A short story of mobile application development, the dramatic crackdown of a counter revolution and a long-lasting friendship.
First post of the new year and a great moment to fly back in time and go through a personal story I felt the need to share since this summer. A story about my life as web entrepreneur and start-upper in Egypt during one of Egypt’s most dramatic period of its millennial history.
As I write I’m on flight MS794 heading back to Cairo from Rome – Italy, my home town.
Today, Tuesday January the 14th, millions of Egyptians are voting their new constitution after kick-starting a revolution that changed the Arab World and was the beginning of a series of tragic events that deeply effected the Egyptian people as well as my confidence in running a successful business in the Middle East.
It is now almost 20 years I make a living developing web applications, I’m one of these guys that still remember Mosaic and gets excited when people and machines exchange information at the speed of light. I’ve been lately reading Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) so don’t worry I know “The Internet” – meaning this utopian dream of a connected and more civilised society – doesn’t really exists and most of the time nowadays this overall idea of a better World is misused for protecting unscrupulous online money making machines like Google, Amazon and the others.
It was July 2013 when with our partner from UK (Axxe Solutions) and a brilliant advertising agency in Johannesburg we started to help South Africa’s biggest Radio Channel (5FM) launching an interactive radio show called “Beats by Demand”.
The user dynamics was quite simple and the goal even simpler: “democratising” the radio program by letting listeners fire votes using a social-driven HTML5 mobile app (a 2nd screen app for Radio programs).
After gathering the requirements and writing the user-stories we began sketching concept and user experience for our first iteration.
Time was running fast, temperatures in Italy as well as in Egypt were going up and…a major crisis for Egypt was on its way – ready to severely hit the streets of Cairo in just few weeks. Protests immediately following the removal of the President Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian Armed Forces erupted near the Rabia Al-Adawiya Mosque and people amassed there to condemn the military and to bring President Morsi back to power. For the first time since my first visit to Egypt I felt something was wrong, deeply wrong even though I knew my perception of the events was heavily distorted by the media I had a weird feeling and as usual…
I was relying on the great hope, enthusiasm and courage of people like my partner Fady Ramzy (@cyberzizo) who is literally Reloading Egypt on daily basis by devoting himself to the Egyptian Entrepreneurial Revolution described in Christopher Schroeder’s book “Startup Rising”.
As usual, for our activities developed in Cairo like the 5FM App, my long time friend and colleague Remon Magdy was leading the project delivery. I began working with Remon in 2006 while launching the first mobile portal for Algeria’s largest mobile operator Djezzy. Since then we’ve been successfully rolling out services used every day by millions of users from Egypt to Tunisia, from Pakistan to Algeria, from Italy to South Africa.
Remon’s competences, clever attitude and experience represent at best Egypt’s “amazing talent pool of young people ready to create and innovate” as Marc Andreessen wrote on his introduction for the Christopher Schroeder’s book.
August 2013. It was time to begin developing the story board for our application and most importantly we had to prototype, prototype and prototype – you don’t really know if an idea will work or not until you try to make something real. Building a version to evaluate the interaction is a must for helping you and your client find out what’s missing before moving your code to production. As usual we split our team into smaller groups (involving the agency as well as the client) and began executing our plan.
As we moved along our project Remon kept coordinating our team sometime from his house in Mohandessin (a neighbourhood close to downtown Cairo – in these days of August one of the epicentre of the clashes) and sometimes from our office in Nasr City (nearby the Airport and not too far from the other epicentre of the protests the Rabia Al-Adawiya Mosque) following the advice from the local news and from his friends on the streets.
While Morsi’s backers set dozens of police stations ablaze across Egypt and put on fire 36 Christian churches General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi unleashed a bloody crackdown of unprecedented violence.
All I could do, as the confrontation continued during 14-18 of August, was to keep a close contact with the team in Cairo and working with Remon over Skype as he was literally trapped in his apartment and couldn’t go out (see Skype conversation).
People from the office had continuous power outages and connection problems but we decided to keep working as normal as possible and not to disclose too many details with the South African partners to avoid any unneeded spread of panic. When everything outside gets messy it comes natural to protect ourselves and keep leaving our normal life as if nothing had happened.
Hundreds of people died in the clashes between security forces and supporters of President Morsi after his removal. These have been by far the darkest days of my entire experience in Egypt and I do need to thank Fady, Remon, Ahmed, Mohammed, Mina S., Mina M., Nevine and all the other Egyptian friends for giving me unprecedented hope and courage in continuing my journey here in Cairo.
After fine tuning our Drupal back-end, training DJ Fresh and revising the interaction with the social logins we finally went live as planned in September with our first release of Beats by Demand. The application had a great impact and few weeks after the launch Heineken decided to sponsor it.
I am very lucky to have the opportunity to work with such an amazing team as the one we have in Cairo and I really hope for 2014 we will continue delivering great experiences crafted with pride in Egypt!
If you’re planning to build your new digital user experience…do it in Egypt and drop us an email.