Studying Java

November 2001

Last week an expat friend told me "I've met a lot of people who came to the Philippines for a lot of different reasons but I never met anybody who came here to study!" It wasn't my initial plan to spend my year in the Philippines sitting in front of a computer monitor, but dang if that ain't just what I've gone and done.

When I arrived in Cebu last February I spent a few days investigating computer schools. There are at least a dozen to choose from, such as AMA Computer College, STI (Systems Technology Institute), Genetics Computer Institute, Interface Computer College, and Asian College of Technology. I called them all, and visited quite a few in person. My honest analysis: most are pretty lame. Their diploma programs offer such courses as "Basic Computer Concepts", "College Algebra", and "Computer Programming" (the programming courses teach such "old" languages as Pascal, COBOL, Fortran and C, and students don't spend much time at the keyboard.) Their short courses include "Windows Fundamentals", "Microsoft Office", and "AutoCAD." Not exactly the stuff to prepare students for employment in today's hypercharged and fiercely competitive IT job market. Newspaper articles here claim that there are hundreds of thousands of computer students in schools like these around the Philippines, most of whom hope/plan to move to the US or Europe after graduation for high-paying IT jobs. Sadly, it's clear to me that for almost all, it ain't gonna happen.

I found a school offering a course in HTML/web design, which is where I wanted to start. Informatics Institute is a Singapore-based international school with about 10 franchised campuses in the Philippines. I took a course titled "Program Logic Formulation" and then the "Certified Internet Professional Program" which spanned 3 months of 3x/week classes. We studied Internet fundamentals, HTML, CGI scripting, and web server management. I learned quite a bit, enjoyed the classes and my Filipino classmates, and found a good friend in the teacher, Rick Jorillo. Rick is originally from Bacolod, Negros Occidental (next island west from Cebu) He's the academic director at Informatics, and he also carries a teaching load, is the network administrator and chief hardware/software troubleshooter for the school. He's a very dynamic and friendly guy. Unfortunately for the Philippines, he's presently doing the paperwork to emigrate to Canada because he's frustrated by the local career opportunities. His departure will be a big loss for the Philippines.
About the Filipino academic environment: Classrooms are clean, classroom atmosphere is polite but dry, and teachers unfortunately tend to use a very traditional style of presentation wherein they write computer code on the blackboard, which students dutifully encode on their PC's and then compile and run. Filipino IT students are bright, enthusiastic and adventurous, but also prone to web surfing, emailing and cellphone texting during class if given the opportunity.

I used what I learned to create my own website (you're looking at it now.) By July, I was ready for my next subject.

I'd heard a lot about Java back home in the USA but never had any idea what it was. "By the way, what's computer programming?" All I knew was, I didn't like network administration very much, so I wanted to give programming a try. At Informatics I enrolled in a basic Java class. The teacher wrote the Java code on the blackboard and we students encoded it on our PC's and then compiled the code to get the programs to run. My first "Hello JavaPro!" was pretty satisfying (most programming classes seem to begin with students creating a program that outputs "Hello World" to the screen; we got the Java version.)

I bypassed the advanced Java class at Informatics and instead enrolled in the basic Java class at Genetic Computer Institute. This was a fine course, taught by Gerard Cabunoc, an engineer who is also passionate about teaching. I learned a lot and finished by developing a graphical user interface to access a database. It took me a week of head-scratching and bothering Gerard for help after the class ended to make it work, and I was very happy when it did!

By October I exhausted the Java possibilities at the conventional schools and enrolled for an advanced Java class with Gary Forbes. He's an expat American who's been living here for 8 years and teaches at his house, which is a bit of a technology museum and filled with lots of old computers and Teletype machines. With him I've studied Java collections classes, internationalization, 2D graphics, sound, servlet/JSP creation, and database access. I just finished my class project that I'm calling a Javanary (Java Dictionary.) It combines HTML, JSP (Java Server Pages), XML, JDBC, and SQL into an application that uses an Internet browser to look up definitions of Java words and to add their own definitions.
I'm pretty amazed to find myself spending whole days sitting at my laptop debugging applications. It's actually FUN. I can't believe I'm saying I sick? Programmers know what I'm talking about.

Gary's long-term project is to develop a Cebu-based group of C and Java programmers, working together to drum up software development business. He's produced a CD that showcases some of their sample applications as a marketing tool. So far, they've experienced very limited success. Gary complains that local businesses are mentally stuck in the old economy of valuing land and buildings and physical commodities, unwilling to acknowledge that intellectual property drives the new global economy. Consequently, they are unwilling to make investments in programming expertise (especially if there's a foreigner involved). The prevailing local philosophy seems to be to "Let the government do it, it has all the money and power." Gary's current vision is to drum up outsourcing business outside of the country, a growing business model. (I applied recently applied for a job here with a company named Cleverlearn that had closed it's development office in the US and recreated it here in Cebu City, the idea being that Filipino software developers can do the same work at a fraction of US salaries. I believe that India is presently getting the lion's share of outsourcing contracts from the US.)

In April I attended a conference, "Cebu Is IT". The gathering included government bureaucrats, academics, businesspeople, IT knowledge workers, and a few venture capitalists. Some speakers discussed the possibilities of Cebu replicating the "Silicon Valley Formula" by accumulating a critical mass of government support, venture capital, technical expertise and entrepreneurial spirit to make Cebu a center of IT development for the Philippines and Asia. There's a lot of hype in local newspapers about Cebu becoming the
IT hub of the Philippines" but it does seem to be mostly hype. In the six months since the conference I've seen nothing happen here at all, except the departure of several skilled Filipino computer minds. That's a big loss for the Philippines; those were the people who could help make it happen, but this place offers neither the salaries nor the lure of interesting projects to hold them.
Cebu City does have some positive aspects that foster IT development:
-A large number of skilled programmers and network technicians;
-A fair infrastructure including a fiber-optic trunk line connecting Cebu to Manila (and the world), and several large industrial areas designated as "IT parks";
- The largest number of Internet cafes in the Philippines outside of Manila, which theoretically makes for a cyber-fluent populace;
-A local pool of available capital;
-Official government support (lip service, anyway) for IT development;
HOWEVER, there are also a number of contrary factors:
-Global and Philippine economic recession;
-"Brain drain" wherein the best and brightest Filipino technical minds are leaving the country for more lucrative careers abroad; -Absence of meaningful government support (the Philippines government is not a functional development entity, rather -at the upper echelons especially- it is more a big collection of individuals who are using their government jobs to try to get rich. Keyword: corruption);
-And the biggest problem of all, something I've become increasingly aware of recently: the difficulty Filipinos seem to have with collective projects outside of the family context. It's my observation that Filipinos enthusiastically embrace undertakings that involve their own family, but there doesn't seem to be a functional sense of WE at schools, businesses, or at the community or national levels. I'm sure this has a historic rationale and works fine for organizing a family to farm rice fields, but it is a great hindrance to Filipino participation in the global economy. The brutal phenomenon of globalization increasingly offers every nation in the world no alternative but to organize appropriate strategies for economic survival. Philippines, how will you make it through the 21st century?

For myself, I'm not sure what will come of my programming training when I return to the US next year. I'm on the way to becoming a real programmer, but the sharp downtown in the US information technology economy casts a pall over my personal future job prospects.
I think Cebu is a great place to come and study. For me it's been perfect: cheap to live and enroll in classes, teaching done mainly in English, a country of friendly and interesting people, and as you may have noticed, I love living in the Philippines.

A note on costs:
From February to October, it has cost me 306,800 Pesos (US $5900) to live and study here in Cebu.
Housing (McSherry Pension House) P 5,500 (US $105)/mo
Tuition costs:
Program Logic Formulation (12 hrs) P 1,600 (US $30)
Certified Internet Professional Program (100 hrs) P 9,840 (US $189)
Java (Informatics) (40 hrs) P 5,220 (US $100)
Java (Genetics) (40 hrs) P 5,520 (US $106)
MS Access (Genetics) (10 hrs) P 2,260 (US $43)
Java (Gary Forbes) (40 hrs) P 2,000 (US $38)
Books: There is a good current selection of English-language computer textbooks available here in Cebu.
Software: there is a huge variety of pirated software (as well as music, computer/Playstation games, and DVD movies) available here, most of it priced at P150 (US $3) per CD. I've been mostly using open source software, legally available for free or cheap (can't say that about Microsoft products!!!)
Computer: I bought a used Dell laptop before I left the US. It's been pretty functional (except for having to replace the hard drive in July). Very portable, but also easier to steal than a desktop, so I'm always a little paranoid about losing it. If I had it to do again, I'd probably bring a minitower PC with CD burner (only a little larger than my laptop) and buy the monitor, keyboard, etc. here.

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