10 things I learned at Tech4Africa

Herman Chinery-Hesse, SOFTtribe Co-Founder and keynote speaker at Tech4Africa 2011

“What are you doing here”, at least three people asked. “I didn’t know you were a geek.”

I’m not. Well, I am in a loose sense. I don’t code, but I know enough about HTML to occasionally end an email to mates with “</rant>”. I’m not techy, but I do spend a lot of time stalking the interwebs. And I’m in a highly iterative learning curve with part of my day job and the business’s digital strategy.

I am, though, a very enthusiastic geek stalker. I hope, a lot, that I will somehow absorb ‘geek’ by osmosis. Because the tech world turns me on. Like a chav Christmas tree.

The level of innovation, the adoption of failure as a critical precursor to success, the liberal and generous sharing of stuff and the collaborative and accelerated learning that happens as a result fills me with a peculiar glee.

In that context, absolutely no surprise then that I was bouncing around Tech4Africa with ill-concealed delight. And this is what’s surfaced after two days of mulling it over:

Know your user
A major theme, from UX design (user experience design) to start up tech to the talk by Adam Duvander on Maps. It’s nothing new (#mrx, anyone?) But I found it fascinating that the UX guys were creating consumer typologies and bringing them to life creatively to help designers focus on the end user, not the tech. (Something we’ve been doing for years in more traditional market research/insight work.) It really is the bottom line for business – who is your user/consumer, what problem do they have and how can you (uniquely) solve it? Everything else is a waste of time.

Collaboration increases your chances of success (via Cennydd Bowles & James Box)
It’s no surprise the UX guys revved my motor. Behaviour, usability design, the gentle art of persuasion – all these things hit major passion points for me. But the point about collaboration really resonated. One of the things I love about the business I’m currently in is that most problem solving is done collaboratively. Create a good team with mix from across all divisions involved in the project. Design a process that allows for maximum creative input with minimum ego interruption and keep an open mind and before you know it, you’ve got an answer. Collaboration means that projects are often more efficient, teams are more engaged and problems are more easily overcome.

Tech solutions should have the bigger marketing picture in mind. Again a point largely made by the UX guys, and pretty key. How will the look, feel, language, voice of your site or app translate into offline activation. I’m not sure that’s even on the radar for some developers…or start-ups for that matter.

Gangstarise it (Herman Chinery-Hess)
Keynote speaker Herman Chinery-Hess absolutely rocked the audience with an almost throw-away comment: The African entrepreneur said “We didn’t have a marketing budget, so we ganstarisied it. We cut the radio stations and media guys in, and all of a sudden they were doing it for us.”


Made me think about what I could ganstarise. *insert evil grin*

The story is everything (Herman Chinery-Hess)
The other lesson from Herman’s talk was the power of the story. He had no slides, no tech…just a powerful story, filled with personal lessons and anecdotes. And he had the audience hanging off every word. But story telling was woven across the event. How to deliver a powerful pitch. How to design a great journey. How to access the engaging stories out of big data, maps and design. How tech fits into the daily consumer story. I don’t think anything works unless the story is clear.*

“Service doesn’t always scale. Don’t be the product” (Gareth Knight)
This has been sitting in the back of my brain since Tech4Africa organizer and founder, Gareth Knight mentioned it in his candid conversational panel with fellow entrepreneur, Vinny Lingham. It’s a really simple and blindingly obvious point. If you’re selling hours you’re selling a finite commodity. And unless you’re aggressively hiring, service doesn’t really scale. And it’s an issue for start-ups and established businesses alike. Finding the product in what you offer (and in service industries this is a tough answer) and how much scale you can reasonably expect from that offer are a pretty important questions to answer before you kill yourself trying to build a business.

“As soon as you have a new technology doesn’t mean the old one has to die. It’s not Highlander.” (Robert Nyman)
Ok, I just liked the Highlander reference. But it’s also dug into a corner of my head because it’s true. We’re always looking for new shiny. And our default is that new will automatically replace old. But frankly that’s not efficient, it’s not sustainable and it’s not even true. We’re heading into the ‘mass adoption’ area on the curve and that means fragmentation, segmentation and adaptation. The guys on the edge of the curve will still pursue shiny, but the large mass of humanity are going to be quite happy to stick with what they like. Innovation won’t necessarily need to be about ‘completely new’ but about ‘new and improved’.

“Geeks don’t want to be management. They just want to be paid more to be awesome” (Vincent Maher)
This is true of any creative, innovative tribe. So, what can the tech industry learn from other ideas-based industries to motivate, engage and support their people? How important is it to the success of a project to hire other people to do the managing / admin stuff that your talent doesn’t want to do? A tangent of the conversation around the event was the fierce competition for good developers (good talent, full stop). And the entrepreneurs mentioned building businesses that they wanted to work for; different to the model that currently exists. So what does this mean for the ‘work experience’ piece of the start-up team? Will the model of building a sexy business, but paying peanuts still work if all the businesses get sexier? Where do talent acquisition and retention strategies fit in the new world order?

Work out how much fear and risk you can handle (Gareth Knight)
Once again Gareth nailed a fundamental question. This is not a qustion I can answer. But I’ve had to at various stages in my life. And I know that the best decisions I’ve ever made have been the ones where I’ve dropped the fear and embraced the risk.

Mobile is changing everything (Gustav Praekelt)
The case studies, innovative start-ups and thinking around mobile at Tech4Africa reminded me again just how much mobile is changing things. To paraphrase thoughts from the conference, if we can get the handset and data costs sorted, for the first time in the last couple of hundred years, Africa will not be barred from access to the technology that’s changing the world. And Africans will have the tools to by-pass traditional barriers to market.

My only (and seriously, only) criticism of the event was the lack of diversity in the line up. Debby Edelstein covers the point perfectly in her blog here, so I’m not going to bang on about it anymore.

I’ll just add that if anyone has ideas for great speakers for next year’s conference (who aren’t pale males), please put those names forward to the organizing team – these guys put a huge amount of effort into the organization and could probably use any extra help they can get.

So will I be there next year? Absolutely. Wouldn’t miss the quality geek stalkage for the world.


*For example, I might have woven a bit more story into this blog post. Bad blogger. No biscuit. :\

Oh, and P.S.  When I grow up I want to be a ‘Tech Evangelist’.  Coolest job title ever, Josh Spear, Simone Brunozzi and Robert Nyman!

3 Responses to “10 things I learned at Tech4Africa”

  1. 1 Heather November 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

    This is a truly excellent piece. It means that if I don’t get there next year, as I didn’t this year, I need not panic: if you’re there, I’ll get the best of it anyway (apart from the fun parts of stalking).

  2. 2 Debby Edelstein November 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Great learning summary thanks Kate. And cool blog too. Seems you should give yourself credit for being a more advanced geek than you claim to be:-)

  3. 3 katewolters November 8, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    @Heather –> thanks 🙂 And don’t you dare. We need smart women in the audience too!

    @Debby –> Osmosis!

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