Can Cartagena’s Tech Ecosystem Begin to Rival Colombia’s Established Hubs?

We've all heard about Colombia's tech-centric cities of Medellin and Bogota, but how does the coastal town of Cartagena stack up? We spoke to an established mobile app developer to find out.

When people think of doing global services in Colombia, the typical options of Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Barranquilla are typically the first cities mentioned.  The coastal city of Cartagena is not often considered as a potential investment location for tech companies, but offers its own range of nearshore benefits, from frequent international flights, to its status as an entry point for of one of the country’s submarine fiber network cables.

Last month, Spanish telecom giant Telefonica Movistar and the Chamber of Commerce of Cartagena signed a collaboration agreement to develop and implement the Open Future project, an initiative that seeks to accelerate the entrepreneurial growth of the city, enabling new connections for digital development and providing access to a global platform of investors.

While this is great news for the city’s modest IT ecosystem — which currently has roughly 10-20 tech companies, most of which develop for other markets — does Cartagena really have what it takes to rival the larger Colombian cities?

Nearshore Americas spoke to the founder of Cartagena-based mobile app developer NativApps, Gustavo de la Vega, who was eager to communicate that his city offers more than just manufacturing and tourism.

From ERP Systems to Mobile

Gustavo de la Vega
Gustavo de la Vega: “If Colombia wants to grow faster, we need to compete with India by selling development services to the US.”

NativApps was the brainchild of Colombian entrepreneur Gustavo de la Vega, whose original vision was to work in the ERP world. When the company was founded in 2003, under the name Proactive Consulting, there was a huge market for ERP software in Colombia, with a lot of companies implementing these kind of solutions. “We developed the company in the corporate world, focusing only on B2B market,” de la Vega explained. “However, at this time we also had a small business unit that worked exclusively with mobile devices, like HP iPAQs. We didn’t get much revenue from the unit at the time, but in 2007 I noticed that the market for mobile apps was about to blow up, so I decided to change the vision and move toward mobile development.”

With the dawn of mobile looming, NativApps began to work with Web OS and cross-platform development techniques, using PhoneGap and similar tools. “We created a great relationship with Nitobi, the original PhoneGap owner before Adobe acquired it in 2011,” de la Vega explained. “As a result, we became one of the first companies in Colombia to work with cross-platform techniques.” NativApps also has native development capabilities, such as Java for Android and Swift for IOS.

NativApps was responsible for building the Counter-Intelligence Army Data Center in Colombia in 2008. The company also worked on fingerprint scanning software with the Colsanitas health organization, then moved on to develop a mobile app for Tigo, a mobile telecoms company. Today, its portfolio ranges from wellness and fitness apps, to augmented reality apps that provide audio guides in art museums.

Advantageous Location

According to de la Vega, Cartagena has significant benefits that potentially outshine what established tech hubs can offer. “Cartagena is the second best Colombian city for flight frequency after Bogota,” he explained. “You can fly direct to Europe, Miami, Atlanta, Toronto, and LA, among other locations, so there is adequate connection to the rest of the world.” Network infrastructure is also an advantage, as Colombia’s submarine fiber optic cable enters through Cartagena and uses a data center downtown, providing huge bandwidth for the area.

The city also plays host to a number of important technology events and summits. “After living in Bogota for 17 years, I never had any real opportunities to meet others within the industry, but after just three years in Cartagena I met Steve Wozniak and other notable technology figureheads, helping me build a real network,” he explained.

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Sourcing Talent

In Cartagena, the main universities for talent sourcing are Tecnologico Comfenalco, Corporación Universitaria Rafael Nuñez, and the University of Cartagena, which is where NativApps sources most of its staff. Close by, in Baranquilla, institutes include Universidad Del Norte for developers and Universidad La Autonoma for media and communication.

NativApps is growing fast, starting 2016 with just 21 people, but growing to 37 by July with an aim to hire another 4 by mid-August. Currently, the company’s talent is almost 100% Colombian, but resumes have begun coming in from Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica and Argentina.

When hiring developers, the company requires a base knowledge of Java, but also a real understanding of the “grammar” of this language. “The good universities may teach languages likes Java, PHP etc., but the real deal comes from a grammar base that allows any other language to be learned fast,” stated de la Vega. “In the IT world, the environment is changing every day, so every day we are looking for people with new skills, performing R&D in new technologies, and working with other companies to identify the right talented people.”

The India Middleman

Over the last three years, NativApps has developed a number of projects for Indian software development companies, giving de la Vega the impression that his prices must be competitive. “Price is at the top of peoples’ mind when outsourcing to India,” he said. “One of the Indian companies hired us because of our time zone, which allowed them to better serve a client in New York.”

At this stage, de la Vega started to research the Indian IT ecosystem, confirming a hypothesis that many Colombian software development companies are actually hiring people in India. “During a meeting with a new Colombian customer, I discovered that he was spending his money in India, so I urged him to rethink the strategy and spend it here in Colombia,” he revealed.

Colombia’s IT Future

Even after the revelation that India is siphoning potential business away from the country, de la Vega is unfazed by the threat of competition, stating that the North American market is going to be so huge with the evolution of Internet of Things (IoT), that market saturation for development firms is unlikely to be a risk.

“Now it is common to consider selling to the US when starting a software company in Latin America,” he said. “I think the Colombian market has historically focused on selling packaged solutions, not developing services like India does. If you want to grow fast, you need to compete with India by selling development services. These services will grow fast and increase the employment rate for companies that adopt this model. If we ignore this fact, the country will not have enough people to meet the impending demand.”

Do you have something to add about Cartagena’s tech ecosystem? What have been your positive or negative experiences with the Colombian city? Let us know in the comments below. 

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