Engineer shows how it’s done
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My grandparents came from China to South Africa during apar-theid. They were looking for gold and settled in Kliptown, Johannesburg.
I grew up as the only Chinese kid in Alberton, which was an AWB stronghold. Back then, I identified mostly with the white English kids; I didn’t really understand where the racism that I experienced was coming from.
During the apartheid days, Chinese people were classed as “non-white” (under Coloured or Indian). After 1994 we got categorised as “white”.
This was because we were lumped with the Japanese, who had been given honorary white status during apartheid, because of their investment in the country. It was only in 2008 that the Constitutional Court gave the Chinese their own race category.
I studied information engineering at Wits, and after I finished my degree in 2005 I still didn’t really know who I was… whether I was Chinese, black, white, purple or pink.
So I went on a trip to Asia. I didn’t fit in there either. Everything from the work ethic to the toilets were different.
I came back to South Africa just as confused as I was before.
The conclusion that I then came to in terms of my own identity, as well as insofar as what it means to be a South African, is that it is a mindset. It’s about having national pride, loving sport, the outdoors – and things like having a very witty, off-colour sense of humour.
It’s not about the colour of your skin, your education or where your parents come from.
In my final year at Wits I’d worked on developing a software program for partially sighted kids.
The program involved streaming text images via a webcam and then manipulating them (through the source code I’d written) so that the reader (who had, say, tunnel vision) could make out the words clearly.
I remember testing it at a blind school in the south of Johannesburg, and how one of the children had held his cellphone in front of the webcam, commenting on how glad he was that he could finally see normally.
After about two months in the working world as an engineer in a big firm where it was more hard work pretending to look busy than actually being busy, I got hold of my professor at Wits and convinced him that my software program still had legs.
I’d got a provisional patent for the product, but it wasn’t slick enough ultimately, and crashed too often.
That experience with the kids re-energised me to return to Wits and complete my Master’s in usability interfaces for the partially sighted. My plan was eventually to roll out the program to schools, libraries and optometrists.
Sadly, I never managed to raise the capital.
Borne out of this frustration, I convinced Wits to allow me to start their Entrepreneurship and Innovation Office, with the basic aim of enabling science and engineering students to start their own businesses.
I created a curriculum around everything from marketing to being BEE-compliant.
Three years later, I got a partial scholarship to do my MBA in the States.
I arrived when the stock market had just crashed. As a foreign student, I was considered high-risk, so I couldn’t get a bank loan.
I got a job on campus that helped pay my way, and became the first international student to get elected class president.
In 2008, I started a company in San Francisco helping to create “clean tech” (wind, wave and solar energy) entrepreneurs. The business went phenomenally well: I raised lots of money and got to travel the world.
Visa problems prevented me continuing with that work, so I was forced to return to South Africa.
Since my return I’ve been working at Google SA, driving a project called Woza Online, a service that allows you to create your own website in less than an hour with free hosting and a .co.za domain, giving you a shop window to the global market.
From a problem perspective, if you search for something online locally – be it a plumber or a locksmith – the results are usually poor and filled with too many international sites. As a small business, it’s hard to trade.
We’re trying to deal with the problems of cost, usability, complexity and the perception that websites are only for big businesses, by helping small businesses to start their own.
Google believes in having a good “internet eco-system” which means that it’s easy to find stuff online, and that the information out there is solid. For example, marketers used to talk about the “first moment of truth” – when a kid walks into a shoe shop, sees a pair of Nikes, and says “I want those sneakers”.
Nowadays, though, we have what is called the “zero moment of truth”, when all your product research on what you want to buy has been done beforehand, online.
Whether it’s shopping for a holiday or a car, more and more consumers are doing that. So we’re helping to create that better user experience for everybody.
From a technology point of view, it’s very exciting to be in SA right now. Of the 50-odd million people in SA, only six million are online.
Bandwidth costs are coming down, and sea cables are being put down. So the opportunity is there.
Technology is a tool that we need to learn how to use, and then use appropriately.
It’s important because, with education, it’s one of society’s biggest drivers of change.
I’ve enjoyed a somewhat unique life experience, and I think that people have identified with me over the years because I am different.
As such, I see myself as someone who’s had the opportunity to lead. Some leaders shout from the front, while others steer from the back. I’m more the latter. I try to relate to people, and I like to think that other people can relate to me.
l Pied Piper is a LeadSA series