Friday, 12 October 2007

South African Technology Career Options

Recently, I saw a story that one Llew Jones had been appointed head of the State IT Agency (SITA) in South Africa.

Llew Jones, as far as I know, is an engineer, with a background in the armaments industry, so why is he being appointed as head of a government agency in an area in which he has no background?

Then again, he was acting director of Meraka, an agency supposedly the leading ICT reseach body in the country for a while – and he was not particularly qualified for that either*.

Some may be rather puzzled at this point, as there is a broad perception in South Africa that Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is the main driver of senior appointments to the government payroll – and white South Africans mainly get appointed to fill gaps in competence. So why him?

No big mystery. The ANC, absent serious opposition, has fallen into the comfort zone of favouring team players over competence – and this is not a strictly racial issue. Some of these "team players" are members of the old order. Troublemakers from the old days are not favoured. The government continues to favour the Afrikaans universities and the CSIR over the English universities as sources of advice, and Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni notoriously said Afrikaners were much more reliable appointments than blacks. What he meant, of course, is that the old hands at the broederbond game know how to keep their heads down and work the system.

Expect this to continue until there are enough voters who don't have memories of the old system. In Zimbabwe, that took 20 years (unfortunately, Mugabe didn't want to let go – otherwise they would probably have had an MDC government by now; even if not totally competent it would certainly have been less of a disaster).

South Africa is about halfway through the post-liberation transition. The realization that the main liberation party doesn't hold all the answers may go a bit faster than in Zimbabwe because South Africa is a more diverse society with a longer tradition of a critical civil society, but the ANC can certainly expect to win at least the next election with a massive majority. That being the so, it's hard to put the case that there is something systemically wrong with the whole approach. Look what happened to the deputy health minister.

In my view the best thing South Africans with strong technical skills who want to contribute to the long-term development of the country can do now is to get some experience in government to learn the lie of the land then go to the private sector to develop their skills. To stick too long in the government sector risks burning yourself out with frustration. It's not as if all good in society flows from government activity. Business has some contribution, and SA does have some particularly good NGOs – despite my broad perception that "NGO" stands for "never gets organized".

So what am I doing outside South Africa?

I was a computer science academic at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for around 20 years, up to mid-2002, and felt that I needed some international experience – not only because it was useful, but because there is a prejudice in small countries that foreign is better.

There is a long history at Wits of favouring "foreign experience" over locals. The first head of computer science had a Stanford PhD but hadn't published much and had no PhD completions. His Stanford PhD plus industrial experience was sufficient to make him a full professor and head of department. He eventually left because he realized he wasn't cut out to be an academic. We later acquired a Hungarian of lazy disposition with a PhD I think in mathematics. He lasted until we had an activist class who complained of his abject lack of preparation for any of his courses. Then we acquired a new head from Russia, whose background was not in computer science. Each time he was exposed as knowing nothing about an area in which he claimed expertise, he moved on to another. At various times, he was an authority on AI, graphics, parallel computing and smart cards. He had one PhD completion to his name when he started, and a fair number of publications but none in computer science. To my recollection, he only published one paper when he was with us. Eventually, he was forced to leave after he got involved with a startup while on sabbatical, and didn't want to do any lecturing on his return. Somewhere along the line, we also managed to acquire a Bulgarian and someone from the UK, neither of whom amounted to much acadamically. The last instalment of this type was an American who had significant industry experience in Germany and was appointed a full professor straight out of his PhD. Of this bunch, he was by far the most successful, and published some papers – but he was on a time-limited contract and didn't stay.

So: international experience, a PhD, limited publications, zero or possibly one PhD completion: this combination was viewed highly favourably at Wits. Three people were appointed as full professors with these credentials. So when Wits advertised for professor and head of computer science in February 2007, I applied. All I heard since was one email telling me I would be informed of progress (28 March 2007). This is kind of puzzling since I was previously appointable as an associate professor (this happened last time I applied for a vacant chair) and I now have not only the prized international experience but also a PhD completion and relevant experience. It seems I am still missing something important – or could it be that once you have gone up the slippery pole of promotion at Wits, you are judged to a much higher standard?

Whatever. But I do feel that having put 20 years into producing a large number of successful graduates, I have done my part. If the experience I have gained in the process is not valued in South Africa, others will value it. I wish those still in the system luck. They are going to need it.

* See another article in this blog on whether Meraka was a success. For the record, I applied to Meraka for a position, and was only made an offer (which I turned down) after Jones left; I spoke to him on a trip to South Africa, and he was not keen on having me on board, claiming my area of research was not a "national priority". That seems excessively picky when you don't have nearly enough skilled people on board to meet your goals.

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