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Durban tech gets sunlight

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When you think of Durban, you think of sandy beaches, surfers and good curry. But there is much more as LIRON SEGEV finds out when chatting to ADAM SHAPIRO, CEO of Autopilot Workflow Solution.

Adam Shapiro CEO of Autopilot Workflow solutions, a Durban based tech company says that “It’s actually a lot more active – and relevant – than some people think. Consultants are generally surprised when they come to Durban and see the level of tech that is produced in Durban.”

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Recognising that Small and Medium businesses are the future of the SA economy, Adam and his business partner Hannes Bantjes founded Autopilot Workflow Solutions  to help business owners manage staff and their time  “running a small business is a tough gig, business’s need to “do what they do” but also handle the admin of running their business. As business owners we know that time is such a precious commodity for entrepreneurs, that’s when things fall through the cracks”.

So what is the Durban tech scene like and what problems does Autopilot solve? Adam shares his views in CliffCentral.com:

What are the challenges in the Durban market?

  • Budget: When I say budget I refer to budget for companies to purchase software products and services, but there is also a serious lack of venture capital companies or Angel Funders.
  • Staff: There is a critical shortage of GOOD software developers in SA and even more so in Durban. Finding great staff is hard and the competition to keep them is fierce. We can’t always compete on price, but we sure can compete on lifestyle, Durban must have one of the most incredible climates in the world, that along with the lack of traffic and the Indian Ocean makes up for a lot of its shortcomings.
  • Trends: Keeping up with the trends. Tech is always changing and we need to be ahead of the game all the time.

Can you give a few examples of Durban based companies?

For a start there are plenty of significant HQs in Durban Mr Price, Toyota, Unilever, Derivco (with globally used tech), SA Home Loans, and Tongaat Hulett.

But to me its super exciting to see the number of hubs, co-work locations and industry talks being adopted here. This is drawing the tech community together, and spawning a number of Durban based tech companies.

Some examples of great tech companies are:

  • UX Foundry Is another company with a similar history to Autopilot. They started their lives as a user experience consultancy that also built custom solutions for clients. They soon realised that the real opportunity is in owned platforms and products and saw instant messaging for business as a big opportunity. The developed X&Go which has has become a platform for creating custom instant messaging apps for businesses.
  • Sage Alchemex Alchemex started in a garage in Durban in 2001 with 3 employees/founders. Alchemex provides affordable, innovative and powerful business reporting software. In 2011 Alchemex was acquired by the Sage Group. They now have over 60 employees and delivering reporting solutions globally.
  • No logo Studios That product is called MyBonsela , Influencing the path-to-purchase from the manufacturer to incentivise sales people with direct, cash based rewards for sales and other soft rewards, like follow ups, presentation, professionalism.
  • ShipScene is a real-time vessel tracking system with 9 UHF receivers along the coast of South African and up to Ghana, with agreements with other providers to swap data internationally. The system processes about 23 million records a day and is built 100% from the ground up by Durban tech companies over the last few years and is hosted within the city of Durban. It’s mostly used by Lawyers (for ships who owe money internationally) and logistics / chandelling companies who use it to be alerted when a vessel has arrived in a harbour or zone or even a custom GPS point. The system sends out daily reports to hundreds of users with a detailed breakdown of every vessel movement in every port in our country in the last 24 hours.

Does the Durban dev community get together and share ideas etc?

Yes, there are are many initiatives happening in Durban to share and collaborate such as:

  • Code Retreat – Code retreat is a day-long, intensive practice event, focusing on the fundamentals of software development and design.  Instruct is a series of lectures and presentations hosted by Chris Tite an entrepreneur and software architect from Kalidecode.
  • Lean Coffee – Durban software developers love to attend events but are hesitant to present or contribute at these events. This means you end up having a few people driving the events and the rest of the community casually tagging along. We’ve started to introduce new event formats, such as Lean Coffee, that are more informal and involve group discussions rather than one person giving a presentation.
  • Dev2  Developer evenings are held every quarter, they have 4 presenters who cover technically interesting topics. There is generally a good turnout of about 100-150 developers . Participants range from entrepreneurs to hard core geeks.
  • DUT Symposium on Web, Mobile & Software Development Technologies September 2015

You provide workflow and automation how did you come up with that?

Back in 2001, just off the back of the .com bubble (and bust), myself and my Autopilot co-founder Hannes Bantjes started our first venture, pilotfish. Back then we were a small software development company that found ourselves building more and more bespoke / custom workflow solutions to solve business automation needs.

As more and more businesses took their admin and production related tasks online, they started having to deal with a greater amount of digital systems, which all need to ‘talk’ to each other and traffic information between the programs and the people involved. This become our niche for the decade up to 2013. With our specialist experience in the workflow solutions market we began to identify a need for a leaner, self-setup product that was accessible to more types of businesses.

We searched high and low for workflow products that catered for small businesses, but could not find anything amazing. The products in the market were either too basic, and that ranged from email, Excel and pieces of paper to the complex (i.e expensive system that takes technical and analysis consultants ages to implement and costs a fortune).

In 2013 we took the leap to make that a reality, and started formulating both Autopilot the business and Autopilot the product to bring the big value of process automation to more types and sizes of businesses. It’s particularly appropriate in SA’s initiative to grow the economy via SME successes. Workflow automation can fundamentally help businesses operate more effectively which gives them a greater chance of growing and succeeding.

What problem does Autopilot solve?

  • HIGH-LEVEL – helping SME’s to succeed (tackling an aspect in that goal)
  • We realise that it’s tough to start up a business finance, market, sales
  • But we can’t help once they have started we can help, Scheduling, debtors, birds eye view

We have seen so many small business owners chasing down indecipherable email trails to get to the root of problems or sorting through piles of paper or different computer files and folders to track down invoices, orders or delivery notes. If business practices are erratic and inefficient, you spend too much time, which is money, fighting the chaos in front of your nose instead of spending the time looking at strategic things – planning ahead and improving the way you operate. Important issues can fall through the through the cracks, this can be overcome with the use of a good system.

We provide a number of common templates that can be customised for your particular business. The solution has complex intelligence under the hood, but is user friendly for the small business owner who might not be a computer whizz.

Being cloud based means no more expensive on-site software, custom hardware requirements or costly user licenses, no hassling with software maintenance and upgrades and no need to be on the office network to access business data. Autopilot works across internet-connected devices, so you can analyse and act on your business activities wherever you are. Rapidly review what’s happening and what needs attention, and have peace of mind that things are going according to plan without hand-holding and nothing is slipping through the cracks.It’s not just about task management as you will find with many other online tools.

· Effective collaboration around business data, regardless of location

· Reducing typical workforce and task management problems, which affords less hand-holding, micro-managing, and the need to be in-office ‘checking and chasing’.

· Reducing wasted time and effort in business functions, so that owners and managers can get back time to focus on strategic matters, so, if they need to go up to Jhb (or anywhere) for face to face business meetings, they actually have the time to do that.

What technology have you used to build Autopilot?

We built Autopilot on the Microsoft stack, HTML5, SQL database and hosed on the Azure platform. We are on the Microsoft Bizspark program which has been an incredible opportunity for us. Microsoft are really making a huge difference to start-ups like Autopilot not only for a software point of view, but also for mentoring and the provision of business skills.

How much does Autopilot cost?

We have taken the fact that SMME’ can’t afford the sophisticated and expensive high-end solutions that many larger companies use to streamline the flow of data through the business, and have charged accordingly, our pricing model is either R180 per user per month for unlimited workflows or R90 per user per month and R2 per workflow. There are no set up costs if you use our existing templates. There are also no long term contract, so if you are not happy with our product, you are free to leave at the end of the month, fortunately that has never happened.

What is your ideal customer?

Our ideal customer is a business with between 10 and 50 employees which is often a challenge because many small businesses think workflows – and workflow solutions – are only appropriate for larger companies and enterprises. Changing this perception is core to our mission.

We are talking to business owners and managers about solving their headaches. We are giving managers and business owners a bird’s eye view of what’s going on – a dashboard and operational overview rather than having to go from desk to desk.”

Any other target markets?

Yes, we also have a “Corporate Supplier pack” allows corporates to buy Autopilot licences for their suppliers or other SMME’s that they are mentoring or developing.

We see this as a big part of our business growth as it allows Corporates to obtain valuable Enterprise Development and Supplier points that count towards their BEE scorecard.

But also make a real measurable difference to emerging businesses in South Africa. The third “bonus” would be that interaction between the supplier and Corporate would improve, this would hopefully improve interaction between the corporate and the supplier.

How do you market your product?

So far, Autopilot has been marketed online via blogs and search engine optimisation. Word-of-mouth has also helped as has working closely with existing clients.

Our plan is to solidify things in Durban and then move out nationally before taking Autopilot overseas. Our vision is that, by the end of the year, we will have reached markets in the rest of Africa and begun to sell in the United States

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Prepare your cam to capture the Blood Moon

On 27 July 2018, South Africans can witness a total lunar eclipse, as the earth’s shadow completely covers the moon.

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Also known as a blood or red moon, a total lunar eclipse is the most dramatic of all lunar eclipses and presents an exciting photographic opportunity for any aspiring photographer or would-be astronomers.

“A lunar eclipse is a rare cosmic sight. For centuries these events have inspired wonder, interest and sometimes fear amongst observers. Of course, if you are lucky to be around when one occurs, you would want to capture it all on camera,” says Dana Eitzen, Corporate and Marketing Communications Executive at Canon South Africa.

Canon ambassador and acclaimed landscape photographer David Noton has provided his top tips to keep in mind when photographing this occasion.   In South Africa, the eclipse will be visible from about 19h14 on Friday, 27 July until 01h28 on the Saturday morning. The lunar eclipse will see the light from the sun blocked by the earth as it passes in front of the moon. The moon will turn red because of an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering, where bands of green and violet light become filtered through the atmosphere.

A partial eclipse will begin at 20h24 when the moon will start to turn red. The total eclipse begins at about 21h30 when the moon is completely red. The eclipse reaches its maximum at 22h21 when the moon is closest to the centre of the shadow.

David Noton advises:

  1. Download the right apps to be in-the-know

The sun’s position in the sky at any given time of day varies massively with latitude and season. That is not the case with the moon as its passage through the heavens is governed by its complex elliptical orbit of the earth. That orbit results in monthly, rather than seasonal variations, as the moon moves through its lunar cycle. The result is big differences in the timing of its appearance and its trajectory through the sky. Luckily, we no longer need to rely on weight tables to consult the behaviour of the moon, we can simply download an app on to our phone. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is useful for giving moonrise and moonset times, bearings and phases; while the Photopills app gives comprehensive information on the position of the moon in our sky.  Armed with these two apps, I’m planning to shoot the Blood Moon rising in Dorset, England. I’m aiming to capture the moon within the first fifteen minutes of moonrise so I can catch it low in the sky and juxtapose it against an object on the horizon line for scale – this could be as simple as a tree on a hill.

 

  1. Invest in a lens with optimal zoom  

On the 27th July, one of the key challenges we’ll face is shooting the moon large in the frame so we can see every crater on the asteroid pockmarked surface. It’s a task normally reserved for astronomers with super powerful telescopes, but if you’ve got a long telephoto lens on a full frame DSLR with around 600 mm of focal length, it can be done, depending on the composition. I will be using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext. 1.4 x lens.

  1. Use a tripod to capture the intimate details

As you frame up your shot, one thing will become immediately apparent; lunar tracking is incredibly challenging as the moon moves through the sky surprisingly quickly. As you’ll be using a long lens for this shoot, it’s important to invest in a sturdy tripod to help capture the best possible image. Although it will be tempting to take the shot by hand, it’s important to remember that your subject is over 384,000km away from you and even with a high shutter speed, the slightest of movements will become exaggerated.

  1. Integrate the moon into your landscape

Whilst images of the moon large in the frame can be beautifully detailed, they are essentially astronomical in their appeal. Personally, I’m far more drawn to using the lunar allure as an element in my landscapes, or using the moonlight as a light source. The latter is difficult, as the amount of light the moon reflects is tiny, whilst the lunar surface is so bright by comparison. Up to now, night photography meant long, long exposures but with cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV now capable of astonishing low light performance, a whole new nocturnal world of opportunities has been opened to photographers.

  1. Master the shutter speed for your subject 

The most evocative and genuine use of the moon in landscape portraits results from situations when the light on the moon balances with the twilight in the surrounding sky. Such images have a subtle appeal, mood and believability.  By definition, any scene incorporating a medium or wide-angle view is going to render the moon as a tiny pin prick of light, but its presence will still be felt. Our eyes naturally gravitate to it, however insignificant it may seem. Of course, the issue of shutter speed is always there; too slow an exposure and all we’ll see is an unsightly lunar streak, even with a wide-angle lens.

 

On a clear night, mastering the shutter speed of your camera is integral to capturing the moon – exposing at 1/250 sec @ f8 ISO 100 (depending on focal length) is what you’ll need to stop the motion from blurring and if you are to get the technique right, with the high quality of cameras such as the Canon EOS 5DS R, you might even be able to see the twelve cameras that were left up there by NASA in the 60’s!

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How Africa can embrace AI

Currently, no African country is among the top 10 countries expected to benefit most from AI and automation. But, the continent has the potential to catch up with the rest of world if we act fast, says ZOAIB HOOSEN, Microsoft Managing Director.

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To play catch up, we must take advantage of our best and most powerful resource – our human capital. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 60 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 25.

These are the people who are poised to create a future where humans and AI can work together for the good of society. In fact, the most recent WEF Global Shapers survey found that almost 80 percent of youth believe technology like AI is creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Staying ahead of the trends to stay employed

AI developments are expected to impact existing jobs, as AI can replicate certain activities at greater speed and scale. In some areas, AI could learn faster than humans, if not yet as deeply.

According to Gartner, while AI will improve the productivity of many jobs and create millions more new positions, it could impact many others. The simpler and less creative the job, the earlier, a bot for example, could replace it.

It’s important to stay ahead of the trends and find opportunities to expand our knowledge and skills while learning how to work more closely and symbiotically with technology.

Another global study by Accenture, found that the adoption of AI will create several new job categories requiring important and yet surprising skills. These include trainers, who are tasked with teaching AI systems how to perform; explainers, who bridge the gap between technologist and business leader; and sustainers, who ensure that AI systems are operating as designed.

It’s clear that successfully integrating human intelligence with AI, so they co-exist in a two-way learning relationship, will become more critical than ever.

Combining STEM with the arts

Young people have a leg up on those already in the working world because they can easily develop the necessary skills for these new roles. It’s therefore essential that our education system constantly evolves to equip youth with the right skills and way of thinking to be successful in jobs that may not even exist yet.

As the division of tasks between man and machine changes, we must re-evaluate the type of knowledge and skills imparted to future generations.

For example, technical skills will be required to design and implement AI systems, but interpersonal skills, creativity and emotional intelligence will also become crucial in giving humans an advantage over machines.

“At one level, AI will require that even more people specialise in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” This is according to Microsoft president, Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and research, Harry Shum, who recently authored the book “The Future Computed”, which primarily deals with AI and its role in society.

Interestingly, institutions like Stanford University are already implementing this forward-thinking approach. The university offers a programme called CS+X, which integrates its computer science degree with humanities degrees, resulting in a Bachelor of Arts and Science qualification.

Revisiting laws and regulation

For this type of evolution to happen, the onus is on policy makers to revisit current laws and even bring in new regulations. Policy makers need to identify the groups most at risk of losing their jobs and create strategies to reintegrate them into the economy.

Simultaneously, though AI could be hugely beneficial in areas such as curbing poor access to healthcare and improving diagnoses for example, physicians may avoid using this technology for fear of malpractice. To avoid this, we need regulation that closes the gap between the pace of technological change and that of regulatory response. It will also become essential to develop a code of ethics for this new ecosystem.

Preparing for the future

With the recent convergence of a transformative set of technologies, economies are entering a period in which AI has the potential overcome physical limitations and open up new sources of value and growth.

To avoid missing out on this opportunity, policy makers and business leaders must prepare for, and work toward, a future with AI. We must do so not with the idea that AI is simply another productivity enhancer. Rather, we must see AI as the tool that can transform our thinking about how growth is created.

It comes down to a choice of our people and economies being part of the technological disruption, or being left behind.

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