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How Equal Experts Expanded to Build a World-Class Developer Team in South Africa

7 October 2022 , by Marcelle van Niekerk

For companies looking to hire tech talent internationally, South Africa holds great promise as a developer hub. Equal Experts recognised this when they established a footprint in the country in 2017. We spoke to their Chief Expertise Officer, Brian Blignaut, about their international expansion and the challenges they overcame to build a great developer team in the country.

How Equal Experts Expanded to Build a World-Class Developer Team in South Africa

The shift to remote work has seen hiring go from hyperlocal to global. Demand still outstrips supply in most local markets, and companies need to look beyond their own borders if they want to hire the best developers.

Equal Experts is a software consultancy that helps its clients from product inception and design, to software delivery. They have offices in the UK, US, Europe, India and Australia, and made the leap to expand to South Africa a few years ago.

Why Equal Experts expanded to South Africa

Equal Experts required specialists in a wide range of services for their business and the type of candidates they needed were located across the globe. Being from South Africa himself, Brian had personal experience with the market potential:

“We do have a wealth of very experienced and talented IT practitioners in South Africa,” he says.

At the time, he was also moving back to South Africa to help them establish a legal entity and support the business in the new market.

The country’s quality of talent, similar time zones and the rise of remote-first working practices provided compelling reasons to expand to South Africa:

“South Africa has a great time zone that overlaps with Europe and the United Kingdom. We’ve seen huge success with South African teams working on the UK and European clients. And in the remote world, it just makes sense - the stars aligned,” says Brian.

Equal Experts' challenges of hiring in South Africa

While South Africa had compelling reasons to support the expansion, it certainly brought a set of challenges Equal Experts had to overcome. These included:

A competitive hiring market

The rise of remote work means that many companies are eyeing the same talent pool, and no longer restricting themselves to their local cities. As more companies have started digitising, competition for developers has ramped up:

“The competition has gone through the roof, not only for developers but IT practitioners across the board. What this means, is you see overseas companies offering, in some cases, US or UK salaries to South Africans,” says Brian.

“This can be especially tough to compete with if you’re based within the country and offering local rates,” he adds.

Establishing your brand

Another challenge Equal Experts faced in their expansion was establishing their employer brand in a new market.

“You need to have an established brand to reach the right people and grow your team in a new region. This is especially difficult in a remote context,” says Brian.

“Previously, you would go to talks and conferences to help make people aware of your brand. Nowadays, people aren’t travelling as much,” he says.

In his experience, conference attendance has started to recover from the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s still lower than before.

Establishing a sense of your culture

When you have teams working remotely across multiple locations, it becomes more challenging to give everyone a unified sense of your wider company culture. When you’re not in an office where you see other people in the organisation, it’s easy to get siloed into your own team.

This is especially important to take into account when you’re onboarding new joiners in other countries:

“How do you onboard new joiners, and make them understand your culture and ways of working when you’re hiring remotely?” asks Brian. “You need to ensure that you have continuity of culture, that people understand what the company stands for, your values, and how you like to work. You need to be really deliberate on how you do that.”

How Equal Experts addressed the hiring challenges in South Africa

To address each of the challenges above, Brian recommends the following:

Establish an efficient hiring process that appeals to candidates

“To hire developers in such a competitive market, you have to make sure your hiring process is as efficient as possible, so you don’t lose candidates unnecessarily,” says Brian.

This is supported by data from OfferZen’s developer hiring report which shows that a hiring process with too many steps is among the top 5 pet peeves for South African developers.

How can you make your process more efficient? Brian has these tips to offer:

  1. Your team needs to be well informed on the role(s)

“Make sure everybody conducting the interviews understands what good looks like for that role; so that you don’t turn people down for esoteric reasons,” he says.

  1. Focus on the candidate's experience

When communicating with candidates during the hiring process, ensure they know what every step in your process will involve, so they know what to expect.

Additionally, an optimistic mindset from your team can make a big difference to the candidate's experience:

“I think a lot of people look for reasons to fail candidates, rather than reasons to tie them in,” he says. “It’s all about the candidate walking away going, ‘Wow, they were nice to interview at. I want to work for them.’”

  1. Highlight what makes your company a great place to work

Although offering a competitive salary is important, it’s not the only factor of a good offer. You need to highlight all of your organisation’s strengths to ‘sell’ the role to developers.

“It becomes about answering these questions: Do I like the people I work with? Do I like the organisation I work with? Do I agree with what they stand for, and align with their values? Is the work I do engaging?” says Brian.

In Equal Expert’s case, this means:

Highlighting their flat company hierarchy:

This gives a lot of ownership to each person and limits micromanagement.

“We believe in empowering people that work for us,” says Brian. “We trust them to do the job, we don't tell them how to do it. You figure out what the best way to deliver value to the client is.”

Providing their team with career growth opportunities:

Companies need to give people access to the resources and mentorship they need to become better at what they do. Offering a range of work on different projects also helps them provide rapid growth for the developers on their team.

Building a sense of culture

The following strategies helped Equal Experts to build a strong sense of their culture when they first opened their South African office:

They brought people from their other offices across to South Africa:

These people embedded themselves in the South African team to work alongside them for a period of time.

Additionally, they provided their South African team with travel opportunities to visit their other offices:

"We ran an internal local conference this year, and invited attendees from our other offices. This encouraged people to form relationships outside of the local office, and helped them understand that the organisation is bigger than just the South African office,” explains Brian.

They have a structured remote onboarding process:

When new people join your organisation, you need to create a sense of belonging with a structured process to onboard them:

“For example, we run a collaborative session between our South African and Indian teams referred to as ‘newbie standups’'' says Brian.

What does this look like? For the first two weeks of someone joining, they arrange a daily 45-min morning session between an “Oldie” (an employee who has been with the organisation for at least six months) and “newbies”. The more experienced team member presents a topic which assists the new joiner with settling in and understanding the organisation, culture and the support they have available within their global network.

Building your employer brand

When Equal Experts first started growing their South African team, they relied on their personal networks to establish their core team. These are the methods that helped them grow their brand and attract more developers to their team:

Establishing a referral system

“If people don’t know who you are, they’ll be more reluctant to work for you. If your brand is still unknown in the market, this can be overcome by establishing a solid referral system,” says Brian. “People who work for you can refer others in their network and vouch for your business.”

It also helps to have an incentive strategy in place to encourage referrals.

Attend conferences and meetups

“Keep your eye out for promising meetups you can sponsor and grow your brand,” recommends Brian. Sponsoring DevConf and DevOpsDays worked well for them, for example, as well as launching their own webinar series ExpertTalks Online.

This can form part of your client and candidate marketing strategy.

Equal Experts' wins in South Africa

Despite some initial hiring challenges, Equal Experts doubled their South African office size during the Covid-19 pandemic, and are seeing very low turnover rates.

“Now, we are starting to see inbound requests, where people are coming to us and saying they’d like to work for us,” says Brian. “We are continuing to grow quite quickly, which is extremely positive.”

They’ve also received positive feedback from their clients, who are mostly based in the United Kingdom, Europe and America, on the team’s performance:

“I had a comment from someone the other day that South Africa is one of the biggest assets we have in the organisation,” says Brian.

“It’s about the level of expertise and talent we have here, but I also think there’s a cultural factor that’s appealing. South Africans can be quite forthright. With our consultancy clients, that tends to go down well, because they want to hear your approach and the solutions you have to offer.”

Tips for hiring managers expanding to South Africa

If you’re looking to expand to South Africa, here are Brian’s top tips for the process:

Rely on local experts for guidance

If you’re opening a new entity in the market, you need to get professional advice from specialists on the following:

  • Employment equity requirements
  • Tax experts
  • BBBEE requirements

“Because of our business model, we have a very flexible hiring policy. We sometimes hire contractors, for example. So having the right tax advice and how to do that is critical,” he says. In their case, they approached Mazars, an audit, tax and advisory firm, to guide them through setting up their entity and bank account, and to get advice on the tax implications.

Don’t underestimate the market

Lastly, you shouldn’t underestimate how competitive it is to hire in South Africa:

“There are a lot of established players here, and the market everywhere is constrained. There are not enough people in the market to actually fulfil all the needs,” says Brian. “Therefore, focusing on branding and how you're going to land in the market is very important.”

Equal Experts is a global software consultancy, working with clients from product inception and design, to software delivery. They are currently scaling their tech team in South Africa. Read more about their mission here!

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