Is Cape Town lacking digital challenges?

A view from where I stand

Last night I tweeted this:

I posted it because it was been playing on my mind for a few months — and then one of Cape Town’s leading User Experience specialists, Rian van der Merwe, announced he was leaving for a new role in Portland. It got some responses (probably ruffled a few feathers), and 140 characters suck in this situation.

First, let me be crystal clear: this post and that tweet are not about any one individual and their decision. This is about the eco-system and the trends. Please read it that way.

I moved to Cape Town just over three years ago with my family. I quickly tried to find my feet and understand the culture of tech here: what people were interested in, what they were working on, etc.. I was in a funny position personally, because although I started my career as a developer I’d since moved into a series of roles: passing through consulting, sales and finally resting in product marketing. I had never laid down my coder skills, but it wasn’t my day job. Whenever I introduced myself and what I did to people, 99% of the time the response was “oh, you’re in marketing!” No! This led me to think that the tech scene in Cape Town was pretty immature, because alongside Product Management, Product Marketing is one of the most important roles ensuring you have product:market fit and that the market knows you fit their needs.

However, once I dug past the shallow, generalist events hosted by groups like Silicon Cape into the domain- or language-specific ones like ScaleConf, the Python user group (CTPUG), front-end dev (CTFED) etc., I discovered some very smart people working on hard problems. This misconception was shattered even further one I discovered Stellenbosch (which doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be included in the definition of “Cape Town” or not!).

However, it seems to me that we don’t have a wide enough breadth of organisations working on challenges that have these four ingredients:

1. Hard problems
2. Social interest
3. Economic benefit
4. Cultural maturity

Don’t get me wrong, we have some companies that score highly on these points. But we don’t have enough.

1. Hard Problems

Problems come in all shapes and sizes in the digital world, just as they do in the real world. However, it seems that the speed at which problems go from “this might be an challenge” to “AAGGGGHHH we’re all going to die” is aggressively shortened. There are many very attractive, obviously hard problems being created by massive growth of already established US-based organisations. Because of the smaller scale and innovation lag in South Africa, many of that class of problems have been solved by the time they hit us and it’s more about implementation and localisation. However, we have a completely different, native set of issues if you look carefully.

2. Social interest

People in our world seem to have a love/hate relationship with what they do. We love being able to solve our own problems: we hate being labelled as the nerds who’ll fix granny’s printer. Being able to work on something that our family and friends can use, see the benefit of, admire, etc., is very appealing. Making Just Another Web App for that dying company down the road is not.

3. Economic benefit

Cape Town is such a strange place economically that I still don’t even half grasp it. Wages aren’t high, benefits are basic, rent and food are expensive. Plus, with the Rand to the Dollar/Pound ratio at the moment anything imported is just climbing. The war for talent in the USA means that if you can get a visa you’ll be very nicely rewarded. Sometimes “we have a mountain and two oceans” is not enough. Sidenote: Next time you moan about your wages, go look at minimum wage tables for South Africa, then STFU.

4. Cultural maturity

Building a healthy environment for mature professionals working on product development to work and grow is hard. Some of the companies in Cape Town that score well on the first three treat their employees like dairy cows. Sure, they eat nice grass, but don’t you dare suggest being milked from 10am instead of the crack of dawn, else you’ll be turned into burgers. Innovative management is out there in Cape Town, but a lot of resources (money and more) are still locked up in places of hierarchical antiquity. We sit chained to our desks and watch videos and read articles from leading thinkers spouting their hashtag no managers advice and get jealous!

So what do we do about it?

Or more precisely, what am I going to do about it? Well, for one, I think there’s actually more out there that is genuinely interesting, but the stories are not getting told. I’ve been looking for a focus to get back to writing, so I’m going to use this as an opportunity. I’m going to seek out and talk to people along these lines and see if we can give a bit of healthy, life-giving oxygen to these ideas and problems. If you’re willing to talk to me about it, drop me an email or tweet.

What are you going to do about it?

Thanks to the # gang for reading early drafts of this. Especially confluence, Vhata and MDCore for the bucket full of commas.