Interview with a Belgian Computer Scientist (Jente Rosseel)Wachira John
The world is a village now they say, and we owe it to technology. I had a conversation with a Belgian, Jente who happens to be a computer scientist. I thought I should make this an interview. We spoke about computer science, a subject I think everyone ought to have an inkling about. We also spoke about other things. Join me as I explore his ideals, find out what differences our country has with theirs. Find out who Jente is. What struck me the most is a product he has built and co-owns with Mike Bill, a Kenyan. The product is called Elewa. A real time web application that helps Kenyan students revise for their KCSE. Find out more about it by visiting this link www.elewa.co.ke
Meanwhile, guys, meet Jente… 🙂
How would you describe yourself?
I would describe myself as someone who is passionate and perseverant (maybe a bit stubborn). When I set a goal in my head, I keep going and almost stop at nothing to reach it. I’m also eager to learn new things and am fond exchanging ideas. That idea exchange can happen with the occasional discussion. You have your viewpoint; the other person has his/hers. Then it’s up to the two of you to make the most sense. I really believe that is the way you can learn the most. In that respect I think I might be best described as a scientist.
What are you currently doing?
Currently I’m combining school and work. After I got my bachelor, I started a year of work as a software consultant. After this year, I felt it was time for something else. So I went back to school to get a master’s in civil engineering: computer science. That was a year and a half ago. After a transition year, I’m now currently in the second semester of my first masters year. So that’s school, then there’s work. Around 3 years ago, I had to do an internship as a part of my last bachelor year. Through a Belgian NGO called VVOB, I came to work for the Kenyan ministry of education in Nairobi. While I was in Nairobi and through that organization, I was able to meet some fantastic people. For example, Mike Bill.
A year and a half after I came back from Kenya, which was around the time I was thinking of quitting my job, Mike contacted me with an idea for a project he wanted to do. The project was called Elewa and it was about improving the quality of education in Kenya. Thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to help start something; something that could improve people’s lives. So we talked a lot about the idea, I built a first prototype. And so Elewa was born. This summer I came to Kenya, started a parent company together with Mike called Sawa Script Ltd. and we founded Elewa. Currently, as the co-founder of EIewa, I’m mostly involved with being the software architect/lead dev of the company plus partly management and strategic planning.
What differences have you noted between Belgium and Kenya?
The weather in Kenya is better than that of Belgium. I think Kenyans are more sociable than Belgians. Traffic in Kenya is bad though. In terms of Computer Science, I think Kenya is more theoretical in its approach of teaching. Belgium on the other hand is more hands on. The result of being theoretical is that it makes the learners succumb to the parrot problem whereby they memorize rather than understand the underlying principles of Computer Science. It is very important for a Computer Scientist to understand what he/she programs. I think the education system in Kenya should focus on being more practical with real life problems.
Does it matter how many programming languages a programmer knows?
No. Programming languages are tools we use to achieve what we want. When we want to build anything, we choose the tools we want and use them to create what we want. Once you learn a programming language, its actually really easy to learn another one.
What misconceptions do people have about Computer Science?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s difficult. Comp Science is mostly understood as something only the people who have studied for it can do. I think it’s something everyone can learn to do. It’s not about remembering lines of code and the hardest algorithms; it’s about problem solving. It only requires you to break down a problem and find a way of solving it.
What skills are required in this field?
Computer science is about fragmenting and breaking down problems. Therefore, it needs someone with an analytical mind and one who’s got ability to discover and solve problems.
At what age were you exposed to Computer Science?
I think I was 16/17…it was an elective in high school. I had a choice between mathematics and computer science. I was always interested in Computer Science. I think I got the interest while playing a game called Call of duty. In the game, I had to set up these small servers so that I could play with my friends. Nowadays, I’ve lost interest in games but I did see Computer Science as a problem solving tool.
What’s the future for Computer Science?
There’s a big future that’s for sure. I think we’ll see very big changes. Quantum computing will advance. Machines are getting smarter and smarter, being able to reason for themselves on the level humans do in specific fields. For instance, self-driving cars have probability functions written into them so that they can learn about their environment. It was reported in recent news that while a Google self-driving car was backing out of a parking garage, a bus hit it. It was the first time a Google car caused an accident. So from that instance, all the Google cars adapted at the same time. They know that when they see a bus, it’s less likely that it will stop and so they let it pass first. It’s like all the cars are connected as one being. I believe this internet of things has a huge potential future.
So what is Elewa about?
It’s about KCSE revisions. The most important thing in your high school system is KCSE because it determines which University you will go to and what you will do in life. What happens is when people do revision; they take a pile of past papers, check the questions and the answers to those questions without being involved as they should be in those questions. So they end up memorizing instead of learning. Elewa means to understand in Swahili and our mission as a company is to improve the quality of education and help people understand what they are learning.
In the first version of Elewa, we analyzed all the KCSE questions from 15 years back till now. Through real time statistical analysis, we can show you what you should study. For instance, the statistical analysis could show that in the last 10 years, 40% of paper 1 mathematics was Form 3 work. The analysis can go further to reveal the topics in terms of percentage from Form 3 work that make up the 40%. The student can then select the option to see the actual KCSE questions tested in those topics.
Elewa therefore helps students allocate their time appropriately and narrow down on the areas they should study on. So we offer students statistics that show them the areas they should focus on.
How is Elewa doing?
We have faced problems that any startup would; but we are getting stable as now we are making sales therefore transitioning from a startup to a good business.
What would you say are some of the mistakes you made while starting Elewa?
Well, there certainly are a lot of materials on the internet that tell what you should do in a startup and what you should keep into account. But there is no golden book for business. Every business is unique and there are a lot of things you learn just by starting a business. For instance, customer engagement in your product. When we created Elewa, we kept it too close to our surroundings. We only tested it with the people we knew. What you want is someone who can critique your prototypes so that you can learn and correct on the comments made. We weren’t engaging end users too often in our design process. What’s right is whenever you have a viable idea, take it to the end users and note down usability problems experienced. The earlier you catch problems with your design/idea, the lower the cost will be to solve that problem. And improve your user experience.
In every process of your application development, it’s important to involve your users to
- Avoid usability problems and
- Most importantly, avoid building something they don’t want/need.
We are working on another version of Elewa; version 2.0 and we are really doing our best to engage our potential customers in the process from the beginning.
Is it a bad idea to bring in an investor when starting a startup?
I do not think it is a bad idea. What you need is people who could guide you on the whole process. And there are very experienced investors out there who could show you the ropes of how managing a business is done. I think having an investor is not a bad thing but you need to find the right person.
What is the scope of Elewa coutrywise?
The first and present version is about KCSE past paper analysis. It helps students prepare for exams. In Belgium we don’t have a system that has exams at the end of primary or secondary. (Here; (Belgium), its 6 years primary and 6 years secondary) So the current version of Elewa is not something you could do in Belgium. We are working on a second version though and instead of it being about studying for exams, it’s going to be more about education in general. Even though we are a company based in Kenya, I think that idea can be imported to Belgium but I won’t talk much about the idea because it’s still in development.
Are you the only developer?
Yes. I had interns last year, but they were working on another project. I built Elewa completely myself.
How long did it take you to build it?
Software products continually evolve and need maintenance as long as they are exist and are in use. So I did spend 13 months to build it until now but we are already in production since September last year. So it took 7 months after idea inception. Once we were in production, the website kept evolving and from there it’s a sort of maintenance/upgrade work
What do you do in your leisure time?
I play the guitar. Just recreational and I’m nearly always improvising when I play. I make a point of reserving time to play the guitar since I find it a good tool to clear my head. Then there’s running. I live near a forest so that’s ideal. I try to go out and run at least thrice a week, though a lot of the times I fail to find time for that. There’s a big race coming up I’m training for now though, called the Spartacus run. It’s basically a 10km run but with a lot of obstacles
And finally I’m part of something called youth house. That’s a concept in Belgium and it is basically a NGO bar. So, together with some other volunteers (there’s around 13 of us) we open a bar twice a week. Sometimes we also hold parties in it. And it’s all on a voluntary basis
We also organize a festival once a year called Koerrock