July 1, 2020

Google’s Flutter Developer Community is Rising in Kenya: a Conversation with a Meet-up Co-Organizer

TECH TOOLS :

Meet-ups are at the center of every tech ecosystem. 

More than a space to receive hands-on training on a wide range of technical topics or develop professionalism skills, meet-ups serve as the connection point for techies within a local community and facilitate continuous learning within the ever-changing technology landscape.

As new tech sub-sectors and projects emerge, community groups focused on the education of these new technologies often follow. 

Recently, the industry has seen a growing use of cross-platform applications like Flutter, React Native, and Xamarin. As they increase the speed of development, decrease time and resources, and reduce future maintenance requirements. As a result, meet-ups centered around these platforms have come to the forefront.  

Flutter, Google’s software development kit (SDK), allows users to build high-performance applications on various platforms such as iOS, Android, Web, and desktop from a single codebase. And as of December 2019, it constitutes the core of Alibaba, Google Ads, Groupon, and Philips Hue. 

Flutter Developers Kenya, is a community of developers, ranging from beginner to experienced professionals, interested in mobile development and using Flutter to build products.

I spoke with Eric Muli, the Co-organizer of Flutter Developers Kenya, about leading a community of 500+ developers, pivoting during COVID-19, and Tech in Africa. 

How did your journey lead you to Flutter Developers Kenya? 

My interest in tech began in college. Initially, I wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but I didn't make the cut, so I went into engineering. On my own, I started learning Python and coding websites in PHP. 

It also helped that all of my friends were deep into the tech community.

One day, I was building a mobile application using Java, and one of my friends suggested I try Flutter since, in Java, to achieve a small task, you have to write a lot of code. 

That was back in 2018 when I used Flutter for the first time, and I liked it because I only had to maintain one source code for two mobile applications (Android and IOS). That's what kicked off my journey. A few months later, I met one of my co-organizers, Jacqueline Kendy, at a tech event.  

Then later on at an event for android developers called DroidconKe 2018, we met the  person who was running Flutter Devs Kenya at the time,  Dennis Riungu, the CTO of Orteo, a payment systems company. At the time, he was getting overwhelmed with work, so he decided to pass us the mantle. 

We took over leading the community in January 2019. Our first task was to grow our members, so we started reaching out to campuses. Back then, Flutter was new, so it wasn't really popular in the tech community. We began going to campuses and talking to students about Flutter. We started with universities first because we could easily host events on campus instead of finding venues.

Later on, two more co-organizers joined the team, Samuel Barraka and Danvick Miller. 

Can you talk about what it means to lead a community?

When  Kendy and I took over, we had 30 members, and the community wasn't really active. Now almost two years later, we have about 500 members, and it's an active community.

If you post a question in our Telegram in two minutes, someone will reply. If you're a beginner trying to get started, there's instant support from other members. I don't have to be the one that is always responding to questions. The community takes care of itself. 

As the community leader, your role is to create a community and support it. Then, you let the community run itself through its members. If you're looking for speakers, let them come from the community. Don't always leave your community to find speakers if you have qualified ones within.

Also, I would say if a community is going to be successful, it's really important to have a team. For Flutter Developer Kenya, there are 4 of us who are organizers, but we also have support from external people including Dennis Riungu the former organizer as well as Frank Tamre and Harun Wangereka from Android254. Having a team and a support system  that you can rely on goes a long way when you’re leading a huge community like ours.  

At times we organize large events and need to book a venue, plan for refreshments, book speakers, figure out the event logistics, etc. Having a team to coordinate the work has played a huge part in the success of our community. 

What type of events does Flutter Developers Kenya provide to its members?

We have two main types of events—our campus outreach meet-ups and out bi-monthly meet-ups. And all of them are free.

Campus Meet-ups:

We go to campuses and invite students studying computer science, and those interested in tech and mobile development to come learn about Flutter.

Bi-Monthly Meet-ups:

We host meet-ups twice a month, these are inclusive to all of our members, students and professionals. And these meet-ups are either one of two sessions. 

Technical Sessions:

  • Our technical meet-up sessions are code labs/study jams led by an experienced developer. We host hands-on workshops where our members can take a deep dive into Flutter Technologies. In some of these sessions, recruiters have popped in, listened, and hired people. I got my first job at a technical session. 

Professional Development Sessions: 

  • During our professional development sessions, we don't write any code; it's more of a discussion. These sessions are designed to equip our members with those essential soft skills. We discuss a variety of topics, for example how to engage with clients and how to price your product. Because most devs don't know how to price their services.  

How have you all restructured during COVID-19?

That's a really interesting question. COVID-19 struck and nearly brought us to our feet. 

The day Kenya had its first case was a day before a campus outreach event we had planned at Muranga University in collaboration with DSC, Wayne Gakuo and  Allan Juma. And we had to cancel it. 

When COVID cases started happening around the world, the Kenyan Google Developer Relations manager Eunice Allela reached out and said that we should cancel our events if we get any cases in Kenya. Explaining that it's not worth putting the lives of our members at risk for a single meet-up. 

We had to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to keep our members engaged, so we decided to transition to online sessions. 

We created a four month schedule with sessions every Friday at 5:00 p.m. Since some members in the community had been looking for an opportunity to lead a session, the transition wasn't too difficult. We only had a three-week break before having our first session to give the presenters a chance to prepare. 

Can you share some stories about how members are using the skills they learned in the Flutter Developers Kenya meet-up group?

We’ve helped our community with a lot, including getting jobs. One of the co-organizers was leading his first Flutter study jam. After the session, a recruiter approached him and said that initially, she wanted to interview him, but his session that night showed that he’s skilled and can deliver. So he got a job.  

We've also given people a platform to develop their teaching and presentation skills. For Flutter Day on the 25th, we have two members that will be speaking; one in GDG Bujumbura in Burundi and the other GDG Monrovia in Liberia.

Lastly, we have members developing mobile applications. Someone just launched a gaming application in the Play Store two days ago. There's a lot of things that are going on in the community. 

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Advice to developers in Africa?   

Patience: 

If you want to start writing code or get into the tech field, I'd advise you to take it slow. In tech, people try to be experienced or super devs in two weeks or a month. But being a good dev takes time; it could take you years. So you have to take it slow and try to understand the fundamentals of what you're trying to learn.

Also, be specific, don't try to learn about machine learning, networking, cybersecurity, mobile development, and web development all at once. Choose one path, master it, then move on. It's not bad having a lot of skills, but mastering a technology step by step is the best thing. 

Developing your skills is a process; it's like swimming. If you read a book about swimming and then get into the swimming pool, you're not going to be the best swimmer in the world. You need consistent practice before you can perfect something.

Project-based learning: 

For people that are starting up, there's this tendency to dive into tutorials. We call it tutorial purgatory. They'll watch tutorials on tutorials and never go and build. Project-based learning is the best way to sharpen your skills, not watching tutorials. Learn a topic then put it into practice. Building is where learning comes from. 

Mentor/Community:

Try to get someone to mentor you. When I started, I was caught up in trying to know everything in tech. I wanted to be an ethical hacker, do backend development, etc. Let's just say movies lied to me and told me that I could be a hacker in a day. A mentor can help guide you on your journey. 

Also, attach yourself to a community. That's where you'll learn a lot. Going to meet-ups, even if they are online is usually a plus.  

Continuous learning:

As a dev, you're continually learning what new technologies are coming up because tech changes every day. We used to use SOAP, now we are using REST, and now REST is dying, and we're going to GraphQL. So you have to be ready to learn and accept changes. 

Note: We have our own YouTube channel called Flutter University where we post every meet-up and tutorials. 

 

How do you see Flutter Developers Kenya evolving over the next few years?

I joined Flutter Devs Kenya as the co-organizer almost two years ago, and when I look back on how much we've grown, it's amazing. Flutter, in general, is becoming more popular in Kenya. If you check Google for where the most searched questions about Flutter originate from, Kenya is #1 in East Africa. 

Also, in terms of community, I think we're the most active Flutter community in East Africa. Last week, we hosted our Flutter Friday session, and we had people join in from Ethiopia, the States, and India, to name a few.

So, if I had to predict where we will be within the next two years, I see us building a community of devs, not only in Kenya but all across Africa, that can build out complete and produce quality mobile applications in Flutter. 

 

Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?

What comes to mind is innovators with African roots that are showing the world what Africa can do. It's empowering. It means that we don't have to depend on the east or the west to bring tech products to us or any other products. 

I really believe that Africa is capable and that we don't have to be dependent on other parts of the world. For instance, right now, with developing a vaccine for COVID, I believe we can do it on our own. If we have faith and believe in each other, anything is possible. 

There was a time that people would say, "Where is it made? In Africa?" They didn't trust the products that were built here. They thought that things built in the West or the East were superior to those built on the continent. I disagree; we have all that is required to develop. We have innovators and visionaries in Africa. 

 

A message to current and future community leaders 

If you want to start a community or are currently running a community, don't depend on Google or Microsoft to build the community just because they built the product. In our case, Flutter is a Google product, but we started the meet-up without getting anything from Google. We volunteered ourselves.

Yes, there will be challenges if you start on your own with getting funds, speakers, and venues for the events, but you have to persevere. We've driven 100 kilometers before to get to an event we were hosting at this campus, and we were not getting paid, but that's what it takes to build a community. If we didn't sacrifice our cash and our time, I don't think Flutter Developers Kenya would be where it is now.  

Also, don't be ashamed to ask for help. We got advice and support from Android 254, Coding Kenya, Apps: lab Ke. Don't feel ashamed because, as the saying goes, "a problem shared is a problem half sold."  

Once we became vibrant and began to make a lot of noise in Kenya's tech ecosystem, Nilay Yener, the Developer Relations Manager from Flutter, reached out to our team. That started our relationship with Google. Now they reach out to us to see what we're planning and if they can support us.

There's a huge difference between when we started and now. When we started, we were struggling on our own, but now our network has grown. We collaborate with GDG's, DSC’s, other tech communities in Kenya and the Flutter team itself through DevRel. So if you feel like you're not going anywhere, just know that there's someone out there that is watching. You'll never know who it is, so just keep pushing until it works. 

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