Many people who might have the aptitude for a career in tech, but come from non-traditional paths, aren’t always immediately ready to add value to companies. Alwyn Van Wyk is involved in Younglings Africa, and has developed an internship programme that tackles exactly that: Training graduates to be “work ready” devs. Here’s what it looks like, and what he’s learned in doing so.
What does the Younglings Africa programme aim to achieve?
I think it’s all about the human capacity to be incredible. That’s the part that has always been intriguing to me. About 10 years ago, I heard a talk by a representative of an Indian company that pointed out a vastly underutilised group of people in South Africa. They actually went into different metros, saw potential in software developing, trained those people in India, and when they came back they found them jobs. That blew my mind.
I couldn’t understand why South Africans weren’t doing this for our own people. We’re always moaning about skills shortages, but no one is doing anything about them.
That’s kind of where I’m coming from with Younglings Africa: We want to help those who couldn’t get into university, because they encountered financial problems or their marks got pulled down because their passion didn’t sit with English or the other science languages. Even though they have the brain for computers, they struggle with the rest and might never get the chance to study something like computer science.
Where we come in is to support them, and help them to be more than just a factory-worker kind of software developer, typing away at useless stuff. We train them to be somebody with a creative mind, who can actually figure out problems and is working on something that they’re passionate about. We help them own that skill and accelerate their career.
You currently run the programme in three stages, each over six months. What are some “key indicators” of work-readiness that you focus on at each stage?
The first six months are a guaranteed Learnership, where you have an opportunity to prove yourself and specialise in something. For the first bit, we are training our Younglings in their actual coding ability, to get them on the same level. We are looking at their aptitude, attitude, and aspiration: Can they develop incredible software?
The next six months are called the Apprenticeship: This is where the “pressure-cooker” happens: We ask our apprentices to build internal products, so they can focus quite intensely on understanding what it means to work in a team. We’re also making sure their skill set is honed so that, at the end of that six month period, we can expose them to the outside world and say:
“Alright, you’ve survived six months. Now we think you are ready for six months ‘controlled in the wild.’”
That, then, would be what we call the Internship, which is centred around working with external customers.
How do you define “work-readiness”?
We obviously teach them the technical skills they need to be a software developer, but what I consider “work-ready” comes down to simple things around behaviour: Things like promptness, taking pride in wearing appropriate clothes to work, attending meetings, being able to book meeting rooms, and knowing how to greet colleagues in different roles. It almost sounds silly, but those kinds of things are what we’re trying to work into the programme so interns get exposure to that throughout their time with us.
If the people you’re trying to empower don’t understand the rules of the work environment they’re trying to get into, then you can’t expect them to thrive as well as they should.
They need to be able to come into any job, any workspace, and be able to adapt. I’ve noticed that those rules have become a lot more “loose” over-time - things like what you can and can’t wear, for example - and that makes it a lot trickier too. Being able to understand those subtleties in behaviour, and to know that what’s appropriate in one place might not be in another, is incredibly important to make someone really “work-ready.”
What about those skills is so important?
If you don’t have the guts to start your own business, which is very likely when you’re still young and finding your feet, you’re going to have to fall in line with other people from diverse backgrounds that are older than you and come from different cultures.
For you to fit into that successfully, you need to be ready to face the fact that the way people judge your “fit” will be 70% your behaviour, and 30% your actual skill set. It will take quite a while before they can look past this and focus on your technical ability.
It doesn’t matter how well you code if you can’t adapt to the environment in which you work.
How do you create a space that enables your Younglings to get to “work readiness”?
It goes back to purpose, autonomy and mastery: I can give you purpose, and I can give you an environment where you have a purpose. I can give you autonomy as well, but supported and nurtured autonomy. But you have to find our own mastery.
I have seen success in that every single time. And not “normal” success; it’s like exponential success, where somebody just flies because they finally found their niche, the bit that makes their head spin and their fingers tingle.
It’s difficult for someone to find that mastery for themselves at 18 or 19 years old, or even at 29. But once they find it, it’s fireworks.
What lies in the future for initiatives like Younglings Africa?
There’s funding, and there are people out there who need that support - in other words, a purpose and an environment - but now it’s companies that have to lead by example and find their own mastery in order to help others find theirs.
I’m currently only working with a small niche of people: Those who got 50% average and a Bachelor’s pass. But there’s the potential to start exploring other niches too. Even though I’m looking at an intake of 400 people in the next two years, that doesn’t even begin to scrape the surface of how many people could easily be helped with just a little bit of structure and nurturing.
It does take a lot of money, but the government is already encouraging big corporates to spend on CSI. Companies actually just need to take that “carrot,” go out there, find niches that they can tap into, and empower our people.