The local and global tech industry moves at a fast pace - one which can sometimes be hard to keep track of. At MERGE, Stephen van der Heijden from OfferZen caught up with Meredith Karazin, Devina Maharaj, and Marlon Parker to chat about the current state of the SA tech ecosystem. Amongst other topics, they deep-dived into the opportunities Africa has to contribute to the global tech scene, and the practical ways in which individuals and companies can get involved.
[00:09] Stephen: As a reminder, this is part of the Tech Market Insights section. We’re talking about South Africa and the role that it plays on the global scale and a little bit about internally what are we doing and what could we be doing. If we can start with you, Devina, and if you can just introduce yourself, your name, what you do within the tech kind of ecosystem, what lens that provides you, so basically, how do you see the tech ecosystem and very importantly what your favourite toothpaste is.
[00:38] Devina: Hi everyone. I’m Devina. I look after digital for Investec bank in South Africa. I got involved in the tech ecosystem kind of in depth about two years ago. I moved to Cape Tom and now I’m back in Johannesburg and it was very interesting. I am on the same team as Wayne and we are very passionate about I think growing developers in South Africa and what that could do to the ecosystem and the economy as a whole. I think as Investec, we’ve always been very passionate about building businesses in South Africa. Investec is a home grown business started by some guys out of Benoni and we live and breathe that culture a lot. So we truly are passionate about what we can do in this ecosystem. I live in a team of developers every single day and I know the crazy ideas that come out of them. So we just want to tap into that brain power and I think we could do amazing things. My favourite toothpaste is Colgate Total.
[01:58] Meredith: Hi everybody. My name is Meredith Karazin. I’m the Chief Operating Officer of Moringa School. And actually I’m going to start with my favourite toothpaste because it really struck me because I flew in here from Nairobi and I forgot my toothpaste. So I’m using mouthwash right now, which doubles as toothpaste just in case you were wondering. It works just as well. So you can only buy mouthwash if you want to hack your life. So Moringa School is basically a technology skills accelerator. We were founded to bridge the skills gap, so essentially between the skills that young adults have. Our primary audience is 18 to 24 year olds. So university aged individuals and what companies actually need and. We train mainly in software development which is our flagship program. We run a six month long accelerated learning program after which we have a 90% job placement rate and we recently started a data science program as well and I guess the vantage that I speak from is about this skills development space, but also we’re operating a program in Nairobi. We trained about a thousand individuals this year. We also run a program in Kigali in Rwanda. We run programs before in Accra also in Kampala and we’re exploring South Africa. So I guess I speak from a kind of pan African perspective.
[03:30] Marlon: Hello. My favourite toothpaste is salt. So I can forget my toothpaste, I can always get a packet of salt and do that, just because we couldn’t afford toothpaste when I was growing up… Still Marlon. I think the lens from my side is also very much looking at the skill gaps and trying to get young people into opportunities, but also really to kind of push the diversity side of things in the technology ecosystem. That’s my interest and where I believe we have still got a lot of room for growth as a country, but also on the continent.
[04:14] Stephen: Awesome. Thank you so much. So I also just want to make apologies for Antonia Norman. She couldn’t be here today. She is on the agenda, but she’s not going to be part of the panel today. So I’d like to start with you, Marlon. I have a writeup of each of you so I’m pretty armed here. One of the sentences in this is, “we have to make sure that existing inequalities do not expand as tech evolves”. I found that really striking. We’ve talked quite a bit about the opportunities that tech presents us and how kind of impactful that can be. But this is basically saying, look, “there’s potentially a threat couched in this opportunity”. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?
[04:53] Marlon: We all talk about artificial intelligence and the possibilities around some of these new technologies. The key thing around this is as much as it’s creating an opportunity, it’s also driving a wedge around inequalities because as we are trying to kind of push more people into saying this is the leading technologies that’s going to kind of change the way we do things, the way we operate, we find still people on the ground that are still struggling with very basic digital skills. And one of our mandates has always been that we leave nobody behind. And it’s something that we have to try and learn because we can build complex systems and I can be very proud of that. But when that complex system is excluding people from participating in what you are building, then you actually increasing the inequality through the technology that you are building.
[05:53] Marlon: It’s a big thing to consider when you are building tech or building platforms. So for me it’s always been that as we adopt more of these new technologies that we should not forget the people that are not in the position of privilege that all of us are in. And how do we become intentional in bringing them along on this journey? And there’s a couple of amazing projects and programs like what you are doing and a number of people are doing in trying to bridge that gap. But I do think as a collective developer community, all of us have got a role to play in that, be it from contributing directly into programs or mentoring, or to the fact that we are building platforms that we are considerate of people that might not be able to use your platform because it’s so complex. And I think those are kind of things that how we can begin to change that from an inequality perspective.
[06:49] Stephen: Thanks Marlon. So Meredith, your pan African context is kind of a ‘leave no man behind’ strategy and you’re operating across many regions in Africa. Have you seen trends within those different countries with this skills gap that are worth kind of talking about today and contrasting with potentially what’s happening in South Africa?
[07:11] Meredith: Yeah. First what I would say is that a lot of people think of their own ecosystem as really unique and I think it is unique, but the problems are pretty much the same. I think across Africa there is this problem as Marlon was saying as well, between the skills that people get from the formal education system and what they actually need to be able to do well in the workplace. And so back to kind of the founding story behind Moringa school, our CEO, Audrey was working as an investor on the continent. She found that a lot of the startups didn’t have the technical talent that they needed and she went to go figure out what are people learning in school? How are they learning? And a lot of individuals were learning things that were too theoretical or outdated languages or, in worst case scenarios, like learning how to code on paper.
[08:08] Meredith: And so I think the problems are fairly similar across the board when it comes to looking for that talent, for those that are looking to hire talent. They encounter this issue of not being able to find it. But I think how different ecosystems are solving that problem is where the difference lies. For instance in Nairobi, it’s very much like a private sector that’s solving that. The government is not so involved in that, whereas when we work in Kigali, that is very much a governmental type of solution. They have invested a lot in innovation. There’s a Kagali innovation city, they’re trying to bring in a BPO providers and so on and so forth. And I think for South Africa, I actually really resonated with what Philip was saying in the beginning because I think it’s a great place to be a developer. And I see a lot of different ecosystem players working together more than I’ve seen in other environments. A private sector, nonprofits, the public sector all kind of coming together. So I feel quite actually inspired by what’s happening here.
[09:22] Stephen: So you mentioned the private sector in Kenya is actually doing some good work towards contributing to the ecosystem. Are there some examples of things that are working well there that you can think of?
[09:31] Meredith: Yeah, so one thing that I think could be really interesting here is we worked with the largest telecommunications company in Nairobi, Safari.com on a digital re-skilling program. And I think that that could be something that could really be beneficial in this ecosystem. I’ve heard a lot about this fear that with digitization, with the buzzword of 4IR that some jobs will no longer be needed. And I think people live in that fear of what will happen if we don’t need as many kinds of banks anymore, actual physical banks. But much of it is happening digitally.
[10:14] So I think that re-skilling is definitely a required and Safaricom took 60 of their employees out of the workforce for six months and we’re one of their partners along with Huawei and other kind of prominent companies to re-skill some of those individuals. And what was amazing to me is that, somebody who was working in customer care in a very kind of non digital way. Then was able to develop an application that really solved the pain points that the customer care representatives had before. So I think that re-skilling piece is something that could be transferred from Nairobi to here.
[10:54] Stephen: So private sector, Devina. So your experience and Wayne put up a picture earlier of many different things that you’ve explored, and I know we’ve talked about many different versions of re-skilling and kind of the ground up approach that one can take. Is what Meredith and Marlon are saying resonating with you and what is your call-to-action to the private sector if you do have one to try and contribute to that?
[11:21] Devina: So I think it definitely resonates. I can tell you a little bit about the journey that I think we’ve been on at Investec. I actually spent my first ten years of Investec in as a private banker running private banking teams. And that was my job. And I remember going into this digital team and I went for an interview and I had a little Blackberry phone, had little buttons on it and it was a team of five people to build this app. And at that point in time, it was eight years ago, and as a bank the digital transformation had not happened yet. And so we spent the last eight years kind of taking the entire organisation on this journey, and the number one question I would get asked if I’d go and stand in front of banking teams would be, “what would happen to me and my job?”
[12:26] Devina: Because we are private bank, right? Our entire model is based on human interaction, human relationship and we really had to change the narrative around. So when I hear Marlon talk… And Meredith and I met at Investec coincidentally prior to meeting here… is when I hear the guys talk. We had to change the narrative at Investec really around, “how does technology make you a better version of a human being?” And I think that’s really what’s driving us from a private sector perspective right now is that I think when you live in the private sector, you have a lot of access to capital and resources. We have a responsibility I think as private sector in this country to really use that in a way that will benefit us as a society. And I think that is what is truly passionate about it. When we spoke with you guys at OfferZen, it wasn’t about the tech and what we could do, it was about the values and the mission of what we’re trying to do here, which is grow this country by using technology.
[13:34] Devina: And when you speak about democratisation and what that can do… One of the first pictures in my slides that I put up at Investec is a picture of somebody in Kenya actually in a very rural area with a little phone and what that’s doing to the African continent and what that could be. So I think from a private sector perspective, with the amount of resources that we have as a community and what we could be doing, that’s super important. When we talk about banking, programmable banking, all of these types of stuff, it really is to me around financial inclusion and what that does to us as an industry.
[14:21] Devina: And if you’ve ever grown up in a community where you don’t have access to resources and money is not something that comes easily, you will realise that having people that lift you up and inspire is truly important. And I think that’s where we are trying to kind of get into the community and say, “if I can create a developer that’s a 10X developer”, can you imagine the possibilities that would come out of that? So, I’m a firm believer that that banks, all banks, financial services, anyone in the private sector, we have a responsibility to kind of use technology in a meaningful way. And I think that’s the mission.
[15:08] Stephen: Perfect. Thank you. That was not scripted. Meredith, you do a lot of work taking people from non-technical to the verge of becoming junior developer. We had a little conversation over some chicken wings the other night. I was having the chicken wings and we identified that we have the skills gap right and there’s zero and then there’s 0.51 type thing and you’ve got people to the point and you’ve got a 90% placement rate. But how much of the work that you do is getting people to that point and how much of it is afterwards, how much is it finding the superheroes that Marlon talked about? What are the next steps? You’ve trained someone they can code a bit. What next?
[15:50] Meredith: Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean we started with this zero to one model. Basically our mission is to allow people to be able to launch and build their careers in the tech space and so I think that for me, I mean our approach around that is around a learning model that mimics the job environment. That is very market aligned. Market align doesn’t just mean our curriculum. Actually our original curriculum came from a bootcamp in Silicon Valley called Hack Reactor, but it’s totally different now because it’s important for it to be localised for whatever ecosystem we’re working in. And then beyond the curriculum it’s the learning methodology, it’s the way things operate doesn’t look like a classroom. It looks like a work environment. You work with technical mentors that are managers, so on and so forth.
[16:46] Meredith: We haven’t yet tackled this one to two to three to four. It’s something we’re thinking about. I think maybe if I can just like pose a question to the audience and if anybody has any ideas to come find me later is, what is the right kind of support platform for individuals that are working? We tried some part time courses and people register with their best intent but then find the job environment too busy. So I think we’re still trying to figure that out and I know that’s what a lot of employers are thinking about as well. Aside from like big companies that can take people out of the workplace, I think we haven’t found the solution yet.
[17:28] Stephen: Marlon, have you found that solution?
[17:32] Marlon: Not yet either. But I actually want to weight in just on that question around taking someone from who might not have gone into formal education post-school and tried to kind of migrate or move them into a developer job. A lot of companies and private sector, when they put up the job ad for developers, the person that they want on paper doesn’t resonate with what is available sometimes in the reality, and one of the things that I’ve found is that it’s… and I don’t know, maybe out of your experience, it’s moving the person into a job is… at times we actually have to try and break down doors for some of our young people, especially those who might not have had the proper formal education but they’ve got an incredible portfolio. Because just from an HR perspective, in some companies they struggle to… Their systems are, “these are the things that we need in place before we are able to accept this person into a company.”
[18:30] Marlon: And now you try to kind of showcase, “but there’s an alternative way” and one of the things that we’ve been kind of thinking through is really around… Because a lot of companies also don’t really want to take on junior developers because this is just no time for someone to mentor them and support them. And it’s really kind of how do we begin to make provision for these kinds of talent pools, because there’s a lot of bootcamps jumping up all across the continent. People that’s doing various kind of training courses. But how do we ensure that there’s a place where these young people, who show potential and has the talent, are given an opportunity? And that will be something that I’m really kind of trying to see happen more and more in our ecosystem because it’s not easy to move someone into a job. I must be honest.
[19:21] Marlon: And these amazing people are doing some incredible work. And the one thing about how do you bold this kind of opportunities for people to constantly engage while they’re in the workplace? I don’t know if there’s any guys from Geek Kultcha here. Anyone from Geek Kultcha here? No? I love what they do and their approach to building community. And I think part of what we are doing even in this space is the opportunity to kind of allow people to feel that now that you’ve got a job, you’re not now disconnected from the community and try and kind of cultivate community gatherings, because that’s the only way we do it. Believe it or not, we actually try and do it in person whenever we can.
[20:04] Stephen: So part of the opportunity about today and what bringing a whole bunch of people into a room… Because a lot of these people are working in teams with junior developers that are joining their teams or they are the employers of these junior developers. Do any of you have any requests from them or things that they can do to actually make a difference here? Because we have the opportunity here with three hundred other people in a room, they can actually make a difference on Monday, tomorrow, to help incorporate junior developers or people that are trying to make this break.
[20:34] Devina: I can probably start. I think if you are part of a company, and we talk about this a lot and, we are in a tough economic environment at the moment. And generally what happens in big corporate SA is when you go into a tough economic cost containment scenario, all your kind of grad programs, your recruitment things kind of shrink, your budgets shrink. And they do that because they want to curb job losses. So it’s actually a real thing. But I guess the ask is, and I can speak from real experience because we actually kind of looked at this in the last couple of six months at Investec around, should we kind of make the grad program smaller or shouldn’t we?
[21:26] Devina: And what’s really interesting for me is that we have had some of our best developers in our team be grads, right? They come in with a passion, with an energy, they challenge a lot. They really move you forward. And we have had the best developers in our team who actually came with matric and didn’t come with a degree. So when you talk about what do cooperates and private sector look for, we generally put up something that says degreed professional.
[21:56] Devina: So I think to your question, my ask would be is if you are a company or a corporate, don’t cut there first. That for me is the number one thing you could do to help this cause, is that don’t cut their first because you actually not looking with a very long-term vision around where you are going. And I think if you’re a grad or somebody coming out of a course or you have a passion or you’ve got a portfolio of work that you want to get exposed to, ask for help. I think sometimes we so afraid to ask people for help or ask somebody to kind of help you along the way. Just ask. I think people are always willing to do that and mentorship programs are really important. So if you are a dev sitting in this audience, and I know Marlon spoke about it earlier, is really just if you could do one thing, is pair yourself up with somebody who you could probably make a difference with. That’s super cool.
[23:02] Meredith: Yeah, I mean I would echo on most of what you said. I think the other thing would be to give feedback. I think that’s really important. I think as Marlon said, there’s a lot of different types of training programs out there. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think we need to be in competition with one another. I think we’re all contributing to this ecosystem. One of the things that we rely on a lot at Moringa School is feedback from what we call hiring partners, the industry, to know what is the skill set that they’re looking for. And it’s really important for us to get that feedback because that’s how we can change our curriculum. That’s how we can change learning model, so on and so forth.
[23:46] Meredith: I thought the OfferZen tech report is really incredible because it gives that kind of broad insights across the industry, which I think is very necessary. I think on an individual level also, providing that feedback to individuals is really important as well, even if somebody doesn’t get a job, if you’re hiring and they don’t offer them the job, I think letting them know why allows them to then be able to know what they need to work on.
[24:17] Stephen: Anything to add?
[24:19] Marlon: I think the ladies covered it.
[24:22] Stephen: Okay. For fear of hearing my own voice too much. I think it’s time to open up to the audience. So the roaming mic peeps, please put on your running shoes. There’s a question at the back.
[24:34] Audience member: Hi there, sorry. I’m Gerhard, and we do work in the professional services industry providing consulting services to a lot of the bigger corporates and the banks and what have you. And I always find it fascinating that we sit here and we talk about mentoring juniors, getting more juniors into the industry, graduates and what have you. But when the rubber hits the road with procurement, that’s where they typically stop us from putting juniors in because we only want seniors in the teams, senior consultants, senior developers or what have you, to deliver this as fast as possible. So I think there’s a big role to play in moving the conversation from here back to the people that sign off the contracts. Don’t know, maybe from Investec. I don’t know what you can add there. Sorry, I’m putting you on the spot.
[25:27] Devina: No, I’m the one that signs on the contract. So it’s definitely, I can answer that. I think there’s always two sides to everything. And I think there’s a commercial conversation in all of this. If you’re a professional services company providing software developers into a development team… And I think it’s far easier to kind of accept juniors into the organisation when you paying a consulting service if you don’t have an existing development team. So I can tell you from my perspective where I’ve got a team of a hundred developers. When we getting professional services companies into bolster that it’s generally for a very specific reason, and there it makes commercial sense that you want to get the best bang for your buck. That is the reality.
[26:21] Devina: I think where my ask would be is, if you are in a professional services company and you are facing that challenge, what you’d always want to do is number one, understand what the engagement is about and try and mix it up because generally if you’re coming in for a specific engagement and if the ask is for a senior developer, think of new models around discounting the rate with the junior and with the senior, or even thinking of a model where you actually trying to really get somebody in and you say you’re going to get this junior with the senior actually maybe in a different pricing model. I think very often it doesn’t happen that way. So it is a very commercially correct answer, but I’m faced with very commercial challenges in this economy and I think those other realities that I think we all face. So I think as a company, I try and sleep well at night knowing I haven’t cut my grad program, but I’m also going to have to make some hard decisions when I’m doing a professional services engagement around who are we going to get?
[27:41] Marlon: If I can just add to that… And find something for the junior dev to contribute to the project. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small thing. The fact that they’ve not contributed for that particular client, does something for that developer. We even make it compulsory then we have meetings with clients in the work that we do with partners that we take a junior dev or a person that, into the meeting purely from an observation and we actually include them, what is their thoughts in that? And it’s interesting how that kind of shift their belief around and while they want to contribute in a meaningful way.
[28:21] Audience member: Morning. I think what I wanted to ask specifically to Marlon is that I hear you speak a lot about youth bringing forth innovative ideas. But how do we ensure that you protect those ideas? Because we’ve had a lot of scenarios where young people bring very good ideas and then at some stage you find that someone has stolen the idea, like the ‘please call me’ from Vodacom and a lot of scenarios. So how do you protect those innovative ideas?
[28:50] Marlon: Good question. You can’t. If you so believe in it, execute on it, be relentless in execution so that when someone is trying to steal it, the best they can do is copy you.
[29:07] Stephen: Right at the back there was a question.
[29:09] Audience member: Perhaps not as much a question as contributing to the discussion that you guys had around the part time training. So from our side, we are a consulting company in the software space and we’ve taken quite a journey this year to look at how to up skill and grow people in a very tangible way. And what we found is while time constraints, very much… they come to play every day in a world where we are, what we realised is that taking things into very small chunks, making them community initiatives and then offering a blended learning model with actual tangible outcomes actually really helped. So what we essentially did is we looked at, for example, what would a junior developer need to know in order to progress to an intermediate? What are those key skills? And breaking it down to have an expert in the team perhaps share to say, “Okay, I have a lot of experience in the security side of things. Let’s do a two week session where I will record my lessons, I’ll share it online, but if you want to come into the office and come and say “Hi, you’re welcome to do so if you need a bit of help with a mentor, there’s also that.” So it’s really been quite effective for us to have multiple access points for people to grow and then the thing that sort of happened after that was also to sit down and sort of say, "okay, six months has elapsed. What worked for you in this capacity? What hasn’t worked for you? What can we do better?” And sort of really taking a very reflective approach to that. It has been a very big mind shift change and it’s something that is interesting to see in the industry as well, is people need to start thinking that you don’t necessarily need to be a degreed person to have those fundamentals. It’s just how do we portray those fundamentals in the right way, but just maybe to give you some information from our experience.
[31:14] Stephen: Thank you. Here in the front.
[31:14] Audience member: Thanks. This one’s for the guys who do the learning. So I find with, especially with programming that the speed at which things change is insane. You wake up every day and there’s a new framework out. Someone’s doing something in a different way. How do you guys deal with educating people at with such a rapidly changing topic?
[31:37] Meredith: Yeah, I mean I think that’s very true in the technology space and we saw that in some of our speakers when they were sharing what they initially learned and their languages or computers that are obsolete now to a certain extent. I think for us, one of the big things that we’re trying to produce is autodidacts so people who can teach themselves. So I think part of our curriculum is a lot around learning how to learn, which is really very much important. And also just teaching some of the fundamentals, like whether it’s some CSS fundamentals around object-oriented programming or so on and so forth so that individuals then can learn new languages or new frameworks or apply new technology and so on and so forth.
[32:25] Meredith: So I think that that is fundamentally important. I think the other thing that I would just mention that is missing from a lot of conversations around technology skills is soft skill development. We have a kind of a holistic mindset about what makes a great junior software developer. And I think most of the time when I hear feedback from employers, it’s less about, “Oh this person is really great in this language.” It’s more like, “This person is motivated, this person knows how to teach themselves. This person asks for help when they need it. They can communicate well, they can work well with others.” So I think that that soft skill basis is also very important.
[33:07] Stephen: All right here in the green shirt please Kenny. Sorry, I missed them last time.
[33:18] Audience member: Thank you. Devina I’ve got a quick question for you. In running a corporate IT team in a highly competitive environment, how do you get your teams and products to adapt to change rapidly and be resilient to changes in the marketplace?
[33:37] Devina: So I think that’s the biggest challenge, right? We are busy putting together our digital strategy for next year. And when you are in a big corporate with legacy IT systems, it can get very complex. I think the real challenge for us is around creating a high performing team. So we focus a lot I think specifically in our digital team, we run the online and mobile channel for Investec globally. And what we do is we really try and work hard around the culture of high performing tech teams. And what does that mean? And it’s not easy, that I can say. It’s really hard to your point around learning and getting guys to understand that things are moving so quickly every day and another competitor’s coming up with a new product, a new feature. And you’ve got to be consistently trying to kind of keep up with that.
[34:46] Devina: And we’ve learned that if you don’t focus on the products and the features and things like that, but you focus on developing the people and the actual guys that are building the software, whether that’s a coder or a product owner, and you work on what that cross functional team dynamic is, that actually creates pace. So learning is super key and very important in our team. We literally like just gave everybody Udemy licenses to say, “You going to go and keep learning and your learning is kind of your own self development, but we will empower you of whatever tools you need to actually do that.” We talk a lot about T-shaped people, so you have a vertical of like real depth around what your skill or your language is, but you’ve got to kind of learn other new things and consistently try and do that irrespective of whatever role you are. But I think as a software developer that’s real key. So my real bottom line answer is instead of going and chasing products and new features, what we realised is focus on making the developer and the person that are building these products and features truly happy and inspired and those other things will come.
[36:06] Stephen: Any questions in the cheap seats up there? No?
[36:12] Audience member: Hi guys. So you guys have spoken quite a bit about the fact that this is an industry specifically in this country where you can kind of teach yourself, you don’t necessarily need a degree, all of that kind of thing. But the fact is that there are many people that have come to this conclusion and there are still many people who have put themselves or their parents into debt getting a degree. What can I as a person trying to break into a development job do to make myself stand out in that crowd?
[36:47] Meredith: I mean I think it’s a great question and certainly I think that even though the data shows that you can have a degree or not have a degree and you can make the same amount of money, maybe that’s not accepted at large yet. So it’s something that we definitely come across as a challenge. I mean I would say at least from what I find from our hiring partners, the biggest thing that sets individuals apart is actual real projects, your portfolio. I think people are looking at like what can you actually do with your skill sets? Not just what did you learn? So I would say like if you have a degree and you have, some debt from that or whatever, I think using that then applying that knowledge and building a portfolio, showcasing what you can actually do, it would be really important.
[37:40] Marlon: If I can just add to that as well. Just also bring in the lens of… Because it’s about, you have to be coding all the time in building all the time, but also trying kind of build things that are helpful for society, because there’s nothing more powerful than a beautiful story. Because that would kind of give you the kind of so-called X factor. If you’ve built something for maybe a small organisation that can now benefit of your skill of your superpower. So I would say use that superpower in order to better and improve society because that will set you apart.
[38:14] Devina: Can I just add one thing? I think it’s very important to really understand that in order to build a really good product or something that could be commercialised or be part of a very successful technology team, you don’t necessarily need to be a software developer. I just want to make that point. When we look at our team specifically, we hire people not only who are software developers, the majority of the team are, but we specifically and deliberately go out and hire people that come from the private banking space for instance, or that come with different skill sets. So your product owner role, your business analyst role. All of these different components kind of make that magic sauce that creates an important type of thing.
[39:11] Devina: So I really just want to make that point. So to your question around what makes you stand out, I think it’s about really understanding not only your skill set. So if you’re a software developer, it’s about understanding and being great at that skill, but also trying to learn some other skills around that because I think that is going to be the real differentiator. So if you can actually show… I can tell you I would hire somebody if, in the interview, you show not only a depth of knowledge, but a breadth of kind of experience around what does it actually take to commercially make something work.
[39:52] Audience member: Hey guys. This is a question for the panel. I’ve noticed lately that the epidemic that everybody is talking about is the Millennials. Millennials entering the workforce, right? Yeah. And how do we deal with them? And is there a difference? Now in South Africa, we actually have a lot of diversity in terms of this. We’ve got people, not only being Millennials, but we’ve got a digital divide. People come from spaces that they were unprivileged, having access to data for example. And now he’s sitting with that as well, and I think up until recently we had a massive problem with understanding different cultures in the workplace. So my question would be, how do you guys see the future of these guys entering the workforce and how do we handle all of these different challenges that we get, so that we can get the most out of our teams and build software that’s international and world renowned. Thanks.
[41:02] Devina: So we have a fundamental principle, and I think value, in our team around diversity of thinking. And I think that for me, speaks a lot about bringing in people from all demographics, from different gender, different races, different age groups. We have a running joke with Wayne always in our team about him being the oldest guy in our team. And I think what we realise is that any high performing team is around diversity of thinking and you cannot have a group think and having all of the same people is actually the worst thing you could have. So I think recruitment and actively having that in mind is exceptionally powerful in a leadership team, irrespective of how big your company is or how small it is or whether you work at a non-profit or not. The idea here is really for me around, make sure that when you are building high performing teams, you have people that are representative of different aspects of the society that you are contributing into because then you’re going to be able to develop the best products, the best features, because you’re always going to have somebody representing that in…
[42:28] Devina: With that being said though, I think we live in a world of inequality and we need to recognise that. We need to actively be doing stuff that can empower people who come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and pull them up in a space. And we need to recognise that sometimes we need to have some real hardcore acceleration mechanisms to do that. And so I think it’s definitely a challenge. It’s a hard problem. The Millennials don’t scare me that much, I’ll have to say. I think it’s about embracing them as you would any other segment and just letting them take you on the ride.
[43:08] Marlon: Just to add, our average age of our team is about 20, 21. So whenever there’s a birthday now then I just hear, they just turned 19. I believe I’m young, but having to kind of adjust, that constantly I’m having a conversation and they on their mobile devices all the time, having multiple conversations. And one of the things I realise is that really just kind of allowing them to be, and creating a space where they can find a place where they belong. And that’s why it’s not so much… And I so love what you said about building the team and the people, because the minute you invest… Your greatest reinvestment that you can ever make where you get to greatest ROI, and I know use bankers in the room. Your greatest ROI is when you invest in people. That’s where you find the greatest return on investment.
[44:01] Marlon: And if you become intentional in investing in that millennial or that young person, that’s giving you a hard time, they give you a hard time. There’s something about their loyalty that will gravitate towards you, that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that they deliver what they need to deliver. But it does start with you being intentional to invest in them and building them. So that’s one of the things that we’ve learned and, and it’s not easy, but the end result becomes, I mean the returns you get is multiples over and over.
[44:33] Stephen: I also think if you are interested in the answer to that question, make sure you’re not sleeping at half past three, when Dean Broadley speaks. He speaks quite strongly on this topic, so look out for that.
[44:44] Audience member: All right, hi. I would like to add to the discussion more than ask a question in this case. So on one of the slides earlier today I saw a couple of different careers being listed. Auditor and pilots and programmers and all these, doctors. What do these things have in common? They’re difficult jobs. They’re things that people entrust their lives and they finances with, so you need a lot of trust there. You need raw brain power essentially. And the one thing that differentiates us from the others is that you don’t necessarily need this formal qualification, which I do agree with. I used to be a pilot myself and I’ve been poor as well growing up. I only started studying when I was 27, but the point that I’m trying to make is that there’s a very clear tension between the market and what we are trying to achieve socially, right? We want to give people the chance to get into these high paying careers to improve society but the businesses can’t make that kind of compromise and hire low-quality individuals. So I think one doesn’t need to sacrifice that. You get people that don’t have formal qualifications that do have amazing raw talent and that’s clear from the outset. So people need to focus on that. Don’t hire people for the sake of hiring, low-privileged people. Get people with talent and like Marlon just suggested, those people can be really loyal and they can really drive the value and they understand what value means. They understand what hard work means and what differentiating yourself in the marketplace can mean. Thank you.
[46:35] Stephen: I think if I can just comment. I know I’m not on the panel, but as a tech recruitment or as a tech marketplace, we see a lot of companies that are trying to deal with us and grapple with this. And I think the one thing that came out at the last MERGE event is that it’s easier to go degree only, right? That’s easy. It’s easy to say, “Look, if you’re from a privileged background and you can communicate like I communicate and do all of these things, then I can get it and I can be sure.” Right? So there’s this contrast of diversity and certainty. And I think the message from our marketplace is it’s hard work. You really have to try if you want to get this right. So don’t think that there’s some shortcut or five great hacks to having a diverse team that doesn’t work. It’s just hard work, you have to put it in.
[47:28] Audience member: I have a general question to the panel. So I believe this is a problem even for university students as well, is where we losing sort of our computer theory, our discrete math, our data structures and things like that. After all, we have to sort of do what the hardware is doing for us. And I think that all languages and frameworks often make us lazy. So how do we actually fix that? So if we compared the nineties and eighties how they had to program, limited resources and things like that. So that actually wrote really performant code and nowadays we run what a web server. Performance isn’t really that much of a problem. But I think that a lot of that theory has been lost and writing proper algorithms, looking at our data structures and things like that. So how do we get around that? Because even at university level of compilers isn’t even a course anymore.
[48:19] Marlon: If I could as a recovering academic, I can maybe weigh in on that one. And thank you for that question because I was shocked when I spoke to someone who graduated in a highly technical degree and they didn’t do any algorithms. I couldn’t understand what are they going to do? Are they going to solve problems? But that is why you should be intentional in trying to attach yourself… Because a lot of the universities, they have these advisory groups or they’re looking for people to provide input from the marketplace.
[48:53] Marlon: And sometimes, unfortunately they go into the wrong domain. They try and see what HR is saying on a prescriptive way and then they just look, “Oh, those languages are needed. So let’s go for that.” I do believe that you could contribute to those discussions and a lot of universities are fairly open to get to that to say, “You know what? These are the kinds of things that are critical building blocks in ensuring that you’re building proper foundation and proper skill sets that sets them up for success. Because the worst thing you can do is put someone in a place where they’re not able to succeed.
[49:28] Marlon: So my ask to you is attach yourself to some of these institutions of higher learning and places where education is taking place around digital or computer science and contribute to your voice to those things and to those groups. There’s a lot of those groups around, and I think that is one way of how you can ensure that those things don’t get lost. So that’s a challenge to you. And thank you for that question.
[49:55] Stephen: Do you have anything to add there, Meredith from your side?
[49:59] Meredith: No. I was just going to say you can attach yourself to Moringa School. We would definitely love that type of feedback. I think that’s the type of feedback that we’re looking for. So yeah, definitely.
[50:21] Audience member: I’m not a recovering academic. I’m still pretty much addicted. But the one thing that universities do is that degree certificate makes it easier to make a decision. It’s a means of reducing risk and filtering people. And perhaps the tech industry needs to put some thought into that. And accreditations, there are many of them. Many of them are pretty meaningless, but that may be something to invest in future, a kind of open accreditation system where people can be tested and when they apply for a job and you know they’ve achieved a certain level of confidence, that you can more easily appoint them without it being a university.
[51:13] Meredith: I think that the issue is not that accreditation is bad, it’s just that maybe the system is not working in the right way right now. I think the statistic is that across Africa, people spend about $11 billion annually on certificates and the vast majority of them are ones that employers don’t respect. But I think if we can fix that system through this feedback loop, then there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be a place for accreditation.
[51:44] Stephen: Perfect. All right, so I just want to thank the panelists. Thank you so much. The guys are around, the guys and girls are around. So please during the break, come and ask your questions that you didn’t get to ask. So we’re going to have an hour lunch break now, so get some food. Don’t forget about the sponsor scavenger hunt, as well as the social media competition. You can win a whole bunch of swag at the end of the day and then Pandalf, the big panda guy with the staff. He has a riddle and you can win some t-shirts. So go find him and see if you can crack his riddle and you can win a t-shirt as well. Something else to do in the break. But otherwise, thank you so much for being part of this morning and we’ll see you guys after the break.