Egypt\'s IT sector experiencing growing pains
As the Information Technology (IT) sector in Egypt continues to rapidly grow, a number of shortcomings are becoming evident. These include an underdeveloped communications infrastructure, lack of personnel with the necessary business skills and solid training. Such inadequacies inhibit Egypt's attempts to enter the global IT market.
The problem with the telecommunications infrastructure lies in the inability of information to leave the country at an acceptable speed. Information can be received easily in Egypt, since Internet service providers rely on their own satellite dishes. But to send information out, the providers mainly use government links to underwater cables in Alexandria. These links are unable to service the increased demands that Internet traffic is putting on them; so out-of-country clients cannot receive data in a timely fashion.
If Egypt aspires to be a player in the global IT market, the government or private sectors must improve the telecommunications infrastructure or face the fact that clients will go elsewhere for their IT needs. The government is taking the IT problems seriously, if the recently created ministry of information technology is any indication.
The international IT community is also recognizing Egypt's attempts to overcome the hurdles of IT development — Egypt was chosen to host the 26th international conference on very large databases (VLDB), held earlier this month.
Dr. Nabil Kamel, the conference chair, said, "the sector is promising and experiencing rapid growth. The problem is learning how to apply the new technology." Dr. Kamel hopes that through meeting international experts, some answers will present themselves.
As the IT sector expands in Egypt, it is becoming painfully obvious that the lack of well-trained people to make the whole effort operate is a major obstacle. The reasons for this are more complex.
With the recent IT expansion, more people are choosing to study information technologies. This is putting a strain on the education system, leading to a compromise between quality and quantity.
Ahmed Elassy, system administrator at the American chamber of commerce in Egypt, described the situation: "The average student coming out of computer science programs in Egypt are not equipped to function in the IT market. The education system still focuses on memorizing information and places too little emphasis on how to apply it in practical situations.”
“From a business standpoint, this leaves new small and medium-sized businesses beginning at a disadvantage compared to international IT companies. The education system has to change its focus from memorizing to teaching students how to be always learning, to be curious, and especially on how to apply the information they learn in university programs," he added.
On an even more fundamental level, the entire Egyptian education system is a barrier to students developing skills of critical thinking and problem solving, so essential in the IT industry. The emphasis is placed on memorizing for exams and there is none on critical self-expression and creativity.
Cairo is also experiencing a crunch due to the many new IT companies opening up, only to find there are not enough qualified people to do the job. The situation shows signs of turning aggressive with companies competing for personnel.
Two Internet portals are due to launch soon and they have been hoarding staff by offering relatively high salaries to coax employees from other companies to change loyalties. While some might say that this is in line with the growing capitalist attitude in Cairo, it puts incredible strain on new companies.
Then there is a lack of other sort of professionals — those with the skills in IT marketing and sales. Most graduates have chosen system and software development because they perceive this to offer greater job security. But without a competent and qualified sales and marketing team, it becomes increasingly difficult to move the product to international consumers.
Another danger Egypt may be facing in developing its IT community is that other countries such as the United States and Japan now have a shortage of technical staff to service their IT infrastructures. The bulk of Egyptian IT graduates choose to specialize in the technical side of IT, and there is a growing risk of these people being lured to other countries by large salaries and the opportunity to work in a cutting-edge environment — "brain drain." This could have dire implications for IT development in Egypt.
Other concerns to be addressed include: how to function in the fast-paced IT community, proper business practices that reach international standards and interpersonal communication.
The situation is not completely discouraging though. A local graphic designer commented: "Now it's catching up. Originally there was a lack [of trained people] but now that Microsoft is here, courses are available — a bit expensive — but it simply wasn't an option three years ago. Also, a lot of universities are opening IT departments. For years it was only AUC that offered computer science, but now there are three or four private sector universities doing the same."
Also, Egypt has an advantage over many other countries. It's a cheap place to do business. Many entrepreneurs in the IT field are pursuing international clients through the Internet. Companies such as ITWorx in Cairo compete with American and Canadian software developers to get their piece of the international IT pie.
USAID is encouraging this development and will promote information technology in Egypt at the November COMDEX conference. If this trend continues many of the growing pains in IT development could find workable solutions without the loss of trained people to other countries.
As long as Egypt maintains the level of IT growth and combines it with improvements in the telecommunications infrastructure, the situation should prove favorable. But along with this, experts say the government and private sector must make it within the interest of IT workers to work in Egypt as well as improve it's education system.
This not only means more funding for high school and university programs, but the educators themselves must have incentive to provide the highest level of comprehensive IT training combined with knowledge of proper global business practice and critical thinking. — (Albawaba-MEBG)
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)