“If you think programming in the coding zone is the highest spiritual state any human bean can obtain, then you will feel right at home.”
Mark Clarke is a founding member of Jozi JUG, the largest and most active Java User Group in South Africa. In this first interview in a series about Java developers and communities in Africa, Clarke addresses the developer culture in South Africa and the opportunities available through free software such as Java.
Your bio in brief is…?
My name is Mark Clarke. I live and work in Johannesburg South as a solutions architect at Jumping Bean
; an open source/free software solutions integration company. Jumping Bean offers development, support and training services around Java and free software applications and frameworks. I love technology and I am passionate about creating a vibrant software industry in Africa. I am a leading member of severaluser groups such as the Jozi JUG, Jozi LUG and HTML5 Developer Group as well as the hardware hacking group House4Hack Jozi.
How long have you been a Java developer?
I have been a Java developer since 2003.
What inspired you to become a developer?
I became interested in programming when I discovered a ZX81 in my father’s study while playing hide-and-seek. My father was an electrical engineer and had been given the device at work; but he put it in the cupboard and had forgotten about it. Around that time, I had also heard of Clive Sinclair
, the British innovator who was all the rage in the media then. So I was filled with excitement about computers and the possibility they offered, though I never thought I would actually lay my hands one, living so far south in Africa.
What was your first programming language?
I initially did Basic on the ZX81 and then Commodore 64. At university, I study finance instead of science since I was told that there is no money in science. I was advised to take up a career in commerce. After completing my studies and a short-lived detour into professional accountancy I soon started programming again--this time with C. It was a major challenge though wrapping my mind around the need for a compiler when Basic had been built into the ZX81 and Commodore 64.
Do you use NetBeans?
Yes, I use NetBeans as my primary IDE. Its stability and polyglot support means I can do Java, HTML5 and PHP programming all from one tool.
How long has Jozi JUG been around? How many members are in the group?
Jozi JUG started in 2010. There are currently approximately 300 members of the group.
What are the hot topics among developers in your community?
The hot topics relate to open source and free software frameworks and projects. Support for different languages on the JVM is also an area of keen interest.
What are the challenges facing developers in your region?
South Africa has different challenges than the rest of Africa. Our economy is relatively well developed compared to the rest of the continent, and we have good access to the internet--though it is overpriced.
Our challenge is two-fold: First, getting enough young people into software development is a problem. The South African education system is failing to produce enough math and science students. Those that do get qualified can also easily find work overseas. The second challenge is that this shortage of skills means that the developers around are relatively well paid and in general don't feel driven to innovate or create new software like our counterparts in East Africa. So our entrepreneurial or start-up culture is quite weak.
But there is an ongoing, concerted effort to create a creative, innovative tech culture in South Africa. This has been spurred on by fact that the economy is not growing so much anymore and even those “comfortable developers” are starting to feel the need to be a bit more creative.
What role do you think Java technology can play in shaping Africa?
As free software Java has the potential to help Africa become a creator and exporter of technology rather than a mere user or importer of technology from the developed world. Building system on a technology stacks that require repatriation of license fees will mean Africa is always dependent on the developed world for the core building blocks to any solution. We would always have to wait for innovation to happen in the developed world before we could move forward with any solution. With Java we can build our own solutions and innovate ourselves without waiting for the rest of the world.
Android is a great example. Android’s open source nature means that manufacturers are able to offer cheap, yet feature-rich smart phones at affordable prices, which in turn provides a market for mobile application developers.
Are there any interesting initiatives taking place in your community of developers?
In Johannesburg, there are some projects to create a tech hub and a culture of innovation amongst South Africans. What is great is that the user community is playing a strong role in creating this culture and it’s not just up to the big corporations.
What are you looking forward to as a developer in Africa?
Android has given Java a shot in the arm in Africa. In general, PC penetration in Africa is low, but the penetration of cell phones is very high. In South Africa for example, the mobile phone penetration rate is over 100%. This provides a mass market for developers to target their applications at; something which is not available for desktop applications. Currently, most of the phones are feature or grey screen phones but Android allows for the production of a range of phones available, at different price points but with advanced features such as GPS and accelerometers. In addition the open nature of the platform and its eco-system means that it has appeal for Africans who are weary of being tied to a specific vendor.
When one compares these issues to the other competing products and eco system such as the iPhone, which is aimed at the high end of the market with exclusivity as one of its main selling points for image conscious consumers, it is obvious why Android would be a hit.
We really would like to get an annual conference up and running where there can be three days of pure tech and general geekery. South Africa is a long haul destination and travelling to Europe or the US for a conference is out of reach of most people in South Africa. Our plan is to make South Africans realize that we have the local skills and talents and should not look over seas for innovation when we have our own challenges to overcome.
*Attending JavaOne 2013? For more on the topic of Java and Developers in Africa, check out BOF3649 - Java Trends in Africa.