Cloud computing provides on-demand access, via the internet, to computing resources—applications, servers, data storage, networking capabilities, and more. It’s a powerful tool that enables businesses to save money, become more agile, and operate more efficiently. Over the last decade, cloud computing transformed from an innovative concept to an integral part of the global digital space.
Across Africa’s tech ecosystem, access to and the use of cloud-based services is vastly underrepresented. According to data from Xalam Analytics, Africa accounts for less than 1 percent of the total available global data center capacity. As a result, many large public cloud providers, Google, Microsoft, and AWS, are investing hundreds of millions to shift this paradigm.
Moreover, as access to cloud-based services expands and the demand for computing resources grows, there becomes a pressing need for service providers with the skills to not only migrate existing infrastructure to the cloud but also build cloud-native applications. Deimos, the cloud native developer and security operations company, is well-positioned to take on this role.
With an origin story that begins in Lagos, Nigeria and Cape Town, South Africa, Deimos is on a mission to be the leading cloud native technology company in Africa. To date, Deimos has partnered with a range of business and government agencies, including the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mukuru, and Patricia.
I spoke with Jaco Nel, CTO of Deimos, about how Deimos is impacting Africa’s cloud industry, overseeing a distributed engineering team of 80+ engineers, and what it takes to build successful software solutions for Africa.
Journey into tech?
I was born in Cape Town, but I grew up in a rural farming area on the west coast of South Africa. Growing up in a farming town, I wasn’t exposed to technology. Then in my junior year of high school, my brother-in-law introduced me to information technology and software development. What interested me most about software was that it’s a field where you’re not bound to a single business problem or industry.
What is Deimos, and what value does it provide to the marketplace?
In layman’s terms, we help companies adopt cloud-native approaches to technology and get the best return on investment from the cloud. Within our cloud business, we have two main service offerings.
- Premium Google Cloud Partner — We help existing Google Cloud customers who have outgrown their current infrastructure, scale. Allowing them to unlock the full potential of the Google Cloud Platform. Today, we are the largest Google Cloud partner in Africa.
- Professional services — We help clients develop cloud-native systems and undergo platform modernization, where they convert legacy software and/or infrastructure to the cloud.
These two departments work synergistically and tend to feed off each other.
Today, our clients stretch across a dozen African countries, and we have a few international clients in the EU and US. Some are just starting to dip their toe into the cloud, so they’ll bring us in to help them plan their migration. While others are already operating in the cloud and want to partner with us to implement best practices and ensure their infrastructure is cost-effective, scalable, and reliable. Wherever they are in their cloud journey, we’re ready to support them.
Our engagement approach is to work closely with the client’s team of engineers to educate and upskill them from traditional administration of on-premise infrastructure to cloud native architectural patterns. We don’t come in and try to enforce change immediately or try to make our clients depend on us. While we’d love to be part of their long-term cloud journey, a typical engagement lasts for 6–12 months. During this time, we aim to get their engineers to a position where they have the skills and knowledge to run their cloud systems effectively.
How does Deimos provide security operations to clients?
We’re often moving data from on-premises data centers to the public cloud, so security is something that we place a large emphasis on. Our approach is to help our clients be proactive and prevent security incidents by applying industry best practices to secure their assets in the cloud. Currently, we’re pursuing our Google Cloud security certification, hoping to be the first African partner with it.
What is the current state of Africa’s cloud industry?
COVID did wonders for the cloud industry. It was a wake-up call for many businesses with only on-premise systems because, suddenly, businesses that could work remotely and had systems sitting in the cloud could continue doing business.
However, we’re still at the bottom of the curve. There’s still significant growth potential in the cloud industry. But progress is happening; last year, Google released a five-year, $1 billion plan to boost digital services across Africa. A few weeks ago, they announced their first cloud region in Africa, starting with a data center in South Africa.
Share your experience working with a distributed team of engineers?
Difficult and fruitful.
We don’t place Kenyan engineers on Kenyan projects or have Nigerian engineers only working with other Nigerian engineers. We truly embrace the diversity of our talent and create project teams with people from different countries and cultures. However, finding how to balance our people has been difficult.
Different cultures have different communication styles. While some cultures might be bombastic and eager to share their voice, others are very taken aback and might need a bit more facilitation to get their opinions out. At Deimos, we want everyone to have a say and share their opinion. We want to bring all the different tastes, opinions, and perspectives to the table.
Understanding each culture’s preferred leadership style is crucial to achieving this. Determining when to be a strong leader and provide clear direction and when to have a bit more of a democratic leadership style can be challenging. However, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Our team’s diverse experiences enable us to be better problem-solvers than teams with a more homogeneous culture, and it ultimately helps us drive innovation and problem-solving.
The pandemic has made things challenging. While we’ve been fully remote since we started Deimos, we allowed engineers to travel to see each other and experience each other’s cultures. When COVID hit, traveling went out the door. We created social groups to serve as a temporary replacement, but it’s not the same as connecting in person. We’ve recently decided to open up travel again to ensure that everyone gets some face time with colleagues from different cultures to help foster deeper connections.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced building Deimos?
There are many technical challenges that are specific to the African continent; data connectivity/reliability is a major one as it changes how you engineer systems. When building for the US or EU, engineers could care less about every bit or byte. Data’s cheap, and everyone’s running on fiber lines, so you don’t have to worry about how much data you send. Whereas when deploying a product in Africa, engineers have to be data-wise and ensure they’re not misusing user data.
Running a rapidly growing business that’s bootstrapping is challenging. We run a lean operation, so engineers often work across multiple projects and clients. Being able to context switch across these multiple projects and clients can be difficult, but our team has embraced it.
Share some of the success Deimos has experienced?
We grew consistently throughout the pandemic. We’ve gone from a group of 10 engineers to 80+ engineers, split between software engineers and DevOps engineers. Business-wise, we’ve gotten to a position where we’ve solidified ourselves. We’ve worked with some amazing clients, including the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mukuru, and Patricia, to name a few. Now our aim as a company has transformed as well. Last year we wrote down our goal— to become Africa’s number-one developer and security operations company.
What are the keys to building successful software solutions for Africa?
Think mobile first:
One of the bad decisions we made was trying to deviate from mobile engineering. The majority of the user base in Africa does not have access to laptops or desktop computers. Most users transact and do business from their mobile devices. And not just smartphones; if you want broad reach, you have to cater to your lower-end devices. To optimize delivery to these devices, compress the data and keep your data packets as small as possible.
Build for offline usage:
The solutions you create must survive network outages, so provide offline functionality where possible. Everyone’s not always going to be connected. For example, if you’re in the video streaming industry, make sure users can download the video while they have a connection.
Data sovereignty is a growing concern for many countries, and some have put regulations in place dictating how long you can store data and where you can store data. That’s one of the many reasons why the announcement from Google to create a data center in Africa is so exciting.
Build for hyper-scale:
We’ve seen it happen with many African startups where once their product gets traction, it quickly blows up, but their infrastructure can’t meet the growing demand. So scalability needs to be top of mind.
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