Day 2 opinions – Clarity seems key

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 2

Day 2 of the Tech4Africa conference showed a much more relaxed atmosphere shown very evidently in the casual attire of the attendees. It was started off with a great introduction by Marcel Klaasen re-iterating FNB’s commitment to startups and a couple of his view on the state of entrepreneurship in SA.

Soon to follow was a very informal and highly interactive session on Social Media. With the panel all dispising the title of Social Media Guru’s I could help but notice that they all are about as close as you could get… maybe their definition was skewed, but they all seemed to fit the mould of being able to effectively use Social Media to enhance a companies brand – IMHO I don’t know what else would constitute a guru. The topic tended to sit quite heavily in the philosophical side of the media and less on the local case studies. This could this be to the distinct lack of local case studies (Outside of Cell C) but an interesting angle would have been what types of Social Media wold work for different companies? There definitely seemed to be a heavy focus on Twitter and Facebook, but what of Youtube of Flickr?

At the end of the day, the “success” of your social media campaign depends more on the quality of your product and how honest you are with your customers. Apple was highlighted for various reasons, but I think that the case highlights a very interesting point on how to maximise on social media by not interacting. I would have loved to see this discussion between the panel and the audience continue for about 3 hours, just to see what path it would follow and where it would polarize. This method my produce more concrete outcomes and more clearly highlight the relevant points.

The second talk was very different but just as interesting as the panel had taken a well known site and redesigned it. They led us through the very interesting process resulting in a much more effective site layout and flow. Although it was a great concept and they will give the content generated to to use as they will, it could have been taken a little further. Possibly with a bidding process by companies and the final product being sold to the company of choice with some of the funds going into sponsorship for the event. it could add a whole new level of hype.

Find here the slides of the presentation “How we redesigned, and why you need to know”.

Traditional media as a hotly contested topic was an interesting talk. Mostly due to the lack of continuity in definitions for the terms, with few points that they did agree on Bing that journalism is not only writing. It is all the background research and reporting that goes on. The Traditional Media model of finding a way to make revenue from any means possible and use that revenue to fund the journalism side. Apparently tablets will save Traditional Media by providing a more sexy, appealing way for us to receive verified news.

With a keynote by Clay Shirky to follow and then the afternoon session on entrepreneurship, startups and funding I’m really looking forward to what the last quarter of T4A 2010 has to offer.

Roger Norton

Twitter’s Dustin Diaz brings unobtrusive JavaScript to the people

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 2

The day 2 Tech4Africa Tech stream kicked off with a presentation by Dustin Diaz, the lead Javascript Architect at Twitter, titled “Unobtrusive Interfaces with JavaScript”.

He began by telling us the story of his life, about his 4 dads and how he didn’t do well in school until 8th Grade, where he got straight A’s and discovered a passion for running. He ended up being ranked 13th in the US for the 800m, which got him a scholarship to the University of Sacramento. He has a degree in Spanish, which he says led him to JavaScript, as they are both foreign languages.. go figure.

Dustin has extensive experience in the online space, he worked at Yahoo! and Google before joining the team at Twitter in 2009. He authored the book “Pro JavaScript Design Patterns” with Ross Harmes.

His passions are JavaScript, Photography and Mixology (yes, making cocktails) and he says they overlap as all of them are expressive and allow you to strive for perfection. Dustin likens HTML, CSS and JavaScript to the Holy Trinity. He took us through the evolution of code and in his unique style, allowed the non-techies in the audience to understand why unobtrusive JavaScript is important.

Twitter’s new product ‘@Anywhere’ is his pet project. It is a cross domain API that allows you to embed JavaScript into your site and integrates with the Twitter API to perform a similar function to Facebook connect but, in Dustin’s words “ours is better because, let’s face it, nobody wants to code in FBML”. @Anywhere allows you to embed a tweet box in your site that enables you to tweet from anywhere, as well as ‘follow’ buttons which facilitate what he calls “frictionless following”.

Dustin’s favourite @Anywhere feature is that you now have direct access to the JavaScript API of Twitter, allowing you to write scripts that will find, follow, message, retweet and display the timeline of a user directly on your website without redirecting the user to

Dustin warned us to be careful before entering the world of JavaScript, “jQuery is like cocaine, one line and you’re hooked”. Hmmm, I’m not addicted yet but maybe I should try it because Dustin definitely makes code sound sexy.

For more on how Twitter built @Anywhere, have a look at this presentation.

Heidi Schneigansz

Scale to get big

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

It’s going to be a flood of data as more people connect more often with their mobiles. Says Joe Stump (co-founder of SimpleGeo, previously main dev bod at Digg): “Each smartphone has six-plus sensors, and it’s not long before they add barometers and temperature sensors and more. Data production is following Moore’s Law.”

He did a simple calculation, working out what happens if you were to tag the phones (just time and location) once every minute for the 500 million Facebook users.
Just this little addition would add 37.2GB of data every minute to the piles that already need to be crunched.
He asks: “How are we going to store, scale and serve this mess?”
His main point is: scaling != performance.
Performance is more about i/o, and not so much in your choice of language. Choose Ruby, choose php, it makes little total impact to large-scale systems, he insists.
Mostly, scaling is a specialisation.
“The more traffic you get, the more specialised your infrastructure needs to be,” he says. The key is automation – bits should be able to be called or started or attached automatically. Use the cloud, but treat everything in the cloud as ephemeral. It can and will just disappear. Expect it.

He discussed the two approaches to scaling – namely out, and up.
If you scale out, you spread load across lots of boxes. If you scale up you get a bigger, faster box. Less complex infrastructure, but a really powerful box can cost millions of bucks – only workable if your service is making big money already.

Other gems of wisdom:
* Partition your data from the very beginning
* Make use of queues – very important part of consistency of user experience.
* Caching is critical – especially in supporting queues. Write a record to cache while it’s processed by queue so that user experience stays OK.

These are lessons learned from long years worrying about things like: how do you handle objects such as the front page story on Digg when it’s getting millions of hits?
His other key advice is about people:
“It takes a lot of people to build, scale and maintain infrastructure – you will grow from one or two to 15 or more.” The human management issues become tricky here: “The first two or three devs on board are going to question every decision management makes.”
A good thought: “Look for a trait in developers: laziness. You want someone who looks for a quicker, better way.”

As your site (and dev team) grows, he advises looking to lower barriers to entry for more junior devs. “Get your codebase to a position where you don’t need to hire a Jedi. Jedis are rare. Jedis are expensive.”
He recommends breaking teams up. 4-6 people work well, at 8 it starts breaking. Get a Jedi, and make them the team leader. Note: team leader, not manager. They should act more like a sports team’s captain. Create frameworks (authentication, error handling) to lower barriers to entry as new coders come on.
And use code repositories. Full stop.

He is very passionate about promote ownership in the codebase, so that individuals work on three of four areas and have responsibility for them.
“As you scale and your code bases grow, from 50,000 lines of code to 400,000 lines, no-one can be effective across the whole base,” he says.
Before you start, design the software – don’t just start coding. He is a big fan of stubbing out the API on a whiteboard.

When it comes to testing – automation is good, and use several methods. If you fix something, make sure you run a test on the old version and make sure it fails it. Apply patch, and make sure it now passes.
Documentation. Build time into your planning for documentation. Even if old and stale it adds historical context, maybe helping you understand later why you made a particular decision.
Do peer reviews. “I’ve never sat in on any peer review and didn’t see at least one show-stopping bug.”

There are a number of ways to scale up using powerful technologies. “When I left Digg we were handling 37,000 requests a second,” he says. Now at SimpleGeo, he runs 15 nodes in one Cassandra cluster, 12 nodes in other cluster.
The numbers will go up (if you are even remotely successful). The technology is getting faster and faster, handling volumes that would have been unthinkable before. “You can get 1500 writes a second on a decent SQL box. A couple of years ago if you asked me if I’d need that, I would have laughed,” says Stump. Right now he is putting 5,000 to 7,000 writes/sec on a Cassandra cluster.

Most South African web developers, even those working for the relative giants like see only a fraction of these volumes – but one thing is sure. Africa is developing its Internet community fast – it won’t be long before servers talking to thousands of users are talking to millions.

Roger Hislop

Mesh Potatos Become Hot Potatos

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

The Tech track at Tech4Africa kicked off with a presentation by Steve Song, a Shuttleworth Foundation fellow and a founder of Village Telco project.
His main theme was the high cost of access to basic communications, and the solution developed that can help solve this problem. Which is always a good thing in a solution.
An eye-opening statistic: the bottom 75% income band in Africa spends 50% of their disposable income on mobile services (in SA it’s a touch lower, at 40%, although probably because people earn a bit more here than because our mobile operators are particularly cheap).
If you’re an economist you get to sit back smugly, take a sip of Merlot and say, “See, you see how much they value it? Clearly it delivers the incentive they believe makes it worth the price.” If you’re not an economist you kick them in the head.
If you’re an African leader you wake the hell up, and realise that without driving down the cost of telephone and data access, your people will struggle and struggle to advance (and hence build businesses that pay you tax revenues that leaders can in turn plunder for new presidential palaces, you bastards).
In Steve’s more considered words, “What might an enlightened African leader should say: ‘It’s the cost of access, stupid’.”
His main contention in developing businesses is that to enable innovation, you must lower the cost of failure. When failure is expensive, the lesson learned is to stop wasting money.
With greater communication, more sharing of knowledge and greater transparency across markets comes immediate and marked growth in GDP. A cheaper way to provide telephony services in Africa is vital, and since the mobile operators (and government regulators) are not coming to the party, other options must be found.
His talk then turned to an old Linksys wireless router, the WRT54G. Popular, now getting a little long in the tooth, but based on a Linux core in its firmware. Open Source types compelled Linksys to open up the code under GPL, and they dug in.
They hacked it, and discovered it was a pretty powerful box, with hardware (RAM, CPU, etc) more advanced than its as-shipped specs needed. A whole new industry of hacked WRT54G routers grew up… enthusiasts wrote books about it, codified the OS as OpenWRT.
You can unplug the stub antenna, and add a directional (such as a cheap, home-made cantenna), and talk reliably over many kilometres.
You could hook a bunch together over in a mesh over an area, plug a phone into it, hack it a bit more, and end up with the Mesh Potato.
Mesh, as in the Open Source mesh protocol developed substantially by a woman called Elektra in Germany, POTS as in Plain Old Telephone System (it works with old skool analogue telephone handsets) and an ATA (Analogue Telephone Adapter) to packetise the voice.
Mesh Potato. Get it? It’s cleverer in Spain, where they call them patatas.
The hardware for the box was designed by an Australian hardware engineer called Mr. David Rowe, and then mass produced.
Hacking together some code is easy enough, you may think, but a piece of hardware is an entirely different proposition.
Luckily, not true.
An interesting development, says Song: “Hardware is the new software. You can bring a unique hardware product to market quite quickly and cheaply.”
The Mesh Potato team finalised the design, did some prototypes for testing, then went into production with a manufacturer in China, who was only to happy to give them a good unit price in exchange for the know-how (yay for open source goodness and commodity technology like WiFi and open standards like SIP!).
The final device will be a fairly cute little white box that’s weatherproof (rain, dust and sun) with hardened ports that won’t fry its little heart if some klutz plugs the wrong thing in.
The mesh then connects up a number of standard handsets that can be pulled out the dumpster, allowing a non-profit to set up a local telephone network quickly and exceptionally cheaply.
The little network can be autonomous, or you can add a “server” that’s being developed that has a VoIP connection upstream to a gateway to allow interconnect to national operators.
Song recons they got a 400m range at a setup they ran at the Afrikaburn festival/party/freakshow in the Karoo in the Western Cape a few months back, and with a new version planned using 802.11n, they’re looking for even longer range.
The non-profit part is key, because these organisations can operate a network in many African countries free if they don’t charge. A small business can be set up to be a commercial venture, but then they’d need an ECS class licence (in SA, similar elsewhere).
The box was developed by a team that kicked around ideas and designs across South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda.
Song says they’re so far not getting hostility from the incumbent mobile and landline operators, but probably because they’re flying well under the radar. The tolerance may change when the Mesh Potato starts to become widespread.
It’s an interesting future. In the past the only people with the ability to deliver a viable telephone network would have to do it on a national basis. Deep pockets. Exclusive licences. Monopolies. Price gouging. In incumbent operators’ defence, the price to pay for doing a national network is that it would have to meet minimum standards. Expensive, reliable, standardised technology. Think SS7.
That changes with repurposed commodity technology.
Now a village or area in a township can set up a telephone network that services just them cheaply and easily. If it falls over, they know exactly whose door to go knock on. It does the needed job. It’s cheap. It can be grown, and grown.
Rather like ISPs providing VoIP services to small businesses will eat into national operators, so small consumer meshes will eat into national operators.
Is this the democratisation and commoditisation of telephony? These small potatos?

(NOTE: Blogging for the event is done with little time and bandwidth. Apologies for any factual errors, but c’est la vie).

By Roger Hislop

Tech4Africa partners with First National Bank and Internet Solutions

FNB, Internet Solutions endorse African technology development through partnership with Tech4Africa

Internet Solutions and First National Bank (FNB) have given their full backing to Tech4Africa, the premier Internet and emerging technology conference, in their role as Foundation Partners and have committed to supporting the long-term development of home-grown technology solutions on the continent.

“From our earliest discussions with FNB and Internet Solutions it was evident that they share our values and vision for the future of Internet and mobile technologies on the continent,” says event organiser Gareth Knight. “The reality is that Africa is playing catch-up in these sectors and that this can only be overcome through collaborating with the best minds in the industry, locally and globally.”

“Both partners bring tremendous value to the conference because of their appreciation for the way in which technology can and should be applied to drive economic prosperity in Africa, and have clearly demonstrated their skills in this sector.”

Knight points to Internet Solutions’ position as a leading provider of Internet infrastructure across the continent. As the trusted partner in IP driven solutions, Internet Solutions enables their clients to be truly competitive in the global economy.

Company MD Derek Wilcocks says Internet Solutions’ participation extends well beyond its support of the conference and providing connectivity to participants over the two days.

“We see the future of the Internet in the way people are able to collaborate. Social media is changing the way organisations work and providing opportunities for governments to interact with their citizens,” he says. “The conference topics are at the heart of the future of our industry and we want to be part of that learning experience and also contribute to that debate.”

“For us, it’s about more than the technology and technical ability, it’s about the impact that we as an organisation can have on people’s lives,” he adds.

Knight says that FNB’s role as an enabler of business and technology ideas is equally important and that the bank’s participation at Tech4Africa will hopefully spur on more home-grown development.

“FNB has demonstrated a strong entrepreneurial edge and willingness to invest in the market through introducing technology-driven solutions such as PayPal and cellphone banking. In short, they are walking the talk, which other institutions are still struggling to achieve,” he says.

FNB Commercial’s head of small business sales, Marcel Klaassen, says FNB is continuously driven by innovation, which is based on a strong entrepreneurial spirit within the division.

“We recognise the role that technology, e-commerce and innovative banking solutions play in the entrepreneurial environment and are proud to facilitate knowledge sharing and international best practice trends in these areas,” he says. “We understand that the most difficult barriers for entrepreneurs to overcome is the lack of support and mentorship and have therefore tailored a business proposition around small businesses that address both their financial and non-financial needs. We look forward to engaging with existing and aspiring technology entrepreneurs.”

Tech4Africa 2010 will be featuring international and local technology visionaries including Clay Shirky, Leila Chirayath Janah, Jonathan Snook, John Resig and many others who will be sharing their knowledge and experiences. The conference is taking place on 12 and 13 August 2010 at The Forum in Bryanston, Johannesburg.

About FNB Commercial

As a company with entrepreneurial spirit at its heart, FNB Commercial is committed to supporting South African entrepreneurs to take advantage of the business opportunities present in our country by offering innovative business banking solutions. This commitment is reflected in our vision to enable, grow and accelerate entrepreneurship in South Africa.

With this over-arching focus on entrepreneurship, FNB Commercial has a suite of ground-breaking business banking products aimed at assisting small business owners with running their businesses more efficiently. To ensure that our clients receive the support they need, we have invested in several innovative platforms that offer convenience, accessibility, cost effectiveness and security.

About Internet Solutions

Internet Solutions is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dimension Data.  The company is Southern Africa’s most established and experienced Internet Service Provider. Since 1993 Internet Solutions has been providing end-to-end connectivity solutions and related services across the African continent. Today IS is a provider of Internet Protocol-based Connectivity, Communications, Cloud and Carrier services in the African market and for African clients into the global market. IS provides services to large public and private sector organisations, medium sized organisations, and through its value channel program to smaller organisations and consumers.

Last but not least…

A few last things about the conference, before things become totally manic.

We’ve got around 65 speakers over 2 days. I’m really excited about the depth of knowledge and experience that folks like Andy Budd (Clearleft), Alex Hunter, Erin Caton (Apple), Joe Stump (SimpleGeo), Jonathan Snook (Yahoo!) and Dustin Diaz (Twitter), will bring to Tech4Africa. These guys are really amazing at what they do, and are also awesome people, so anyone at the conference is in for a treat. Take 5 minutes to checkout the full line-up if you haven’t done so.

I think you’ll agree it’s a great line-up, which represents a good mix of business and technical people, and offers great content to delegates. More than anything, this is a first in Africa, and it’s largely down to your willingness to be a part of it. For that, I thank you. I hope you can spend the two days of the conference learning, absorbing, and enjoying. There is a team of 19 full time people working on Tech4Africa, to make it the event we’d all want to go to.

We’re now working pretty much 24/7 to make this event something that we would aspire to attend.
I’m not saying that lightly. Like you, I’ve been to my fair share of conferences, and in general I find most of them bland and uninteresting, with too many exhibitors.
So, I’ve tried really hard to make this one the conference that I would want to go to. My litmus test is: would I spend my hard earned cash and go to Tech4Africa? Would my friends do the same? I’m happy to say that right now the answer is yes, and I hope that once you’re there and you’ve experienced it for yourselves, the hard work and attention to detail will be apparent, and you’ll feel the same way. Ultimately though, all we can do is provide the right environment for the speakers to shine.

The focus is on interaction, discussion, engagement, debate and learning. The focus is on you.
Unlike a lot of conferences where you go listen to someone stand behind a lectern and run through powerpoint slides, essentially giving a lecture, we’re creating an environment where everyone will either be standing, or sitting on a couch with a bunch of other people. Our focus is 100% around delegate value, and this comes through real discussion and if needs be real arguments. It also comes through the audience feeling like they’re there being engaged with, and not lectured in a one-way environment.

As a quick reminder, online registration and payment for conference tickets closes at 1pm on Tues 10th August. If you would like to register after that, then please do so on site. Registration will be open at the venue from 1pm on the 11th of August (badge collection and/or registration). Please note that we will not accept cash, and that when the venue is full, we’ll have to turn people away. For conference registrations go here.

There is a conference “after party”, which will be on Friday night (August 13th), so please book that in your calendars, get the babysitters in, bring your significant other, and join us for some fun! RSVP on the event’s Facebook page.

And lastly, expect the “unconference”: don’t wear ties, don’t wear suits, bring your sense of humour, and enjoy yourself!

It’s going to be an awesome event, and I can’t wait to see you there 😉

Gareth Knight

Tech4Africa organizer
MD, Technovated

Let’s talk development at Tech4Africa

The countdown has begun, and with less than 2 weeks till the most diverse and unique conference in South African tech history kicks off, all the last minutes plans are being put into place. We can’t wait for the doors to open and introduce you to some of the most prolific speakers from both South Africa as well as internationally.

A big focus at Tech4Africa will be focused on development and how local startups can benefit from learning from some of the best Developers from the biggest platforms around the world. Guys like Dustin Diaz from TwitterJohn Resig from Mozilla are just some of the big names to join us at Tech4Africa.

Jonathan Snook from Yahoo will be looking at how iPhone & Android development are growing rapidly, and how you can create the perfect and usable app. Jonathan comes from a long history of web development and developing apps, and will no doubt share his fantastic knowledge on these topics.

Another session not to miss is by Andy Budd, who is an interaction designer and web standards developer from Brighton, England. Andy leads the user experience team at Clearleft, and will be hosting a session called “Ignore User Experience at your peril”. User experience is essential when developing a new product, and Andy will take us through the steps to ensure it is done 100% correctly.

With Twitter growing daily in leaps in bounds, Lead User interface engineer, Dustin Diaz, will be sharing his tips & tricks when developing with Javascript. In his session called “Unobtrusive interfaces with js” will assist developers in ensuring user interfaces are are always rich & engaging.

Another Javascript ninja, John Resig, will be presenting a session called “6 secrets to becoming a jQuery ninja”, in which John will be showing you the tricks of the trade on how to become the ultimate jQuery ninja. John comes with a wealth of jQuery knowledge is the lead developer of the jQuery Javascript library.

If there is one session you do NOT want to miss at Tech4Africa, it will be the Q&A session with all these guys, joined by Joe Stump from SimpleGeo. Andy Budd, Dustin Diaz, John Resig, Jonathan Snook & Joe Stump will all join in a 1 hour Q&A session panel, where they will be answering your questions as well as answering an interesting question – “What was your hardest challenge, and how did you overcome it?” Be sure to join the guys on the Thursday at 11:00

It’s not only the international chaps who will be sharing their experiences with you, we have a fantastic South African panel called “Ideas are cheap, execution is everything. Live to bootstrap.
The panel will be headed up by Brett Haggard who is joined by Barbara Mallinson from Obami, Eve Dmchowska from Crowdfund,  our very own Gareth Knight from Technovated & Andy Higgins from BidorBuy. The panel will look at how South Africans need to bootstrap their product and without losing perspective or faith.

Last but not least we will also be hosting Erik Hersman who was the man behind the ever popular African open source project Ushahidi, which allows users to crowd source crisis information to be sent via mobile. Erik will share his story on how Ushahidi has grown into the international success it is today.

With a lineup like this, you cannot afford to miss Tech4Africa this year. If you have not registered your place yet, we suggest you do so ASAP. Places are running out fast, this is one conference you do NOT want to miss out on !