Jamaican ICT companies often provide services to international clients where maximizing the island’s advantages and overcoming its challenges feature strongly in strategic goals. There are many success stories. One of these is Knightfox App Design, creators of Loop News, the leading news app across the Caribbean with over 1 million downloads. We spoke with Egbert von Frankenberg, CEO and Robert Ainsworth, CTO to get a better understanding of the dynamic regional industry.
Palisadoes: ICT is a large foreign exchange earner for many economies. In what ways has this been possible in Jamaica?
Egbert: Jamaica has a growing ICT sector and in particular a growing number of call centers, which is encouraging. Yet call centers are not providing a highly skilled labour force so Jamaica is losing out on larger revenue opportunities from fostering software development as a foreign exchange earner.
Palisadoes: The recent growth of the overall industry is encouraging. How would you describe its overall health?
Egbert: In my opinion the industry needs further assistance and support. There is a “buzz” around ICT in Jamaica but the question remains on the quality that is being produced and can it compete globally. There is an increased need for ICT in all sectors of the economy but do we generate enough innovation and contribute to brand Jamaica yet? I believe we still need to nourish our talent pool to reach a critical mass and that leads to sustainability in the ICT sector.
Palisadoes: How do Jamaican developers perform compared to other nations and how is this measurable?
Robert: Performance is a topic with many variables that come together. If you look at it on a national level then I would also look at the work ethic as a variable in performance. This extends to coding ethics that govern how you write code. For example, the use of object oriented methods, code comments for ease of understanding by others, the ability of the code to handle large numbers of users or systems, in other words, scalability. We found that developers sometimes struggle with software architectures and code that is not sustainable. But all this comes with experience and good practical mentorship.
Palisadoes: A constant economic concern in Jamaica is the impact of the brain drain to other countries. A recent Gleaner article describes an ICT knowledge gap, but a brain drain implies good skills. At what levels is this discrepancy the greatest and why?
Egbert: From our observation the brain drain is just a lot more noticeable in a small country like Jamaica. The pool of highly talented developers is small to begin with and the lack of opportunity makes them leave. This in turn makes it more difficult for the industry to deliver quality products at international standards. The pool of quality front-end developers is certainly the smallest. We agree with the statements made by Mr. Marsh and Dr. Marr that Jamaica must foster the software industry aspect of the BPO sector as it would bring beneficial foreign returns and allows the talent to stay in Jamaica.
Palisadoes: How can the ICT industry help to counter the brain drain in its sector? What has been done in the past and was it effective?
Egbert: I cannot speak to the past but the most important aspect is to build the industry and create opportunities. If we, the business leaders and the government can create a steady deal flow, which will provide adequate employment that is compelling and challenging, the brain drain can be stopped and reversed if we are able to position Jamaica better against other outsourcing countries in the software sector.
Palisadoes: What are your international clients expecting when they outsource software development to Jamaica?
Egbert: Clients expect the same quality they are used to from other outsourcing countries. There is a level of quality and timely delivery that is expected in the industry no matter where the development team is from. We are competing on a global scale and this is serious business. We must look at other countries and derive a competitive analysis so that we can steer this sector to prosperity. At Knightfox we have spent the last 2 year finetuning our operations to deliver products that our international clients are accustomed to.
Palisadoes: How do Jamaican companies market themselves to be considered by international companies?
Egbert: In our experience, the best way is to highlight the benefits that come with a Jamaican service provider. For example, our European clients value the timezone difference because our workday starts roughly 2 hours before theirs end. This is perfect timing to have a status call and then commence work in the Caribbean and have results ready for when the Europeans go back to work the next day. North American clients share the same time zone, culture, language. Some of our team members even received their education in the US and Canada, which speaks to a level of trust in our abilities to deliver. We found that those are the key benefits to our international clients and has helped us gain recognition and referrals.
Palisadoes: There are many cases of Jamaican companies interacting with their local customers via the Internet. How successful have they been in expanding these software services to an international clientele within and external to the Diaspora?
Egbert: There is no real difference than communicating via the net with local customers. There are many tools for code sharing, versioning, beta testing that are available online and can be utilised. However, one must be aware of the cultural differences with the overseas clients. For example when we have a conference call with our Austrian clients the call must be made on time and because there is no chance of having face to face meetings it is better to “over-communicate” and write that extra email.
Palisadoes: Describe the software development best practices used by your company to ensure manageable and maintainable projects that are delivered on time.
Egbert: We have reached a point where we spend quite a bit of time on planning before each code sprint and discuss the tasks within the team. The communication has helped to identify pitfalls in advance and structure applications correctly from the start without cutting corners because of deadlines. On the other hand there is also a bit of education needed on the client side. We have become fairly strict on scope creeping because that is more likely the cause for delivering a project late and over budget.
Palisadoes: How should software engineering students prepare their technical skills to enter the industry?
Robert: Practise and dedication are the foundation. It boils down to wanting to learn how code should be written by understanding programming methodology. They should think about how applications should be structured. Don’t be afraid of learning something new. Be ambitious! The biggest challenge for us is to find good iOS developers. There is a real shortage in Jamaica.
Palisadoes: How do these skills differ when working for companies with a primarily Jamaican clientele versus companies with an international focus?
Robert: To be successful with international clients means paying attention to detail. Frontend development and clean design is very important to international clients. Aesthetics must be looked at and understood to be as important as the functionality an application has to do.
Palisadoes: What do you desire in the soft skills of graduates?
Egbert: The most important skill for us is honesty. Honesty is the root of all important soft skills in software development for us because we need to know when you are struggling to perform and need help, we need to know that your timeline and estimates for a project are kept. It is also important that you are honest to yourself and know yourself and your abilities, which can be affected by false confidence in yourself and you are working on a project that is beyond your actual capabilities. So for us, honesty is the foundation to good communication, time management, quality and productivity.
Palisadoes: Is there a viable career path in ICT for Jamaican students leaving university? How does this affect the perceived quality of graduates?
Egbert: We encourage students to find careers in the ICT sector. The industry must become a viable part of the Jamaican economy but it will take some time to build the critical mass of skilled developers. In general Frontend development must be the focus as the talent pool in that area currently is underdeveloped. It is safe to say that 8 out of 10 projects we get from international clients requires frontend developers.
Egbert and Robert’s ICT insights are interesting, as are yours. The Palisadoes Foundation is always willing to discuss the opinions of Jamaican ICT professionals around the world and help the promotion of the industry through the Jamaican Diaspora. Contact us if you’d like to express thoughts.