There is a clear disconnect between companies struggling to fill their ever-growing demand for tech talent, and how difficult it is for people from non-traditional backgrounds to enter and thrive in the industry. But, as a community, how do we solve this problem? Our latest panel discussion revealed that we need to start by changing the way we think about our team’s diversity.
Meet the speakers
Our discussion was lead by two speakers who are experienced on the topic of diversity and inclusion in the South African tech space. Here’s some more about them:
Professor Barry Dwolatzky
After completing his PhD in Electrical Engineering, Professor Barry Dwolatzky has spent more than 28 years focusing on the growth, development and diversity challenges in the South African IT industry. This pursuit has taken him to his current position as Emeritus Professor of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits University, and Chief Visionary Officer (CVO) of the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein. In his current role as Director of the JCSE, he is particularly passionate about helping underserved South Africans develop their tech talents to help cement South Africa’s presence on the international IT stage. In recognition of his contributions, to name only two, Barry was named the ‘South African IT Personality of the Year’ in 2013 by the IITPSA and presented with the ‘Vice Chancellor’s Award for Academic Citizenship’ by Wits University in 2016.
With a background in Electronic Engineering, and over two decades of experience in software design and architecture up his sleeve, it’s no surprise that Aslam is a regular speaker at local and international conferences on software development and agile methodologies. His passion lies in simplifying the complex or abstract, and connecting with others to learn together and share these insights - as can be seen in his book Grokking Functional Programming. For Aslam, part of this mission includes recognising that inclusion and diversity in tech is a complex challenge, and that much still needs to be done, particularly with regards to the perception of skills training programmes. These days, you can find Aslam tying code to strategy with the shortest of strings, or sharing his thoughts on Twitter and his blog, f3yourmind.
Why we are having this discussion
South Africa’s tech industry is seeing a disconnect between people from underserved communities looking to get into a career in tech and companies looking for people with software skills: While a growing number of companies are looking to scale their existing tech teams, and others are bringing software development into their businesses for the first time, people with unconventional backgrounds still struggle to enter and thrive in the tech industry.
We launched OfferZen Foundation as a rally point for everyone who cares about this challenge and are trying to get to the bottom of:
- What kind of support people from underserved communities need as they enter the workplace.
- How we can ensure that our work environments are spaces where they feel included and welcome.
Our previous event’s conversation focused on establishing the impact of work-readiness skills on an individual’s ability to win in the workplace.
This time around, we asked whether diverse teams could improve businesses - but quickly found out that this was not the right question. “It’s the wrong starting point because it’s actually a matter of equality; a fundamentally human matter. It’s about us being egalitarian by nature,” Aslam said. Here’s why this matters.
Why intention matters for diversification
‘We know, scientifically and through research, that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams’, noted Aslam. However, this is only the case if those teams are ‘actually respectful, accommodating, encouraging and nurturing of each other’. This means that the intent matters just as much as the ‘how’.
For example, Professor Dwolatzky pointed out that the big industries in SA, like banking, are “quite comfortable having white males from privileged backgrounds working on producing solutions”. But, the big challenges that these companies are facing now are rooted in local contexts.
This means that they need the help of people who best understand the context of those local problems, which means empowering them to add value in their teams. So instead of just trying to fill quotas that Aslam noted often get “exploited for the benefit of a few privileged”, we need to focus on creating real equity; where everyone gets to truly apply themselves because they are supported and invited to share their insights.
The current mindset about tech inclusion
However, this is often still not the case. Having worked with many companies in SA, the panel’s moderator and Head of OfferZen Foundation, Tumi realised that many companies feel they have to make a trade-off: “I’m either going to get diversity, or I’m going to get somebody skilled”. This often comes with the perception that ‘skilled individuals’ only come from traditional, university backgrounds.
Let’s look at some of the stories shared by members of the audience:
“I never went to university, and now I’m doing a learnership at umuzi.org. I’m a junior data scientist. I don’t feel like going to university would do me any good, because what we are doing at Umuzi is theoretical and practical at the same time. And I feel like I’m going to be better equipped than if I went to university, but I worry that I won’t even be taken into consideration when I start looking for a job.”
“It’s pretty difficult for skilled black people when going head-to-head with fairly less skilled white counterparts. For instance, after leaving varsity with a master’s degree, [I went] into the workforce and gained three to four years of experience, but then I had somebody come from high school and get given a role right next to me. And then after two years, they get given more preferential roles within the company - even while I’m performing better than they have been… For a black individual to be good enough, you have to be excellent, or even beyond excellent.”
After hearing these stories, Aslam reiterated that “the harsh reality of the world we live in is that, as a black person, you need to be the best in the world in order to be equal. (…) And it’s fundamentally broken to that extent because the leadership that exists in many organisations are the ones who are creating these structures, these cultures, these unfair dialogues, et cetera”.
If we can work together to deconstruct these problematic narratives, structures and mindsets, we can start focusing on making inclusion easy.
An alternative mindset for tech inclusion
In order to truly understand and foster the potential of our teams, we need to break away from the bias that people are less skilled if they think and act differently from what we are used to. Again, this is where intent is important.
“The flip side of not having the will is that we create these fake proxies and structures that create a facade that things are actually working out when they aren’t.“ - Aslam Khan
Here are a few ways that our panel and audience suggested that you can work to practically start changing your mindset:
Diversify your skills pipeline:
“I think we have to look at the diversity around skill sets, the nature of training we put people through, and where they come from,” said Aslam. There is potential for people to play a critical part in the tech space in various roles - not just as developers! So we need to look at how we can get more people into tech, who would be able to thrive because they think differently - not despite it. As Julia from Harambee pointed out, “Not everyone can get into university, not everyone can do online courses on their own. You’re going to have to really shift how you find talent in order to meet your own demand”.
Build an inclusive culture:
It’s not just about bringing more people into the workplace, it’s about actually creating a workforce and a workspace that is conducive to everyone’s well-being. As one audience member highlighted, “if someone can’t put in the effort to learn how to pronounce your name, how can you trust them to hold your well-being at the centre of the workplace?”
But to do that, you need to ensure that you build and maintain a company culture where everyone:
- Feels valued, because they can contribute and feel like they are being heard.
- Feels like they don’t need to present in a manner that’s different to who they are inherently.
- Can be critical and speak to the issue without ‘annihilating’ the person.
Build your own business:
It’s hard to say it better than Professor Dwoltazky did: “I think people have to take that leap and be courageous, and say, ‘You’ve got skills, you’ve got the abilities, you know how to solve the problems because you understand the problems’. Go out and make your own jobs, and hire your own teams, and build the team around yourself. And create jobs for you and the people that you would like to work with”.
“I think we need the software community to be brave enough to start new things, and change this industry.” - Professor Barry Dwolatzky
At the same time, Aslam noted that this does not necessarily solve the problem. Without a shift in mindset, even starting a business might only “shift the point of friction from being an employee without agency, to being a company without agency”.
If you’re looking to make your workplace more inclusive, there’s a lot that can be done! OfferZen Foundation is looking to work collectively with the community to drive that change. So, if you’re from a company that wants to be part of driving that change in our community, let us know in the comments below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OfferZen’s mission is to unlock human potential, but we believe that while talent is universally distributed, opportunity is not. Over time we’ve come to understand that the lack of opportunity is so pervasive that it doesn’t get solved by the fact that there is a high demand for software makers OfferZen Foundation came about from that realisation: There is uneven access to opportunities where software makers are enabled to show up and do their best work. That is why, as Foundation, our mission is to help people from underserved backgrounds thrive in a tech career. When all the people who want to thrive in South African tech are actually thriving, we will have been successful.
The aim of the Foundation is to continue the conversation that we started with the Tech Inclusion report, which we released at the beginning of April. By providing a forum for this discussion we want to help the wider community come together to deepen our understanding of the challenges facing diversity in tech and continue unpacking the complexity of making the tech space more inclusive.