A Few Good Men

By Joseph
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They are a dying kind; a sort almost relegated to the dotcom days of the nineties. A people who, in their hey-day could hack code for complex systems without sleep 60 hours straight. The legend goes that many went on to own the several of the local ‘big’ tech companies we see now.

And then, there were none.

In between 2008 and 2013, nearly all have disappeared. Companies and businesses looking to hire developers and coders affirm the hard task of finding one. So, where are they? What happened?

There is a collective agreement among industry that developers (and programmers) are not only hard to find but also difficult to work with. If the really great ones are not snapped up by the many global tech firms that have made camp in the region, the rest are ‘freelancers’ who hack a living bidding for jobs from NGOs and other development agencies, where payoffs are perceived to be better.
The rest of the field is then left to upcoming developers straight from universities, who, while having the makings of a good developer technical-wise, are still some ways behind in other crucial skills - project management, negotiation skills, providing complete solutions, networking, and so on.

And there is a gap – which businesses, companies, organizations and generally anyone who has ever had to deal with the hiring process of a ‘techie’ knows: there are very few good developers out there, and those that are available are not interested in being hired, or working on ‘small’ projects. Those leftover, either do not meet the minimum thresholds, or are too difficult to work with.

Across the landscape, the common complaints are:

  • Developers never finish the jobs they are assigned

  • They take on too much, and are not upfront about the number of projects they are handling;

  • They lack basic business skills – professionalism, project management, Business 101

  • Developers are remiss to admit where they lack the technical ability to implement certain systems

So, what is industry doing about this?

Melissa Mbugua from iHub Consulting, a consulting arm of the iHub that works with many freelance professionals in tech, concedes that there is a problem.

We should start focusing on quality, even more than quantity of developers. I think that while we still have a lot of work to do in reaching out to high school and colleges to bridge the gap and increase professionals in this industry , we should focus on the developers that we already have - to make them more industry ready, more competitive in the market, with skills such as quality analysis, user experience, team work principles, analyzing problems...and so on.

Universities have also been accused of being several steps behind in equipping their graduates with relevant skills needed for the ICT Sector.  The university system in the country is largely broken – the curriculum is usually several light years behind what is happening on the ground. Graduates usually have to ‘learn on the job’.

Conrad Akunga, who runs a financial software company, and is a mentor to those younger in the industry, agrees.

I have been in the software industry for over 13 years now, and I can tell you that it usually takes about 14 months to train any new recruit to be productive.

iHub, seen as the nerve center and catalyst for tech in the region has perhaps faced with the most flak over this. The innovation hub faces a challenge however: the hub is not an incubator, where businesses can get training on these skills. It is also not a training institution.

"Its true, developers are in demand, and here, demand outstrips supply. The best devs (developers) are employed in some juicy company or run their own companies,” says Phares Kariuki, a technologist who has previously worked as the lead Solution Architect in sub-Saharan Africa for VMware at Westcon Africa.

Large companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and others are in the ‘boring’ business applications sector, for example, running billing systems for Safaricom, Airtel, running their information management systems for Kenya Airways and EABL…and so on.

“These companies hardly ever go down, their core infrastructure is quite stable, which can be attributed to good developers,” says Mr Kariuki.

These companies can afford to hire premium developers.

“The ideal situation should be that when you hire a good developer, you are paying him well and investing in him. This developer, in turn should be training a team that can be at the level of that developer, if not better,” Mr Kariuki adds.

However, very few people invest in talent. An alternative model could be like how Kenya Airways does it – they go straight to the source and start training them from there. The source here being - right from high school. Could a model like this work to bridge the gap that currently exists between skills needed for the job market and the people available to fill this need?

Google, which has offices locally, is already working with local universities. Google, which is software engineer heavy (employs many software engineers), (check out how much Google loves its Engineers) , offers numerous opportunities for students and job seekers to gain relevant work experience in technical fields through their university program, such as the Google university program. Here, students get access to workshops, scholarships and internships to Master's, MBA, J.D., and Ph.D.

Ultimately, the responsibility to develop and grow a strong tech eco-system while shared among tech firms, universities and industry mentors, remains in the hands of the developers themselves. It lies with them to seek out opportunities to improve their skills laterally (not just hard-core programming skills,but soft skills and business acumen as well), to network, to remain ahead of current trends, to be the best in their fields - just like those in other industries.

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