In the American and European tech space there’s a growing problem. There’s so much funding available for early stage startups that everyone and their college dropout buddy is starting-up, leaving no one out there to hire.
It’s one of those first world problems: “We just raised 4 million dollars for our social network for redheads but we can’t find any developers…frowny face.”
If Silicon Valley is having trouble hiring top tech talent, then it means that there’s also a drought in the NGO space. Even the biggest non-profits are suffering from the same lack of technical resources.
If you’re an African developer, this is a huge opportunity. Focus on acquiring (or maturing) some of the following skills. Talent in these areas is elusive even in the U.S. and Europe, being good at them will make you far more employable (or fundable if you want to start a company), globally as well as locally:
For Technical People
- Ruby on Rails A lot of web startups use RoR because it’s a great language and it also impresses investors. However, they quickly realize that it impresses because Rails developers regularly command high salaries due to such high demand.
- Python and or Django The Jan Brady to Ruby’s Macia. Actually, Python is probably more in demand these days simply because more developers are competent in it. It’s also great for mobile app development which makes it useful for all those SMS apps local firms are dying to build.
- iOS – the iPhone continues to dominate the smart phone arena. It’s less relevant if you’re targeting a local audience (there go with Android or stick with Java), but if you are building apps that you want to sell internationally then there’s no app store with a richer economy for developers than Apple’s.
- Data visualization All that ‘open data’ out there is irrelevant. What’s relevant is data that can be used by anyone at any organization, with minimal fuss. Visualization makes it easy to relate complex datasets to those too busy (or too lazy) to analyze them. Data vis goes beyond any specific programing language, but it is a skill and it’s one that Africans can find a great deal of opportunity in.
- Math/Statistics Before one can visualize anything they need the components to visualize. If you’ve got a strong grasp of statistics and analysis, distilling information so that it’s actionable for others (who usually don’t share this skill) is a highly lucrative path to pursue.
- Semantic Analysis Despite what everyone thought, the semantic web is here to stay. It hasn’t become a ‘new web’ like some once thought it might, but semantic technologies (sentiment analysis, natural language processing, text parsing) have become the methods that are routinely used to power some of the web’s most popular applications. These skills are incredibly lucrative. The growth of the ‘Big Data’ industry is fueled by them.
- NoSQL & NewSQL Modern web apps require a great deal of backend engineering to deal with and keep track of all the byproducts of social, sharing, and content creation. There’s two schools of thoughts on this: one is that by doing more of the work on the application side (on request), applications can scale faster while handling more operations from more users. That’s the non-relational approach. The other school of thought is that there was nothing wrong with the old way of doing things, which stores data with the values the application uses for retrieving them later. The challenge was that this created a bottleneck at the database level which often lead to slow or stagnant apps. The new thinking around NewSQL is to keep the relational model and simply build better database software that allows for more throughput. Entire companies are being built of each type of database (see: Cloudera, Vertica, 10Gen), pick the one that makes sense for you. Also, this is the fuel for the Big Data/Open Data rocket ship.
- Hardware Engineering The ‘maker’ movement amplified by Afrigadget and Maker Faire Africa highlights another opportunity on the continent, the localization of manufacturing. Whether it’s bicycles or mobile devices, companies local to the continent that design and build things are scarce.
For Less Technical People
- Design Look at the majority of African websites. Most websites made by African developers still look like they were made in 1999 using the GeoCities default templates (translation: Fugly). Blegh. There is a bounty out for good African designers. The mistake a lot of programmers make is they assume design is about technical know-how. It’s not – it’s about a sense of aesthetic and attention to detail. If you are a lazy designer, you’re not a designer. If you are a programmer who thinks design is superfluous to your application, then you’re doing it wrong. There’s also a dearth of design talent in the U.S. and Europe and a good designer can command the salary of a top programmer. Where are the African designers?
- Writing You would be surprised at the number of people who can’t string together a well-written, cohesive, consistant thought in written form. Coupled with the rapid proliferation of social media (which, by the way, consists of mostly written messaging) the ability to write and write well has become incredibly important. I say this because you are not at a disadvantage if you are a non-native speaker. Example: Ariana Huffington is a non-native english speaker and she built a highly influential and powerful new media outlet that rivals old-school powerhouses like CNN and FOX on the web. It’s about being able to convey your thoughts cohesively and convincingly. It takes practice, so keep blogging!
- Project Management Being the person who can cultivate the best traits from your team of peers is a huge asset that has always been rare. Many people manage, few excel at it.
- Videography – We’ve all heard that there isn’t enough local content being produced for African audiences. One of the reasons is the lack of local producers. However, this is changing. More countries are becoming home to an African creative class who are producing film, television, and web shows locally. Can this be lucrative? I think so. As bandwidth falls in cost, eventually the demand for local content may not come from international viewers but the pan-African audience.
- Critical Thinking/Problem Solving Deductive reasoning. The ability to deduce conclusions and the reasons why they have occurred. To do this, you have to be able to consider all sides and all aspects of a problem…even the ones that you don’t like. You have to be able to challenge assumptions, this includes your own. It is a skill to be able to analyze the intricacies of why things happen or if someone’s argument isn’t grounded in reality, and to be able to explain your conclusions to others. This will make you a better anything.
There are companies all over the world looking to hire people with aptitude in these areas, but being in Africa puts you in a position of power because there will be as great a demand for you at home as there is abroad. Does this mean you’d have to relocate to another country? Not necessarily, many of these skills can be outsourced to you or your company.
In 2012 learn the things that are in demand so you can build firms (or offer services) that capitalize on these global trends.
Photo Credit: Ahmed Maawy & Apps4Africa.org