Cuba’s IT Pros Have “Got Game”, But When Will They Get to Play?

When you get here, on the ground in Havana, it doesn’t take long to recognize that the flickering light of Cuba’s formative IT nation – suddenly emerging out …

"Getting in sync with Cuba means Americans (to the North) will have to gain the capacity to recalibrate their transistors to suit unfamiliar frequencies" says Kirk Laughlin

When you get here, on the ground in Havana, it doesn’t take long to recognize that the flickering light of Cuba’s formative IT nation – suddenly emerging out of isolation after President Obama’s move to restore relations in December – has the clear potential to one day beam with 1000-watt radiance.

But “potential” doesn’t win championships. The fields may be fertile, but there are clear reasons to question whether the right ‘environmental factors’ are in place to bring to the global market services that do justice to what I have seen first-hand is a craftsman-like sensibility toward software and information technology.

What will make Cuba a winner in global IT is sufficient, reliable passageways for Cuban professionals to fluidly conduct business with partners in other countries. The primary challenges have nothing to do with the core elements: In meeting after meeting with IT professionals in Havana recently (in high-fidelity English I should add), I learned about Software-as-a-Service launches, Bio-IT projects blending gamification, ERP and SOA engagements, devoted followers (and book readers) of Scrum Guru Martin Fowler and assorted other application-building collaborations with clients in countries like France, Spain, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and yes – even the United States. I observed a distinct aura of pride. In Spike Lee terms, they “got game” and these mostly young professionals want deeply to get the chance to play at a major league level, to show what they are made of.

Now the brutal truth: Without a few clear-cut turns of the dial however, Cuba’s channels to the global market will remain on the wrong frequency and these bright talents will languish on the sidelines. Of course, there will be work-arounds, and jittery alternative routes to get software exports into the hands of clients, but software – like fruit – can go rotten if the time is too long, the distance too great or the traveling conditions too hostile.

Trust Turns A Corner

Hostilities, blockages, obstacles, distrust – we all know about the treachery that has roiled for over 50 years in the Florida straits.

Lack of trust runs pretty deep in Havana, by the way, and for US citizens, like myself, it can be an unusually cold splash on the face when you realize that some Cubans have doubts about the intentions of the U.S. in repairing the frayed bonds between these two neighbors. I may not agree with what I believe are half-baked attempts by my government to influence public opinion in Cuba – the most notorious and ill-conceived action was the disingenuous Zunzuneo operation of a few years’ ago using Twitter as a launchpad to engage – and sway – the minds of Cuban youths. But as an American I have to be switched-on enough about these matters to understand why some Cubans, especially those in government, suspect ulterior motives, especially when coming to the country talking up technology, networks and inter-connection. (It should be noted the Costa Rica government was especially critical of the US subterfuge, which was launched partly out of San Jose.)

Without a few clear-cut turns of the dial, Cuba’s channels to the global market will remain on the wrong frequency and these bright talents will languish on the sidelines.

Being a US citizen and getting acquainted with Cubans, however, is a richly rewarding experience. As I sat for lunch with a young entrepreneur who moments earlier proudly walked me around his alma mater, the University of Havana and introduced me to a few of his professors, I got the sense that the discord between the US and Cuba is not unlike a division that erupts within families over generations. In the case of this young entrepreneur, he has no personal hostility against the United States, but even as a 28-year-old he possesses a well-formed world view that includes a crystal clear understanding that what went wrong between Cuba and the United States is repairable. For us that afternoon, the reconciliation  was well underway as we enjoyed Italian food, talked about the great “Son Cubano” music of his homeland Oriente Province, to the East, and I listened to his dreams for the world he hopes his young child will grow up in.

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In another meeting, I met with a trio of entrepreneurs who have come together to form their own IT shop, and who were especially keen to discuss funding channels for IT startups. I tried to sell them on my belief that if only the Cuban government truly understood how much the IT outsourcing industry would reverse the devastating consequences of brain-drain, the more allowances would be made for these entrepreneurs to get a little bit of liberation to achieve, compete, and get out on that global playing field. As sensible as I may have thought the argument may have sounded, I was quickly reminded that the distance between two points in Cuba is never a straight line. For these young entrepreneurs, there are no grand schemes arising to change minds in government – instead they just want a little latitude to build incrementally toward their dreams.

It is small steps that will mean a lot in Cuba. And that’s also what makes the journey so perilous, because to the North, in the land of grain-fed ambition, we have all come to expect – no – demand absolute answers through instantly-manufactured rationalizations. In Cuba, that’s not what they’re offering.

Getting in sync with Cuba means Americans (to the North) will have to gain the capacity to  recalibrate their transistors to suit unfamiliar frequencies – even for those who have battle scars from setting up in other parts of Latin America could perceive Cuba as either a beastly place to do business or a paradise with perfect proximity. As I have argued before, Cuba carries with it a special kind of aura that, over time, could be built into a formidable brand powerhouse for Nearshore services.

That aura has done remarkable things for Costa Rica. Could Cuba be next?

Interested in visiting Havana? Nearshore Americas has begun organizing plans for “IT Discovery Tours” through our STANDUP CUBA initiative. Get more information here and stay updated on next steps and tour dates.

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