An African Keynote

Now that we are attracting international speakers, does it bother anyone that we have never had an African keynote in any of our conferences.  I can understand that people want to learn from people to whom they don’t normally have access.  But why don’t we have an African give the keynote?

Before I go off bleating about how this bothers me, I thought I’d understand this thing called a keynote.  It originates from music, a capella in particular.  At the start of a performance, someone sang the key note and others followed, calibrating to that note.  In a similar vein, a conference keynote is meant to set the tone for the conference.  It lays the foundation for the other speakers to build upon.  It calibrates the conference for the speakers and attendees.  If the keynote inspires, all the better.

What should we expect of anyone that is giving a keynote?   The first criteria is that the person must have good insights into the subject of the conference.  The person does not need to be an expert, but should have a good understanding the subject and the context thereof for the audience.  Second is to have the ability to deliver a decent talk, one that shapes the conference.  Being a great speaker is either a talent or a learned skill. Either way, a person gets better the more they speak.  Lastly, the person must speak with passion, from the heart and create an energy that inspires, even if it only lasts for the duration of the conference.

What, then, does it take for someone to give an African keynote?  I think it is the most important to understand Africa, her people, her history, her challenges and her future.  Without this, an African software conference lacks context for our the challenges and constraints.

It’s great to hear someone from Amazon or Facebook about their grand ultra-scalable, cloud infrastructure.  Sure, now try that in Africa when a break in an undersea cable is the equivalent of severing your carotid artery.  Then try that in Africa where the minimum living wage is equivalent or less to the bandwidth costs for a month for an average middle class home.  How do you build a scalable cloud infrastructure that reaches into the tiniest village in, literally, dark Africa.

Forget technical challenges, let’s take agile conferences where trust, collaboration and self-organising teams are common themes.  And magic and transformation too.  If you grew up in Africa, then you will understand that trust is not a commodity item.  When an entire continent of people have been exploited as slaves for centuries, cultures systematically eradicated for the wealth of privileged few, establishing trust and collaboration is a different ball game.  Try transforming a team with distinct divisions, each with deeply entrenched prejudices for each other.  This is Africa. She is not your average, homogeneous nanny state that tells you what to think.

I believe that we do have people in Africa that easily meet all these criteria, and we are certain to have more in coming years.  A couple or years ago, ICSE was held in Cape Town and Archbishop Tutu gave the keynote address.  Here is a person of Africa addressing the academic elite of the software world, and he is not even a geek.  We don’t need to have instantly recognisable names.  From the top of my head, here are three names that you may or may not have heard that are more than qualified to keynote African software development conferences.

  • Enyo Kumahor
  • Herman Chinery-Hess
  • Jonathan Jansen

Some technical topics transcend culture.  For example, object orientated or functional programming can be learnt regardless of who we are and where we come from.  And in a localised way, a few refactoring steps to clean out a piece of smelly code doesn’t impact on our culture or being.  That I can accept.   What I cannot accept is when this reasoning is abused to deflate the situation of under-representation of our people. Let technical things be technical, but we also need Africans to be technical leaders. That is not the topic under discussion here.

This is important. Whether they like it or not, every African keynote speaker creates the path for many to walk.  Even if it is not a keynote, an African that shares a room with a few people gathered around, listening and engaging with what is being shared is cutting down brush and laying a new path.  These will become well worn pathways.  And each traveler walking on it will see virgin brush that needs to be cut, and a new path will be laid.  An African keynote can have this effect, if we allow it to happen.

I have a challenge.  Next up is Agile Africa which will happen in August 2013.  This is the keynote lineup:

  • Martin Fowler
  • Mitch Lacy
  • David Hussman
  • Amr Noaman
  • Ivar Jacobsen

Amr, from Egypt, is the one African in the keynote lineup.  That is fantastic. I challenge the JCSE to rather reduce the number of keynotes to just two or three and nominate other Africans to stand alongside Amr Noaman. 

In October is the Scrum Gathering in Cape Town.  Here’s the keynote lineup.

  • Geoff Watts
  • Dave Snowden
  • Alexander Kjerulf

I challenge the SUGSA committee to offer these speakers a regular slot and give our African community African keynotes.  I am not asking for the current of the keynotes to be rejected.  I want these experts at our conferences.  I want to attend their sessions and learn.  I also want us to realign them to an African context, that broadens their perspective.  We share, we learn, we teach, we grow – it’s all the same.

But  I cannot accept that there are no African keynote speakers to be found.