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On my first day as a junior software engineer, a fellow teammate and mentor encouraged me to never hesitate to ask as many questions as I’d like- he explained that it’s always better to ask than to build on false assumptions. Now, I did have a lot of questions, and he answered a few of them, while challenging me with others, but there were many more for which I knew I’d need time to find explanations for. One of the many questions that irked me was about how companies build reliable software products that can evolve to serve millions of users. You see, I wanted to understand how one could have dozens of developers synchronously working on the same product, and continuously be updating and improving it, without interrupting the user’s experience. That is what first led me, a techie in the UAE, to seek out internships and opportunities to work in the field of software engineering.
It’s this endeavor that led me to find that while our tech industry in the UAE was rapidly growing with startups like Souq.com and Careem leading the way, few of our software products were actually built by developers in the UAE. Startups in the country were almost exclusively relying on developers abroad to build their technology, which meant that opportunities for new graduates like myself were few and far in between. This was quite a surprise, especially when considering that the UAE’s tech startup industry -and indeed, that of the MENA region as well- has grown ten-fold over the past decade. According to Wamda’s 2019 Tech Entrepreneurship Ecosystem in the United Arab Emirates report, in just two years, i.e. between 2014 and 2016, investments in UAE tech startups grew 10x in value. Government and private funding for startups, as well as an accelerated entrepreneurial drive, along with strong business acumen, have all seen rapid growth in the past few years. However, our ability as a nation to develop tech talent has remained relatively stagnant. This includes nurturing talent in designing, building, and deploying software products.
While recruiting tech talent overseas has allowed us the opportunity to build successful tech startups, overlooking the importance of nurturing local talent may have slowed us down. The inattention to the need to nurture local talent has manifested in two ways. Firstly, our dependence on tech talent from other countries limited our industry to the scope and skill level of external players. This over-reliance has held us back from innovating in less traditional and more advanced tech fields, such as financial technology and artificial intelligence. Secondly, startup founders with advanced technical backgrounds play an important role in pushing upwards the ceiling of possibilities in a given industry. Only in the presence of such individuals, who both embody the passion for entrepreneurial endeavors and possess technical expertise, will we be able to build companies that are capable of competing on a global level. However, and in the absence of adequate local tech talent, our ability to innovate is restricted, and this diminishes our ability to compete globally.
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It is possible to speculate that it is due to the aforementioned challenges that the UAE has recently announced its desire to attract global tech talent, namely software engineers. Bringing talented individuals to contribute directly to our industry can help accelerate the rise of opportunities for tech graduates and professionals, both in quality and quantity. This gives us an opportunity to instigate a feedback loop, where one element enables the growth of another and vice versa. The more advanced tech talent there is in the industry, the more companies are interested in creating job opportunities to tap into local potential. This in turn creates more opportunities for career growth, which is currently limited by companies’ interest and ability to recruit locally. Although this may seem rather simple, successfully initiating, accelerating, and sustaining this feedback loop is a great challenge we need to tackle. As we welcome talented individuals from across the world, we ought to take this as an opportunity to facilitate much needed knowledge transfer, in order to build the first generation of local tech experts, who will lead the transition to a sustainable world-class tech industry.
When we speak of knowledge transfer, we often imagine this to happen through academic courses, workshops, exchange programs, and internships. While these can certainly be valuable avenues through which knowledge transfer can take place, these conventional methods alone cannot prepare us for building and managing software products that are robust and malleable enough to accommodate the uncertain and fast-paced nature of the tech industry. Software products can be modified while in operation, often without disrupting users’ experience. Most of us don’t recognize it, but Instagram, for example, updates their code over 30 times a day. This allows tech startups to have fast feedback loops, where they can be directly informed by user behavior. These insights guide the development of products, which further enhances users’ experience. It is only after going through this experience as a product developer can one truly appreciate what it takes to develop and deploy software products. As we bring in tech experts to support us in the building of our own industry, it is essential that we also open up job opportunities for local graduates and young tech professionals by encouraging mentorship in one’s day-to-day work. This might catalyze a practice of knowledge transfer that will eventually minimize our reliance on foreign talent and expertise.
Today, we lack not only a mechanism for knowledge transfer in tech development, but we also lack the incentive, particularly for Emirati graduates, to pursue tech careers at startups. For startups to survive, especially in their early stages, they need to keep their costs low. This limits startups in their ability to offer competitive salaries and benefits for entry level roles, compared to large corporations and government entities that seldom hire for technical roles. To add to that, we still lack defined paths for tech careers in the UAE. As a result, very few tech graduates end up pursuing tech careers. In order to break this pattern, we need to raise the value of tech talent in the UAE by a large margin to make it more viable for startups to recruit and invest in talent locally. We can achieve this by enabling young tech professionals to develop their technical skills and expertise at an accelerated rate. The mentors we work with play a great role in determining how quickly we can build our skills. In return, the investment in mentoring young talent nurtures their ability to contribute back to our startups and our industry. By investing in local talent, we’re cultivating local teams capable of building globally competitive tech startups that, together, will make up a more advanced tech industry.
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