My name is Professor Barry Dwolatzky – generally known as Prof Barry. I’m sitting in Cape Town on the Southern tip of Africa overlooking a beautiful expanse of beach and sea. Its early in January 2020. It’s the perfect time and place to reflect on exciting projects for the year ahead. I’ve decided that one of my new projects for 2020 is to launch a Podcast. In this age of digital transformation or “the 4th Industrial Revolution”, the focus will be on Leading Africa’s Digital Future – more about this in a moment.
For those of you who don’t know me let me give you a very brief bio. Until recently I was head of Software Engineering at Wits University. Wits (or to give it its full name, the University of the Witwatersrand) is located in Johannesburg and is one of South Africa’s top academic institutions, ranked either first or second amongst Africa’s research universities and in the top 300 in the world. In 2005 I established Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (or JCSE) and in 2016 founded Wits’s Digital Innovation hub called the Tshimologong Precinct. In recognition of my work in growing South Africa’s digital sector I was named South Africa’s IT Personality of the Year in 2013 and in 2016 received an award from the IITPSA for distinguished service to the ICT Industry. In 2017 I reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 at Wits. This milestone marked the end of 28 years on the university’s full-time academic staff. My close relationshipwith Wits goes back 49 years when I enrolled as a first-year student in Electrical Engineering in 1971. In 2018 I was given a post-retirement contract to continue in my role as Director of the JCSE. I was also given the title Emeritus Professor.
So … back to the podcast…. what inspired me to launch it? … Just over a month ago, in November 2019, I was in the audience when the Institute of IT Professional of South Africa named Tiyani Nghonyama as South Africa’s IT Personality of the Year for 2019. Tiyani is a bright young software geek. He is the COO and co-founder of an organisation called Geekcultcha which helps a growing number of young Africans learn about tech entrepreneurship. I’ve known Tiyani and some of his Geekculcha co-founders for several years and I’ve helped them in various ways. They gave me the wonderful title “The Grand Geek”. On receiving his award Tiyani made a speech in which he thanked me and spoke at length about how “one day he would like to be like Prof Barry”. I must have blushed bright red! I felt very honoured to be singled out by him at this important moment in his life.
I often bump into some of the thousands of people I’ve taught, supervised or assisted in various ways over the past 30 years as a senior academic at Wits and as a leader in the local digital tech community. They always have good things to say about the positive impact I’ve had on their lives and the ways in which I’ve helped them. While I (obviously) enjoy recognition and affirmation of the fact that I’ve contributed to the growth of other people’s lives and the development of the industry in which they work, I believe it’s a pointless exercise to bask in the reflection of past achievements. I’m the kind of person who prefers to look forward. I’ve always had my eye on the future and how I can play a role in shaping it.
Over many years colleagues and friends have encouraged me to write about myself and the interesting things I’ve done. I’ve never had the time or motivation to do that. But Tiyani’s comments about wanting to “be like Prof Barry” started me thinking about the interface between my past and his future. What can I draw out of my lifetime of experience in the IT industry that will help Tiyani and his generation in the next 40 or 50 years? It is with this in mind that I’ve decided to launch a podcast.
So – back to the podcast that I will soon be lauching.
It’s my understanding that a podcast needs to have a theme, a target audience and a format.
The theme is summed up by 4 words: Leadership, Africa, Digital and Future. I’ll focus on leadership – leaders are those who set the direction, build a vision, inspire others and create something new. My context is South Africa and Africa, the part of the world in which I was born and where I’ve worked for most of my life. The third word in my theme is “digital” – the technology area in which I have always worked and which, over my lifetime, has moved from being a specialised niche of the broader analogue economy … to becoming the only economy in the 21st Century. Finally the focus of my podcast is the future. As I’ve said my interest is on the next generation – Tiyani’s generation of leaders in Africa’s digital future.
The target audience for my podcast is broad. The concepts and technologies that have filled my life since the 1970’s are become things that everyone will need to understand in some form or another in the coming decades. For this reason my podcast will aim to speak to old and young, geeks and non-geeks, everyone trying in various ways to navigate life in the digital age. To ensure that what we talk about is broadly accessible, the podcast will not be about the technological nuts and bolts of digital technology. It will cover ideas and concepts and deal with them at a technical level that most people will understand and feel able to engage with. While the focus is on Africa I hope that the podcast will be interesting to both those living and working in Africa as well as listeners anywhere else on the world with an interest in the world’s fastest growing and most rapidly developing region.
In terms of its format, the podcast will be structured as a set of conversations involving me and others of my generation on the one side engaging with those who are part of the next generation of Africa’s Digital Leaders. My objective is to focus on actual examples and real experience and to adopt a positive attitude. I have no interest in picking away at some of the many problems we face without exploring viable solutions.
Season 1 of the podcast will start by unpacking some of my own history, both technical and political. Who am I? what was the trajectory I followed from my days as a student in the 1970’s discovering the exciting world of “computing” …. which was then in its infancy … to where I am today – Prof Barry, aka The Grand Geek. Most importantly, we’ll explore how my work in software engineering over more than 40 years holds insights and valuable lessons for those setting off on their own journeys. We’ll also explore my evolution as a South African activist, using digital technology in the fight against Apartheid. I hope that my example of “practical idealism” will encourage today’s idealists and dreamers to put the greater good ahead of personal advancement. Having set the context of who I am, Season 1 will include episodes talking about software engineering, South Africa’s digital economy and its position in Africa, digital innovation and entrepreneurship … and thoughts about the future, digital transformation and the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution.
The name I’m giving the podcast is “Optimizing”. I believe it captures a sense of constantly striving to be better, to be at the forefront and to be optimistic. I hope that you will listen to these podcasts, that you will find them useful and interesting and that you will enter into the conversation. Episode 1 will be launched in early February.