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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why application development in South Africa is more than a job: Mbuso Ngcongo interview transcript

For some, developing database applications is just a job. But for Mbuso Ngcongo, Systems Specialist at Infomas in South Africa, it has the potential to create wealth where there isn't any. It's one of the reasons why he's starting an Alpha Five training school in South Africa.

Melissa talked to Mbuso about his training school in a video interview last week. Now this week I'm giving you the transcript of the interview in case you prefer to read it. Scroll down to read the exciting plans Mbuso has for his Alpha Five training school and potential it can bring his students.

Melissa: Hi, everyone. I'm Melissa and I'm talking with Mbuso Ngcongo. Sorry if I didn't pronounce that right, but he is the system specialist at Infomas in South Africa. How are you today? Thank you for joining me.

Mbuso: I'm pretty well. Thank you, Melissa, and hi everyone.

Melissa: And just for the audience, what was your name again? Because I know I didn't pronounce it correctly and I apologize.

Mbuso: It was very close. Mbuso Ngcongo.

Melissa: All right. Well, thank you, Mbuso, for joining us. Mbuso is actually one of our Alpha Five developers in South Africa who is starting a training college focusing on database application development using Alpha Five.

But before I tell you what he hopes to accomplish with Alpha Five in South Africa, Mbuso, tell us a little bit more about you. How did you become a developer?

Mbuso: OK, where do I start? I'll start off when I started my studying which was in 1996. I studied toward law, that was my intention. But halfway through the year I was actually introduced, for the very first time, to computers.

And the program that I was studying, unfortunately, was a semester program which I could not do the following year had I continued with studying toward law. Then I looked at the options that were available to me, one of them, because I was very interested.

I was very keen to go more deeper into studying computers. And one of the options which was available was studying computer science which was, unfortunately, only available if you were doing Bachelor of Science.

So then I switched at the time the following year. And then I started Bachelor of Science in computer science at that time. From then on that was basically my first exposure to programming. Yeah. And that's when it started.

Melissa: So, Mbuso, we'll jump ahead a couple years from when you started developing. And can you tell us a little bit about the company you started, Infomas in 2002, and why you started it, who you help, and what it does?

Mbuso: Yes. Okay, basically what happened is that while I was studying, I had friends who had businesses. And during the weekends and my time off I would spend time at their businesses and I would see how they were struggling with certain problems, as in managing the day-to-day operations of the business.

And some of them actually had computers, but what actually fascinated me was how they were using things like Word and so forth to basically do things which ideally should be database applications. And I then started at the time to develop new programs to help with operations, and that's basically how it started.

Basically identifying market needs and realizing that all the applications, or at least most of the applications, that are available are not appropriate to service the requirements-the specific requirements that each and every business might have out there.

So it was for that reason, then, that in 2000 -- I had finished my studies in the year 2000 -- I went to study in University of KwaZulu Natal where I specialized in SQL programming and other advanced programming techniques, basically back-end and so forth.

And so when I came back, I had in mind the tools that were necessary to, or the techniques that were necessary to actually run a business in the appropriate way. And so around 2002 I then decided to actually start a business which would focus primarily on development of information systems.

It is at that time that I then started to look for tools that would speed up the process of developing. Because you can imagine coming out of college, starting a business with very little funds.

During the night you'd have to develop the application, and during the day you'd have to deploy the application. And the following day you'd have to train, and then it would also have to provide technical support which can be quite time-consuming and quite resource-demanding as well.

Melissa: Yeah, it sounds like quite a lot to take on, but it seems like you managed it and now you have a wonderful company and plenty of employees working underneath you. Now, what platforms were you using to develop your applications at first?

Mbuso: Initially I actually started off, I'd use whatever the client had on site. And most of the time, as I said, the office applications that they had. That is basically what I would use initially to create an application which would address the problems.

I didn't have funds to be able to purchase any applications tools, development tools. And also, yeah, the different environments what you'd find is that some clients actually had different operating systems. You’d find Mac OS. You'd also find Windows was the dominating operating system.

But the critical issue there was two factors -- one -- the factor of myself not having sufficient funds to purchase the low-level development tools that I could use. And also the need for speed, to be able to deploy applications in as quickly a time as possible, applications that were stable.

It was just for that reason that I started on a high level-using application software, office applications. And then gradually I then started to realize the need to now have applications that were Runtime, that I could deploy Runtime so that I could protect the source code.

Because what I found was that some of the applications actually involved a lot of work behind the scenes and, hence, contained intellectual property. So I then started the very first, in that line of direction.

The very first application that I came across was the FileMaker, which what I admired about it was I could develop applications very quickly, and the issues of networking and so on were built in and so on. And that also I could deploy Runtime. So those were the first tools that I was exposed to.

Melissa: OK, great. And now how did you stumble upon Alpha Five? Did you hit a breaking point with FileMaker, or what led you to go look for another platform to use?

Mbuso: The issue at the time was precisely around toward the end of 2002, and the issue at the time was networking with large number of clients or wider local Internet with a need for more users and so forth. And when I looked at the pricing structure, it was at the time a little steep, not affordable at the time.

And therefore I started to look for more cost-effective alternatives that I could find. And while I waS, I think at the time I was using Find, because I think Google was not really popular at the time, but there was another search engine.

Melissa: Oh, wow. What was that like? When Google wasn't popular?

Mbuso: It wasn't really, at least not from my point of view. But there were other search engines. But I know that this one search engine which when I did a search only returned two applications. And one of them was FileMaker and another one was Alpha. And I was like, wow, what is this Alpha?

And it turned out also that Alpha had way much more features competitively, in terms of having a built-in programming language in the form of Xbasic, but also in the form of a Web server. And, to me, that was really a heaven on Earth. Yes, it was the best tool that I actually came across and I started using it from that time on.

Melissa: And what was it like going from FileMaker to Alpha Five? Did you find the transition to be easy, or did you have to spend a lot of time learning about Alpha Five? What was that process like?

Mbuso: Already I think at the time I had set my mind in such a framework that says that whatever environment I would find myself in, I basically have to spend time to learn the language and use that tool.

I think that is one of the things that I took away from college. Because I remember having been exposed for the first time to programming, and what I found quite upsetting initially was the fact that just in time when you actually fell for the program that you were exposed to, you found that the following semester you would have to use another programming tool.

Initially it was a bit upsetting. But what I found was that over the course of the studying period, I actually found that tool to be a plus because it actually taught one not to really fall for the tool, but to understand the principles behind it.

So with that framework, the transition for me was not very steep. But also at the time I remember quite distinctly that the tool itself was being marketed as a programming tool for non-programmers.

That is how it was actually marketed. And I said to myself, “If this tool is for non-programmers, then I'm already a step ahead so to speak.”

Melissa: Wonderful. So, before we start getting into the training college and me asking you a couple of questions about that, I wanted to quickly ask your thoughts on mobile application development.

You know, we've been talking a lot about it on the blog recently and all these different mobile OSes that developers have to develop for and how it helps a lot.

And if you've been reading about Version 11 and how Alpha Five is going to feature an easier way to build mobile applications. How important is mobile application development to you and your clients?

Mbuso: Yes. The mobile application is actually the way to go. I was really quite impressed, and to me that the fact that Alpha is taking that approach going forward, to me that is very important.

Because one of the things, if you understand the environment in which you are operating from, you know from South Africa point of view is that the ratio to households and to individuals with computers is still very low compared to the ratio of cell phone ownership or mobile devices ownership.

The mobile devices have actually taken off quite well, and also considering other factors such as the new infrastructure in our country, allegedly, and things that you find like, even in areas where there's no electricity but you actually see people with mobile devices such as a phone. So it has really taken off quite well, and I think going forward it is the way to go if one is to reach a larger populace.

Melissa: That's really interesting. I didn't know that fact about the mobile really outnumbering the number of computers in South Africa, which leads me to my next question. Because from talking to you through email earlier, it's interesting because it seems that you don't look at application development as a job.

You see it more as an opportunity, and I believe that's one of the reasons why you're starting this training college. So tell me a little bit about what sparked this idea to start this college.

Mbuso: Yes. What basically happened is that over the years with the clients and the products, the solutions that I provided to get a team that I sort of put together at the time.

What then happened, or what continues to happen from time to time, is that I get asked by clients who say, “What happens if you're not there?”

There are very few people, especially in the country, who can develop databases let along using the tool that you are using. So that's one that has been a concern.

But secondly also what prompts me to do is having looked at the near decade that I've spent in that kind of an environment, I've literally made a living out of it. And in the process it has been a win/win situation because both myself and the clients have been happy -- in the sense that they've received the solutions that they desired.

So to me the next logical step is to say how do I deal with the question, or the concern that the clients have of creating a pool of resources. Where individuals, where more and more people would be in a position to be exposed to this tool, and will be in a position to actually make a living out of it themselves.

So to me, it is really motivated by a desire to create a productivity out of transferring this skill that has been accumulated over a period of time.

Melissa: That's wonderful. Now why did you decide to really focus the development on Alpha Five? I know you've been happy with it so far, but you really could have chosen any application development platform. Why Alpha?

Mbuso: Yes, absolutely. It is for two reasons -- one -- the effect that it is very easy. And at the same time, providing both the levels of higher-level development tool as well as low-level development tools.

So to me that is the most important thing that the learners can . . . the turn-around time in terms of the effort that they put in, they are seeing the results would be very quick and, yeah, it is for that reason that our tools in Alpha is a tool to actually use.

But that is one. But the other factor which I think is as informed is also the price which one would pay to acquire the licenses. The pricing model, I think, is one of the amazing and one of the most affordable out there.

Melissa: That's good. Yeah, and price is definitely a factor and that is one of Alpha's biggest strengths, hat it is reasonably priced. Now for your training school, do you have any plans to incorporate mobile application development into it? Or still thinking about it?

Mbuso: Yes, yes. One of the things I haven't really told you about is that what I did to fund the studies is that I actually tutored, and later on lectured in the capital studies, what they call capital interests, and also later on advanced capital interest.

Now, one of the things which happened at the time was that I observed that there were things which interest learners and our policy was to save those things for last. And our policy was an incentive to the learners that those who achieve certain grades will get to do nice things.

And at the time the nice things were things like using your mobile as a modem for instance through a USB and so on. So I already observed the interest at the time that the learners had in utilizing the two tools and each upgrading the two of them.

Which would be your laptop, or be it your computer’s desktop, but also incorporating it as a mobile. And I also, in the process, began to realize the potential that is provided by these mobile devices.

Mbuso: I'm talking about a few years ago and things have changed drastically now with the smart phones and so forth, and the things that one can do in those devices nowadays are tremendous. And if one is able to integrate those tools in a database environment, then you put a recipe to do wonderful things.

Melissa: Great. Now so where is this training school going to be located? And when do you plan on opening it, and where can people find out more information, most importantly?

Mbuso: Yes, yes. The training school is being launched in Durban. The venue is still being decided upon. But it is being launched during the month of June. I'd say the first day of July would be when we're actually opening doors to beginners.

But the vision going forward also, that is you must understand that as a pilot project where one would then expose in that environment. But going forward, one is looking also to taking it outside of a classroom environment where even training content can be deliver it to mobile devices themselves, so that learning can happen remotely.

So, but that's a longer-term vision. The very near-term vision is to have the instructor-led training class which would then expose them to the concepts of databases right from the beginning, throughout integrating technologies that are available such as the mobile devices, the Web, and so forth. Yeah.

You asked for further information. Further information can be obtained by visiting a website, and the website is

Melissa: Wonderful. Yes, and we'll definitely include that in the blog as well. It sounds really exciting, what you know you're getting yourself into.

I know you probably have a full plate as it is, but this training college sounds wonderful and it looks like it's going to open up a lot of opportunities for other people in your area, which is wonderful.

So please keep us updated and let us know how everything goes. But before we sign off, did I miss anything? Is there any other information people need to know?

Mbuso: No, no, no. But I'd really like to get feedback. I know that, for instance, South Africa is just emerging, and gratefully we had our 2010 World Cup last year which actually put us on this spotlight.

So with that in mind, I'd like to get feedback and any comments from anyone who is in any part of the world who either has started a similar project or has certain plans in place, especially Alpha Five users.

But their comments would be invited from other platforms as well. It would be interesting to hear how others, or what other approach others are taking out there.

And how possibly one could collaborate with others out there going forward in the vision to transfer skills and expose as many people as we can to developing their tools rather than just to become end users. That's really the primary goal here.

Melissa: That's great. Now, if people do have feedback, they can leave it on the blog. But Mbuso, can they reach you directly?

Mbuso: Yes, yes. They can also reach me directly by sending an email to and also email

Melissa: Great. Well, thank you. It sounds wonderful and I'm really excited for you to take on this new venture and I hope everything goes wonderfully. Thank you so much for joining us today all the way from South Africa.

Mbuso: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity.

Melissa: All right. Take care, Mbuso.

Mbuso: OK, thank you. Bye-bye.


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