The Lucrative Skills African Talent Should Acquire in 2012

Jon Gosier —  December 29, 2011 — 16 Comments

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.
  • jQuery/Javascript/Ajax Modern web apps do most of their processing on the front-end. As I mention above, this often means the application side is where most of the logic for the web app lives, while the database becomes a place to store and retrieve. For these types of web apps, front end logic is critical. Given the rise of the Jquery framework this is probably obvious, yet solid front-end developers are few and far between.
  • 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

Jon Gosier

Posts

Founder of Apps4Africa, Appfrica, and D8A

16 responses to The Lucrative Skills African Talent Should Acquire in 2012

  1. 

    Wondering where:

    a) Ruby on Rails and Python/Django surpass PHP with WordPress, Joomla, Facebook, Yahoo using it for lots of infrastructure projects … Also it comes along with almost every linux box and hosting account.

    b) iOS vs Android – while Apple has the upper hand on devices, you will find that Android has the greater spread in Africa due to cheaper handsets approaching ~$100 which is the sweet spot. The number of Android activations in Africa too is outstripping iOS ones.

    c) New SQL/NoSQL vs MySQL/PostrgresSQL – while these are new takes on the old RDBMS, I would rather recommend MySQL and PostgreSQL over the CouchDB/Hadoop since they are open source and can be blended into existing environments from departmental servers (in organizations) and have great support on the web.

    d) Business Intelligence – this enables the identification of patterns which may not be discerned from normal data patterns.

    • 

      Thanks for the comments Ssmusoke!

      A) This isn’t about what’s popular, it’s about where the lucrative opportunities are. Value comes from scarcity. PHP developers are plenty, Python and Ruby developers are scarce. If you want to be just another developer in a saturated market, learn PHP. If you want to learn something new that makes you more of an asset, learn Ruby or Python.

      B) Again, this is isn’t the point. Apple is where the money is for developers. If you want to target African business, absolutely use Android. However, if you’re selling to a global audience, you’ll make more money on iOS.

      C) The global market demands new tools, the people who have the skills to build those tools will command more in earning than those that do not.

      D) Great example. Business intelligence as a field requires many of the skills listed above. However, it’s better know what makes business intelligence possible and listing those as a skill versus just listing ‘business intelligence’ on a CV.

      Ultimately, this post is about how African businesses or individuals can be ahead of the curve and draw business to the continent from elsewhere. That means spotting opportunities where global demand is and understanding what will lead to growth.

      • 

        Think about it this way, the only way African app developers are going to succeed is if they can generate demand in Africa, just like Safaricom Mpesa model which is being replicated elsewhere. They have to solve African problems but take it a level higher.

        a) PHP developers are aplenty – then take it a notch higher, use enterprise level frameworks like Zend Framework, Symfony, Doctrine and hit for the ceiling. Low level PHP may be easy, but those are the top end of the development market and if you are earning those salaries while living in Africa, well u may never need to leave. Similar to this is India and China, which started in call centers and manufacturing, and are now moving to software design and chip design, which was relegated to American soil. Start low but aim high up on the food chain

        b) There is little Apple in Africa, sub ~$100 Android phones and tablets are coming, solve African problems with western tech

        c) New tools are good, but let us learn from what the rest are doing, use old and tried, get experience with them. Did u know that MySQL now provides a NoSQL interface via JSON?

        d) Yes, business intelligence draws may of the skills but if you are selling to a client, they need to know u can “speak” their language.

        The key driver for African entrepreneurship is solving African problems where they understand the low level details and can develop and adopt models which take advantage of the unique environment Africa is ….

        BTW all this is from my personal experience …

      • 

        There is more than one way to make money. I’m telling you there’s an opportunity with all of the above because I know it’s there. In fact, these are all areas I’m looking to hire people in right now. So everything you’re pointing out here are all things I agree with but they do not, in any way, mean there aren’t other opportunities out there to be had.

  2. 

    Wow,what an insight the first thing in the morning! I was sad faced at first because im not highly technical but the rest down there are what i put most of my energy in high school when math and chemistry refused to gel with me.
    Thanks for this. My dream is to rewrite my history with what i have. Watch me.
    Thanks loads.

  3. 

    One thing i have learnt from this post is that if you are a new coder and need a job (mostly in the US or Europe) learn ruby or python.

    But if you are someone who has already built a company or lots of software using PHP then keep coding and watch the money pile up.

  4. 

    All idle African youth should read this. outsourcing business is soon going to be the way for AFRICA as it has been for India in the past decade. let us train BPO for our citizens esp at village level. We should grow our labour from blogging, to technical writing, to basic logic designs , to simple coding, to complex programming projects. The motivation from one level to the other is always money and we will build talent that way. lets keep moving.

  5. 

    A good read, jongos.
    I would make one change though. There has been much emphasis on writing skills in Communciation – after all journalism is the root of communciation. But writing more content creats new problems. There is too much content already and it is cluttering our view on things we need. Information behaviour is a new aspect in communication, the fact that we need to store our information adequately in order to make it retrievable for others. Content that cannot be searched will not be found. And that is not a search issue at all.
    I think modern information behaviour is much more important than being able to write in a nice style and push more copy.

    • 

      Lucy writing skills are very very important, since writing is the most common form of communication via email, social networks, presentations, programming, communications and PR, video editing, etc.

      Name it, you need to know hot to write to get it done. Its the softest and most visible of the soft skills in the information and knowledge age.

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