In conversation with Prof. Barry Dwolatzky – dedication and passion but funding is lacking!

October 27th, 2014, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EE Publishers


If I was allowed only two words to describe Prof. Barry Dwolatzky, director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering at Wits University (JCSE) it would be “dedication and passion” – dedication in his commitment to support the creation of jobs in the IT sector and passion in the way he is doing it. I met with Prof. Dwolatzky at the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

Prof Barry Dwolatzky in the App Factory

Prof. Barry Dwolatzky in the App Factory.

“Since 2005 the major focus of the work of the JCSE has been to support the creation of jobs in the IT sector”, said Prof. Dwolatzky. ”In South Africa and across the African continent, the future of our youth poses a major challenge but at the same time also presents us with huge opportunities. Our challenge is the spectre of youth unemployment.”

He said that recent figures show that 50% of those in the 15 – 25 years old age group are unemployed. Over half a million graduates are without jobs. “Some speak of our youth as a ‘lost generation’, however our youth also offer significant opportunities  compared to Europe and North America which are facing ‘demographic collapse’  with ageing populations and a lack of entrants into the job market,” he said.

“Digital technology will dominate all aspects of life. It lies at the heart of the ways in which we manage our lives and run our companies. Digital technology is not limited to software, it includes hardware and content, these three areas have converged.

“Africans have to become major innovators and developers of digital technology, we have to create it and not simply be users.” He spoke with passion about the establishment of the Tshimologong Precinct to provide a space to expand the programmes already run under the banner of the JCSE. “We already support the creation of hundreds of jobs in the IT sector. With the opportunities the Tshimologong Precinct offers we aim to create thousands of jobs.”

Prof. Dwolatzky said that technological innovations have become very much a social activity. “It’s about people working together, drawing on each other’s skills and personality traits. I believe that is the real driving force!”

What sets the Tshimologong Precinct apart from other technology hubs is that it has strong links with Wits university which has a reputation built on research and academic excellence. It is one of only two universities in Africa rated by two separate international ranking agencies as a leading world institution.  The other South African university in the ranking listings is the University of Cape Town.

Tshimologong Precinct forms part of the broader Braamfontein technology cluster dubbed “Tech in Braam”. Innovators will benefit from skills and expertise from the JCSE staff, including training and skills development initiatives and research collaboration across the continent such as with the Software Engineering Competency Centre in Cairo, Egypt and the Microsoft App factory located at the precinct.

“The Microsoft App factory at the JCSE is one of only two in Africa, the other one is in Egypt. Twenty young developers are currently completing paid internships and are being trained to develop custom-made Apps for Windows 8 that are relevant and useful to South African users. Interns have the opportunity to work on high-profile applications for companies, helping both themselves and industry.”

The students recently completed the development of “this it Wits”, an App that takes one on a virtual tour of the campus and tells the story of the people and places that made Wits the great place it is today. “The Apps has great potential to be expanded to the greater Johannesburg for telling tourists about the great events that shaped the city,”  said Prof. Dwolatzky.

Agile Africa, a conference to showcase Agile software development within an African Context, is another brainchild of Prof. Dwolatzky, It was held for the first time in 2013 . In August 2014 the concepts had grown to  the African Digital festival, “fak’ugesi”. It is an umbrella event, aimed at coordinating and curating a number of stand-alone conferences, exhibitions, workshops, short-courses and other activities that will promote the fusion of creative and technical development of digital culture in Africa. It took place at the Tshimologong precinct and at Jozi hub, and strongly positioning with Wits university as the digital gateway between Africa and the rest of the world. “The festival attracted students, researchers and entrepreneurs with an interest in digital technology throughout Africa,” said Prof. Dwolatzky. “Each event turned the spotlight on some aspect of digital technology including software, hardware, networks, digital content and games. We are already planning the  2015 event”.

“Coachlab@JCSE  is another initiative  we are involved in. It is a nine-month leadership development programme managed by us in collaboration with the Innovation Hub in Pretoria and sponsored by partners in industry. This year participants will gain exposure from its new location in the Tshimologong Precinct as they will rub shoulders with entrepreneurs and have opportunities to exchange ideas with experts.”

There is no end to the list of projects that Prof. Dwolatzky is working on. He says that although small, they all have proven successful. “We now need to upscale them to involve more young people to develop them and  take up jobs in the IT world.

“What is holding us back, is funding. It frustrates me to see how many new unproven projects are started and funded with little chance of success while we have a proven record but lack sufficient funding. To complete the Tshimologong Precinct facilities I need another R13-million, yet the funding community shies away, perhaps  because it involves funding of property. I know we are successful, we have helped hundreds of young people to find meaningful employment, and we now need to scale it up to thousands.  All that is slowing us down  is funding,” he said.

Ultimately five buildings will form the Tshimologong Precinct. The first two buildings have been renovated  and now  house the Microsoft Apps Factory, the JCSE offices and the Link Centre,  an  interdisciplinary entity of Wits University  that facilitates academic research and training in the field of electronic communication and ICT policy regulation and management  in Southern. Africa.

Passion and dedication will continue to drive Prof. Dwolatzky – all he needs now is industry and government funding agencies to join his digital revolution!

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