Event: Inclusivity and Innovation in S.African Software

I am facilitating a panel discussion as one of Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014 events, in collaboration with the IEEE.  Attendance is free.
This is the brief that I have given to the panelists.
Software development in South Africa is still a closed society.  It is also a consumer society.  It is closed because we are not inclusive nor embracing of our cultural diversity.  It is a consumer society because we are net importers of technology, fed by global technology companies motivated by profit in a third world market.  This is the lifestyle of software development – import ideas, import technology, and restricted participation. A desired future state is a lifestyle of software developers where we are net exporters of ideas, exporters technology and encouraging inclusive participation.  In this session, we want to explore why this future state is valuable, and what we need to do to achieve this.
And the panelists are …
  • Philip Copeman of Pink Software.  He is the custodian of TurboCash, most probably South Africa’s most successful open source software
  • Brain Leke of ThoughtWorks.  Brain is a long time champion of equality of demographics in African software communities.
  • Lorraine Steyn of local startup I’m Bored.  Lor has been in the trenches of helping young developers kick start their careers for over 25 years.

When, where …

  • Date: May 20, 2014
  • Time: 12.30PM to 1.30PM.  It’s deliberately being held over lunch, and it’s a free attendance.
  • Where: 3rd Floor, Bandwidth Barn, Woodstock Exchange
  • Address: 66-68 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town (here’s the map)
  • Cost: Free

Why are we doing this?

… because it is an important for the sustainability of software development as a thriving sector, and this spurs further discussion and action too; and to a much wider audience.

… and because we should care.

We are better than this

The people whose contributions to a public Twitter conversation that I mentioned in my last blog post were offended by my opinion on themes that we touched upon.  I’ve apologised over Twitter that my intention was not to be personal, negative nor offensive.  I’ve read my blog post again, taken in the feedback over Twitter and from Kevin’s blog.  I believe that I could have given better context by acknowledging the value of the code retreat and Kevin’s efforts in the community.  Also, I could have expressed my initial tweet differently or at a different time.  That it distracted Kevin from his code retreat was insensitive of me.

Events like Kevin’s code retreats, Black Girls Code, and other initiatives are important to improving our community and software development in South Africa, in general.  Yet, we are still facing glaring disparities in our sector and in our country that I find difficult to ignore.  My fear is if we all take defensive positions, we may never ever discuss such matters openly and respectfully.  Like I said in my twitter conversation to Kevin, this is not about him and not about me too.  It is about us and our future.

The fight for equality is so much tougher when we have freedom.

A question of demographics and then some

Update: Kevin Trethewey has extended this conversation on his blog.

I commented on a photograph that Kevin Trethewey shared of the code retreat that was hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa recently.  His response was very defensive and it clearly showed that he was taking my observation personally.  That was something that I didn’t anticipate, as I have not seen Kevin carry prejudices of other race groups.

What followed was quite an interesting conversation on the disproportionate representation of non-whites in the South African software community.  I’m going to comment on parts of this conversation.  For the full conversation, go here.

A point to note here is how quickly people focused on racial composition as opposed to gender composition of the group.  That is a problem in itself, even for the most gender-aware man in a software community.

This is a long, long, long post, mostly because it is a brain dump of the themes that were flowing in this conversation.

There  is adequate opportunity and access for everyone

Kevin believes that there is fair access and opportunity for all of us to attend an event such as the code retreat.  I disagree. For example, I know a few black software developers that don’t live in a conveniently accessible middle class suburb.  For them, getting to work is a challenge.  To get to a community event outside of the peak public transport service hours is a huge issue.  The same applies to people attending university.  A black kid living in a township with minimal to zero essential services loses at least 3 hours of study time a day when compared to her more privileged peers.  Accumulate that over a month and we find that she loses about 6 days of work a month.  Our lives are not equal in far more fundamental ways than we wish to acknowledge.

It is also a matter of survival, and not that people lack ambition to be better developers.  When we have less than enough of everything that is essential for living, then a meagre salary is a big deal.  Many black developers I know are supporting their entire family, if not an extended family.  When we’re in survival mode, ambition is lower priority.

I would love to see events hosted closer to the people that have greater logistical challenges.  That’s why Braamfontein was a good venue for Agile Africa.  Maybe in 2014, we will have a software conference in Soweto for the first time.  When I want to help someone out of a dark place, I prefer to go into the dark and walk out with them, taking the bumps together, than to just stand outside and shine a light in the distance to where they should go.

People are apathetic

Simon Stewart was of the opinion that it is a lack of caring – an apathy.  I don’t know which group of people Simon refers to here so I will steer clear of making assumptions.  What I have noticed is that the majority of software developers don’t care much for self-learning.  The code retreat that sparked this discussion is a case in point.  Twenty seven developers pitch up to practice their TDD skills.  I don’t know how many developers there are in Johannesburg, but I guess that this is less than 1% of the total.  Regardless, I don’t have a problem with this apathy.  Some people “give a shit” about different things, like earning a salary first.  Because they care less for self-learning, does not mean they don’t care at all.  It just means that their value system is stacked differently from others.

I don’t believe it is about software craftsmanship either.  I think software craftsmanship as a community appeals to people that share that value system and the way that community engages with others.  I’m not one for the craftsmanship movement for reasons that are irrelevant here.  However, I do respect that this community has a right to exist alongside all the others.  Not caring about software craftsmanship does not mean that a developer does not care about growing.  Some of the most accomplished, self-taught developers I know care far less for craftsmanship than I do.  We need to help people understand their potential, and provide diverse ways in which they can fulfil their potential.  Sometimes people will break through that ceiling, setting up a new potential to fulfil.

Lack of diversity is commonplace

Simon rightfully points out that the lack of diversity is common.  I concur.  I’ve spoken at a few conferences outside our continent and it is the same in most places, as much as it is within ours.  Again, that it is so does not mean that we should accept this.  Make up your own mind, but I cannot accept that.  I’ve been talking about diversity publicly for several years now.  I’ve been on projects where the direct result of us not working with our diversity resulted in a tragic cost of the human spirit.  I cannot accept that we are prepared to allow that to happen again and again and again.

I try to be a lot more aware, a lot more empathetic.  I’ve been fighting my own unsettling biases to appreciate our diversity, to celebrate our differences and embrace our uniqueness.  The scary part is this very process of appreciation demands that we drop all our prejudices.  To do that requires self-reflection and clarity to face the truths of our deeply internalised, and camouflaged stereotypes.  Be prepared to cry for ourselves.  Be prepared to feel lighter on the other side of that.

Quotas and Meritocracy

Steven asked what he thought was a silly question.  But it is not silly at all – “How should a code retreat represent the demographics of the country?”  For me it comes down to us building a significant software development sector in South Africa.  The white minority cannot satisfy that agenda alone because there aren’t enough of them.  We need black software developers too.  Parallel to this, we need fair and equal gender representation too.  South Africa has one of the most humane constitutions in the world.  Yet, I see many software developers adopt the non-inclusive behaviour of frat boys, country clubs and colonial style thinking of the west and north.  That is a learned behaviour that I refuse subscribe to.  Given our history of the inhumanity of apartheid, I find this behaviour equally abhorrent.  Incidentally, I was part of a very diverse group of developers that were reflecting on what we don’t like of the software development community, locally and globally.  What emerged were distinct pointers to this imported, inhumane subculture: elitism, arrogance, fear, bullying, sexism, racism, monopolies, nepotism and a lot more.

Steven also dangled the option of quotas.  South Africans are masters of quotas.  We’ve tried that in almost everything from sports to business.  It turns out that Steven is not offering quotas as an option.  What is relevant for me is the other side of the quota argument – inclusion by merit.  Meritocracy is a subtle form of exclusion.  In Africa, where we have significant disparity on multiple levels.  Meritocracy just widens the gap between those that have excelled and those that may excel but don’t have opportunity to do so.

I’ve been guilty of exercising meritocracy to the extent of building a company based on inclusion by merit.  Being elitist is one of the easiest ways of being exclusive, and oh so easy to cover up whilst staring in the face of everyone.  What changed for me was a change in my attitude.  I now carry an attitude where I respect the potential of each individual.  I realised that we need people to contribute in their own little way, acknowledge that contribution and then help that person raise their own ceiling.

We must challenge the bias of minorities

Here is Steven’s alternative to quotas.  I ask that we not flame him or attack his position.  This is his position and I want us to respect that.  If I want to change Steven’s mind, then I need to offer him alternatives, not antagonise him.

I agree that tech events are open to everyone.  I don’t accept that non-whites and women – the “minorities” – don’t attend because they hold prejudices against the pale males.  I think the problem is to do with accessibility, opportunity and a necessity for survival prioritised higher than self-learning, as discussed above.  By the way, Steven, as a white male, you are the minority.

Yet, there is a strong element of intimidation.  This, we cannot ignore.  I’ve been on the receiving side of intimidation.  It is subtle and, strangely, more powerful in its exclusionary effect.  It exhibits itself as quiet arrogance, and other times as open boorishness.  Tech conferences are testosterone events where geeks flex their muscles using absurd measurements of superiority like “my big data is bigger than your big data” or “I’ve got more pull requests accepted on blah-blah-blah repo than you”.  All it takes is one moment of acknowledgement, a moment where there is a little light shining on us and people smile and say that we are awesome.  It is that moment when we pack the soap box in our suitcase and take it everywhere.  From that moment, the superior position is taken and others struggle to fit in, white or not, male or not.  Tech events are open for those of us with soap boxes. Oh, and you must make sure your soap  box is bigger than other soap boxes.

This is why I promised myself to always step off the podium and be accessible to everyone in the room and beyond.  This topic of soapboxes, self appointed popes, cardinals and priests of industry, blogging, tweeting, etc deserves deeper discussion more than this already far too long blog post.  And, yes, I know that my irony is that I’m blogging and tweeting too.

Tell me when you’re done talking

I was uncertain by what Kevin meant when he asked me to let him know when I’m done talking.  It would have been easy for me to fire a flame attack along the lines of “WTF makes you think I’m all talk and no action?”.  That’s not useful because twitter is a horrible medium that draws assumptions out of people.  So, I just asked for clarity first.  This is important; a behaviour that I try to instil in myself all the time – pause, listen, think and ask for clarification if I have even the slightest doubt.  That double check saves me a lot of unnecessary flaming.  I also found that asking for clarification in the face of cynicism does defuse the situation. Then again, rushing around with a burning flamethrower, defending every single one my opinions is a horrible way to spend my life.  It doesn’t take me forward in the least bit.  Worse, still, is that it causes me to stagnate.

I do try my best to not draw public attention to the work that I do.  I respect the privacy of being in a group and have learnt a long time ago that it is self-serving to tweet about such work.  As a mentor to a few people for many years, I respect that unspoken code of confidentiality.  Being a mentor, for me, is a two way street.  I need to be equally open and honest as I expect of the other.  Sometimes, that means being quite personal and deeply private.  So, I don’t crow about my work.  But I blog and open conversations based on observations which I’ve extracted from my time with others.

Those that work closely with me know the extents to which I go to change the status quo.  Then there are those that are even closer that know the extent to which it pains me when I can’t change the status quo.  At a deeply philosophical level, is it possible to give unconditionally – without even the tiniest drop of self-serving satisfaction?

Celebrate the success

Mark Pearl, on a separate conversation stream, reminded me that that progress was being made.  That is true, there is progress being made.  I mentioned that at Agile Africa that the demographics are changing, slowly for the better.  I think we are moving forward and I am not so concerned about the pace either.  There is a part of me, though, that is cautious of grand celebrations for small steps.  That is just me.  I prefer constant acknowledgment of progress for each tiny step.  It keeps me humble, knowing that the big picture is still not fully painted.

Can I plug in, please?

Hearing that I am doing something, Kevin invited me to breakfast to hear more so that he can plug in.  I’m happy to share with most people, but this work isn’t about plugging in.  It is not a thing at all.  It is about my individual behaviour and attitude.  There are no recipes that I can offer to make this better.  It requires me to find a connection with myself.  It is about holding a heightened sense of self-awareness, of each thought, each action and each consequence.  It demands a level of honesty with myself that is, at times, extremely hard to face.  This is a journey that I’ve been trying to walk.  It is painful to look in the mirror and see beyond the reflection.  I am motivated by a belief that we have a primal encoding for decency and an inclusive humane culture.  Everything else is an invention that is designed to obscure that basic encoding.

For more than 50% of the time, I get it wrong – my behavior and attitude.  So, I cannot stop here and I must persevere with this.  This is why demographic representation is important.  It is a measure of our collective shedding of invented biases and a statement of us including each other without prejudice.

To Kevin and the others, thanks for opening a powerful, multi-faceted conversation.  And if you want to plug-in to this inclusive, humane culture, then you will need to plug-in to yourself first.  This is not something I can help others plug in to.  I can only behave in a way that I want our software community to behave.  I believe that others will change in step.

The Genocide of South African Software Developers

The South African Department of Basic Education has decided that the only Delphi and nothing else will be used to teach programming in our schools.  Many of us became aware via Derek Keats’  blog post. On his blog, is a scanned copy of Circular 9/2013 which communicates this decision.  Even the  Digital Portfolio Committee of the  Cape Chamber of Commerce has issued a statement on this matter and are convening a meeting on 16 October 2013 to address this.

That Delphi is old is irrelevant.  For me, the issue is that Delphi is not current.  Old and current is not the same.  For example, Python is old.  Python v1.0 was released in 1994, but it is still current.  It is still under very active development and a popular choice for building software in today’s world.  Delphi is old and has tried desperately to keep up with the times.  Delphi is no longer current.  Please do not bother pointing me to  Embarcadero’s Delphi XE5.  Do your own homework on its market share and developer mind share.

Currency makes the things that we wish to achieve today and tomorrow possible.  Currency of software languages and tools instills wonder and amazement for the current generation and next.  It was C that did it for me when I was starting out.  That I could make LEDs flash sequentially when connected to a parallel printer port, left me breathless.  Delphi excited some people in 1996.  It excites nobody anymore.  It has lost its currency decades ago.  It no longer inspires people that imagine possibilities in the world of cloud, mobile, touch and the Internet of things.  

Certainly, we can teach kids programming using Delphi and Pascal.  We’ve taught programming with Pascal for years.  And, yes, design is the hardest aspect of programming and we can argue that language is an implementation detail.  This argument may stand up in the generality of teaching programming.  But it falls flat when it comes to specifics of teaching programming in South Africa.

The reality is that South Africa does not have a significant software development sector.  As one of the BRICS we have an expectation that our software development sector should be comparable, in relative size, with our “developing” sisters.  Get real. We just don’t have enough developers in South Africa to build a significant software development sector.  What we do have is a marginal sector where the majority seats are occupied by a minority group.  I can only foresee a significant software development sector when the majority of seats are occupied by the majority group in South Africa.  Let me cut through the euphemisms.  The majority group are not white.  The minority group is predominantly white.  But this is not a race issue, it is much deeper than that.

We are in a software development crisis in South Africa.  We do not have enough software developers.  Forget talent, simply on quantity, the minority group cannot fix this situation.  We need black software developers to fill the seats, first with numbers.  The black talent drought is a different problem, but let’s just stop the black software developer drought.  We need the numbers first.  The majority of our kids go through state schools will be left uninspired by Delphi, and turn to other careers. Software development is not even close to being a common career option for all South African kids, and the Department slams the door shut. 

Kids in private, independent and previously advantaged schools will be ok.  I know this because my son attends a private, independent school.  These kids will be inspired.  They will feel that sense of wonder and will reach for a career in software development.  And we will continue fooling ourselves building a software development sector with a minority group.

I wonder whether the Department of Basic Education knows that it is responsible for the under-development of South Africa.  Yes, Mr. SG Padayachee, you and whoever is advising you are killing an entire generation of software developers.  It is a genocide of software developers.

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.

Get up, Stand up.

I first got paid to write code in 1992.  The few years before were the heavy days of mass protest against apartheid.  Having a common enemy was not what drove people to change.  It was having a common belief that we are all equal and deserve to be treated equally. It is that simple.

In the years that followed, my career always surfaced a blatant fact.  I was always the minority in a white, male dominated industry.  In my first job I was hired by people that also despised apartheid.  For that I am grateful because it gave me a chance to learn without fighting for place.  But the places in which I plied my trade were dominated by white, male developers and managers with an attitude of superiority by entitlement, birth, law and any other decree.

And today I am still the minority in a white, male dominated industry.  I don’t need hard stats and precise surveys when it is patently obvious from the demographics at community events, conferences, start-ups and cubicle farms that black software development has not gained a foothold in our industry.  It is especially so in Cape Town, and only marginally better in Johannesburg.  I can’t speak for Durban because I haven’t worked there since 2005 but it was not any better then.  It is not just South Africa.  It is the same in Europe and North America.

 There are at least two sides to any story. Here, the one side is with corporate South African software development as a conduit for opportunity or suppression thereof, and the other side lies with the black software developer with messed up priorities.  By the way, when I say “black” I mean “not white”, and I everything I say is a generalization because I believe it is in the majority.

In my experience corporate South African software development perpetuates apartheid.  There are official policies and frameworks for employment of people and for furthering their careers.  There is nothing wrong with these frameworks. But like all rules, how we use them matters.

A few weeks ago I had another black developer share his entrance into a prominent consulting company.  He was offered an internship whilst a white male of equal qualification was offered a full contract.  When his internship was over, he was not offered a contract on the grounds that his line manager did not like his “work ethic”.  Really? Who’s work ethic needs to be questioned?  Today, this developer is employed as an equal in more progressive organisation with a highly respected brand that is determined to breakdown apartheid in South African software.

I am yet to meet a black software developer that is leading a team, making the call on design decisions.  Along the way, I have met many blacks in leadership positions. Many are tokens and lack the leadership and technical skill to justify their position.   This is also the fault of these individuals, exploiting the rules for self gain.

The majority of black software developers are either doing “maintenance” or being instructed on how to write to specification or requirement with a full blown design being given to them.  I have met many black developers who I’ve seen argue their design ideas only to be later classified as not being “team players”.  This also occurs in the sugar-sweet agile “we-love-transformation-i-love-my-job” work places.

What gives credence to the “inferior” black South African software developer is that black software developers are apathetic.   I find it difficult to identify with someone who voluntarily accepts being treated as a second class citizen.  I can understand the risks of 20 or more years ago, but life today is different.  We have a voice and we have a deliberate choice of the battles that we can fight.  This is mental slavery all over again.  And to some extent this mental slavery is self imposed.

I can appreciate that someone with a history of poverty that is offered a monthly salary that their parents could only ever earn over several years, is driven by a more basic need and deep empathy.  It goes horribly wrong when that is all there is to it.  You earn your dough, but you don’t earn your stripes.  I know several black developers that have doubled or tripled salaries in a few hops inside of two years.  These developers do nothing but give credence to the ingrained belief that black developers are not skilled.

I am fully aware of black developers working from a weaker maths and science base.  But I am also aware that there are white software developers that also don’t have a strong maths and science base.  I have wondered about this difference: two people with equally weak programming prerequisites yet the black developer struggles and the white developer excels.  I don’t think spoken language is a significant variable here.  The one thing that I have observed is that the white developer receives more opportunity and attention than the black developer by his white leadership.  The black developer in turn believes that they are inferior, and the lack of opportunity and attention furthers erodes self-belief.  Self-doubt is by the far the greatest obstacle to learning.

If you have read this far, there are several among you that have already formulated counter arguments, specific cases that justify your position too.  I am open to hear your side.  The problem with this blog post is that everything until now is just background to create context to put forward my belief.

I believe that there is a wealth of talented software developers in Africa that understands our history and our future. I believe that as a Pan African software community we are capable of designing frugal solutions for our people and for the world.

To achieve this, we must break free of our own mental slavery.  We need to build our own solid foundation that is unshakable at our core.  We must equip ourselves as masters of our craft.  We must let our voices be heard in Africa and the rest of the world as voices that speak substance.  And we must return to be with our people as no more than just people.  Our first step is to rid ourselves of apartheid in software development.  Like Marcus Garvey said and Bob Marley sang “none but ourselves can free our mind”.

I dream that the next thought leaders of software development will be African.