Re: Matter Over Mind

The original article with the same title asks:

“….are Google and Facebook attracting the most creative talent, or creating it?”

This is a valid question and great article here: —

Talent & Environment

I have always believed that great talent is better created and nurtured not bought. Buying is not sustainable long term especially in Africa.

Emeka Afigbo’s now famous article on “Boiling The Ocean” was very useful in guiding us when we decided to go back to building new product teams. We were already “boiling the ocean” in services and have the most experienced payments technology support team in Africa.

I have seen people come to join our teams knowing very little and in a short time become World Class. I found out that a high pressure client environment with performing colleagues does wonders. Where I think we have failed is protecting them completely from exposure to the toxic parts of the culture of the greater environment.

Societal expectations and family pressures are strong. I know how I became a black sheep in my family because of the choices I made. Not everyone can have that will power to refuse lucrative jobs in telco and banking to do “tech”.

We are lucky to have a core team with very different principles from the greater environment in which we operate. We deliberately try to give people exposure by moving them to the different countries where we operate. It creates a different kind of culture. We also have a mission, to always push the frontiers of African technology by creating “The Future” instead of being led into it.

It was important. We are not a “normal company”. We also have abnormal experience. We run distributed teams all over Africa. I have not physically worked in any of our offices for more than a day in the last couple of years. We are trying to create our “mini campuses” where people are free of outside pressure.

I had a heated conversation on TechCabal Radar recently about “Culture vs Compensation” it was very clear from the responses that compensation was more important to local techies responding than the culture or the “greater mission”. The hypothesis is in the article and their reality is in the comments section.

That reality is understandable. Costs of living in many African cities have increased significantly. You can’t also expect people to commute for hours daily and not want the finer things in life. San Francisco property rental prices are probably only slightly less ridiculous than London prices. Anyone who has to work in the Bay Area or Lagos has to be paid a more than fair living wage.

I believe these pressures of the environment make it harder for technology companies in Africa to thrive. There is a reason why Google and Facebook cushion the effects of commuting with their own buses. It not only saves cost, it extends their bubble.

From observation many tech companies in Nigeria do not survive beyond their second year after their upfront rent has been exhausted or when demands are being made on the people working there by their landlords.

What building technology companies in African urban areas creates is what Jason Njoku termed as “Mutant Companies”. I referred to them in my previous article where I expressed my lack of affection for Lagos and its reciprocal disdain.

There also is a good reason why the two largest call centers in Nigeria are NOT based in Lagos. The urban premium would make such operations unviable in Lagos or Abuja. These call centers support MTN and Airtel operations in Nigeria and beyond. The organizations they support are able to achieve massive scale from cost effectiveness. It is the same reason we moved our Support and Services Hub from Lagos to Accra half a decade ago and the same reason why we may move from Accra again shortly.

Mutation and adaptation to hyperlocal circumstances hampers scale. One can argue that flexibility to adapt to a variety of scenarios requires the kind of models Mara Ison and TechMahindra have come to build in our backyard.

Google & Facebook

I believe the reason why Google and Facebook have succeeded is because they succeeded in isolating their talent from the greater culture of the Bay Area by creating a unique culture and environment within their campuses. That “Bubble” probably helps them shape the talent and makes them more creative.

This “Bubble” leads to success and their success then in turn changes the culture of the Greater Bay Area. It became a cycle. Every startup and their neighbor now wants to be the next Google or Facebook. Tech Buses (another part of the bubble) are now standard for Google or Facebook wannabes in Silicon Valley.

I loved reading this article on how successful teams are created within Google and the book on “How Google Works”. While it is a great form of signal to prospective talent, I think they deliberately put these things out to change the greater culture. The best way to have a talent pipeline is to transform the greater culture.

Google and Facebook have taken a step further and also gone beyond San Francisco. They have offices/campuses in hot new locations like Austin, TX and the Research Triangle Area in North Carolina. Those locations have not only benefited from the presence of these companies, they have come in with infrastructure which helps the greater ecosystem. I see a new wave of creative talent being cultivated in these areas. Nothing really stops Nigerian tech startups benefiting from infrastructure provided by call centers in Ibadan and Abeokuta.

African “Tech Cities” & Clusters

I believe Africa probably needs these kinds of companies and campuses. For instance, the university arguably still producing the best tech talent in Nigeria is NOT in Lagos. There is no reason why a massive tech campus shouldn’t be built at Ife.

Raising money and throwing it into the chaos of Lagos is like “pouring Koolaid into the ocean” and expecting it to change color. It does for a second in a small space until the ocean overwhelms it. Only niche and opportunistic ventures will survive — “Mutants”.

It explains why there are few technical founders and more of business type founders. Our local startups are in the space of business model innovation and not yet tech innovation. I counted up to 30 different Nigerian e-commerce sites recently. The real barriers to entry just creates more copycat models, following the path with least resistance.

I think when people leave urban areas to build tech companies elsewhere and start becoming successful, greater change will come. The “hustler mentality” will disappear.

We may have started with awesome hubs and co-working spaces, while they have been quite helpful, they do not really protect talent from the pressures of the greater environment. We are all still exposed. It is hard to change a culture when you are overwhelmed with the same culture. Clustering may only help to increase competition and greater attrition. Cannibalism is also still common even in Silicon Valley.

We have paid lip service to building “Tech Cities” around Africa and most are White Elephant Projects. The only one I have seen that is quite serious is located at Tinapa in Nigeria. I have seen their vision and actual structures. I believe this Tinapa experiment deserves more attention and resources than other pipe dreams.

Right now in Africa, it is still “Matter over Mind” in every banal way possible. People only pretend for a while to contribute to building an ecosystem before the environment gets them.

It is curious that my friends who sang the “Africa Rising” chorus and returned home have secluded themselves in what someone referred to as “delusional urban bubbles of sanity within insanity”.

This is my hypothesis. Feel free to question it. I welcome debate, it is a learning exercise and not a noisemaking exercise.

I eat Nigerian Jollof and I write things. That is what I do. Chief Fanatic @ Manchester United FC.

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