Saturday, December 1, 2007

Google Africa Forum

Google seems to be reaching out to Africa of late and yesterday was a step in the right direction. Yesterday evening I attended the first of hopefully many Google Africa Forums. I was rather lucky to have moved to the Bay Area just in time for this event, which caught my attention when I first heard of it. I've been involved in discussions with Google earlier this year about making a move in South Africa in particular.

The event was held at the Google HQ in Mountain View. As you can imagine, just visiting the campus excited. Having worked in the Zurich office last year I kept hearing all kinds stories about the campus and so finally getting to see t first hand was amazing. Although I didn't get to see much of it from the inside I can tell you that it sure is massive! 10,000 people working there may sound like a big number, but that campus is huge even for that number of people. We have about 4,000 employees at the NVIDIA campus and the Google campus is more than just triple the size.

I couldn't really take any pictures since it was dark and I'll hopefully get another opportunity to get a real tour of the campus some time soon (my ex-manager is flying here in a few weeks). Here's a picture of one of the signs though, just for some satisfaction:

So, what was this event all about? This was the first time Google were hosting such an event so they didn't have much of an idea of what to expect. They therefore left the topic rather open. All they said in the invitation was:

Come help us understand your perspective on:
  • the needs of engineers from Africa (why did you leave and what may make you go back)
  • the high-tech landscape and user needs in the region
  • how we can best support the region, as Google, and as individuals
One thing that is often underestimated about Africa is its multicultural diversity. Even I can't fully grasp it, but I do know that it is impossible to work with Africa as a unit. That was my primary criticism of this event and how Google deals with Africa in general. South Africa for one is in a very unique situation, although at least that is understood by most. Take South Africa away though and you are still left with a wide range in the levels of technology in Africa. Kenya is the most advanced technologically after South Africa, but the rest I myself am not too aware of where they lie.

At this event there were about 100 or so people from about 20 African countries. Most of them have been working in the Bay Area for many years. Surprisingly I was the only one from South Africa, besides one other South African Google engineer who's also from UCT. There were those from Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt and many more.

They had a panel of eight up front. All of them were from different countries in Africa, besides a professor from UC Berkeley who has lived in Africa for 13 years though. The forum was hosted by someone who knew little about Africa and so he got rather overwhelmed by the enthusiasm at some stages. During the first 90 minutes the panel answered a number of specific questions after which the discussion was opened to the floor.

The panellists started by telling how they were helping trying to improve the situation in their home countries. Each one was taking very different action, yet they were all passionate about helping their country. The one was trying to get more content from Africa on the web, another was helping to introduce systems such as number plate identification to identify stolen cars.

Then they answered the question of why they left. Almost everyone responded by saying that education was the main and sometimes only reason for leaving Africa. The woman on the left even said that as a woman wanting to study Mathematics she was told that Mathematicians make bad housewives, and so she left to study in the US. Several other women agreed with her as they had similar experiences. The matter of education doesn't apply much to South Africa as we have a high quality education system. I would say that only by graduate school does it become beneficial to study elsewhere as our undergraduate programs are sometimes even considered better.

The next question was what would make them go back. This is a difficult question to answer, at least I feel, since often you can only really decide once the change has happened. Some people answered by saying that they simply can't go back since they would end up with a useless job as job allocations are very poor. Others said they would return if they could be guaranteed a decent job -- a similar response, but subtly different. Then came the issue of governments that made it difficult for people to do what they wanted. The best answer in my opinion though was that some people felt they could make a greater impact on their home country from the US. If that is true, then that is excellent!

What about technology in Africa? The answer here varied greatly from country to country. The general feeling, however, was that it is of no use introducing technology into a developing country without educating the people how to use it. There were a couple situations brought up where computers were donated to schools and after a few years it was discovered they were sitting there unused. Many people brought up the topic of Computer Science degrees in which the students never touched a computer. That the degrees are highly theoretical and that, related to the question of why people leave Africa, going to the US they find that they can finally get a practical application of what they studied. Without these practical experiences, however, people cannot develop the technologies in the country.

Finally, the question of what can Google do to help the situation arose. Here again, the answers were drastically different. In countries where the government was a brick wall the situation is very difficult. Many African countries have constant power cuts and those that are better off are seriously lacking Internet connectivity. As bad as the situation is in South Africa, as much as we complain, the other countries in Africa can only dream of what we have. This problem of poor infrastructure needs to be solved before anything can be done about brining technology into the rest of Africa. For those that do have the infrastructure such as Kenya, the people need to be educated. Introducing a bit of new technology is great and all, but teaching the local people how to bring technology to their own country will have a much greater impact. All of these different scenarios Google is capable of helping out. It is only a question of how far they are willing to go with this.

When the discussion was opened to the floor there was an overwhelming number of people that wanted to give their input. There were so many different points of views that I simply cannot remember all of them. A couple people said that perhaps we could learn from the way India has developed, although there were several arguments against that since Africa is facing a different situation. Many people reiterated what had been said by some of the panellists, while some questioned their views. Some people questioned how interested Google really were in Africa, whether this sort of event was just a once off to please some people.

As much as I wanted to have my say, so much of the discussion was about the poorer, less developed countries in Africa and coming from South Africa we face an extremely different situation. We have a good infrastructure, a good education system and a good level of technology in South Africa. However, what we lack is large software companies or anything Computer Science related that we can go to after graduating. There are a few, such as the Amazon office that opened recently in Cape Town, Black Ginger, SKA project and a few more. However, the options are very limited and all the bright people are leaving. Who says I won't be leaving? If a company such as Google were to open an office in South Africa I wouldn't think twice before working there. I love South Africa and would dearly love to continue to live there, but with the current lack of opportunities there's little choice. If you remain behind you get left behind.

This event was definitely very worthwhile. However, it was too short and needed more control over the order of proceedings. They said then and there that they would have more follow-ups. I just hope they stick to their word as this is a great attempt to get Africans to speak up and discuss the problems back home. These people have seen what the US has and so they are in the best position to discuss how things can be improved back home.


  1. Actually, only about half of the NV employees are at the SC campus. Somewhere between 2000 and 2500.

  2. Nice post Marco, I wish I had known about it, I am a South African living in the Bay Area. I will certainly try and attend the next one.


    Neville Newey

  3. Very interesting post..

    Just as I started thinking you're updates are becoming too few and far between ;)

  4. Shit, that was a horrible grammar error. "YOUR".

  5. @chris I could be wrong, but I keep hearing the number of about 4,000 in the SC office.

    @neville It wasn't advertised much at all, mostly by word of mouth. I'll mention any updates of subsequent events here.

    @anon I've considered splitting this up into two blogs: technical and more personal matters. However, I chose not to because the tags allow you to filter the more interesting content. What I might start doing is using a "tech" tag to tag what I consider the good stuff.

  6. Very nice Marco. I hope these things keep happening. I would have suggested using South Africa as a spring board to the rest of Africa though. I certainly hope that they open a development office in Cape Town. Google need to get moving the graduates are finished. They will have to start towards the end of next year to grab people. Not that they would have a problem getting people to work for them.

  7. If you bring that sort of suggestion up in front of all the people from other African countries then you could end up creating some friction. Everyone knows South Africa is the most well developed in Africa, but I at least get the feeling some other African countries are a little annoyed that we get everything.

    I did, however, along with the other South African there bring it up in a more private discussion with one of their University relations people. We both gave her a good picture of the situation we have that I don't think she realised before and that is what they need. She also told me some rather interesting things related to the possibility of open a local office.

  8. good post marco. how did you hear about this event? also wondering whether anyone knows of any internet-based companies (other than technology companies like ISPs) in south africa or kenya?

  9. I heard about it through another South African at Google. I already mentioned Amazon -- they are the only large international web-based company that I know of. There are, however, many companies that do web development such as BSG. I somehow doubt that is what you were thinking of though. I wouldn't know much about what they have in Kenya unfortunately.

  10. They've just created an Africa ICT Group on Google Groups:

    A platform where ICT professionals originally from the African continent can come together to share ideas, network, and collaborate in their efforts to empower technology in Africa.

  11. Thank you Guys,
    By the way, I am here to introduce my brand new blog ( that I hope will grow and represent and promote what is positive about Africa and Black People in the world in general.

  12. As far as I see it, this is not about black people. This is about helping disadvantaged countries achieve a decent infrastructure. It just so happens to be that the majority of Africans are black. But black, asian, white, coloureds, indians, muslims...we are all the same.

    The situation African Americans are in is very different to Africans living in Africa. This is about helping Africa develop so that all that talent can be put to good use without people having to resort to leaving the continent.

  13. Big article in Financial Mail here on South Africans educated at top SA universities leaving very early in their (carreee life) for US and Europe. Your line "If you remain behind you get left behind" states it all.

    I'll purchase a copy and send it (scan) to you.

  14. Hi Marco - would definitely like to more about this. We are arranging a BarCampAfrica for 10/11 in the BAy Area.