Tech Career Insights: The Importance of Tech Inclusion in South Africa

The Importance of Tech Inclusion in South Africa

By Summer Smith

Demand for software makers is outgrowing the talent pool available. That’s why it has become more important for companies to leverage candidates from more diverse backgrounds and educational paths. With more than 30 years of research behind him, JCSE Director Prof. Barry Dwolatzky has a clear idea of what companies can expect from these candidates and how they can develop their full potential.

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Who is Professor Barry Dwolatzky?

When Professor Barry Dwolatzky started his PhD at Wits in the 1970s, the age of computing was beginning in South Africa. Despite his focus being on electrical engineering, he had a keen interest in the developing digital realm.

During the apartheid era, the South African IT industry functioned very much in a bubble. Despite no international companies operating in the country and no external competition, developers were producing technology that was at the cutting edge of IT. With the dawning of the new democracy, came the opportunity to build on South Africa’s existing expertise but open it up to more people. This growth was something that Professor Dwolatzky became increasingly passionate about.

He wanted to figure out how to bring underrepresented groups into the fold, such as young people, black people and women, to develop new talent that could help cement South Africa’s presence on the international IT stage.

To pursue this mission, he founded Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) in 2005 and currently acts as its Director. He sat down with us to share what he thinks the current problems are with creating these opportunities for people and how we can begin to address them.

What is the status quo in the current South African tech industry that makes this topic so relevant?

I think that, for a number of reasons, the great opportunity that the South African tech industry was presented with when I first became interested in this wasn’t realised.

We didn’t capitalise on what we could have done, but I passionately believed then, and I still believe now, that we do have an opportunity. I think the next wave of opportunity is in the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution, and digital transformation of everything.

In order to really grab this opportunity, we need to grow the number of digital skills that we have in this country. Despite what people may say about machine learning and AI taking over everything, tech is still very people-centric – it’s a human-centric activity to develop software – and so, we’ve got to pull out all the stops to grow the number of people that we have doing this if we want to make a global impact.

Our universities and other formal education systems cannot do enough anymore. They’re simply not big enough to grow the skills we need: they do not have the space or the resources to cope with the demand and so, we have to look at alternative ways to grow these skills.

What skills can companies realistically expect students from non-traditional streams to have when they arrive for their first day of work?

Depending on which training programme they come from, most students from less-traditional streams will arrive at work with some basic knowledge of a modern language’s syntax. They don’t come as a ready-wrapped package, ready to be deployed, because the time and energy that it takes to set someone up to be “work-ready” has not been invested in them.

Many of the coding bootcamps that are out there focus on churning out large numbers of candidates who have three or four months’ worth of coding training and that’s it. This is not enough. What I believe students really need, and it is something that good organisations really focus on, is practical experience.

When you are working with people who have never been exposed to coding or programming before, don’t have role models and haven’t ever seen or interacted with developers, there is going to be a gap.

Too many programmes are not looking at how to give students the opportunity to practice a practical application of the technical skills that they have learned to real-world problems. On top of this, when students are not getting this opportunity to experience what they might face in ‘reality’, they are not being exposed to important soft skills, like communication, problem-solving and interacting with their peers, either.

This does not mean to say that the student, or candidate, will never have the potential to be an excellent or “world-class” developer: If they can demonstrate an aptitude and the right attitude, then they will get there. How long this takes, I think, is largely dependent on the company and how determined they are to set the candidate up well.

How different is this to someone who comes from a more formal stream of education?

Someone who has studied a computer science degree at say UCT or Wits will actually have less practical IT skills than the type of candidate we were just discussing. They will have done some programming courses as part of their degree, combined with other subjects like maths and physics.

So, their background will be largely theoretical, which I’ve seen frustrates a lot of companies. They say that these students aren’t work-ready and that universities aren’t doing their jobs because they aren’t producing the right level of talent.

However, the difference that will set university graduates up better for success in the long run is that they have three years of learning behind them where they were taught to problem-solve, communicate, and gain confidence in their ability to learn more by themselves.

If a candidate has done a good degree, they will come ready to learn and to move forward very rapidly in terms of acquiring new skills, whereas a bootcamp graduate has not been primed to do this through their training.

Why then should companies proactively think about including people from more diverse backgrounds in their teams?

As I just mentioned, there aren’t enough graduates feeding the industry from the more formal streams.

I mean, even the number of people passing matric, and then getting into a computer science degree, is too small.

We need to look at other ways of doing it. I kind of see skills as a pyramid: I see that at the base of the pyramid, which is very wide, you need a lot of skills at the level of expertise lower than a graduate. As you go up the pyramid, it gets thinner, and you need fewer people of higher qualifications. At the peak of the pyramid, you have graduates, which is a very small number.

This is not to say that graduates are the most important people in a team. Through the analogy of a pyramid, I am not demonstrating hierarchy but rather the importance of numbers: if you do not have a broad, solid base, the pyramid cannot exist.

Essentially, if you only have graduates, you can’t build big teams. If we don’t have big teams, we can’t build a very big system, which means we will never succeed in the IT industry.

This is not just lip service, but I believe that diversity in the workplace is an organisation’s greatest strength. If you have a sort of monocultural system, where everyone is a white kid from a Model C school in the suburbs, then the thinking, the creativity, the social mapping that happens is very narrow, and companies are missing out. If they embrace diversity, then they are benefiting from the amazing opportunity we have living in such a diverse country.

With this understanding, how can companies begin to think about working with candidates from less-traditional education streams?

In my opinion, a very useful place to start is with the practical experience that is missing from the initial training programs.

I think that it’s important for companies to understand the power of an internship. When a company takes on a person, they should not have huge expectations about what they can do, but trust that they have the attitude and aptitude to learn.

If you look at the Indian IT industry, a lot of the large companies recruit students from great Indian universities, and then send them off for six or nine months onto a graduate internship where they learn the company’s way of working and the practical skills they need. This would be a fantastic model to apply here.

I think a lot of South African companies are lazy. They want to take someone from a training program, put them to work, and start making money from them. I think it needs investment on the part of the company to grow the talent, to round the person off, and make them job-ready. This has to be done at the company’s expense, which a lot of companies don’t do.

We need to address this thinking, and change it from technical team leads grumpily refusing to work with “raw” individuals when they expected someone with five years’ experience, to wanting to foster growth.

What practical steps can companies take to actually win at this?

On a base level, we need to show companies that having more diverse teams can benefit them. As an entry point, perhaps we could leverage B-BBEE incentivisation. A lot of companies recruit people with one eye on their B-BBEE scorecards, and so we should look at how we can make use of this to benefit everyone involved.

Companies should start thinking about how these intakes can help their entire team grow.

If they can do this, we will see less of these new candidates being dumped in a corner and given rubbish work to do.

By putting a newbie in a team, and focusing on helping them get to where they need to be to succeed within that team, a culture of sharing and learning amongst peers is encouraged. This is beneficial to everyone as you begin to break down barriers of awkwardness and include every member of the team.

Team leads should take the time to learn what it means to build a solid base for their team.

By doing this, we will see more candidates from less-traditional backgrounds being welcomed in.

When HR managers are the ones driving job searches, it is easy for a disconnect to happen and team leads to be frustrated when their hiring expectations are not met. If team leads are the ones driving recruitment, then we start to see more of a team ethos developing.

The focus should shift from what the candidate can do in the short-term to what they can do in the long-term.

Similar to what I previously mentioned about university graduates, if a candidate can develop skills that will help them in the long-term, then they will add more value to a company indefinitely. Instead of viewing them as immediate money-makers, companies should focus on training them to be problem solving individuals. A large part of how they can do this is by encouraging soft learning.

To get a person into a mindset where they have to go and find answers to questions themselves, you have to stay away from spoon-feeding and laying everything on a plate. An effective mentoring system should focus a lot on encouraging people to think for themselves: They come and sound stuck, and you point them in a way that they can get themselves unstuck, rather than you unsticking them.

By focusing on these kinds of ethics when it comes to working with other people, development becomes a really communal experience, that everyone can benefit from.

Where can companies go to learn more about how to take these steps?

There are a lot of great initiatives out there that are working on how we can change the mindsets that most companies in South Africa seem to have about including more diverse graduates in their teams.

Currently, there’s a partnership for skills that’s being formed, led by Harambee, that includes JCSE and Tshimologong, WeThinkCode, the Data Science Institute, and Cape IT Initiative Capaciti, to share ways of working and growing offerings in a coordinated way with the promise to try and create 5,000 jobs. In time, we will ask other training organisations to join this partnership.

Reaching out to any of the organisations who are part of this, and are thinking along these lines, could be a helpful place to start, I think.

Reflecting on everything that we have discussed, is there anything else you would like to share?

I think, and it’s something I said right at the beginning, that the problem that we face when it comes to inclusion is a national question, and therefore something that we should all care about. As I said before, South Africa has had a huge opportunity to become a key player in the digital world, which we lost before but have been lucky enough to be presented with again now.

We should grab this opportunity as a country, because if we don’t, we’ll be all the poorer for it. I think South Africans are very, very talented: we are creative and innovative, and have all sorts of amazing attributes.

We need to turn our attention away from the nonsense that comes with people competing for skills and the wrong incentives being put in place, and rather focus on growing this huge cohort of skills we need to embrace the digital age.


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