up. The partnership works out well at the initial stages as both parties operate as a well oiled unit to make things happen. The problem usually starts when the intended goal is close at hand or a certain measure of success has been achieved. This is when you start hearing things like :
“After all I put $XXXX into this business and all he did was write some code ”
“How much did he contribute?”
“I can hire 3 more like him”
For me this proves that the partnership in many cases is just a way to get those technical skills at a cheaper rate and later on in the game turning those “partners” to employees. Do not get me wrong, very few entrepreneurs or investors go into a partnership with the intention of one day turning their partners to employees, but somewhere in the midst of wading through the minefield that is running a tech related business in the challenging African environment, it is very easy to forget who is a partner and who is an employee.
I once wrote about the fact that there are very few if any large scale software companies in Africa. A look at some of the more successful software companies in the United States will show you that they were made up of a combination of technical expertise , business acumen and in some cases some initial cash. Even though sometimes all these three things were present in one person, usually you needed at least two people to make it happen. An example is Apple Computers and the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak). Now that I think about it, this could be one reason why the large scale software companies have not taken off yet in Africa.
When you treat your technical partner as an employee (as is the case in many parts of this continent) because you own a majority stake and you put in most of the initial funds, you run the risk of him leaving to go and become an employee somewhere else...where he will get paid a lot more. Sure you can hire 5 more people like him to do the job, but you will just be hiring employees, not partners who were willing to spend the night in the office to ensure that version 3.0 shipped on schedule. You will have employees and not partners who like you will lay awake at night thinking of that next differentiating innovation but unlike you have the expertise to implement them. Treating your tech partners like employees will probably not bring about the end of your fast growing startup. But I am willing to bet that it will destroy the chances of your firm ever making the front page news in any national daily.
So if we agree for the sake of argument that techies are not accorded the respect they deserve (sometimes even by their fellow techies who are now wearing the entrepreneurial hat), the next question is whether African techies have done enough on their own part to warrant an invitation to drink at the senior table ( a question that is asked by bankers, politicians, press etc). Have they really pulled off feats worthy of front page headlines?
In my heart i believe that hidden in this current generation of techies are the ones who will eventually find a place on the front pages for tech driven ventures. Discovering and encouraging people like these … is exactly what gets me out of bed in the morning (when i get out of bed in the morning).
I would love to hear what you think.....and oh....if you come across any front page headline that I might have missed...please do share!