Skilled engineers turning ideas to businesses

Entrepreneurship is great. The idea of brave men and women striking out on a new path, armed only with an idea, passion in their hearts and fire in their bellies is the foundation of the free market economy.

I grew up reading stories of Henry Ford, JP Morgan and other American ‘Captains of Industry’ who seemingly by sheer force of will built vast business empires. In my teens and early years of university, I was inspired by articles on Gary Kildal, Bill Gates, the two Steve’s and Larry Page and Sergei Brin. Control Data, Microsoft, Apple and Google were their ’empires’. The Stories around them were of an idea that mushroomed into blue-chip titans almost overnight.

Such stories are loaded with inspirational value, but the tell only a tiny part of the story. Those great ideas often had to find funding to be turned into reality and that money went to pay for office space, support staff, equipment and lots of other things. But above all, it went to hiring educated, highly skilled engineers.

Software developers, electrical/electronic engineers, infrastructure engineers, data scientists, software architects, technology service managers, database administrators, operating system administrators . . . the hundreds different skill sets needed to turn a brilliant prototype into a functioning product or service.

All the big tech giants Google, Facebook, Uber, Microsoft etc suck up thousands of engineers of virtually every creed and colour. What talent they can’t find locally, they scour the globe in pursuit of; South America, India, China, Europe, Africa no place is too far or too much of a backwater for them.

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Let us take our heads out of the clouds for a second and get back down from Tech Wonderland to home (where ever that may be for you). Back in 2012/13 fresh out of University I had dreams of launching a startup, building an app and becoming a billionaire ‘just like Zuckerburg’. I still have that dream, but it’s somewhat moderated by my reality. There are no Angel Investors roaming Lusaka brandishing chequebooks and most importantly a critical mass (or surplus) of skilled software engineers – ready to work for free (or paid in stock) at a startup – is missing.

All the best engineers are snapped up by the big Telecoms companies, Banks and their contractors. Unfortunately, there is a large cadre of ‘engineers’ with bachelor’s degrees even masters degrees who can’t code, write an SQL statement, configure a router, have no idea what Linux is let alone, Bash, have never built anything (application or otherwise), couldn’t rack a server to save their lives.

These are the ‘educated unskilled’ and they are either the biggest catastrophe or opportunity that we as a society have. Hobbled by an education that emphasised rote learning and discouraged questioning the established order, handicapped by a society that glorifies ‘having papers’ (qualifications) and crippled by having had any creative thoughts or tendencies towards initiative and ingenuity squeezed out them by the time they are done with their secondary school education.

All is not lost for them and by extension us. We live in a time where ignorance is quite literally a choice. The Internet, social media, online forums, new paradigms of learning and online commerce have placed at your feet the opportunity to acquire skills to compliment the knowledge your degree gave you. And in the process turn you into a real engineer, who can really build, maintain and set up complex stuff.

I know this because I was once part of that mass of humanity; proudly waving my degree but totally unskilled. A willingness to learn and choosing to be in an environment where I could acquire skills helped me heave myself out of there. I am better for it and have gone on to work on some great projects. You can too!

Tech Entrepreneurs dream great dreams, Skilled Engineers turn them into reality, unskilled engineers will wallow in mediocrity for the rest of their careers. Society needs the first two, the former we can do without. Choose your path!

Author: Kalombo Chilongoshi