Oct 102009

I had the pleasure to speak at the Africa Gathering in London this morning. (twitter feed here).

There were a number of emerging themes through the conference, and not necessarily the ones you might think– access to finance, more capital, education.

Nope. What came up again and again was:

This is Africa. Sometimes problems can seem overwhelming. I have talked about this before, but it bears repeating. My take on it: Break the problems down, solve what you can. Innovate around what you can’t.

Open Source/Open Platforms
FrontlineSMS, Android, Ubuntu Linux– these give you the tools and abilities to build cost-effective, replicable platforms that won’t break the bank. For all the thrill of open source technology in Silicon Valley, the true innovation may come in Africa, where stuff like Microsoft’s failing ability to register its software (due, admittedly, to fighting rampant software piracy) may mean that the sotware is unusable.

Open platforms create frameworks and fertile ground for new innovations. Enough said.

Turn up and do something… and listen when you get there.
The power of doing something, getting over your own inhibitions, going, turning up, is far more important than your ability to make a big, great plan.

On the other hand, the developing world works differently than it does in the developed world. Teddy Ruge of Project Diaspora.suggests getting a member of the diaspora on your team. In whatever case, however, listening is critical. Go. Take a risk. See what works. Give yourself permission to fail, early and often, and learn from your mistakes.

Africans have the solutions to African problems.
You know a lot, but you don’t know the context. Africans can solve African problems– this is the difference between Busines Incubation projects around entrepreneurship and NGO projects– Incubators should offer mentorship rather than direction. The essential difference is that mentorship offers assistance to someone to help them do what they want to do, rather than demanding that they do what you think they should do.

The flip side to the TIA problem is that it’s important to believe that things get better, that the creative, innovative entrepreneur inside can find a solution to the problem. The flip side to mentorship is the encouragement, so that when your entrepreneur finds a wall, he figures out how to go under, around, or through it– or to turn that wall to her own advantage.

Sep 022009

We’ve seen a lot of shifts in the last few dozen years– my parents lamented that I would never live in a world where a job was something you could have for a lifetime, and people of my parents’s age were tarred with the worst of both– they wree promised a lifetime job but, mid-career, the beginning of the shift came in.

Myself and many of my peers, however, don’t really mind. The average Gen-X-er, it is thought, will have 3-5 careers (not jobs) in his or her lifetime (at last! Somewhere where I’m right on target– my third career in my mid-30s). We were called slackers and told we had ADD in high school and in our 20s, but in all actuality (or at least from my perspective), we are the first wave of constant learning and constantly changing what we do.

The old way
My grandmother was born in 1907. She was one of eighteen children because it was the tail-end of an agrarian economy where children’s lives were often too short. There weren’t cars. If my grandmother were in the UK, she’d have been using shillings and guineas.

The people of my grandmother’s time have had to deal with decimalisation, the shift to the metric system, world wars, an end to protectionism, the rise of a globalised economy (twice), the great depression, the end of banking hours, the introduction of ATMs, credit cards, chip-and-pin systems, push-button phones, mobile phones, computers, the Internet (my grandmother stopped here– mobile phones were enough) and more.

…And now
You may notice on this list that, as these new introductions have come closer to the present day, they have gotten closer and closer. Disruptive innovations are a huge driver in the economy, from google to facebook to email to twitter to openid to SOAP to java, we have to deal with new things all the time– new modes of interaction, new tools that we love to joke how they “simplify” our lives (we have to email, blog, and tweet)

How many things have you had to learn in your job? Word. Excel. Powerpoint. (and the new interfaces) Salesforce. Gmail. SharePoint. Your VPN. Your SecureID fob. IM. Skype. The new phone system. The fiddly expense form. The new reporting system on the Intranet. The TPS report forms.

Not only that, but the rules are changing faster and faster. In accounting, there’s XRBL, new and changing IFRS, and new laws coming in every market due to the financial crisis.

In software development, there are always new frameworks and companies are reinventing themselves so quickly that much software is released as “beta” these days. Gmail has just come out of beta after five years.

Modes of charity, development, and giving are changing constantly– almost too fast for us to keep up.

Your job
You have a single job: this job, if you are broadly a professional, is to learn. Constantly. Not necessarily in school, although we do see more people going to school later in life and schools like the Open University reporting increased enrollment.

Economist subscriptions are up, even as newspaper subscriptions are down. Chart-topping books include social psychology by Malcolm Gladwell, economists like Steven D. Levitt, and statistics books like Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

What opportunities does this open up? How does this change the game? Branding? How you prepare for your career? What you want from life?