It's official; the new millennium is no longer a teenager. Soon it will be packing its things and telling its parents; "he really does love me".
All jokes aside, a few years ago, I decided to treat 2020 as a milestone year for myself, Quenk Technologies and Trinidad and Tobago as a whole.
Will T&T finally acknowledge its latent domestic software community? Will the community come together to improve the quality and set standards for the work we do? Are we going to tackle more important, local problems? Will we stop chasing trends copied from developed countries? Will the local economy recover and a new class of entrepreneur emerge to close the wealth gap? Or will none of this happen and T&T continue to give everything to maintain the status quo?
Perhaps most importantly for Quenk this year; will the market be favorable to the products and services we offer? Will the company see the kind of growth we've invested in? The answers to all these questions involve a number of factors but ultimately, only time will tell.
Inside Quenk And The Domestic Software Industry
In 2018, we started a touring campaign to help educate the local market on the software engineering field. The benefits of not just buying software but including it in the planning of your business strategy.
Regrettably, in 2019, the interest was not strong enough to justify spending time and resources on this initiative so it took a backseat. There are currently no plans to continue this initiative in 2020. As mentioned in a previous post however, we conducted an internship last year. It reminded me of the importance of guiding and creating opportunities for the next generation, because if we don't, who will?
As a result, the plan in 2020, is to adapt some of the concepts of the tour to target persons interested in a career in software development/engineering. So they can interact with and benefit from hands on experience.
This is something I think is often overlooked in T&T; the youth. This is one of the reasons I believe we are still struggling with heinous and violent crime today. A society that fails to nurture its young is nurturing its own demise. We are doing so willingly.
Keeping with careers in software, as I noted in my closing remarks, we received 19 applications and accepted 6 would-be developers. Unheard of in a country where people still ask "Trinidad have software developers?".
It shows a clear interest in the field but for various reasons, a fulfilling career is short on the supply side. That's changing however; what's under-utilized here is in high demand in other parts of the world. Local businesses may still not understand this technology thing, but elsewhere, people do. One thing I saw more of in 2019 but have observed since about 2015, was the rise in remote work.
Local Developers are less and less dooming themselves to outdated, poorly deployed IT environments. Instead they are turning their attention to the myriad of remote work opportunities available in North America and elsewhere. This is great news for individuals and the industry as a whole. It means they can do more, learn more, experience more and of course earn more.
It's not all good news for local businesses and our domestic economy however, but I'll get into that later.
Software Engineering while(true);
Since starting this company in 2013, I don't think I have ever been as adamant as I am today about developing software systems for a living. Years ago, in younger days, my goal was to start this company and move on to another field by age 30. That was prompted mostly by the stress and frustration I experienced learning on my own. Having to bounce between various frameworks and platforms to find the right fit did not help either. As ubiquitous as it is today, the software industry is a chaotic and highly opinionated place. I simply could not see myself doing it at an older age.
That opinion changed roughly 4 years ago however, when I started seeing the cross-project code I had been writing not as glue for existing projects but as the company's own maintained core libraries. The more I researched, experimented and wrote, the less time I spent searching on NPM, Github and Stack Overflow for solutions.
It's also the more I felt like I was actually developing software and not just piecing together someone else's idea of what a solution should look like. I highly recommend new developers spend more time experimenting and less time installing.
I've spoken about the Quenk Platform before, all the parts are not quite ready for heavy external use but that's changing quickly as they are being used in new projects and improvements made based on feedback. At Quenk we build mostly custom system for organizing your organisation's data. Over the years, our platform has become an important asset in achieving that.
I'd like to thank all our past and current clients who allowed us to learn and improve as we gave them what they wanted.
Around the same time I went started Quenk (~2014) I started a Facebook group called Caribbean Developers. At that time I had known very few software developers personally and like many I was at a loss as to how to find them.
By that time I had been lightly exposed to efforts like the Trinidad and Tobago Linux User Group, the Computer Society and the one that impacted me the most, Ubuntu Trinidad and Tobago Loco. These technical/hobbyist groups serve an important purpose in the field to new comers in search of more exposure. Sadly, it can be difficult to keep them going as it's a lot of work and getting the support you need can be tough.
Caribbean Developers has been no different in that it has been an important point of contact for new developers across the region but it has also been difficult to sustain and get the right support. But hope is far from lost:
I'm happy to announce that effective January 1st 2020, Caribbean Developers is now an official project of Quenk Technologies Limited and no longer simply something I helped with in my spare time.
The mission is to provide some of the infrastructure needed to help mature the domestic software industry. I'll describe what that means in more detail in a future blog post but for now it's safe to say I'm finally all in.
The Digital Payment and Finance Landscape
I mention this here, because in the past two years, it has been difficult to ignore the ruckus in the digital payments space. Especially given how long the issue has prevented progress.
It seems that crypto currency enthusiasm has passed the hype stage locally but I still meet people from time to time that are bullish about it and related technologies. With good reasons. After all, the Jamaican Stock Exchange, who was described as the best preforming exchange in 2018 by Bloomberg, is going to allow the trading of digital assets and tokens.
One local/regional player has already stepped up to take advantage of this, with Wipay announcing its intent to list in the first quarter of this year. Wipay has already been making waves recently, announcing a suite of new products and a tidy investment from RBL.
I am yet to utilize any of their offerings in any project but that may change this year. In fact, hopefully this year I can finally do a comprehensive analysis of payment options available to application developers in T&T.
I think it's safe to say that there are more options available to us now than there were a decade ago. There is still much to do however, as things are still far from ideal and our regulators continue to drag their feet.
Another local payment solution Paywise, showed its resilience in surviving NLCB's decision to cut off access. Paywise seems to have rebuilt its payment network. NLCB's reasons for no-longer supporting them seem weak to me, but I have little details to go by.
I have not used Paywise in any projects either but I have observed its use in the field and as far as I can tell, has a future if its founder invests in it the right way. Congratulations to both Paywise and Wipay for their efforts and accomplishments thus far. I truly hope that within this decade collecting online payments becomes as hassle free as giving them.
Usually you save the best for last but there is nothing good about this. It's no secret that much of the Caribbean was colonised by European interests in its not too long ago history. One of the common features of a colony is limited self-determination and the exploitation of wealth and resources in favor of the colonizer.
We have a history in some parts of this region of rejecting imperialism in favor of managing our own affairs and being the main beneficiary of our efforts. At least in theory. To me it seems like this history is long forgotten and it pains me to say, that we seem to have not learned our lessons in Trinidad and Tobago. As far as I can tell, we are steady setting up ourselves to be digitally colonized.
Let me explain.
The government's approach to efficiency is still lack luster and the overall technology strategy is chaotic if not non-existent. This is often a stumbling block for the young and "innovative", some of whom end up taking questionable routes to success.
The prevailing private sector seems to only now be discovering Facebook pages let alone Web 1.0, so actual digitally accessible services are mostly limited to "Contact Us" pages, an Instagram account or WhatsApp number.
Combine all this with an environment where consumers are becoming increasingly hooked on apps and services provided by foreign corporations, while local ones struggle to find financing, let alone be able to accept payments.
There are a lot of other variables to analyze, but the fact of the matter is, we have created an economy where it is easy for foreign entities to receive income from us but, can be a nightmare for us to do the same.
It's also well known that both the government and private sector have a bias for software developed or sold by foreign interests over local. To paraphrase one thread on a popular local website, "Your job in IT is to pick up the foreign consultant from the airport when something goes wrong".
To add salt to these wounds, local is usually engaged only when we can't afford the prices of foreign vendors creating an impression of local being lesser value by default.
In many parts of the world, understanding how important computer software has become in our lives, nations have taken steps to create a domestic tech and startup ecosystem. The reasons differ from preventing espionage and adversarial interests, to economic strategy and sometimes simply having a dog in the race.
We too in T&T have taken some steps, but by literally attempting to woo foreign tech companies to setup on our shores in designated zones like Tamana. All the while almost completely ignoring organic, genuine local activity.
We are driving our talent out to contribute to the well-being of other economies, while we obsess over foreign currency reserves. We all can't get a job at the one or two multi-nationals government successfully attracts here. Some of us may not even be interested in employment, we caught the entrepreneurship bug which is quickly dealt with by Trini-Baygon.
As the software industry continues to fully embrace the Software as a Service concept, we find that all we really own these days is a license to use. The concept of ownership of technology is almost completely lost. We are just renters and any Trini will tell you, "Rent is dead money".
And just like in a real-life lease agreement, our "app-lords" can decide to raise the rent or turn off the lights and kick us out completely with little consideration for our needs. Trade agreements, embargoes and foreign policy can all change without our input leaving us in the cold.
The point I want to make is this; we are stifling and pushing out some of our best talent who are contributing to the same economies we are surrendering our often coveted forex to. It will not end well. A recent Deustche Welle documentary looked at the damage to Ghanian tomato industry by cheap imports some of which, made possible with the labour of Ghanian migrants.
We are in a very similar situation economically speaking not just in software but in other industries as well. If you think we have a crime problem now, wait until youngsters with a criminal record master computers and can't even earn minimum wage legally.
There is still time to bring balance to all this. The public and private sectors must come off their high horses and engage with the domestic industry. Give the industry a chance to better understand the problems you face and be willing to collaborate to improve solutions that don't work on first try.
Most importantly, pay the real value of work you receive and stop undervaluing local talent. The rewards are for the long term not next the next pay cycle.
Adopting a culture of standards and openness will not hurt too much either.
If you want an idea of how bad things could turn out if we don't, just look at the reliability of our bus services or Tobago ferry where service shuts down because no one knows how to fix the engines, or the lease expired.
Now imagine that scenario again, but only with the software systems supporting our health sector, National Insurance System, retail or telecom. All quite disruptive in a bad way.
The biggest lie they tell about the Caribbean is, we are too small, yet everyone seems to want to sell their products here. We are already too dependent on imports for our food, clothing, transport and now even gasoline.
Why add software of all things to that list?
Have a prosperous 2020!