CeBIT 2012

I just arrived back in Ramallah after my participation in CeBIT 2012 in Hannover, Germany, sponsored by CBI.  I felt that during the past couple of weeks, I’ve been away from my laptop and had very few chances to send emails and barely was able to follow up on some important work items.  Overall, I feel that iConnect’s participation in CeBIT 2012 was a very interesting and tiring experience, and I would definitely change a lot of things if I were to participate again.  While CeBIT 2013 is still far away, I think some of the lessons I learned can be applied to participation in any trade fair, while some may be more specific to Hannover.  Some of the general lessons I learned are:

1. Get comfortable: for any trade fair where you’re expected to be on your feet for 8-10 hours a day, I would say this is one of the most important lessons.  By the end of day two, the stress and exhaustion will already start to show.  This year I wore suits for the first four days and decided to dress casual for the last day.  Next time, I’ll take only one suit just in case I get invited to a formal event, but would mainly wear a nice polo shirt with the company logo printed on the back and front and some nice comfortable jeans and shoes.  Not only will I be much more comfortable, but it’s also a good way to show the company, especially if it’s a well designed shirt.

On the second day, I grabbed a stool from a booth that was close by and wasn’t being used.  Sitting on a chair isn’t welcoming to people.  They see you as uninterested and simply walk on.  It’s also more work having to stand up and sit down hundreds of times everyday.  With a stool, it seems like your standing while you’re sitting down.

2. Save the trees: Any way I look at it, brochures and company flyers are a thing of the past.  I carried around 500 brochures with me and boy was that a waste of time, effort and money.  Even a small legal size brochure takes time to design and costs money to print and carry on the plane.  What’s worse is that once you present them at a trade fair, no one takes them.  People don’t want to carry around brochures from every company they visit, so you end up with a big pile of brochures that you paid for, carried and now have to deal with.  From a financial and environmental view point, I see it as a waste and it doesn’t add much value.  I think a business card with a website and having a decent website with all the relevant information should do the trick.  For those people who seem interested, it’s always important to follow up with an email after the fair and remind them of your services and possibly send them more information about your company’s products and services.

3. Get into people’s faces: The first day didn’t go to well and felt really slow.  The lesson we learned on the second day (thanks to Paul Tjia and Mohammed Jaouni), was to get into people’s faces.  Don’t wait for them to show interest, walk up to people passing by and ask if they’re interested in the services you offer.  I was pretty amazed by how many people said yes, and asked for more information.  These same people would have just passed by if we didn’t stop them.

It’s also important to have flashy attractive displays that grab people’s attention.  Just offering an amazing service or having the best products doesn’t mean much if people don’t stop to see them.

These are just some of the points I want to list while I still remember them.  I’ll be adding some more soon including some more specific to CeBIT and Hannover.

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Education in Palestine

Yesterday I attended a meeting at PITA to discuss bridging the gap between education and industry in Palestine.  I’ve heard that approximately 2,500 students graduate each year from Palestinian universities in IT-related fields of study.  The problem for universities is finding employment opportunities for all these new graduates.  The problem for companies is to recruit the best students available.  While the stated goal of the meeting was to see how we can bridge the two, it quickly appeared that the goal of the meeting was to start thinking of a national strategy for education in Palestine, and specifically how it relates to the ICT sector.  While I’m sure there a lot of talk about what should and shouldn’t be done, below are my thoughts on the role of education/industry/government to ultimately encourage growth and job creation in the future.

1. Grade school: The first and probably most important step (obviously) starts in grade school.  I’ve read a number of articles that talk about how children aren’t afraid to make mistakes, but unfortunately making mistakes and especially failing is a big taboo especially in the Arab world.  Children are taught and raised to be perfect, while we know that no one ever is.  In trying to teach our children to be perfect, we scare them from attempting anything where failure might be possible.  Instead we (myself included) need to encourage our children to try new things and take chances.  We also need to move away from the book memorization techniques at most schools.  Don’t memorize, think, be creative and solve problems.  Most importantly, our educators who are also mostly raised in Palestine, also need to try new teaching techniques and think of new and creative ways of getting students to really solve problems.  Children should be encouraged to participate in expressing opinions and be able to experiment and try new things.  Don’t try to change their ideas, try to have them build on them.  Give them real-world projects and see how they approach these problems.

Children have an amazing ability to grasp new ideas.  My two-year-old daughter surprises us on a daily basis with the things she learns on her own.  This morning, we found out that she can go her mom’s laptop, open a browser, go to youtube and start watching Tom and Jerry videos.  The things she does, which are second nature to her, will probably be tricky for some adults.

2. Universities shouldn’t change what they teach, they should change how they teach it.  Last December, a group from iConnect Tech visited Birzeit University to have a discussion with IT students on bridging the gap between academia and industry, and we went to represent iConnect’s views.  We don’t disagree with what they teach, we disagree with how they teach it.  As an example, all software engineering students should have a really strong understanding of data structures, object-oriented programming, logic and algorithms and databases.  Who cares if they don’t know .NET or Java?  They can easily learn that stuff if they have a solid foundation.  What they do need to know is how to think about solving problems and thinking outside the box.  Too commonly, I find new graduates who want to be told what to do and how to solve problems.  “That’s not why you’re here!” is my answer to them.  You’re here to solve problems, not share your problems with other people.  Divide your big problems into smaller ones, think about solutions and discuss them with others, you can bounce ideas off other people but you shouldn’t expect them to give easily hand you answers, and for God’s sake, RTFM!

With a Bachelor in Engineering, a Master in Engineering and an MBA, I’ve been in universities much longer than most people.  I’ve also taught at Birzeit University, which gave me a new perspective on higher education in Palestine.  It’s the same problem as grade schools, people don’t learn, they memorize.  It you give them a mathematical equation, they’ll solve it.  If you give them a real-life problem, they stumble and don’t know how to move on.  Basically, if they can’t find the answer on Google, they don’t know what to do.  Again, this is how we raised and educated them over the years.  Why should we expect this all to change as soon as they graduate?

One last point regarding engineering students in particular is that there are no original graduation projects.  When I was in Birzeit as a student, most of the projects were related to robotics, everyone wanted to build a robot.  Next came the Internet phase, where everything revolved around the Internet and what I’m seeing now is mobile apps.  Most students I talk to now are working on project that involve mobile apps in one way or another.  The problem with these projects is that they’re not real life problems.  They’re students just trying to show that they can code or build a mobile app.  Instead they should be thinking of what problems they solve with their product or solution.  An easy way to think of this would be to say, once I’m done, can I sell my solution and would anyone buy it?  Why or why not?  It doesn’t have to be a rocket or the next facebook.  Just think of a small original idea that can actually add value and implement it.

3. Encourage entrepreneurship, there is a lot of talk on entrepreneurship, but no one really encourages it.  I am however starting to see a number of organizations supporting start-ups and I hope this continues.  We also have some new VCs and funds, which is also encouraging.   Many people would like to build their own company or implement and sell their great idea, but from what I’ve seen, these people mostly lack business and management skills and resources.   People are realizing later in life (after university graduation) that they can build something bigger and better and get bored of the same old routine.  How amazing would it be if these same people would have learned this 5 or 10 years earlier?  Think of the progress they could have made, the ideas, the business opportunities.

While these are only three points from what I know will be a long discussion, I appreciated one point made yesterday by Dr. Basri Saleh from the Ministry of Education, who noted that there must be a multi-stakeholder approach, which is something I completely agree with.  One of the interesting things I noticed during my last visit to Boston last October was that government, industry and universities all speak the same language, they all talk about innovation  and education in the same way and they’re all working towards the same common goals.  Hopefully, we can get to this point as well, where we all agree and advocate for the same goals.

This is a long-term process and we shouldn’t expect to see immediate results.  Unfortunately, this may discourage many people who need to see results immediately.  The situation I described isn’t as bad as it sounds, but I think we need to be critical in order to build momentum and get things moving.

Pinterest

A few days ago, I signed up for a pinterest account.  Although I’ve never really been very active on social networking sites, I’m trying to get more involved and realize that for the next few years at least, that’s where the world will continue to move.

For pinterest, what I thought was kind of interesting was the registration process.  I heard about the site, went to it, but couldn’t register.  It’s not open to anyone, you have to request registration, which I did and I received an email about 8 hours later telling me my registration has been approved and that I can now sign up as a member.  I’m not quite sure if this delay in allowing people to register is for technical reasons, i.e. to control the number of users and not overload the servers, or to build hype around becoming a member.

I think the idea of pinning images and sharing them with friends and followers is great, but I don’t think it will become very successful.  The main reason in my view is that it isn’t easy to use.  I’m not saying it’s difficult, just that it took a minute or so for me to think about how it works.  I was interested to see how it works, so I took the time.  For pinterest to become a popular social networking tool, people need to just be able to use it with almost no thought process involved.  What made Apple popular is that their products just work.  Anyone can use them, you don’t have to be a scientist or an engineer.  When things becoming complicated, most people will lose interest and instead of reading about how to use your tool, will decide to use something else.

Maybe most people that try pinterest will, from the start, think it’s easy to use or maybe not.  I guess we’ll find out in a couple of weeks.

 

Outsource to Palestine

I moved from Toronto last August and I’m currently President of iConnect Tech, a provider of outsourced software development services located in Ramallah. iConnect was founded in 2007 by a Palestinian expatriate living in Chicago, and in less than five years has grown to around 45 employees, mainly software developers.  We pride ourselves as being a leader in providing training to university students and creating job opportunities for new graduates. There is a large pool of talent in Palestine, and we are lucky at iConnect to have amazing teams of software professionals.

What we are lacking is exposure of North American and European businesses to Palestine. We are not seen as a destination for investments or outsourcing services, and this perception problem is something we are working hard to change. We are not looking for donations, but instead we are looking to create long-lasting mutually-beneficial business partnerships with North American and European companies. We want to compete at a global level and prove that we are just as competent as any other software company anywhere in the world. Since it started in 2007, iConnect has successfully completed multiple projects for its clients, and has the software development and outsourcing experience needed to take on complex software projects.

Many people would like to support Palestinians, but don’t know how. In my view, one of the best ways is to bring business opportunities to Palestinian companies. They don’t necessarily have to be to iConnect, but bringing business to any Palestinian company helps create jobs that will help improve the Palestinian economy and lower our dependence on foreign aid, in addition to building a brighter, more positive image for Palestine.

While not everyone might be in a position to outsource to Palestine, I’m sure there are many that can. We’re not asking for an unfair advantage because we’re Palestinians, we’re just asking for a chance to prove that we have the skills companies outside are looking for.

Perceptions of outsourcing to Palestine

After over four months as President of iConnect Tech, an IT outsourcing company located in Ramallah, Palestine, I’m starting to see the challenges of signing outsourcing contracts.  While there are many reasons why outsourcing works or doesn’t work, in our case, I feel that the most significant factor is perception.  For someone who’s never visited Ramallah, it’s almost impossible to think of it as a safe and civilized city.  A client of ours, who is originally Palestinian and has relatives in Jerusalem and Nablus, visited Palestine for the first time last December.  Not knowing what to expect, he was happily surprised by what he saw here.  Coffee shops, restaurants, bowling alleys, 5 star hotels, gyms, businesses and a ton or real estate projects, pretty much like any other city in the world.  Even with occupation, Ramallah is comparable to most other cities in the world.

In my view, people’s perception of what they should expect from a Palestinian city under occupation, is the biggest challenge we need to overcome as IT outsourcing providers.  We have a stable telecommunications and power infrastructure, 13 universities with over 2000 IT graduates each year, a large number of Western-educated professionals and a very loyal and proud workforce.  What we need is for others to see Palestine the way we see it, as a destination for business and outsourcing.  One way to change people’s perceptions and that has really made an impact is bringing people here to visit.  Although I’m sure that visitors would enjoy seeing Palestine, coming over can be a bit expensive and time consuming.  The other option, which is a lot more doable is seeing a promotional video about Palestine.  I saw a video promoting Bangladesh as the undiscovered Gem of Asia.   Seeing the video completely changed my perception of Bangladesh, a country I’ve never seen and may never see.  I think that Palestine deserves at least one video to show its positive side, and this will be my next project, creating a short video profile of Palestine.  I definitely hope to get comments, suggestions and support.

Moving back to Ramallah

After spending an amazing five years in Toronto, Canada, last summer, my wife and I decided it was time to move back to Ramallah, Palestine.  While it was one of the most difficult decisions we had ever taken, we realized that if we waited any longer, it would be much harder to move back.  Last July, my wife and kids left to Ramallah, while I stayed in Toronto for another month, packing, shipping and selling.

During the process of moving back and during my first few weeks here, three things caught my attention.  First, so many Palestinian expatriates want to move back, or at least it seemed that way.  I got so many comments on how lucky and brave we were to move back.  It was definitely a big step, and I can see how it can be difficult to move back, especially for someone who hasn’t been here in a while.

Second, Ramallah has changed quite a bit.  I’ve only been gone for five years and during that time, I’ve visited twice, but still so much has changed.  There are a lot of new restaurants, coffee shops, companies (especially IT related companies) and even some things I’ve never seen before in Ramallah, like bowling alleys and pubs.  Visitors that come to Palestine, and especially those that come here for the first time, are usually amazed with what they see here.  Their expectations are that there’s fighting and bombs and tanks everywhere, and then they visit and find that everything is absolutely normal.

Third, the number of businesses has really grown in Ramallah.  The number of IT related companies seems to have doubled in the past few years.  Many are in startup mode, and there is definitely a much bigger push towards encouraging entrepreneurship, especially within the Palestinian IT community.  We’re seeing VCs and other investors, which is a really positive sign that people are willing to invest in Palestinian talent.  I’m hoping this trend will continue and we’ll hear some success stories soon.

Hello world! Must start blogging!

I’ve been trying to start blogging for so long now.  The two things that are really amazing is how long it’s been since I first said I want to start blogging, and how easy it is to push it aside despite the fact that it’s not that complicated or time consuming, especially considering how many hours a day I spend behind the keyboard.  I think I first tried to start blogging was over two years ago.  Two years, and I’ve only created a wordpress blog last week.

My resolution is to write at least one blog post every week.  It doesn’t have to be long, it can even be one sentence, but I need to make it a habit of writing on a regular basis.