Techie's Dilemma: International Edition

A few months ago, I wrote the first article in this series on the Techie's Dilemma. In this entry, I'll continue to explore the question that I spent months wrapping my head around: Where, in an interconnected world, does a globally-minded techie settle down? As I alluded to last time, I didn't limit my options to the U.S. Quite the opposite -- I actively sought out international options ranging from Cape Town to Bangalore to Buenos Aires. Today, I'll look at two of the particularly compelling international locales I explored: London and Nairobi.

Across the Atlantic: Silicon Roundabout, London

From 2009 to 2013, I found myself with a skewed notion of home: I did a lot of moving, and in those four years, I actually spent more time living in the UK than in the U.S. When I was done with grad school at Cambridge, and it came time to figure out where I should live next, London was an obvious option. Similar to New York, London has been taking steps to position itself as a global tech hub in addition to a global financial and geopolitical center. Word on the street was that a number of tech companies had started to crowd around Old Street Roundabout in east London. People had even started to call it Silicon Roundabout.

I wanted to see what all the hubbub was about, so one weekend, I took the trip down to London to attend the city's biggest startup fair,
. My big takeaways were these:
  1. The UK has a distinct shortage of technical talent. There just isn't the same positive association with studying computer science, and as a result, the field doesn't attract as many of the top people.
  2. London startups tend to be further away from the technology. In Silicon Valley, the main companies you think about are all about the technology: Google, Facebook, and Apple all derive their main competitive edge from their technical competencies. In London, companies are more likely have a technological component but for it not to be the main driving force of the organization.
  3. British culture is also quite distinct from that of the US: risk-taking and entrepreneurship just aren't valued as much as they are here.

The Wild Card: Silicon Savannah, Nairobi

After spending a year working for Google in Africa, it felt also natural to explore living in Africa's biggest tech hub: Nairobi, Kenya. The news may have not made its way into the mainstream of America, but Africa is hopping. While most of the world is mired in recession or economic stagnation, Africa has seen impressive GDP growth in recent years, and in technology, Kenya's been at the head of the pack.

There have been a number of factors contributing to Nairobi's success as a tech hub: the launch of the revolutionary mobile money platform, M-Pesa, in 2007; the creation of the collaborative coworking space, iHub, in 2010; and of course the mixture of a burgeoning middle class with a large, educated returning diaspora. When I visited in 2012, I was impressed by the number of startups and incubators popping up left and right. The company I was most impressed with was Kopo Kopo, which allows businesses to accept mobile payments. Kopo Kopo was growing by leaps and bounds, bringing in new business and new employees faster than they could handle it.

The big takeaways for me were two:
  1. The businesses that seemed to be successful in Kenya were the ones that focused on local problems and were built by people with real local understanding. When Google entered Africa, it had a lot of trouble understanding the market from its comfy offices in the US and Europe; that's why it was so crucial to open up offices in country.
  2. The ecosystem is evolving at lightning speed, so fast that it is actually outpacing the development of local technical talent. A number of forward looking organizations have started investing heavily in Africa; the only problem is that, when the vast majority of a population doesn't have access to the Internet, and those that do have only had it for a few years, there aren't exactly a lot of people who can build strong technology companies.

Overall, both London and Nairobi were exciting places with lots of growth, but the main downside was the same: they still don't have a critical mass of technical talent. I'm heartened that both places are taking steps to foster future technologists, but these things don't happen overnight. They take years. If you want to establish a foothold in either the European or African markets, London or Nairobi would both be great choices, but if you're trying to build something for the global masses, you're probably better off in the U.S.