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Mobile app innovators must think ahead

NAIROBI: As the number of products and services "going mobile" goes from a trickle to flood, every enterprise in the Middle East and Africa needs to cultivate organic mobile development and management skills amongst its personnel.

To do so, organisations must re-evaluate how they define the necessary mobile skills – not just in terms of coding ability, but also integration with other technologies (like cloud and analytics) and constant adaptability to new best-practices and platforms as mobile continues to evolve.

Importing foreign talent to fill the gaps in individual markets is only a short-term answer. For sustainable growth, organisations must begin sowing the seeds for mobile and software development skills in-house – without focusing solely on coding and developer skill-sets.

Organisations have reached varying levels of readiness when it comes to prioritising in-house mobile and software development. While some may resist the transition, others simply do not have the resources required to "flip the switch". As the workforce becomes increasingly mobile, however, organisations may be forced to evolve or risk falling behind.

So how can businesses ensure they have the skills needed for mobile development and management?

Mobile apps enhance people productivity, facilitate collaboration and drive innovation, customisation and added value. Nowhere is this truer than in the enterprise mobile application space.

Forward-thinking business leaders have recognised the immense opportunity in this area and are looking for ways to make mobile the centre point of how they do business. Some nations have even begun to capitalise on the potential of mobile development to enhance underlying economic development.

In Egypt, for example, more than 100 software vendors are developing enterprise apps, many of which are primarily for mobile, supported with funding and mentoring through a partnership between IBM and the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and IT.

Businesses cannot, however, simply develop and deploy apps. True mobility means erecting the "Four Pillars" that house and support mobile offerings - namely cloud, security, Big Data and analytics. Understanding where the mobile app lives and how it connects and understands data is just as important as what it does.

When nurturing mobile development skills, businesses across the Middle East and Africa must think globally. In today's connected society, developers are not creating apps solely for their business or country. An application developed in Kenya may catch the attention of Silicon Valley, especially as the increasing number of open data initiatives fosters greater collaboration and integration.

Thinking beyond the code and utilising open-source platforms allows developers to have a hand in creating the future – offering the services, run-times, and infrastructure needed to bring their ideas to life.

A growing number of start-up groups are prioritising open-source mobile and cloud platforms to lay the foundations for fast, cross-border scalability. Mobile start-up incubator M-Lab East Africa, for example, encourages its members to use the open-source IBM Softlayer cloud platform: scalability is particularly relevant given the group's members focus on large-scale challenges in agriculture, health and education.

An agile, experimental environment speeds up the development process and enables application developers to test new capabilities efficiently. This enables a cycle of continuous learning that drives exponential innovation and growth. Middle Eastern and African enterprises and developers must remember that once their projects reach an app store, they're competing on the world stage – and have the necessary skills and infrastructure to manage potentially global demand.

Businesses looking to bolster in-house app development teams should also consider formal training programmes, particularly to leverage the innate mobility of young, tech-savvy employees.

Africa's working population is expected to double by 2020 and become the world's largest working population by 2040. The majority of those new employees will have grown up with mobile devices and will expect to work in the highly flexible and always-on way that these devices enable.

This makes it critical for businesses to support initiatives aimed at closing skill gaps, particularly in mobile, cloud and the intersection of these technologies. More than 10 universities across the regions are now offering a mobile development and strategy curriculum developed by IBM experts, graduating students who are armed with not only the developer know-how, but also a deep understanding of how that expertise fits into wider business strategies.

By catching these rising stars on the way up and offering meaningful, business-focused talent development, organisations can ensure that employees have the skills needed to meet today's business objectives, but also lay a solid pipeline for future growth.

Staying ahead of the curve requires continuous learning – and even if you're on top of mobile now, your stay may be short-lived without it.

Developers and enterprises must embrace this learning process, and begin exploring the entwined relationship between mobile and other critical domains including Big Data, analytics, security and Cloud.