Growing the innovations community in West Africa
I have roots in Kenya, and have watched with pride and admiration the growth of the East African tech community from this side of the continent. I’m obsessed with mPesa, love that Ushahidi has long gone global, and am stalking UNICEF Uganda’s tech4dev projects—to name just a few.
CODE has been working in West Africa since 2007, recruiting locally for our teams as much as possible. Often, local tech talent has been hard to find. Thanks to iLab Liberia and others who are growing it from the ground up, in a few years we hope to have a talented pool of developers in every country we work in.
Jon Gosier’s recent post on AppAfrica, The Lucrative Skills African Talent Should Acquire in 2012 got me thinking about how best to cultivate and support a growing community of professionals in the countries where we work.
To help us get there, I want to share what we look for in our team members—and how, if you’re looking to break into innovations work, you could go
about getting there. Improving these skills won’t guarantee you a job on cool tech
projects, but it’s a good start. Jon makes a distinction between tech and non-tech skills in his post, and I draw on the later here. Building on his list, here are the skills we’ve found that serve us well in the innovations space in West Africa:
Writing: This one has to top the list—you can’t get anywhere without
good writing. Decent writing is passable, but good writing opens doors and lets your ideas travel. Practice makes perfect, but so does lots of reading. Every opportunity can be used to improve the craft—emails, project updates, love letters…
Critical thinking/problem solving: Applying deductive reasoning to see different angles and approaches allows for creative, open-ended solutions that work in the real world. Critical thinking demands an open mind and it demands that we see things from other, often multiple and conflicting, points of view--as F. Scott Fitzgerald quipped, "the
ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." It takes practice, but with good problem solving skills you will identify a problem and its solution before it even manifests. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Project management: Manage projects, lead people. The implementation of successful projects demands
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adaptability and agility to adjust to changing situations. I believe that good management is impossible without good leadership, so see more about that below.
Videography and design: Knowing how to communicate using video and the web is now essential to share ideas in a way that spreads. Having the skills to put together a budget video or design a minimal website or presentation puts you ahead of the crowd and makes you an extra useful member of any team.
To Jon’s list, I’d like to add:
Professionalism: The professional world has its own norms for behavior, and while they may not always include wearing a suit and tie to meetings (especially in the tech world), there are still social graces and etiquette to be observed. A lot of this you likely learned in kindergarden—play nice, play fair, and share.
Leadership: Emotional intelligence is a professional currency that is measured and valued more and more by team leaders. Gone are the days of the stoic, authoritarian manager who sat behind a closed office door and only saw you by appointment—and thank goodness for that. Managers are out, leaders are in, and the better you can relate to, listen to and understand your team, the better you will be able to unite them around a common vision. That’s where the magic happens.
Collaboration: Collaboration is to the 21st century what competition was to the last one. Every opportunity offers a chance to bring people together to collectively innovate, vision and create. Get to know the competition, find ways to collaborate that benefit you both, and watch what happens. We work better and smarter together than any of us do apart. Learning this and making it work for you, is key to long-term satisfaction from your work.
Strategic thinking: Seeing and planning for the long-term future is a rare skill in this quickly-changing world, all the more valued because the landscape changes so quickly. Instead of forging concrete plans for the future, strategic thinking is able to adapt to what it sees and to anticipate the direction of change. It's hard; but it can be learned.
So, you may be thinking, how does one go about getting these skills? Find places to put them to work, giving generously of your time, effort and best ideas. Embed yourself within the community you want to work in. Find and take opportunities to contribute to projects and collaborate on teams to build your experience. In time, the community will know your value and job offers will find you.
CODE is always looking to connect with local
innovators, so if you’re reading this and you have an idea we can collaborate on, we want to hear from you.