Former Head of Development and Systems Integration at Mweb, Roderick Lim Banda is now Chair of ICT Portfolio Committee at Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Roderick has great passion for research collaborations, skills development and business architecture. He believes that software programming is the key to job creations. His TEDx Cape Town presentation was formed around his vision of creating software factories. We ask him about his thoughts on the South African IT sector, and how digital will improve in our country in the next few years.
Having experience in both the IT sector and the government sector, what are your thoughts on the technology systems and support in place in South Africa at the moment?
Information Technology in South Africa can compete with the best in the world. But South Africa is still perceived as more of an IT consumer market rather than an IT producer. We are seen to be expensive in terms of software development because we have yet to properly harness the lower end of our skills pool. The lowest skill levels are way below the level of junior software professionals that we need – both in quantity and quality.
In the private sector, we have to be able to deliver on both high and low budget projects by building capacity and skills. Companies and organizations limit their IT projects because of budget constraints. And most IT departments are so operationally focused on their business systems that they have little or no time to truly innovate. Product development is one area that gets a lower priority and much of this can be outsourced or addressed using innovation from start ups.
Unfortunately, many of our start ups are chasing the Silicon dream without a defined revenue model and they are missing out on the opportunities in solving the problems that local enterprises are paying to overseas software products and off-shored software development to solve.
Your interests stretch from Software Architecture to Business Architecture. Can you explain the similarities and differences between these two forms?
Software architects tend to be experienced software programmers or software engineers. They are able to apply re-usable design patterns for solving software problems. Business architects tend to work with more real world operations and processes in an organization and have an understanding of the general principles of governance and management. They are also likely to be subject matter experts in areas such as finance, human resources, sales, supply chain, etc.
Most people associate the term architecture with buildings rather than systems. The Roman architect and engineer Vitrivius in the first century BC ascribed architecture to things that are an imitation of nature and referred to structures having three qualities – being solid, useful and beautiful.
Today, we apply those qualities of architecture to systems as we try to understand what makes them ‘good’. Like good building architects and engineers, software and business architects understand the qualities of the raw materials they work with and are able to interpret a vision or requirement and design an appropriate solution.
In your TEDx Cape Town presentation, you discussed creating African Software factories in order to benefit the unemployed youth. Can you demystify the actual function of the factories for us?
Essentially a software factory does custom software development with talented designers, developers and programmers but at the same time are able to introduce new and inexperienced interns that will grow to become software professionals over a period of 1 to 3 years because of their adoption of processes and division of labour.
Just as welding was a skill that was widely used in industry in the 20th century dominated by machines and skyscraper buildings, software programming will continue to be in demand in the 21st century. Software is the interface to machines and communication networks and will continue to evolve. It will become easier to access, learn and use yet at the same time, more pervasive and complex in the breadth of its application.
Software factories are knowledge intensive rather than labour intensive. The concept of a factory is meant to evoke the image of production processes and in particular the organization of processes and division of labour. We tend to limit job opportunities by focusing on keeping technology businesses small and agile and as a domain for the top and brightest people. We expect to have industry ready software programmers that are problem solvers who can deal with all aspects of software development and technologies.
Software factories represent big and small organizations that have invested in their organizational process, working environment and tools. They are able to absorb and make productive use of less experienced software programmers who add value while learning because of the division of labour and well defined repeatable work. There are entry points in the software development process that allow for programmers to master specific skills. They can for instance start off with developing user interfaces or database programming and build up their experience and competency in all areas over time.
Software programming is a skill that does not necessarily require a person to be employed. It can enable a person to work for themselves or start a business that will employ others. And software factories are not only places that produce software solutions, but also incubators for individuals who can become entrepreneurs and creative innovators.
What are your thoughts on the South African youth and their impact on technology, as well as technology’s impact on them?
Technology has a very clear use for South African youths. They use it to communicate, to help them with their studies, find work and job opportunities. It serves a very functional purpose and is not just about gadgets, games, entertainment, status symbols or more trivial use. For youths, technology provides access to opportunity.
In the past, the differences between low end and high end radios or television sets had very little impact on learning. But today a child with a voice and text-only phone with limited prepaid airtime, has far less access to knowledge resources than a child with a tablet or computer and broadband internet access.
People who grew up with radio and television became used to being passive receivers. But youths today have a channel and media that they can interact with. Being engaged, collaborative, vocal and learning the skills to market themselves above the crowd will be the norm as well a challenge for future opportunity seekers. Having the best tools and devices will be an advantage and an increasingly essential investment.
How do you see IT and digital being improved in SA in the years to come?
Cities have traditionally been the cultural innovators but technology will allow innovation to quickly spread to townships and rural communities. These economies will continue to integrate and converge. Mobile technology and the internet has already made the world smaller, more connected and accessible. The next step in SA is the inter-connection between rich and poor and between cities, townships and rural areas primarily through the increasing application of e-learning and e-commerce.
Modernization of businesses, administrative systems and enterprise software will continue to drive IT spend in the region. There is a lot of work in SA and the African continent to apply IT in modernizing both public and private sector administrative systems. Information Communication and Technology and IT spend is a problem in government. Capital expenditure and infrastructure are easier targets for corruption than expenditure and investments in human capital development and software development projects. But what we need is for government to invest more into local software development, buying South African software products or investing in home grown open source communities and service providers.
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