About Thomas Lee

I am a technology entrepreneur, father of two young boys, and husband to Mari. Love technology, audio and stuff with wheels.

Moving to the cloud? Prepare to rethink your system architecture.

One of the biggest mistakes I see when enterprise customers contemplate a move to the cloud, is that they assume their entire system and architecture will move “as is” into any cloud provider. While this may even be feasible in feature rich cloud platforms, the question is, should I move as is? The reality is that loads of enterprise systems in play today, look they way they do because of a phenomenon called “architecture by evolution”. Nothing is as permanent in IT as the “temporary” fix put in place to overcome a short term issue. Over time, more things get added, and these “bandaids” become part of your platform architecture. The result is that over time, it becomes plenty messy. I have yet to see a customer with a sqeaky clean, crisp architecture…it seems an almost impossible goal to achieve.

As a result of the above, it is best to start fresh when you move systems into cloud platforms. Not only will you achieve the benefits of cloud computing solutions far easier, but starting fresh eliminates all of the issues you had to fix previously. Cloud computing is a big catalyst for change, and you have to be prepared to accept that. Recently I met an enterprise customer still running a pretty key MS-DOS based system. They quickly critised us for not being able to cater for this app in our platform. When I asked the question if there is an updated version of the system available, the answer was “yes, but what we have is stable”. Now looking at a technology adoption bell curve, this is certainly a situation where this MS-DOS based app falls in the laggard category. For me, it would have been better to change the platform to a more modern version.

Here’s the financial impact that the customer is not seeing. By not migrating the application (and thus saving the migration cost), they lose out on the benefits of cost, scalability and speed of deployment that they would have realized from a cloud platform. Incidently, the customer runs this application in an environment where they have certain peak times during the month, such as month ends and weekends. By leveraging the elasticity enabled by a more modern application and elastic cloud scaled resources, they could have run enough resources to operate the app during normal hours. During times of peak load they could then have dynamically scaled the application to take advantage of the elasticity in cloud resources. From a cost point of view the saving is significant, as they only incur costs for the resources they use, when they use them in the cloud model. With their existing model, they have enough hardware and datacentre power and cooling run the app during peak times, even if the bulk of the infrastructure idles during off peak times. During off-peak time they generate heat, consume power etc that could have been saved. Not only is there a saving due to the elasticity of cloud resources, but also an operational cost saving. The complete financial cost, operational efficiency and system upgrade cost has to be compared. It could be that upgrading the old system, while it comes at a cost, suddenly enables other savings that enable a great retun on the investment.

Moving to the cloud makes the old saying “measure twice and cut once” seem like a sensible plan.

Building a cloud? Prepare for a rough ride.

I have done many difficult things in my life. Built businesses, am a husband to a lovely wife and a father to two young boys. I have been involved with complex technological projects, and seen success and failure on all fronts. But nothing prepares you for the sheer technical challenge of building a public cloud platform.

The easy bit is deciding that you want to do it, the tough bit is getting it done. It is the kind of project that forces networking, server, application and business support teams to work together in ways you have never imagined. As I sit here writing this, I realize how ill prepared I was for certain aspects of this journey. Before finding the partner with whom my platform is now being built, I courted several venture capitalists. I was convinced that a pile of money and motivation is all that is needed to succeed. Use the money, add the right people to the team and build what is needed. No, that is not the way it turned out. I was right on the investment front, but I totally underestimated the human capital required. To get to where we are today required:

a) A skilled and experienced networking team. Guys who build Service Provider and Telco grade networks. They understand routing, switching, peer connectivity and the intricacies of building highly scalable, resilient data networks.

b) Security experts. Not just fire-walling, but all manner of policy compliance, governance and audit specialists. People who understand security not only as a set of technologies, but also the mindset of hackers and consumers.

c) Datacentre experts who understand datacentre operations and can implement and deploy technology in these environments according to best practises.

d) Infrastructure experts that understand the world of cabling, generators, battery backup systems, server power requirements and cooling.

e) A project management team to tie all the other teams together and drive our processes and tasks.

f) A full team of finance and procurement specialists, that bring expertise in procurement, global logistics, taxation, legal expertise and human capital management.

g) Branding, design and communications staff with globally recognised skill in brand development and stakeholder communication.

h) Open source technology generalists, who leverage their skills to be on the cutting edge of open source software deployment and management.

i) Proprietary software guys, who work with the images and process to support all manner of proprietary software.

j) Software developers who build the custom automation code and software pieces required to bring our vision to life.

k) Finally, a competent and visionary management team to understand the vision, accept the changes and drive the technology and people to new heights.

Thousands of man hours of work has now been logged against this project, and we are not live yet. I’ll do a follow up story where I give some of my top tips for building cloud infrastructure, but let me share just one for now…make sure you have a solid understanding of your underlay network, it’s function and layout. Certain technologies are extremely dependant on what you do in your network underlay. The network does not have to be complicated, but it needs to be fast, with a powerful Software Defined Network overlay. You will not believe how complicated some of the network plugins can be. (Here’s a secret, we are not running OpenvSwitch but another SDN technology). Make your network plugin choice early, and make sure your underlay network is designed to work with it and its capabilities. As a rule, there is no migration path from one network plugin to another. Make the wrong choice early on, and you’ll have to buy hardware for a second platform, migrate your workloads and thrash your initial platform, adding it back as capacity for your new cloud after a re-build. Painful.

In the mean time, head over to www.wingu.co.za¬†and sign up for our newsletter. You’ll be added to our list of people who receive a R 250 voucher to try our cloud services when we launch. Yes, we are cool like that ūüôā

Letting my mind go with music…

I have a long and wonderful history with music. It really started while I was growing up listening to whatever my dad was playing on his HiFi. The “whatever” portion is important, as my father listens to a huge variety of music. I won’t go so far as to call him a fan of everything, but he is the ultimate musical experimenter. He’d read HiFi magazines with reviews of newly released music, compiling a list that then results in a shopping trip. I am too young to remember my Dad buying vinyl, but the CD shopping trips are the stuff of legend for me. My father owned a retail pharmacy and Mom worked with him in the business. The hours were long, leaving only Sundays for any real family time. So, once in a while, my Dad would get all four of us (me, my sister, Mom and him) in his gloriously metallic blue Jaguar XJ6 and drive to his favourite CD shop in Rosebank. We’d spend the morning, browsing for new music, tracking down stuff from his lists and ultimately end up going home with a ton of CD’s. The next few weeks would then be spent listening to all the new stuff. The genres included pop, classical, rock, female vocals etc. As I grew up, we’d spend hours discussing music and all other matters, with music on the HiFi. As I grew older, I’d also get to taste the red wine my Dad loved (resulting in my huge love for red wine today), all in front of the HiFi. This set the scene for my ongoing love affair with music, wine, electronics and cars. My dad is also a firm believer in owning a “proper” HiFi. He selected an amplifier, CD player, record player and speakers after endless reviews and auditions. The result is a system that sounds bloody brilliant, to this day.

I grew up playing piano and classical guitar as instruments. I sang in a regional youth choir, resulting in my first trip overseas when I was 17. Music and its associated equipment and activities shaped my life in a big way. When in love, I’d spend hours on the thick carpet in the HiFi room, on my back, Sennheiser headphones on while listening to soppy love songs. In times of turmoil, Nirvana would be in the CD tray. To this day, my mood can be expressed or set by music. While a man of mediocre playing and vocal talent, my love for music never faded. As I sit here, I am in front of my own HiFi, listening to a variety of classical music on the Deutsche Grammophon label, all conducted by Herbert von Karajan. My dual 10″ Tannoy’s are singing, driven by a bi-amped and bi-wired setup.

Today my love for music is as strong as ever. My instrument playing is limited to the occasional tickle of my Stratocaster guitar, and I rarely sing these days. But listening to music while thinking, writing, reading etc consumes vast amounts of my time. The way my brain can make all sorts of weird and wonderful connections, stimulated by music, is amazing. I use this to stimulate the creative side of my day job. Music transports me to a place where my mind roams freely, unencumbered by the constraints of daily life, accessing the deep regions where weird and wonderful things happen.

The way I access music has certainly changed too. With a background in electronic/computer systems engineering, I love the electronics as much as the music reproduced with them. My vinyl collection has grown at a steady pace, especially after I took over my dad’s turntable and vinyl collection. The NAD 533 turntable (an OEM version of the famous Rega Planar 2) was serviced, fitted with a new motor, cartridge and properly set-up on a heavy plinth. A Rega Phono stage connects the turntable to the rest of my HiFi. Because of the ease of access with digital music, I bought a dedicated headphone amplifier with built in Digital to Analogue converter, driven through a vintage vacuum tube (to soften the hard digital edge a bit). This is used at my desk, powering a variety of Sennheiser, Grado and JBL headphones (selected based on what I am listening too). Spotify, iTunes, Linn Records and HDTracks.com are all places where I buy my digital, high-resolution music. Finally, bringing the music to lif at home, is a set of Tannoy Saturn S10 Dual Concentric speakers. Their ability to reach low and deep is amazing. You need that ability when you listen to Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio for Organ and Strings in G minor, else the bottom registers of the organ simply disappear.

Today I lament the state of live music in South Africa. It seems to me that the days of being able to go and listen to a full scale, live symphony orchestra are gone. I cannot even remember the last time that I saw a symphonic orchestra live, playing pieces by Dvorak, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Beethoven and Mozart. Luckily I have vivid memories of doing that with my parents. I’ll never forget my first time, hearing the full orchestra in full cry, experiencing the full stereophonic effect with the strings and percussion bringing the music to life.

My own musical journey has brought me closer to certain types of music. As I started listening to older, classic rock bands, I moved closer and closer to Blues. As I moved closer to Blues, I started discovering Jazz (still not a favourite) and other genres. Today I firmly believe that the best stuff is not what plays to mainstream audiences via mainstream media. There is a world of music far removed from the mainstream, where true art lives and thrives. But to experience this world you need an open mind, the drive to discover and the ability to open yourself completely to new experiences. Do that and a wonderful journey of musical discovery awaits!

Thank you dad, for introducing me to this amazing world.

Why using local cloud services makes sense

With the launch date for my new cloud computing platform looming large, I am spending more and more time involved in the intimate details of the project. I am also spending more and more time with potential customers and partners. One of the most frequently asked questions from potential partners and customers are why they should use local cloud computing services. The impression is certainly there that the big players have cornered the market and that there is no place left for smaller, local players to bring value. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s dissect this a bit from an African/South African context.

The local cloud market is thriving. When I say “local”, I mean companies operating in certain geographies. At the OpenStack Summit in Paris (November 2014) I had the opportunity to meet with many cloud service provides who operate within a specific country or even province. The value of being “local” in terms of language, business culture, currency etc cannot be underestimated. Many of these companies have built thriving businesses, offering products and services that serve the need of their local customers, and serve it better than international players. No one doubts the domination and scale of the large well known players, but they certainly are not everything to everyone. Why is that?

1.) Bill me in my local currency. Currency fluctuation is a real concern if you operate a business in an economy where your local currency fluctuates against the global strong currencies such as the Dollar and Euro. I am currently a Google and Amazon customer, and know what it is like to have your monthly invoice arrive 15% higher than what is was last month, simply because your currency slid by a big percentage against the currency that you are billed in. Add fee overheads for currency conversion on credit cards, and you can face invoices that fluctuate significantly, while you did not consume any more services. Local cloud service providers can build systems that have little or no variables in the form of foreign currency components, leading to fixed, predictable pricing.

2.) Payment using locally accepted payment methods. This sounds like a moot point, but many companies do not provide credit cards to all their employees who can consume cloud services. These cards also may not have the correct limits in place to allow for big bills when cloud services gets consumed in significant volumes. Local players allow you to use local payment gateways, with easily accepted and understood payment methods. For instance, we accept credit cards (of course), debit cards, electronic fund transfers (that clear immediately, regardless of the originating bank) and Bitcoin. All billed in local currency.

3.) Improved latency to the cloud services. Let’s not kid ourselves, Africa is not as well connected as the rest of the world. The big players also have no local datacentres here that provide their services. If we measure latency using PING (latency is half a PING), we can reach certain US east cost services in around 110 milliseconds. Consider that we can access our local datacentre from almost any ISP in around 15-20 milliseconds. That is around 400%+ faster. This becomes key when you start delivering latency sensitive services.

4.) Local support. Yes, I know we all speak English anyway, but that is not the point. One of the upcoming features in our cloud service, is a very advanced software defined networking (SDN) layer. For customers who want to use our public infrastructure to extend services from their MPLS networks, that will require some onsite consulting. Difficult to do if the support staff you want to interact with is a continent away. This is only an issue as we deliver new, cutting edge solutions. The drive is always there to automate and simplify as much of what we do as possible.

5.) Local datacentre access. One of the biggest reasons to use a local cloud provider is that you have the opportunity to collocate equipment with your cloud provider. Many customers that I have spoken to want to outsource certain functions to a cloud provider, but connect certain services that they have control over to these cloud platforms. In certain cases that becomes a lot easier when you can collocate services, running cross-connects to a cloud provider to eliminate any bandwidth costs. A great benefit for more complex and bandwidth intensive solutions.

I am confident that as we start providing commercial services, more and more customers will enjoy that local touch that we provide.

2015, here we go!

So, 2015 arrived and it is time to stare the new year squarely in the eye. I’ll freely admit to using a bit of Punk Rock to get me out of bed this morning, clearly I enjoyed my stay-cation a bit too much ūüôā 2014 was a proper roller-coaster of a year, with loads of changes for me personally and in business. 2015 brings stability and clear focus on delivering my cloud computing project.

Delivering a cloud platform is certainly not a job for the fainthearted. Now that all but one of the supply contracts has been finalized, the focus shifts to the actual technology deployment. Managing the logistics is a bit of a challenge in itself, with my tin arriving in drips and drabs. January will see us deploying the tin into the datacentre, and getting the basic platform ready for all the integration work that needs to be done.

I hope all of you have a great 2015, filled with love, fun and new exciting opportunities and challenges.

OpenStack “State of the nation”

Over the past few days I have had the pleasure of attending the OpenStack Summit in Paris. The 6000 person attendance figure alone tells a story of the massive momentum behind this open source software project. Over a 5 day period thousands of vendors, integrators and developers got together to shape the future of this amazing project.

So, what is OpenStack? It is a collection of open source tools and technologies, augmented by commercial tools, that allows customers to build private, public and hybrid cloud services.

I am currently involved in a project to build a cloud platform that will deliver public cloud services, and I selected OpenStack as the underlying technology to base my platform on. OpenStack is a relatively unknown quantity in South Africa, and one of the questions I always get asked when discussing my plans, is “why not VMWare or Hyper-V?”. Most people assume that the answer will have something to do with cost, or some crusade against big and evil tech empires. The answer is actually quite simple. OpenStack is the only platform today, that allows customers to build the cloud they want, with no vendor lock in. And while there are other open cloud platforms out there, OpenStack has the largest and most vibrant community, with the largest partner eco system. The challenge and opportunities lie in the fact that it is not a pre-packaged product (that is changing with most open source vendors now offering easy to deploy systems for enterprise use) but a framework that allows you to make component selections to build the cloud you need. The Lego of the cloud world ūüôā

This was not always the case. In the earlier releases (Grizzly, Folsom, Havana etc) there was a lot of features missing, and the toolset was difficult to deploy. The latest release is Juno, and the community is working to release Kilo in a few months time. Today, the stack is easy to deploy, with distributions and vendors such as SUSE, Red Hat, Mirantis, Canonical, HP and IBM all having easy to use deployment tools. Vendors such as Canonical and Mirantis take this deployment further, with their FUEL and JuJu tools providing several deployment options, making OpenStack as easy to deploy as traditional virtualization technologies. The partner ecosystem has dramatically expanded, with more and more companies providing focussed add-on’s for the platform, making it easier to deploy, operate and manage this environment.

The layer above the basic cloud platform Infrastructure-as-a-Service layer has also expanded. Platform-as-a-Service tools, container technology and others such as software defined network and network function virtualization are all driving the new applications and services that allows businesses to be more agile with their technology services.

The use cases for the cloud platforms feature three recurring themes. More speed, more agility, less cost. We now live in an era where “credit card” decisions are made, where a manager will swipe a company credit card to buy and instantly access a service if internal IT moves too slow. The way savvy companies counter this, to maintain control while delivering on the new business requirements for faster availability of infrastructure and services, is to deploy clouds internally. I saw several case studies being presented where companies shared their numbers of how fast services can now be deployed and adopted, and how their internal IT user satisfaction scores went up.

It is important to note that virtualization and cloud are not terms to be used interchangeably. Yes, OpenStack contains virtualization (select your hypervisor from KVM, Hyper-V, ESXi or XEN and others), but it provides technology for an “Amazon AWS like” web layer where users can authenticate and select options to be deployed as they need them. Traditional virtualization vendors such as VMWare are also throwing their weight behind OpenStack, integrating their technology with OpenStack to provide a single control plane and great user experience.

What does this mean for South African companies? In short, you now have access to a set of technologies that enables you to make smart choices, delivering IT as a service, providing your users with a great, flexible platform, capable of quickly delivering infrastructure and apps.

If you’d like more info, to see how this can work for your business, leave a comment and I’ll reach out to you.

Change is the only constant

The last few weeks passed by in a blur of activity. Transforming a business is not easy, and one must grab  the opportunities that present themselves. However, times of change and flux can be volatile, and I do not enjoy finding myself in conflict with people whom I have a close relationship with. The conflict is not over yet, but necessary to bring hidden items to the fore, and help one refocus on what is important. It also shows that not all relationships are positive, or meant to last.

The differences between people in my life, and how they view the world and react, was highlighted after loads of us completed our Gallup StrengthsFinder surveys. This behavioural science tool shifts the focus from developing areas where you are weak, to a process where you focus on your core strengths. The strengths are divided into 34 items, and the basic test will highlight your top 5, being the ones that most influence your behaviour. A more complete test will rank all 34 for an individual, showing you which ones dominate, which ones support and which ones are really low on your radar. Your team dynamic then gets explored when you take the top 5 for each team member, and map it out on a grid. The grid defines the 34 key strengths into 4 broad categories for Strategic Thinking, Executing, Influencing and Relationship strengths. Once you see your team map, you’ll have many “aha” moments, as specific events suddenly gets explained. It also changes your hiring practise, as you now start looking at the person, not just their CV, focussing on hiring people who plug holes in your team grid.

The change this brings in small teams are amazing. I have witnessed this from the sideline where it was applied in a company that I have close ties with, and the acceleration of their business has been immense. They also started recognising these character strengths in their customers, and are able to better match their human resources with their customer strengths and needs.

On a personal level, when Mari and I did these tests, it suddenly explained so much of our behaviour, and also why we experience conflict with each other in certain situations. It has certainly added another deeper dimension to our relationship, one that will stand us in good stead going forward.

For now, I am fighting the battles I have to, driving them to conclusion, making sure that I make the best decisions for my family and my business.

Education…my guide for modern parents

As a result of the work I have been doing on our cloud project, I am experiencing first hand the lack of skill that we have in certain technology fields locally. One of the reasons for changing our current business and business model, is that we want the ability to take advantage of our own intellectual property and leverage what we know in our business model. But doing that is hard, as it requires a broad range of skills, and we are coming up short finding everything that we need locally.

Education is obviously key in addressing this. It is however clear that the South African school system is not currently up to the task. Now we can blame a whole lot o things for the failure of our public school system, but do not think that the private schools fare any better. We’ll have to figure out how we can use the educational resources out there, to better equip our kids. This matter is very close to my heart, as I am father to two young boys, currently aged 5 and 7. Bottom line is, we cannot leave the important task of education just up to our schools, as parents we need to be involved on a daily basis.

Being a dad, I have started looking around to see what options are available for teaching our kids some technology skills, and helping them develop key skills like math and science. One needs to tread carefully here, so that we do not expose our children to certain technologies prematurely. But there are loads of things we can do to peak their interest. I am not a professional educator, and this guide is based around information for parents living in South Africa, so your mileage may vary. This may sound like it is for boys only, but there are plenty of girly projects too.

For a start, I love doing basic, fun science experiments with my kids. This teaches them about chemistry, physics, math and project management. They learn valuable life skills while doing something fun. You do not have to rack your brain for ideas, I use Experilab as my first stop. These guys have an amazing range of simple experiments that you buy online or at their shop in Pretoria. Even my local pharmacy stocks their experiments. The kits usually contains the chemicals you’ll need, you just need to provide simple household items like bowls, spoons etc. We have made bouncing balls, grown crystals, made chemicals that glow in the dark, simple electric motors and loads more. The online shops also sells all the lab equipment you may need, such as tubes, glass holders, magnifying lenses etc. Each kit can be done in 30-45 minutes, so you do not have long to wait for results.

experilab logo BBalls FLYSCIENCE

I love doing a bit more challenging projects too, especially items that take a bit longer to complete, to also teach the kids the virtue of patience. These usually involve a lot more building, and we involve mom too. Developing the kids’ visual art skills are important too, so once we built something, mom helps with decorating it. For kits that allow a bit more free play, and outdoor time, look at the Dala Junior Tradesman kits. These kits use real bricks and mortar to help kids build houses etc, outdoors.

juniortm_kit_firsthousegarage

Adding to their skills, means letting them get some hands on time with real tools. One afternoon, the boys and I went shopping for real tools. Dad bought them a portable tool chest (get one at Plasticland) and then we added some essential screwdrivers, a hammer, a saw, duct tape, nails, glue, string, spray paint, sanding paper, screws, gloves, safety goggles etc. Next we added some wood and PVC pipe, plus some basic castor and normal wheels (get these from Chamberlain or Builders Warehouse). For projects to build using these tools and materials, I bought a series of books. Here a list from Kalahari.com:

50 things geek dad 1 geek dad 2 geek dad 3

The books provide us with the ideas for our projects. We have built catapults, blow dart guns, coke fountains and loads of other fun toys. Once the building is done, mom helps with decoration. The process I use is quite simple. I let the kids page the books, to select a project, then I vet it for age appropriateness, time and cost. Once we have agreed on a project, we make a list of things we have and things we need to shop. Bare in mind these books use US measurements, so be prepared to adapt dimensions and find alternative products (part of the fun I say!). A shopping expedition gets mounted with our list, and when we get back home, the building starts. These projects may require a day or two to finish, or an entire Saturday, so plan accordingly and set the correct expectation. Be prepared for loads of questions, and try your best to answer them, or Google for info.

The above processes helps with the major and minor motor skills, developing their hand/eye co-ordination. A big trap to avoid are table devices such as iPad’s. This does not mean that we do not let them use tablets, but try to limit the amount of “flat screen time” (tablets and TV) to no more than 45 minutes per day. My kids love Lego blocks, so on the tablets we use companion apps with additional build plans for the blocks we have.

Proficiency with technology will be come key for our children. By this, I do not mean the simple ability to start a computer and use office productivity software (that is important too), but ways to manipulate and interact with technology. Here’s a simple analogy. We need to teach our children work processing as a skill, not Microsoft Word. We need to teach them how to use a spreadsheet, not just Microsoft Excel. They must learn a programming language, and understand some basic electronics. The point here is not to turn everyone into engineers, but to get everyone more comfortable with technology. My house is end-to-end covered by wireless, each person in the household own an iPad, there are several laptop computers, several servers and the home theatre. All the technology is integrated. The home theatre can be controller by smartphones, movies and music can be streamed to any computer, phone or tablet. Everything is connected to the Internet for news, movies etc. In future, more homes will look like this and be even more connected. The technology should not scare us or¬†our children. Technology will become more prevalent in our workplaces so we need a basic understanding of how these devices work, and how to interact with technology. For me personally, proficiency in the basic principles of programming is important, as well as a basic understanding of electronics, and the interaction between electronics and software.

Do not be afraid to shop online, and remember, it is most likely cheaper to buy directly from the overseas vendor. If you want to shop for an educational toy online, and they do not offer either shipping to South Africa, or take South African credit cards as payments, then you can services such as MyUS to handles ordering, payment and shipping for you, via their concierge services. Shipping is usually quite quick, my overseas packages arrive, delivered to my door (if that is your selected shipping option) within 5-10 working days.

myus

My first purchase in the electronics space was a Sparkfun Inventors kit. This can be bought online locally from Netram¬†or directly from SparkFun in the USA. It includes the amazing little Arduino Atmel based microprocessor system, with loads of components such as wires, motors, lights etc. The kit includes everything you need to build 15 projects, teaching kids the basics of electronic circuits and microprocessor programming. The Arduino system is a roaring success story all on its own. Developed by professors at an Italian university as a teaching tool, these modular systems have sparked a whole industry of projects and add-on boards. These systems power anything from Hydroponic growth systems, to 3D printers. There are loads of fun Arduino based kits around, resulting in fun, interactive toys that kids can build themselves, while learning. Simple Arduino projects include a basic light circuit, where a little LED light is turned on an off using software. You can then experiment (the kit shows you how) by seeing what effects a change in the software will have on the simple light circuit. Circuits take about 10 minutes to build, and the Arduino is powered and programmed from your Window, Mac or Linux PC’s USB port.

arduino-uno-r3  robot-arm-kit  sparkfun kit

Next up, we have the revolution that is the Raspberry Pi mini computer. This differs from the Arduino above, in that it is a mini computer system. Using a USB keyboard, mouse and an HDMI capable monitor, the Raspberry Pi is a very low cost computer. So, how cheap is low cost? I bought a Kano computer, which is a Raspberry Pi with all the cables, software and a keyboard and mouse for US 99 when they launched via Kickstarter. You can now pre-order the kits at USD 129, or surf over to Netram and buy the Pi plus all the goodies locally. This computer attaches to a flat screen TV or computer monitor via an HDMI cable. It runs a Linux operating system, optimized for kids, with games and development tools installed. The revolution here is that you have a small, low cost computer that can do loads of useful stuff. The games on the Kano are created using the Scratch programming language developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This means that not only can the kids play the games, but they can change them using the Scratch tools to create new or different games. There is a wonderful video from TED Talks where Mitch Resnick explains the idea and applications of the Scratch language.

raspberry-pi-model-b  kano  scratch1

I saved the best for last! All of the above sounds great, but what about kids, already in school battling with Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Economics or Entrepreneurship? You need Khan Academy. This amazing, free site only requires a Google or Facebook account, and it unlocks a world of training resources for kids and parents. I’d suggest that parents surf over to the parents and tutors¬†page to get familiar with the system and how it operates. The bottom line is this, let’s assume your youngster is struggling with Geometry, specifically the angles of triangles. You can find the appropriate category from the index, and surf down to a page with a series of worked practise questions. If your child cannot complete the exercises, there is a handy, 5-15 minute video tutorial that they can then watch. They can then try the practise questions again. The system assumes mastery of a subject if you can complete 10 questions in a row, while scoring 100%. Best of all, mom and dad can have an interface where children of different ages (like mine) can have their individual progress and activity level tracked.

I know this is quite a mouthful, and it seems very technology focused. Be open-minded, take a look and see what works for you. All you need is a basic computer (get a CloudGate, they are super cool!) or some free time with your kids, to help them have fun and learn. I’d love to hear your feedback on this, and what your experiences with your kids are when you try this. Happy learning!

Feel like giving up? Then watch this…

The past few weeks in my life has been hectic. But, while that is the case, I have also been learning new things, connecting with business mentors, completing many tasks, making tough choices and taking steps every day to get my cloud platform up and running. It is easy to start feeling overwhelmed and even easier to feel like quitting, because a project like this is not for the faint hearted.  All the long hours, lack of sleep, hours of intense concentration, overcoming obstacles etc, can really get to you. So, I decided to take the weekend off, not touch my computer and just chill out and catch up with life a bit.

To start my week, I decided to complete a few other tasks, before I get stuck into my work and cloud project. As it happens, I run a Plex Media Server at my home office, and while firing up the app to get some good tunes on, I accidentally stumbled in to my “channels” section, and then saw my TED Talks app. Thought I’d have a quick look to see what was new, and then stumbled across this talk by David Blaine. He’s well know as a magician, illusionist and stuntman. This honest, low-key, talk on him learning how to hold his breath for 17 minutes fascinated me. The talk is not about how awesome he is, all the media attention, his successes or anything like that. He does a short intro, just to set the scene of who he is and what he does, and then he describes his admiration of legendary magicians and escape artists. This admiration pushes him to attempt a stunt, to emulate the great Houdini. What follows is a story of all the ways he explored, all the ways he failed, almost dying and how he finally succeeded, setting a Guinness World record by holding his breath for more than 17 minutes. It is a great talk that shows us how we can fail many times, in many ways (including publicly!) before we finally achieve success.

Quite an inspiring video to watch on a Monday morning. What is true is that, as we learn to overcome obstacles, we train ourselves to be mentally tougher. I can already see this with my two young sons. They are quick to quit, but mom and dad pushes them to try. When they try and succeed, they suddenly realize that it was not so hard as it initially seemed, and they want to tackle an even bigger task. There is a valuable lesson in there for us, we do not get born with perseverance, we learn it my failing, trying and overcoming.

That dirty word, “Innovation”

Many industries have overused terms, in automotive, “driver’s car” is one that comes to mind. How on earth can a diesel powered econobox be described as a “driver’s car”? Technically it is correct, the car does belong to a driver, so it is that driver’s car. But does it inspire you to get in it and simply drive for the joy and pleasure that it brings? I seriously doubt it. One of the real “driver’s car” models that got my heart racing was the Honda S2000. Now here is a lightweight, rear drive, manual gearbox car with steering that can only be described as telepathic. Get in, point the nose anywhere and simply drive for the sheer fun and pleasure of the act. Rev the 2.0 litre V-TEC engine to a dizzy 9000rpm and hear it wail like a sports bike.

In the consumer products market “new and improved” is another one. Is it new, or is it improved? Fake hype is generated around something like shampoo that must have 50 competitors on the same shelf.

In the information technology world, “innovation” has become one of those overused terms. No dear reseller, you do not “innovate” when you take the same product that loads of people make, and simply sell it in a new (and probably more expensive) way. True innovation is the act of breaking the mold, thinking without a box, not just outside one. Truly disruptive technologies are scarce locally. Like hen’s teeth some might say. In South Africa we need to start moving beyond the “buy tech, add a markup and sell, repeat” model. We have to learn to distinguish between what is a new spin on an old idea, what is disruptive and what is truly new and exciting.

I am looking forward to see how individuals and businesses use my cloud platform to deliver true innovation with a real South African flavour.