Talent is the driving force of nearshore IT interest in Latin America and most of those engaged in the field as either a vendor or a buyer agree that countries like Costa Rica, Colombia, Uruguay, Mexico and Brazil, among others, offer IT talent that is world-class.
Concerns have arisen lately, though, that more needs to be done to ensure that the talent supply continues to meet demand – and the concerns are not limited to one country. Private sector and individual initiatives are striving to address these concerns, however.
Opportunities for Disadvantaged Youth
Chris Corcino, founder and CEO of Intellisys, recognized the need to invest in talent development in the Dominican Republic. His project, which helps disadvantaged youth find a foothold in IT, evolved from internal company talent development initiatives. “In 2007/ 2008, as a software development company we realized that the developers we were hiring were not at the level we needed them to be at for our clients. They were not ready to add value at the level that the clients needed. So initially we needed a training program for those coming into the company,” he explained.
A few years later Corcino decided to create an institute and open it up to everyone. “We hired a college professor and used MIT OpenCourseware. Because the programming skills of some employees were pretty weak, we had to teach those classes in the company. It has evolved since then. We are always looking for new ways to train,” he said.
Corcino comes from a very rural area. “I met my financial goals about 10 years, so I want to give back,” he said. Intellisys is now partnering with government to make available community technology centers throughout the Dominican Republic. Intellisys, the Cincinnatus Institute of Craftsmanship and the Community Technology Centers, along with the Vice President of the Dominican Republic have signed a co-operation agreement to encourage technology development in the country. “The centers will offer all of the content through Udacity, Coursera etc from the courses, and there will be coaches who will answer questions and review them,” Corcino explained.
“It is better to have a physical location so that in each of those 95 computer centers we create groups of people with physical support in those places. We are currently working with six of those centers and working out the logistics. This year the goal is to go to all 95 centers.”
The first phase of the project is the training. The second phase is the experiential phase, which includes an internship. “They would come to be part of teams in the company, teams where they can work on real projects. The internships are four to six months long. There are also opportunities to work on projects with Hearst and Conde Nast,” Corcino said. “We do charge for the second phase. We charge them 10% of their salary for two years once we find them work, to subsidize expenses.”
In the past, Corcino said, they were limited by their locations and could only train 20 people at a time. Space is a limitation. They receive hundreds of applicants but less than half can be helped. “We are working on opening it up,” he said.
Working with Government
David Feldsott, Co-founder and CEO of PanTrek, a tech startup that is currently building a search and booking engine for inter-city buses and ferries in Latin America, explained that, in Colombia, there are no computer science programs at the universities.
“The closest thing is a degree in ‘Systems Engineering’. The universities claim that there is not enough interest in computer science as a major because most people think the lucrative jobs are not in software development, but in other areas like project management instead,” he said. “So, private sector programs are being developed to fill the gap and teach computer programming to today’s youth.”
Feldsott cited the example of Medellin, Colombia, where he is currently living and building a tech start-up. The first programming boot camp in Colombia is in session. “Make It Real” is a 12-week program that teaches students how to become a full-stack web developer, using the Ruby On Rails framework.
But, Feldsott said, the programming boot camps are not that accessible to the average Colombian. “The upcoming boot camps cost 6.5 million Colombian pesos, which is roughly US$2,500. The minimum monthly salary for Colombians is around 650,000 pesos. So you are talking 10 months salary for someone living on minimum wage,” he said. “Obviously middle class people make more money, but usually that is not more than two to three million Colombian pesos a month. While there are no university requirements for the boot camp, students must understand written and spoken English, which is a problem for the average Colombian also.” He added that it is a full-time (9am-5pm), 12-week program, so it would be impossible to complete this boot camp while holding a job.
The Founder Institute program has expanded to Medellin as well to teach entrepreneurship to the community, according to Feldsott.
He added: “The government has stepped in as well to help expand innovation and entrepreneurship in Medellin. A public-private partnership between the Medellin government and two major companies in Medellin (UNE and EPM) has resulted in the creation of a corporation called Ruta N.”
Ruta N, Feldsott said, is responsible for furthering innovation and promoting technology in the city. “They accomplish this through grants to businesses, tax benefits, an accelerator program, bringing in prominent speakers, sponsoring an Innovation festival every year, and partnering with educational institutions for skills-based development programs.”
Medellin is starting to be recognized as a regional technology hub, but, Feldsott noted, the government and educational systems here are slow to adapt to the ever-changing technology needs, so it is paramount that more private institutions help to fill the skills gap.
“Programming salaries are less than one-third of the salaries in the United States, which is why Facebook, Google, and other technology companies are opening offices here in Colombia. Colombians are very eager to learn more IT skills and make better lives for themselves and with more assistance from private institutions, it could be a huge win-win for both parties,” he said.
Feldsott also highlighted the fact that Colombia lacks capital funding for tech startups. “Many people with an interest in IT careers in the United States further develop their skill sets in fast-moving technology startups. The flow of ‘easy money’ in Silicon Valley (relative to Colombia) generates many well-paying job opportunities for IT professionals,” he said. “The lack of capital here in Colombia has dampened the growth of technology startups and therefore IT job opportunities. Better access to capital for technology startups in Colombia would encourage the development of more IT talent.”
Hackathon for Development
The Hack for Big Choices (H4BC) initiative seeks to “empower talented people to solve local problems by developing innovative products and businesses”. H4BC partners with like-minded individuals and companies to develop young people in areas including design and technology. In Guadalajara, Mexico, Luxoft partnered with H4BC because the company believes in nurturing top-tier talent in the region.
“Luxoft is a very selective company, always looking for the best talent available globally. Because we develop software for the most demanding customers in the world, we require world-class talent. Top tier Engineers are scarce, no matter where you are located, and we need to find the talent and nurture it, the earlier the better. In the long term, we need to ensure that the most talented kids choose computer science as a career in which they can thrive,” explained Enrique Cortes, Luxoft Managing Director Mexico.
“We have a strong belief that intelligence, drive, and talent are spread evenly through society, and that talented kids from poor families are at a clear disadvantage because they and their families are not aware of the great opportunities that are out there for them to develop their talents. For that very reason we decided to sponsor H4BC, and as part of our plan, we invited 15 brilliant kids from public high schools that usually do not participate in these types of events because they simply do not know they exist. This was the first time that the kids were even aware of the vibrant technical community that exists in the very city where they live.”
Cortes added that Luxoft was present at the event, and helped the kids with a little bit of coaching on how a hackathon works. “They all did a fantastic job, but one of the kids really excelled and won a special prize for best individual contribution. What we expect is: 1) that some of those 15 kids will decide to go to college and study engineering, and 2) that after graduating from college they will have brilliant careers, perhaps as entrepreneurs, perhaps with Luxoft,” he said.
Cortes noted that one of the sponsors of H4Bc in Guadalajara was the State Government through the “Secretaria de Inovacion, Ciencia y Tecnologia” (Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology), “so we believe they are doing their part and we are doing our part. It is imperative that industry, government and academia work together to ensure that Jalisco will have the talent pool to compete globally.”
Back to Basics
Sometimes, despite development and growth, there is still a need to address the basics. This is what Project Caputera in Brazil aims to do with its wi-fi initiative. A project of the Dutch-Brazilian company, Riklsat Enterprises, Project Caputera will see the placing of Integrated Radio Masts on condominio grounds, without “interference of corrupt government officials,” according to founder and director, Richard Kloostra.
Kloostra explained that the project is divided into six phases, and they are now raising the money to execute the first three. “We estimate that we can connect 250 houses by June 2015, and a thousand more by December 2015,” he said. The project is crowdfunded through Indiegogo.
”Connectivity to the Internet is the modern day fishing rod. Once connected, communities self-develop without having to wait for government programs,” Kloostra added.
The project chose wi-fi connectivity, using the brown-iposs integrated radio mast because it is a proven broadband technology, 95% of IT equipment comes equipped with a wi-fi card and other wireless technologies are dependent on acquiring very expensive usage licenses
In Brazil, Kloostra said, “Internet service providers do not offer internet in remote areas or towns with less than 30.000 persons, and wireless 2G and 3G providers do not invest enough in their equipment, which results in poor to very poor quality for a high price.”
He believes that Internet connectivity is part of the development of IT talent. “Work in IT starts with connectivity to the internet,” he said, adding that he also hopes to provide employment in the sector as his company grows.
The project does not offer free Internet access as such, but does makes concessions. “We will be charging a connection fee of $35 per month, for those who can afford it, and we will create free access points for those who cannot. After all, if you have no drinking water, Internet is not going to be your first concern,” Kloostra added.
Kloostra is skeptical of the effectiveness of government initiatives, citing issues of corruption. “We need private/ personal support to get Brazil connected; there are still 38 million households to go,” he said.
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