Programming for the Future

By Niamh Brannigan – AfricanBrains

I participated in a very interesting discussion recently between a number of seasoned ICT in Education professionals from Europe and Africa. The discussion concluded a day of speeches and presentations devoted to identifying the role of ICT in spurring socio-economic development through the mobilisation of a relevantly skilled workforce across Africa. During the discussion a number of people drew attention to the staggering number of programming jobs (circa 20,000 in Ireland alone) that are going unfilled across Europe. Surely, they suggested, this is a wonderful opportunity to leverage the latent potential of legions of unemployed youth across Africa?  One expert went as far as to suggest that in the future everyone should complete their education replete with programming skills so that they can create applications as needed by industry.

I frequently hear this kind of argument from those so enamored with the utopian potential of technology to transform society that they believe all other skills are outshone by a familiarity with the most salient programming languages. There are a few obvious holes in this argument for the mass endowment of African youth with a command of programming languages, leaving aside the more obvious financial and infrastructural hindrances. The first is that the increasingly adroit programmers out there are producing goods that remove the need for most of us to ever have to write any source code. I use prezi to create beautiful powerpoints that incorporate flash and I don’t need to understand, or even use, any programming language to do so. I can customize an e-portfolio from a template and build a webquest in a similar fashion without any mastery of java or C++.  But there is a less obvious and more worrying foil to this ambition: despite the acute shortage of programmers, computer science graduates in the U.K. (and therefore I presume elsewhere) have the highest unemployment rate of any graduate degree (HESA) [1].

How can there be a shortage of computer programmers with so many computer science graduates out of work? Many computer science graduates do not possess the necessary skills to be absorbed into the workforce without employers investing significant resources in retraining them. Yes, many entry level jobs are outsourced to India but we cannot escape the fact that really good and creative programming requires sound mathematical skills and often a good knowledge of physics (the latter especially true in the world of special effects). Too many graduates know the maths but can’t code, or can code but do not possess a deep enough understanding of mathematics and physics, or they lack a feel for design. Occasionally programmers have it all, but lack management skills and soft skills (which should be renamed indispensable skills given their importance in the workplace).  Shallow (broad not deep) courses leave graduates ill-equipped to meet the demands of industries that require their programmers to continually self-teach new programming languages. The latter is often made much easier when graduates do have a solid foundation in mathematics and science. However, in defense of the education system, the pace of technological change being what it is makes it impossible for graduates to emerge from tertiary institutions as veritable experts in all programming languages, as there are too many. To compound matters most universities do not liaise closely enough with industry to know with accuracy what is required of graduates. Even if academics were prepared to collaborate more closely with industry leaders, they would find it difficult to upgrade their curricula to keep pace with industry trends. The answer is for our education systems to equip learners with sound soft skills to prepare them to take responsibility in the workplace, a commitment to life-long learning, and a solid foundation in mathematics and science.

Greater investment in African education systems in the teaching of mathematics and science at all levels and especially at the tertiary level will produce graduates adept at programming, as well as engineering, and mathematics. These graduates will not just find work with firms that may then be outsourcing to Africa (to exploit this new talent); they will also build their own enterprises and engage in research and development which will help African countries to compete in an increasingly globalised economy, because science and mathematics are the lifeblood of innovation.

What Africa doesn’t need is millions of unemployed youth who, having dropped out of school, vocational training institutions and universities, think skin deep programming courses are going to transform them into the next, and much lionized, Mark Zuckerburg. Africa’s innovation hubs are full of young and ambitious digerati, as they are now referred to, who know how to build an app but all too often don’t know how to market it or themselves. And that’s what separates them, and most of us, from the Bill Gates’ and Mark Zuckerburgs of this world. Zuckerburg and Gates are not geeks who got lucky. They are highly intelligent individuals who could see opportunities (often easier to spot from the vantage point of an expensive, if incomplete, education) take advantage of them, overcome many hurdles, and with passion, vision and persistence go on to achieve commercial success. That has less to do with writing code and more to do with vision, dogged determination, business savvy, and originality, abilities that most education systems in Africa seem sorely ill-equipped to programme in today’s youth.

[1] Higher Education Statistics Agency. DLHE Population. Retrieved June 10th, 2012, from http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2206&Itemid=278.

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Niamh Brannigan is a communications specialist born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, and now living in Nairobi Kenya where she works for an international NGO with a mandate to alleviate poverty and enhance socio-economic development by assisting governments to develop realistic, appropriate and relevant policies and plans for education and training systems through the holistic integration of technology – without waste and without leaving the teacher behind. Niamh is passionate about the role of different forms of indigenous knowledge in the development of knowledge societies, pedagogy for skills development, life skills for a new society, as well as the meaning and role of innovation in Africa. Niamh has an MSc in Technology and Learning from Trinity College Dublin and a Masters in Publishing from University of the Arts London. Email: niamh.brannigan@africanbrains.org