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Tech not a boy’s club

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In the past, high-profile positions in the IT industry were predominantly held by men, despite the fact that some of technology’s earliest pioneers were female. But this is changing as is evident by the fact that over half of professional occupations in the United States are now held by women.

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Nothing endures but change, mused ancient philosopher Heraclitus. But the poet Maya Angelou said it best: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

The 20th century was a remarkable era of change for women, who finally acquired indisputable rights to self-assertion and equality. It has been a long time coming, but the 21st century is the next staging ground for women expanding from followers to peers to leaders.

Women in technology garner a lot of attention, perhaps because they work in a sector known for its overwhelming male presence. This despite the fact that some of technology’s earliest pioneers were female, such as the inventor of programming, Ada Lovelace, or Hedy Lamarr, the film star and sex icon who also pioneered frequency hopping, used in mobile phones today.

Technology is behind the curve. Though over half of professional occupations in the United States are held by women, a mere quarter of professional technology jobs can make the same claim. Some argue that women are simply poorly suited for technology, lacking the logic and mathematical savvy to compete against men. A few even assert that women are simply riskier.

Disproving such generalisations is easy, but the stigma is harder to purge. To Patricia Florissi, VP & Global CTO of Sales at EMC and a technology polymath, this perception is more about a lack of representation:

“If more opportunities were given to women, especially at senior levels, then you would be able to see more of a sample of female leadership that would change some of the biases. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the fewer women you have in leadership, the more biases you create, because you don’t have enough samples to create an accurate image of how women act and how successful they can be.”

Under-representation sabotages opportunities for women, said Florissi. But she doesn’t pin this on a misogynist culture. People think of those they know and consequently offer opportunities to whoever is front of mind. If an organisation is understaffed with women, odds are that women will not be considered as candidates merely due to a lack of visibility.

One could argue that gender should have nothing to do with it, that it is all about the best candidate. This is true, but Florissi warned of a larger danger if diversity is not part of a company’s outlook:

“We need to treat women in technology as a real issue, because we’re talking about fifty percent of the population, about digital transformation that is suffering from a deficit in intellectual capital and yet we leave half of the population behind. This is a business imperative. Where you don’t have diversity, you don’t have cognitive diversity, so you are in a position of disadvantage. We can only solve that together.”

The need for diverse, out-of-the-box thinkers has never been greater. Technology needs women: the problems and opportunities of the world cannot be tackled from just one vantage point. Creating diversity in gender and creed is what helps companies evolve and open new channels. Everyone has a role to play in making this shift happen. As Maya Angelou said: “Nothing will work unless you do.”

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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