Last Tuesday, I was a guest at the first meeting of 200 and 300 Level, University of Lagos' computer science students who are beginning now to plan their participation at the 2012 Microsoft Imagine Cup. In attendance at the meeting was no fewer than 10 student tech enthusiasts, including 2 ladies. Upon quizzing one of the [pretty-looking] ladies, I discovered that she was still in the foundation program with a lot of interest in DBA -- particularly Oracle. My presence there was some sort of inspiration to the students as they plan their onslaught.
So who am I?
"Once you are lucky, twice you are good" -- Sarah Lacy
I had been a member of teams which won two editions of the Microsoft Imagine Cup competitions (Nigeria challenge), back-to-back. I was the Leader of the team the second time. In 2008, my team represented Nigeria in Paris and in 2009 my team represented Nigeria in Cairo (with me as the team leader).
I'm currently serving an extra session. I should have graduated last session -- also, I should have dropped-out of school. Due to the advice of my course adviser, I took few units both semesters of last session, deferred my final-year project and spread my final year over two sessions. This enabled me put more into my technical and entrepreneurial development.
Among the students present, I personally mentor 3 of them directly. Currently, my presence with the students means a lot to them, it's like a morale booster. It makes them believe that being technically sound pays -- even if it's just a free trip abroad!
On being technically sound...
A lot has been said about Nigerian graduates not being technically sound. Lately, there was a heated discussion when someone put-up a really short note on how many Nigerian techies are just a reminiscence of Milli Vanilli.
Really, I remember how it used to be when I just got admission into the depertment. For one, I was the only one in my class who would (arrogantly) focus on the technical importance of what is being taught as opposed to the grades. This is probably partly because I was writing code before I got into the university and partly due to my undying interest in computer science. It took like my second Imagine Cup victory for a lot of my classmate to begin to see beyond the school grades but this didn't go deep because the set following suffered the same fate.
A lot has changed now. With the ascent of Dr Fasina as the new HOD, a lot of focus has shifted from just producing a set of nice grade, ply-card carrying graduates to producing technically sound graduates. This is quite evident with the introduction of a modern functional programming language (python) into the school's curriculum for year 2 students. But with the fascination with the Imagine Cup, I'm sure it would take more than that to get students to see the real importance of having the skills.
A change in direction...
While speaking to them, I was quick to remind them that having technical skills was more important than taking part in the Imagine Cup. I told them that the Imagine cup was just an opportunity I took advantage of -- because of my skills. I made them see the importance of building a community that would be of mutual benefit to everyone in it. They could discuss on the new cool thing they are learning and the project they are undertaking. They listened and they noted it.
They listened because they see me as an influential figure that has a few feathers of achievements on my crown. They would listen to anyone else whom they view in such light.
You are responsible!
We can write notes and blog posts, and move around in an [air-conditioned] saloon car, and complain about how bad it is to get people to employ and/or work with us on projects and how the school system is so messed-up in Nigeria.
That is easy, very easy.
Much easier still is talking [and blogging] about successful Western tech start-ups. Their stories are just so magical, like they were taken from a nursery school fairy-tale.
The hard part is doing something about it. When it comes to this, there is always an excuse -- "I'm too busy", "they didn't even design the page well", "No I cannot write or talk about them, they are wannabe's, and they probably won't go far". While we give these excuses, Nigerian universities continue to produce graduates who are not technically sound and who would have been better if they had a little mentoring. A little more motivation from people who should actually set standards in the local IT scene would make a lot of difference.
Lately, one of my [graduated] classmates argued that most successful tech entrepreneurs were just business people who hired technically-sound people (citing Bill Gates as examples) and that being technically sound would not take you far. I wonder how many (Computer Science) undergraduates operate with these principles. But in the midst of all these, a lot of them still want to know and would do better if you spared a little time, out of your comfort, to tell them what they could do -- from your experience.
Re-introducing CSC Lounge (http://csclounge.com)
It is on the backdrop of this that I and a friend came together to create a web platform which allows you to indirectly mentor undergrads. We call it CSC Lounge. CSC Lounge lets you post technical 'dumps' -- tweaks, how-to's, slides or a fully fledged article -- in order to instil interest on undergrads. The follow-up on this would be a series of discussion which would provide an opportunity to mentor students who are interested. We are also building algorithms to recommend users to employers based on the users' activities on the platform.
I had earlier started-up a direct mentoring project (see http://ezeokoyecelestine.blogspot.com/2010/09/raising-successors-celestine.html) and it has been successful with the only student I recruited onto it. In a period of 6-months (or less), I've helped him chart a course in Java programming with impressive personal projects (GUI based single user and networked multi-user tic-tac-toe game, multi-tab text and HTML editor with different colour themes, etc) to show for it. Currently he's grabbing database development. He did these while still maintaining a good grade. I didn't do this by sitting with him and instructing him all day. I did it by first igniting interest in him, then occasionally checking on him from time to time and answering his questions. I know a lot of impacts would be made if we can reach out to undergrads in this way.
Based on the feedback we got with what we currently have, we are re-implementing to include a number of use-cases and a redesign. We would re-launch soon with a more appealing UI/UX and more interesting use-cases and we would call on you to help mould Nigeria's future.